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Oregon’s Defense: What it is Now

After a quarter of the way into the season, and a defense that ranks first nationally in scoring defense, first in total defense yards/game, first nationally in total defense yards/play, third nationally in passing defense yards/game, first in passing yards/attempt, and first in opposing QB rating I thought it would be a good time to show what this defense is now. 

Sure the offense gets all the press, I mean they are putting up more than 1 point per minute.  They have the big name guys like, James and Thomas and Kelly.  Everyone wants to see Oregon put up points on teams like they're playing NCAA 11 against a 10 year old.  But if Oregon wants to be a consistent title contender, Chip Kelly is putting together the right pieces to a winning formula: great offensive line, great running game, speed and an awesome defense. 

So  let's take a look at what this defense is now.

I thought about breaking down the defense for the entire Tennessee game, but as I watched it again for the third time, I realized there was one play that stood out and exemplified every aspect of this defense.  So I decided to pick apart that one play, and I called upon my amazing video editing crew of jtlight and trumpetduck to improve upon my last piece to add slow motion, graphic formations and coverage responsibilities, as well as some enhancements to the offense's viewpoint of what the defense was doing.

To give some perspective on this play we have to understand what was going on in this game and where things stood.  The game was over half way through the third quarter.  On Oregon's first possession of the 2nd half, they drove the field and eventually had to punt.  Tennessee marched back, but was forced to punt as well and the game was still tied.  On the first play of our second possession in the half, LaMichael James decided he was going to show everyone on Tennessee that he was faster than them with a 72 yard touchdown run.  This put Oregon up by only 7 points and was their first lead of the game.  Tennessee's next possession was going to be an important one, because Oregon was threatening to take away the momentum and take the crowd completely out of it

Tennessee got the kick off and on their 5th play Matt Simms connected with Zach Rogers for a nice 31 yard completion setting them up with 1st and 10 at Oregon's 24.  Now, up until this point Aliotti had done exactly what he needed to in the second half.  Oregon was consistently showing 8 man fronts and was threatening Simms to go back and pass to try and take away UT's running.  Since UT's touchdown at the start of the second quarter they had rushed the ball 12 times for 46 yards which included one 17 yard burst on a missed tackle by Matthews.  Oregon had decided that if UT was going to move the ball they were going to have to do it with quick accurate reads by the QB throwing against varied fronts into different secondary formations.  Oregon was switching up between man and zone on the corners, bringing Pleasant down into the box, shifting Rowe out onto the TE and bringing different LBs on almost every play.  For an offensive line that is tired, not very deep and an inexperienced QB, this will eventually spell trouble. 

On their sixth play of the drive and 1st down UT got a false start putting them back 5 yards (tired offensive line, not concentrating... Aliotti senses fear).  On the replay of 1st and 15 Simms tried to throw into double coverage but missed badly as the corner and safety were playing zone over the top (inexperienced QB not reading the coverage correctly... Aliotti smells blood).  On 2nd and 15 UT tries to run with an unbalanced line and is stopped quickly setting up 3rd and 13 (no chinks in the armor, all systems go... Aliotti unleashes hell).

This play broke the backs of Tennessee players and fans.  A score by Tennessee would have given their fans reason to believe they could win this game and hang in the second half.  Neyland would have broken decibel records for how loud it would have been if they had been able to punch it in.  Instead you could hear a pin drop in a crowd of 102,000.  A pick six was a killer.  Now Oregon had UT exactly where they wanted them.  UT had to abandon their running game, only rushing 9 more times for 18 yards the rest of the game, to try and keep up with Oregon.  Oregon could leave 5 guys on the front and drop 6-7 into coverage the rest of the game.

Let's examine more closely how this play went down which ended up sealing a victory for Oregon deep in the heart of SEC country, an area renowned for, but demonstrated to what a great defense is now.

