There's been a lot of discussion and even some worry about the front 7 of Oregon's defensive front through the first 3 games of the year. As I was watching the Missouri State game again, I noticed a lot of the problems that are plaguing the front 7 showed up in the first series of the game. Now, if you listened to the podcast this week, you'll already have a short understanding of some of the bad behavior patterns we're seeing, as I discussed them with Dave in the first part of the show.
At a high level the issues with the defense come down to two aspects, scheme and discipline. I'm sure we could have round and round discussions regarding talent, experience or recruiting, but I don't think the problems we are seeing right now are attributable to any of those. So I've decided to break down the first offensive series for MSU to highlight some aspects I feel Oregon really needs to improve on.
As you can see in MSU's first play of the game, Oregon comes out in their base 4-3 cover 2 defense. Aliotti will typically use some pretty vanilla plays in the beginning of series or games to see how the offense reacts. As the first play unfolds, Kaddu does a good job avoiding the block from the slot receiver and forcing the RB back towards the pursuing defense. Hart and Remington do a good job of blowing up the middle of the line allowing the free LB, Alonso, to make the stop.
Kaddu giveth and he taketh away. First of all, Hart does an excellent job getting off the ball at the snap and forcing the center into the backfield causing the fly sweep to have to take the run a little wider than he'd like. Unfotunately, Kaddu doesn't play disciplined assignment defense taking on the blocking RB and tries to shoot the gap and make the play in the backfield himself. This allows the RB to move onto Alonso and ends up blocking him into Gildon basically taking two guys out with one block. Had Kaddu actually taken on the RB and pushed him up the field, the fly sweep would have had to cut inside to an awaiting Alonso with Gildon pursuing, or tried to go even deeper around the edge losing more yardage. Instead of what should have been either a short-to-no gain or large loss on 2nd down turns into a 5 yard gain and a short third down.
Ok, the first problem with this play happens before the ball is snapped. While Hart makes a great jump off the line the last play, this time he jumps too early and screws up Remington in the process. Hence, no pressure on the first stunt play by the D-line. The real problem exists with Dion Jordan though. Having transitioned into the drop-end position, his assignment is to jam the TE coming off the line to take away an out for the QB, and then run with him in man coverage. As a former TE, Jordan should have the speed to keep up with any other TE in FBS (let alone FCS). Unfortunately, he reads the route wrong, thinking the TE is headed to the flat, and gets caught looking in the backfield. The QB without any pressure on him is allowed to wait until the TE gets behind the defense and then floats a nice long pass for a first down.
This is an example of scheme and discipline problems. Undiscipline on the D-line causes Hart and Remington to move before the snap, signaling to the O-line that they are stunting. The O-line than has no problem picking up the extra rusher from Kaddu giving the QB time to find the wide open TE. The scheme is wrong for Jordan. He's not comfortable in the drop-end position. A guy as fast as him should not have any problem staying with a TE, only, he's lost out there (this isn't the only time all game or all season). Jordan excelled last year using his speed to come off the edge and blitz on the weak side. Now he's being asked to be nimble, agile and read routes in space. It's his third change of position in 3 years, and it's to a position that is not easy to grasp. We all remember some of the problems that Rowe had last year in the same position, and Jordan is being asked to do the same things as him with less than a year of experience.
Pause this play at the :02 mark right before the QB meshes with the fly sweep. This play should go nowhere. Kaddu is going to take on the the blocking RB, Alonso has gap support should the QB hand off to the fly sweep and Stuckey has his eyes on the backfield watching the QB should he run, scramble or drop back to pass. Alonso over-runs the play and bites hard on the fake leaving a six yard hole up the middle that Stuckey now has to fill. Stuckey over commits to the middle allowing the QB to cut back towards the line where 5 lineman are taking on 3 defenders (not good odds for any D-line). Terrance Mitchell is late pressing up into the cutback lane and the QB is able to side step him for another big gain down the sideline.
