Dawgs Defense Strengthens In Red Zone

Oct. 14, 2009

By Jeremy Cothran

SEATTLE - Opponents are finding that moving the ball between the 20s against Washington is one thing. Scoring touchdowns, however, is a bit more difficult.

It's no secret the Huskies are still a work in progress on defense. One issue stems from lack of personnel, particularly in the secondary, where the team has been beset by injuries.

'We're still learning, schematically, what we want to get accomplished on defense,' said coach Steve Sarkisian.

This has forced UW to deploy vanilla defensive packages, where a more healthy team might be able to do things like use exotic blitzes. But inside the red zone, the Huskies have closed off running gaps, tightened throwing lanes, and imposed a physical presence in critical situations.

Overall, the Huskies (3-3, 2-1 in the Pac-10 Conference) are currently ranked 106th in the country in total defense. Some of the numbers are skewed because of the quality of opposition Washington has faced.

In the red zone, though, the Huskies are generally holding opponents to field goals. Trading three points for six is a big reason why UW has been able to escape games with wins like they did last Saturday against Arizona. Going into this weekend's game at Arizona State in Tempe (4-2, 1-1), Washington has allowed 30 drives inside their red zone, but has given up just 11 touchdowns in those situations.

'For our guys, our defense, to come out and not only give up the yards, the time of possession - all the things that occurred in that game - but their ability to hold Arizona to field goals and not surrender touchdowns,' Sarkisian said, 'and our ability to score touchdowns when we were in the red zone is really the difference in the ballgame.'

In the game against Notre Dame, the Huskies forced the Fighting Irish to settle for field goals five times after struggling to defend the team in the open field. It was a similar script with Arizona. The Wildcats settled for four field goals, including a late one in the fourth quarter which kept Washington within relative striking distance. The Huskies also snuffed out a fourth-down conversion attempt from their own 1 late in the first half.

Part of their success in the red zone has to do with the limited amount of field space an opponent has to use. The spread offenses Washington has faced are harder to run when the back of the end zone becomes an additional defender. That aspect helps out inexperienced defensive backs, who don't have to worry about the deep ball and can sit on routes. The defense is also gaining confidence to understand one big play allowed won't kill them if a field goal is the only outcome.

'It's a mindset, to break a big play and get downfield into our 25,' said defensive linemen Cameron Elisara. 'And once that happens, you really lock in mentally. At least for me. Once they get within our territory, which is our 25-yard line in the red zone, we really lock up tight. We're not going to let them get seven points on us.'

Sarkisian believed there are still 'teachable moments' out there for his team to improve upon. Although the defense is reactionary, Sarkisian wants to see more plays like the one from Mason Foster at the end of the Arizona game. Hit time and time again by the screen pass, Foster put it on himself to jump the pass route. So did safety Victor Aiyewa. The combination put unexpected heat on Arizona quarterback Nick Foles, who tossed the ball low and it kicked off his receiver's shoes. Foster grabbed the ball in the air and raced down field for the late go-ahead touchdown.

'As we continue to grow as a defensive football team, our guys will understand the time and the place when to take those shots within the system to make those plays, to create those turnovers, to create those big plays,' Sarkisian said.

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