First, let's take a look at the pre-snap read

With it being 3rd and 13 Tennessee is in an obvious passing situation with trips formation to the defense's left.  First thing to notice is that TJ3 has switched sides and is lined up in man on the point man WR.  Harris, Boyett and Pleasant look to be in a zone cover 2.  The LBs and D-line are in what looks like a base 3-4 formation with 7 guys in the box.  At this point it's up to the O-line, RB and QB to try and figure out which of the 7 guys are coming on the blitz.  I'll let you in on a little secret, only 4 guys actually come on the blitz, can you figure out which four it is?  As the ball is snapped you will see that it originally looks like Oregon is bringing all 7 guys. Which would make them very vulnerable to a screen pass to the weak side if the RB were able to slip out of the backfield.

Were you able to pick out which 4 guys come on the blitz?  Let's look at the d-line, I think that will help pick it up a little easier.  As you will see when the play starts the left DE (Turner) blitzes up the field to draw the tackle up and create a gap for the LOLB (Lokombo).  The NT (Clark) and the right DE (Bair) both engage their blockers but do not pursue the QB.  They as well as the ROLB (Rowe) are reading the RB in the backfield to make sure he doesn't sneak out for a screen pass, which in a zone blitz like this Oregon is very vulnerable to.  This engage and pause leaves five guys on the o-line blocking 3 defenders who aren't really doing much of anything on the play.  The real pressure is coming from the linebackers.

What you will see first is that the ROLB (Rowe) is not in a full on rush of the backfield.  He's engaging the TE (since UT is still in their unbalanced line formation, which is funny because the unbalanced line side is the side that lets them down on the blitz pick up) and spying the RB out of the backfield to make sure he doesn't slip up the field on a wheel route or screen play.  Next you can see that the RILB (Clay) and the LILB (Matthews) rush hard at the middle of the line drawing the focus of the RB as there is a huge hole for Clay to run through.  The problem is that the LOLB (Lokombo) is also coming untouched at the QB because of Turner's play on the line and the RB has to decide which guy he's going to pick up on the blitz.  Either way this is not going to end well for Simms.  Lastly, notice that Pleasant has moved towards the center of the field to guard against any short slants or in routes.    

Finally, let's take a look at the secondary and how they baited Simms into throwing this pick.  First I'd like to point out part of the genius that is moving Pleasant to Safety.  On this play he has three responsibilities.  He first needs to spy the backfield and make sure that he isn't needed to come up and help on the RB out of the backfield.  Next his job is to protect the intermediate middle of the field in case one of the WRs in trips runs a hot route to the middle that is being vacated by the blitzing LBs, and finally he's the deep safety for TJ3 once Boyett moves to cover the post corner behind Harris.  To be able to cover this much space and have that type of reaction speed, you have to be really fast.  Thanks Eddie.

TJ3 is in man coverage and is playing his usual face guard (shut up MCD, I don't want to hear it).  So let's look at Boyett and Harris.  Boyett's job is to get deep first and make sure nothing gets behind him out of that trips formation.  Also he brackets the post corner with Harris who is reading the QB the entire time.  If the QB has more time, Harris will continue to backpedal and eventually let him have the underneath guy because on 3rd and 13 he'll still have time to come up and make the play and force UT into a field goal.  Instead he sees the QB under pressure and makes a quick break on the ball getting there almost two yards in front of the WR.  Touchdown Harris!

Here's what I have learned by watching this series and this play.  Oregon's defense is built on speed (no kidding, right?) but it's also built on scheme.  Early on in this game Oregon was getting beat with a ground and pound offense.  Tennessee was moving down the field using an unbalanced line, big RBs and some bad reads by the linebackers.  From the first quarter on Aliotti continued to put more men in the box and trust Oregon's speed to be able to cover ground.  When Tennessee needed a drive to keep the game in check Aliotti waited until Tennessee had no chance but to pass and brought a confusing misdirection attacking zone blitz.  This forced Simms into throwing to the guy he knew would be his quick out.  Because of Oregon's speed and the scheme they used, Harris was able to make the right read, quickly react and pick it for a touchdown.  This killed any chance UT had of getting back into the game.

Go Ducks!