This is what our defense is supposed to look like. Oregon is in their 3-4 cover 1 defense with Pleasant playing safety deep in the middle. Jordan communicates the shifting TE pulling Pleasant and Jackson up closer to the strong side of the field and rotating Mitchell back into the deeper safety position. Look at the communication across the front seven to the LBs calling assignments to the D-line communicating gaps. This is what an experienced front 7 does. Everyone knows who and what areas they got covered, so no man or gap goes unaccounted for. I knew this play was dead before the ball was snapped.
Sometimes I really miss Spencer Paysinger. Now this could easily be a scheme problem where Aliotti called the wrong defense against a good offensive set, or (what I think is more likely the case) a bad read by the LBs. This was a terrible read on the zone read by the QB if he had the choice of handing off the ball. Kaddu has a free shot at the QB. Alonso has assignment on the TE as Stuckey is reading the RB and covering the weakside. The D-line does there job as Hart and Remington once again stunt and Remington and Turner end up taking on 4 lineman leaving Jordan and Hart on the weak side in case anything goes that way. But let's get back to the weak spot. Alonso misreads the mesh and over-pursues the RB from the back side. This leaves the TE wide open to find a soft spot for an easy catch and a pick up of 9 yards and a first down. (P.S. If this isn't fixed by the time we play ASU, they're going to score 80 on us. This is the exact type of play they run with much better talent. That should have been a 20 yard to TD pick up).
This is what Oregon looks like playing a cover zero. Heimuli and Keliikipi have also subbed in at the DT positions, Washington and Hanna at the DEs. Remember the communication we saw two plays ago? Look at how little communication exists on this shifting TE. Thank goodness the RB makes a bad read and decides to cut it back into 4 waiting defenders with only 1 blocker. I'd hate to think what would have happened had he tried to get to the edge with a pulling tackle and only Mitchell on the short side to stop him.
Second and long, short field. This is where Oregon holds them to a field goal, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and Duck fans realize their freight train of an offense is about to steam roll over this little FCS school. If you pause the video at 5 seconds, you still have that same thought. Maybe they're tired from a 9 play drive, maybe the WR covered himself in Crisco before he took the fly sweep. Either way this is just poor tackling and a play that should have been stopped at the 11 for 3rd and long ends up giving the offense first and goal.
Excuse me, Alonso, where are you going? Keliikipi does a great job firing in the gap and forcing the RB to cut back. Kaddu has settled down and has excellent outside contain to force the QB to hand off to the RB on the mesh. Alonso for some reason decides to shoot into the middle on Washington's left hip completely taking himself out of the play and giving MSU the TD
Now, don't get me wrong, I know this is an FCS school that Oregon went on to shut out and put up 56 unanswered points against. Maybe that's part of the problem. We can talk about motivation, or missing players, or guys playing out of position. To me those are all excuses. There are definite scheme problems going on here. On 6 of the last 7 plays the D-line stunts. This is not something you should need to do against an FCS opponent. Line up and smash them in the mouth. In my opinion, the D-line looked a lot better when they weren't stunting. Dion Jordan is a fish out of water at the drop-end position, and who can blame him? He was so much better last year using his speed and agility against slower tackles then he is trying to read a backfield, guess on routes and cover quicker TEs in the flats.
Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews were such great compliments to each other last year, and it's tough to see the chemistry issues between the LBs right now. I know we haven't really gotten to see Clay and Alonso working together the way that Matthews and Paysinger might have, but there is no excuse for the lack of communication, over-pursuit and lack of discipline being shown.
None of these things can't be fixed through repetition on the field and a little ass-chewing in the film room. But that takes time. With Oregon heading to Arizona, a team that will turn your little mistakes into six points, Oregon doesn't have a lot of time to get things right. I'm still excited about the talent, youth and depth of our front 7, but there are definitely going to be growing pains they experience as they learn and adjust to this complex defense.