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Oregon's Defense: How it Changed

I have been meaning to learn how to properly use youtube and video editing software to create a series of posts about the adaptations of Oregon's defensive scheme, and Fishduck's recent post inspired me to finally learn it and put this together.  If you haven't read his post yet, please do so.  There are a lot of terms and jargon that I will be using that he does a good job of defining.  I'm going to try and attempt to expand on what he has written and what I have previously written here and here using video of games from the season.  This will be a three part series that will cover:

  • How Oregon's defense changed last season
  • How Oregon adapted their scheme during the season
  • What the future for the defense looks like going into next season

First let's define some key terms that I will be using throughout the series so that we are all on the same page.

Left and Right - If you don't know your left and right, you're probably axemen.  For this post, however, the left and right side will always be from the viewpoint behind the the defense.  I'm going to try and stay away from weakside and strongside because it can get confusing for some, but if I do use it just remember the weakside is the side of the offense that has the least number of offensive players, whereas the strongside is the side with the most number of offensive players (it gets confusing when teams put guys in motion and shift the weak and strong sides, so for this post I will be using left and right).

3-4-4 Defense - when talking about a defensive formation the first number represents the number of linemen, the second the number of linebackers and the third the number in the secondary.  Other variations are 3-3-5 ("3-4 Nickel"), 4-3-4, 2-4-5 ("3-4 Dime"), 4-2-5 ("4-3 Nickel").

DE, DT, NT - Defensive Ends (DE) play on the end of the line in a 3-4 or 4-3, Defensive Tackles (DT) play in the middle two positions in a 4-3 and 2-4-5, Nose Tackles (NT) play the middle position in a 3-4.

Linebackers - Once again this can get confusing and difficult so for purposes of this series I will mainly use left and right, so in a 3-4 the linebackers will be Left Outside LineBacker (LOLB), Left Inside LineBacker (LILB), Right Inside LineBacker (RILB) and Right Outside LineBacker.  In a 4-3 the two Outside Linebackers stay the same and the Middle LineBacker turns into MLB.  You'll also hear terms like "Will" (weakside inside linebacker), "Mike" (strongside inside linebacker), "Sam" (strongside outside linebacker) and "Jack" (weakside outside linebacker).

A 3-4 defense looks like this:

Why Oregon Changed to a 3-4

One of the main benefits of the 3-4 defense is that it allows a team to keep faster guys on the field and at the same time allows the defense to set up in a position where they can attack an offensive line from different angles.  A well run 3-4 defense will rarely bring more than 4 guys after the QB (unlike blitz schemes in a 4-3 that use 5-6 guys and only leave 5 guys to cover the pass), but if done properly, the offensive line, QB and blocking RB will have no idea who is going to be the 4th guy until it's too late.  Will it be the ROLB, the RILB, LOLB or what about the Safety?  Confusion, disguise and misdirection are the keys to a good 3-4 (you could even call it gimmicky like the spread offense). 

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been using a 3-4 defense since 1983.  One of the main characteristics of their teams have been the presence of really good linebackers (Greg Lloyd, Jack Lambert, Levon Kirkland, Chad Brown, Kevin Greene, Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, Kendrell Bell, James Farrior, Larry Foote, James Harrison, etc).  In a 3-4 the focus of the defense is going to be on the linebackers and their ability to make plays.  The defensive line's job is pretty simple and a lot of times understated in that their job is meant to create space for the linebackers to attack and roam.  Therefore, most times D-linemen will take on 2 O-linemen to try and create a mismatch for the linebacker.  The secondary's job, while just as important is going to be to support the linebackers and fill in behind where the attack of the linebackers is coming from.  With Oregon's crop of good linebackers and the number of good recruits at those positions the last couple of years, it made sense that going to a defense that utilized their skills would be best.

As you can already tell this system is very complex and difficult to learn.  When NFL teams switch up to a 3-4 defense, most analysts will agree that it is going to take 2-3 years for them to get the right personnel and then another 1-2 years, if ever, for everyone to get on the same page.  For Oregon to literally make the leap in 1 year, and do it successfully is nothing short of amazing.

The first set of videos we are going to look at are from the Oregon vs Utah game at Autzen this year.  One thing to keep in mind is this is the 3rd game Oregon has been running this hybrid 3-4 defense.  In a later series we will see how Aliotti expands and builds on what the kids are learning to add different levels of disguise, misdirection and attacks.  All in all, the 3-4 defense that Oregon is using is predicated on attacking the offense and is based on down and distance as well as offensive formation.

