X's and O's: Analyzing UW's struggles against zone 'D'

Despite their strong offensive start, the Badgers have had troubles against zone defenses this season. 

Despite their strong offensive start, the Badgers have had troubles against zone defenses this season. 

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Two weeks ago, Northwestern became the first team to frustrate the Badger offense. Jonathan Taylor couldn’t break a big off any big runs and Jack Coan looked flustered. Their struggles weren’t because Northwestern was aggressive, but instead a result of a more conservative approach to Wisconsin’s offense.

Typically, opposing teams leave their cornerbacks and safeties in man coverage when playing Wisconsin so their linebackers can focus on stopping Jonathan Taylor. However, Northwestern played soft zone coverage which frustrated quarterback Jack Coan. He struggled to anticipate throws, and stretch the field which is concerning for the Badgers as they play better teams as the year goes on.

In previous weeks, the Badger offense was unstoppable. Jonathan Taylor ran through wide-open holes and Jack Coan was able to make decisive reads in man coverage and deliver accurate balls. The Badgers set themselves up for success on third down by gaining five or six yards on the ground on first down.

Against the Wildcats, Coan wasn’t decisive and the offense slowed. He seemed confused by Northwestern’s zone coverage and hesitant to take risks down the field with the exception of a deep interception to Quintez Cephus. In previous games, Coan threw right out of his three or five-step drop because Badger receivers got quick separation against man coverage. 

Against Northwestern, Coan couldn’t make these quick reads and struggled to recognize what type of zone Northwestern was playing. Coan didn’t anticipate routes and coverage which led to multiple passes that could’ve been intercepted. Coan struggled to make decisive reads because Northwestern played high safeties, conservative zones and had their middle linebackers get out into the flats.

This meant Coan didn’t have an obvious read every attempt which took him out of rhythm. He had to sit back in the pocket and read the secondary. While Coan still completed 62 percent of his passes, most were checkdowns in front of the Northwestern linebackers. He was hesitant to throw behind the linebackers when they were in zone which made it difficult for the Badgers to move the ball. Coan also failed to see open receivers while outside the pocket.

Furthermore, Coan’s struggles were amplified by Northwestern inside linebacker Paddy Fisher. Fisher is one of the top inside linebackers in the nation and a potential first-round draft pick this spring. Fisher was disciplined in his run pass reads which meant the Wildcats could, unlike other defenses the Badgers have played, stay in zone coverage and force Coan to read the defense.

Jonathan Taylor was forced to bounce more runs outside because Fisher correctly read guard pulls decisively and filled holes. In previous games, this wasn’t the case. 

While Jonathan Taylor’s 72-yard touchdown run against Michigan was impressive, Taylor had a wide open hole because both Michigan linebackers misread pulls. Instead of following pulls like disciplined linebackers, Michigan read backfield motion which gave Taylor wide open holes to run through.

Another reason Coan struggled was first down play calling. It seemed as if offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph wanted to establish a passing game on first down more than in previous games. So, because Coan struggled to read Northwestern’s zone defense, Wisconsin had more second and longs than they’re used to. This meant Coan had to make more deep throws on third down against a soft zone that invited Coan to throw it short and force punts. 

While the Badgers still won fairly comfortably, Coan has to be better against teams like Ohio State. To keep up with Justin Fields and the Buckeyes, the Badgers have to be two-dimensional. They can’t simply hope Jonathan Taylor runs for 300 yards and five touchdowns while the defense holds Ohio State to seven points on the road. If the Badgers want to be an elite and not just a great team, they have to throw the ball downfield.

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