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Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Film review of week 7 vs Washington

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Rogues, rebels, and rushes

Washington v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Offense

What jumped out at me when sorting through my tally sheet was how dominant Oregon’s inside rush was, both in terms of effectiveness and overall play selection. Some numbers:

  • Oregon ran 78 plays in regulation - 42 rush, 36 pass.
  • Of those 42 rushes, 37 of them were either inside zone, inside power, or off-tackle (in about equal measures) … not only are those plays 88% of the rush selection, they’re almost half of the entire offensive selection.
  • Of those 37, I tallied 26 as successful vs only 11 failures, given the down and distance, for over a 70% success rate ... pretty good in my experience doing this (and most of those failures still gained some yardage, including one that got 7 yards on 3rd & 8 and was clearly part of a plan to go for it on 4th down).
  • There was very little outside running ... no sweeps, one RPO, two stretch runs, and only one QB keep on a read-option.

I’m tempted to call this offense boring, especially since a) fakes of outside runs or other creative things are a big part of the offense and I’m concerned future opposing defenses will clue in, and b) I identified their ILBs’ slow recognition of outside runs as a vulnerability last Friday (and saw more evidence of this on Saturday). But it’s so crushingly effective that I would be a fool to do so. I wrote after the SJSU game that this subdued, unflashy rushing offense without much explosion has become a peculiar source of comfort for me, knowing that steady pickups and 3rd/4th down conversions are almost a certainty, and I suspect Oregon fans are coming to understand why that is.

Here are some examples (reminder - you can right-click or long-press to watch any of these videos at ¼ or ½ speed):

On the first play, we’re seeing a lot more of the seals and second-level blocks that turn 3-yard gains into 9-yard gains - #54 RT Throckmorton turns his guy inside, #68 LG Lemieux pulls across the formation to seal his guy outside, leaving a big hole for #27 TE Breeland to cross through to smash the ILB and let #34 RB Verdell get a lot more yards. On the second play (at :06), we’re seeing more excellent blocking that turns defenders so they can’t fall or get an arm into the running lane, but the safety blazes from the backside and eight yards deep through the formation and catches Verdell from behind. On the third play (at :12), they’ve pulled their big nose guard to give him a rest and the line has an even easier time clearing out the defense, and Verdell gets four more yards after contact. On the last play (at :17), we’ve got a power-blocked pistol read of the end, creating a hat advantage that #26 RB Dye exploits for a big gain.

The excellent secondary mostly kept big passing plays to a minimum. I didn’t notice any particular recurring pattern except for pretty tight coverage on most plays, though this is tough to illustrate with only the broadcast angles. Instead I’ll show a medley of different pass defenses, each of which showed up at least three times:

On the first play, #10 QB Herbert is probably leaving the pocket too early, but even then he’s got enough time that he should keep rolling and get his feet under him better before making this poor throw, which is too low to be a jump ball and almost gets picked off. The second play (at :09) is a touchdown against any other team on Oregon’s schedule - great pocket protection, route running that’s got the DB turned around, a nicely arced ball where the receiver can make a play - but this pass breakup is almost superhuman. The third play (at :32) is one of the few breakdowns in pass protection, in which backup #66 RT Aiello gets beat around the edge and the hurried throw is well behind the target. On the last play (at :36), the secondary has managed to turn a switch route against Oregon, by getting the rub receiver to trip Mitchell … this happens just as Herbert is releasing the ball so he can’t really be blamed, but still he probably should have been more conservative on 3rd down and hit the wide-open Dillon on the shallow crosser.

Still, Herbert had a pretty efficient short-to-intermediate passing performance:

On the first play, #85 TE Dillon’s pre-snap motion reveals the soft coverage from the ILB, letting him get an easy pitch for a 1st down. On the second play (at :10), Herbert is going through his progression quickly and gets to his checkdown Breeland, who’s short of the sticks but strong enough to power through the tacklers … note in the reverse angle that Herbert has a few deep downfield passing options who might be breaking open for potentially huge gains, but he’s choosing to be conservative against the speed of this secondary. On the third play (at :26), we’re seeing another advantage of the pistol formation - Herbert is able to hide the ball in play-action by turning his back to the defense for much longer, keeping the backers and the safety out of pass coverage and letting the route develop more, and hits #13 WR Mitchell farther downfield (who’s impressively fought off a defensive hold and still gets wide open). On the last play (at :45), the defense is in cover-1 and brings the nickel on a pass rush, which leaves open the classic vulnerability to this coverage - the underneath hole, into which #30 WR Redd drops easily.