Let's go to the video:

First a word from Aliotti about the game, "Rise and shine it's hitting time."

This is the first series for Utah and Oregon is already throwing misdirection at the offense.  It is now 3rd and 5 and Oregon sets up in a 3-4-4 formation, only Tukuafu at left DE is not down in a three point stance but instead is up and moving at the line of scrimmage before the snap.  This is very confusing for the O-line and the QB, because if the offense is planning on a short bubble screen, or anything off the left side of the defense, right now you have no idea if the DE is coming after the QB or going to drop into coverage.  Combine this with the fact that the LOLB is coming on the blitz and ultimately the Utah QB is forced to run out to the right side where Paysinger is spying and waiting for him to finish off Utah's first 3 and out.

Lastly, at the end of the play David Reed of Utah and Javes Lewis of the Ducks get into a little conversation of about which is better Twizzlers or Red Vines where Reed thinks Twizzlers are great and Lewis is upset that anyone would think such a terrible thing.  Don't worry this will get settled later.

In this next clip the RILB, Paysinger shows blitz early and brings pressure up the middle.  After Utah had gotten the ball into Oregon territory they were forced into a 3rd and 7 situation.  Utah decides to empty the backfield and spread 5 guys out wide.  This allowed Oregon to get into the QB's face without a RB in the backfield to help support and block.  Oregon ends up only bringing 4 guys on the play which allows them to have 7 guys covering 5 WRs and once the WR catches the ball on the quick pass he is swarmed and brought down.  Lewis decides to end the play with a souvenir, David Reed's helmet (but that still doesn't end the argument of Red Vines vs Twizzlers).

Utah decides to go for it on 4th down, and Javes Lewis decides to end the argument of which is better Twizzlers or Red Vines.  Reed was too foggy to disagree any longer.

This type of attacking defense can sometimes get you caught up in the wrong position.  After Utah blocks a punt they have the ball deep in Oregon's territory.  Oregon starts out in a 4-2-5 with Paysinger back in a rover position.  Utah runs a zone read play and two things end up going wrong.  The left DE, thinking he has outside help from the LB and Safety crashes down on the RB, and the LILB gets caught up in traffic trying to shoot the inside gap.  When the Utah QB pulls the ball back there is an empty lane right to the end zone.

Once again we are still early in this game and we are seeing Oregon throw some more misdirection at Utah.  Oregon comes out in a 2-4-5 defense with Pleasant obviously back in a rover/safety position.  Oregon is basically daring Utah to run up the middle on 2nd and long.  Utah obliges and gets stuffed as the two DTs crash into the gaps and the LBs provide support on the outside.  There is nowhere for the RB to go and now they are faced with 3rd and long once again.

It's little things like this play that are the beauties of how Aliotti has adjusted his defensive scheme.  No longer is Oregon playing a vanilla base 4-2-5 nickle defense that is reactive to what the offense does.  Instead he is putting his guys out there and asking the offense to try and take advantage of it.  Utah is at a disadvantage if they try and run any screen, bubble, pass or play to the outside.  Oregon has more speed on the field and since 9 guys are standing up and reading the play they have the advantage of attacking where the ball goes.  Utah's only play is to try and run it up the middle and gain 5 yards to give them a manageable 3rd down.  Unfortunately Oregon gets there first and holds them to little to no gain.

After a penalty, Utah is faced with a 3rd and 17.  This is one of those situations you dream of as a defensive coordinator.  It's 3rd and 17, you know they aren't picking up the first down.  Most likely they'll get in field goal range and kick it... bend don't break.  So you call a safe deep zone, take off the headset and head to the concessions to get yourself a Coke.  Here's where we get to see New Aliotti.  What does he call?  A BIG TIME BLITZ.  First thing he does is overload the strongside of the offense by shifting the LBs to the right.  Now the RB is forced to pay attention to the men on the right side as the ROLB and the RILB both show and bring a blitz.  But they're just decoys.  The real pressure is coming from the LILB who pauses and waits for all the linemen to engage and then comes free at the QB.  Unfortunately Utah runs a quick screen and gets the ball off and Oregon stops them for a short gain.  But this is a total change of scheme for Aliotti.  In the past he would have played it safe and let Utah end up with a FG, here he brings the house and tells them you're either going to pick this up or be forced to make a tough decision.

