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A Quick Cardinal Study: A Look Into Stanford's Defense

A study into what makes the Cardinal defense so stout. With very little grade inflation

David Shaw's defense has not been a reason for him to throw headsets this year.
David Shaw's defense has not been a reason for him to throw headsets this year.
Ezra Shaw

Despite a record of 4-2, Stanford's defense has been extraordinary. Even with the departure of Derek Mason to Vanderbilt, Lance Anderson has kept the defense refined and well polished. The Cardinal have built their program on the power run game, and a stifling defense since the arrival of Jim Harbaugh in the 2007 year. While the running game isn't at its heyday at the current juncture, the Stanford defense stands tall. They come into their matchup against Arizona State allowing 10 points a game, which compared to many of their peers in the Pac-12, is insane. There are myriad of stats that show Stanford's defensive dominance. The film also shows this in the areas of getting consistent pressure on the quarterback, solid pursuit angles and making consistent open field tackles.

Stanford's defense played a Washington State team that had been putting up massive amounts of yardage this year and shut them down. How they did this was completely fundamental and using scheme. The Cardinal play a base 3-4, and move to a 3-3-5 for their nickel package. With the success that Arizona has had this season with this formation, it is being copied to use to stop spread teams. They tend to send one of the linebackers on a blitz and tend to get pressure with only four rushers against a solid Washington State offensive line. This forces the Cougars into throwing short passes and checkdowns. This plays right into the hands of the Cardinal, who have aggressive second line defenders who embody the defensive coach's wet dream of swarming to the ball. Since Stanford is dropping seven, they can cover all the deep routes a team could throw at them, and the fact that they can get pressure on the quarterback with four guys means that the underneath routes are going to be what's left. And even then with the ability of the defenders in the open field, these routes aren't going far. This is what's known as a positive feedback loop, where each part causes the other and amplifies it until Connor Halliday loses his mind.

Take a play from the first quarter of last week's game. Washington State had just converted a fourth and one and looked to move the ball downfield. They decide to fake a fly sweep and throw it out to the motion man.

WSUFakeFly1

WSUFakeFly2

The biggest problem here is how the Stanford defensive backs react to a play like this. They play far enough back, but not too far, so that they can make a play on the runner. Almost immediately, the defensive backs shed their block and swarm to the ballcarrier. The screenshot doesn't show this, but they do something I feel is lacking in college and professional football today. They break down before the tackle, ergo chopping their feet so that they can slow down and have greater control over their lateral movement in order to stop any jukes that may occur. The defenders also cut down the escape routes in containing the runner. It's disciplined football at its finest.

WSUFakeFly3

One player in particular deserving of props for his open field play is safety Zach Hoffpauir. He had a monster game against Washington State in coming up to the line and making open field tackles look easy on shifty Washington State receivers.

On to how Stanford gets pressure. There isn't that much flash to how the Cardinal can get a pass rush. Just sending a base four produced pressure and a few knockdowns on Halliday. The main stunt that Stanford pulled is the twist. This was used to a great effect on another play in the first quarter. The Cardinal put four men on the line, with the defensive tackles pinching down. One of these tackles is a linebacker blitzing, and Stanford sends one of the other linebackers to blitz.

StanTwist1

StanTwist2

What the twist is is that the nose tackle and the linebacker next to him slant toward the left tackle, taking the center and left guard with them. The other blitzing linebacker and defensive end on the other side attack the righ tackle and right guard straight up. This opens a massive hole for the right defensive end to loop around into, forcing Halliday into a harmless incompletion.

StanTwist3

The twist was also used in three-man rushing situations, and managed to get pressure on Halliday despite being outnumbered. This might be the fanciest thing that Stanford does on defense. Otherwise, it's the old, hard-nosed football that Mike Ditka uses instead of Cialis to get himself going.

Stanford plays a disciplined game, and could easily be 6-0 if the offense didn't make Reagan look like FDR with the conservative nature of their playcalling. These are smart, disciplined young men who don't often make mistakes in their coverages or in their tackling. The game against the Cougars was 60 minutes of the Cardinal not allowing Connor Halliday to go over the top, and stopping the underneath routes with ease. Defensively, I think they can stay with anyone in the conference, let alone the country.