Defense

I was impressed by how well the downfield coverage was playing in this game. There were a couple breakdowns, of course, as well as a few quick short passes that are difficult for anyone to defend, but so few that I can’t put together any patterns worth documenting. I think this is mostly a product of having to keep so many potential receivers in the pocket as blockers, giving the QB only two slow-developing options. Still, check out the coverage across the board on these plays, and note that they don’t really involve harassing the QB to force them:

On the first play, Oregon’s standard seven-man box ensures they’ll only send two men downfield … we’re left to infer that they’re well covered since this pass eventually goes to the checkdown RB, to whom #39 ILB Apelu sticks and delivers a jarring tackle. On the second play (at :09), the QB has to get the ball off quickly to avoid the pass rush, but he can’t throw accurately enough to a moving target in coverage to prevent #7 S Amadi from breaking it up. On the third play (at :28), #15 CB Lenoir is showing improvement in his ability to stop on the receiver’s break and reverse course to keep him from jumping for the ball. The last play (at :33) is an unusual empty set, with five downfield receivers, so Oregon drops eight into coverage … the whole crew does a great job handing off zone responsibilities, while keeping #11 OLB Hollins close enough to help when the QB eventually gives up and tries to scramble.

Oregon’s defense spent most of the game in the offensive backfield, and if not for their QB’s ability to escape pressure and make plays on the run, this would have been a much shorter game. In fact, my biggest criticism of Oregon’s pass defense is that it sometimes got over-excited at the prospect of a sack:

On the first play, the QB is flushed with only a 3-man rush, and everybody including Hollins and Amadi are playing their coverage responsibilities properly to prevent a dumpoff, but in a short yardage situation the ILBs need to be quicker to seal off the QB’s escape route. On the second play (at :15), #32 OLB Winston impressively reverses himself to chase down the QB from behind, but can only slow him down while Apelu comes down to get the sack while trusting the safety behind him to pick up the coverage. On the third play (at :39), the defense plays their penetration a lot more level-headedly - #51 DE Baker contains the edge to prevent escape and #35 ILB Dye remains in underneath coverage, which baits the QB to making a poor throw that #41 ILB Slade-Matuatia almost picks off. On the last play (at 1:11), however, we’re seeing the opposite - despite both OLBs crashing on the QB, #99 DE Faoliu goes inside as well instead of staying outside to contain the escape, and #8 DB Holland neglects to cover the checkdown RB even though he can see Dye is moving to cut off the QB’s run.

In rush defense, I tallied a fairly solid performance, marred by the same thing that this offense has done to every other team it’s played: convert about 20% of its runs from failures to successes by powering through initial contact. Some examples:

These shouldn’t need annotation - they’re all examples of beating the run-blocking, getting a hand on the RB, but not being able to bring him down until after he’s gotten ahead of the chains. Oregon’s defense didn’t do any worse than the previous four teams these RBs faced, but they didn’t do any better, either.

Their offense tried a greater percentage of stretch runs in this game than they did in their previous four, possibly because they wanted to get around Oregon’s dominant #34 NG Scott. They had a 50/50 success rate, which is still substantially lower than in previous games:

On the first play, Dye’s rapid read lets him beat the center to the edge and force the run back inside, which Scott cleans up. On the second play (at :08), #97 DE Jelks gets a great push into the TE’s block, altering the trajectory of the run and letting Dye clean up. On the third play (at :14), Dye slices underneath the center’s block but ahead of the slow RG and makes a sure solo tackle. On the last play (at :21), the RB tries to bounce outside to avoid Scott, but even that recognition can’t save him from Scott and Faoliu absolutely whipping the o-line.


Accountability Corner

Last week, my observations about the offense included: they don’t run-block well but their RBs get lots of yards after contact, the QB can’t hit receivers in coverage, and they’ll go all-in on pass protection. I think I only deserve partial credit for the last one, since it didn’t take the form of holding penalties as I thought, but rather keeping TEs and RBs home to block in response to even a moderately loaded box (something that UWDawgpound.com’s Gabey Lucas pointed out when we were on the Quack-12 podcast). I noted that their QB never keeps on read-options but is nonetheless a good scrambler and obviously those things showed up in this game, but I wish I had written more about it since almost all of their clutch plays to extend drives came off of a scramble.

On defense, I wrote that I thought their DBs were excellent and that I didn’t expect explosive runs because they have a stellar safety in run support, and that showed up big time. I said that there’s not much of a pass rush but they’ve got a great nose tackle who does make it through sometimes and we saw that as well. I whiffed on my prediction of big QB runs - there really were none, just a single late scramble for 5 yards.

I’m not sure what to think about my observations on their run defense. I didn’t see the big outside runs I was expecting after watching their ILBs slow reaction times, but on the other hand I think this was a stylistic choice (or possibly, a mistake) by Oregon’s coaching staff. This is the second straight game in which I was confident that the opponent had an excellent inside rush defense and yet Oregon ran all over them - am I not recognizing the fundamentals of rush defense? Or is Oregon’s rushing game really that dominant? I know what most ATQ readers will say, but I’m still going to work harder at analyzing run fits and try to solve this.

Also, this game was affected greatly by special teams gaffes - a fumble then a big return on kickoffs, plus two missed field goals. I don’t write about special teams (the camera angles on broadcasts make it almost impossible to observe blocking), but a big shout out to ShouldabeenaDuck for providing statistical analysis last week that correctly predicted much of the game, including the observation that they’re one of the few schools in the Pac-12 having a worse season on special teams than Oregon is.