Utah chooses wrong.  They decide to go for it on 4th and 12.  Once again we get to meet New Aliotti.  How many times have we seen Oregon give up big gains in a situation like this where they are playing a deep zone?  Aliotti decides to go after them.  Oregon comes out in a 3-3-5 with Pleasant lined up as a safety on a slot receiver on the right and Matthews, Paysinger and Kaddu in the linebacker positions.  Pleasant shows early that he is coming on a blitz and that draws the attention of the O-line.  Kaddu slides to the outside on the left as Paysinger moves in between the DE and NT meaning the RB is going to have to pick up Kaddu.  That leaves Matthews open on the delayed blitz just like the last play, only Utah isn't running a quick play again and Matthews buries the QB!

Now we get to see how the secondary plays into all this.  Utah starts the 4th quarter needing a drive.  On 3rd and 5 the secondary knows that Oregon is going to bring pressure off the right side with Pleasant (again).  This is going to force Utah into a quick pass to try and pick up the first down.  Thurmond plants his feet on the 44 yard line and realizes that any passes near that area he is going to be able to get to.  It's this coordination that makes the 3-4 so formidable.  Oregon is bringing pressure on the right, meaning Utah is going to look to throw quickly.  This gives Thurmond all he needs to know about how to defend the WR.

Remember that big 4th down play?  Oregon uses an adaptation of it here.  On a big 3rd and 8 in the 4th quarter with Utah needing a drive to get out of their own end of the field, Oregon comes out in that familiar 3-3-5 defense.  Once again they show blitz early signaling to the O-line, QB and RB that Oregon is coming again.  This time though they all drop into zone coverage, but the QB already has happy feet and tries to break out of the pocket once he realized nobody was open.  Paysinger, playing disciplined football, is spying the QB and as he tries to run for the first down, chases him down for the sack.

Late in the game now and Utah really needs to get a drive going.  Once again Oregon has held them to 3rd and long.  Here comes New Aliotti.  Oregon lines up in a 3-4-4 defense.  The ROLB shows blitz early and comes hard at the QB.  The O-line picks it up so instead he peels back and cuts in front of the RB who after not having to block anyone for the first time all day decides to try and sneak out of the backfield.  Pleasant picks off the pass and sets up Oregon with great field position.

The last play we'll look at really sealed the game for Oregon.  On 2nd and 8 Oregon comes out in a 3-3-5.  Utah has over loaded the left side with 3 WRs and the RB.  Late in the game like this Oregon is trying to prevent anything long while at the same time keep pressure on the QB.  The LOLB comes after the QB but is not able to get any pressure.  The QB decides to throw long to that side.... big mistake.  Boyett is playing deep coverage since the other LB's are containing anything underneath.  Boyett is able to easily read the pass and pick it off for a game saving INT.

So what have we learned?  In the third game of the season Oregon is using quite a bit of misdirection and disguise to bring pressure and make the offense do what it wants.  The 3-4 defense opened a world of possibilities for Aliotti.  I think there were a couple of reasons why Aliotti made this shift.

  • Depth of abilities - You have to have a deep and skilled group of linebackers to be able to pull off this change. You can do it if you have a couple of really good seniors, but then you're leaving your cupboard bare in subsequent years and you'll have a tremendous fall off. You have to have a well rounded group that can learn together, play together and support younger guys as they learn this system too (not a lot of high schools are running a complex zone-blitz, 3-4 scheme.
  • Kelly Allowed It - I'm not saying that Aliotti had to ask permission, but instead the style of Kelly's offense and the move of him to head coach, gave Aliotti all the excuses he needed to make the change in the defense. It fits what Kelly is doing. Play fast, play hard, attack angles on your opponent, use misdirection and disguise, and go big. That is exactly what we are seeing from New Aliotti's system on defense, and the same pressure that is being applied to the offense of be able to make a big play at any time is also being applied to the defense. Nothing soft.

In this series of videos you can see that Aliotti has gone away from playing soft or playing safe.  He used defensive sets and then ran counters to those sets to keep an inexperienced QB and O-line off balanced.  He brought pressure at times when normally he would have played it safe.  Let's not forget how bad the offense looked in the first three games last year.  It was a combination of adjustments and attacking defense that ended up winning the games for Oregon early.  In our next video series we'll look at how Oregon adapted that system later in the season and built more levels onto what they were doing.