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Observations and Questions: Breaking down Oregon’s 2017 football film, phase 1

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Weeks 1-4: Southern Utah, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Arizona St

Nebraska v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

This series will break down the film of all 13 of Oregon’s 2017 football games, grouped into four installments chronologically and posted near the end of each month of the offseason. I’ll post a few clips to help analyze issues that I saw, and offer general observations from studying the film of each game closely and tallying up successful and unsuccessful assignments of every Oregon player on all non-garbage time snaps. Each month I’ll also spotlight two of the eight position groups which were particularly relevant to that month’s period of games. Finally, I have some questions for Oregon fans about how they saw things.

I’ve been doing similar projects on upcoming Oregon opponents — both big out-of-conference matchups and bowl games — for several years now, and while I can’t claim to be entirely objective, I have tried my best to use the same methodology in evaluating the 2017 Ducks.


Phase 1: Weeks 1-4

This period is marked by settling in — to new coaches, new schemes, and new starters — against what turned out to be some of the weakest opponents on the schedule. We also see some pretty confident experimentation as the coaches attempt to deal with a team split between position groups stuffed with excellent returners from 2016 (QB, RBs, and OL for the offense, DEs and LBs for the defense) and groups made up almost entirely of new players (WRs, CBs, SS).

Week 1: Southern Utah, 9-3 (7-1 Big Sky)

Oregon 77, SUU 21, in Eugene

The Ducks put this game into garbage time halfway through the second quarter, so not a lot of data to be gathered. SUU is actually a pretty good FCS team, they finished ranked #13 and were knocked out of the playoffs by a fellow Big Sky team in Weber St whom they had already beaten during the regular season (and they play Oregon St week 2 in 2018, which might be a bit of a shock for the Beavs), but the biggest struggles Oregon had were self-inflicted: a bunch of dumb penalties, reshuffling the secondary, and general opening-game over-aggression in a new defensive scheme. Otherwise, both sides of the ball operated without much resistance simply by overwhelming size advantages in the trenches and speed advantages at skill positions.

Week 2: Nebraska, 4-8 (3-6 Big Ten), #103 in S&P+

Oregon 42, Nebraska 35, in Eugene

On Oregon’s six scoring drives the offense looked unstoppable for all the reasons Duck fans have come to enjoy watching - powerful downhill running behind great zone-blocking, crisp and efficient passes from #10 QB Herbert, and embarrassing the defense in space. In addition, on four of the nine times it stalled out, the cause was fairly random - a dropped pass, a weird delay of game penalty, etc. But the remaining failures on critical downs came from problems that would recur throughout the year - three poorly thrown balls, weak outside blocking by skill players, and most commonly, the interior linemen simply getting beat on blocks.

Overall the defense had a great game - four turnovers, winning on 12 of 14 third downs, and limiting the rush offense to under 4 yards per carry. Also, one of Nebraska’s touchdowns required not just a short field from a turnover, but a third down strip-sack getting erased by a (very questionable) dead-ball foul. But this game exposed the clearest narrative about Oregon’s 2017 defense: excellent play by the front seven betrayed by sloppy coverage and tackling in the secondary - the four remaining UNL touchdowns all resulted from huge gains given up by defensive backs out of position and/or failing to wrap-up tackling.

This game was 42-14 at halftime, and there was some consternation afterwards at Nebraska having a 21-0 second half. My take is that this was fairly meaningless: for one thing, despite coaches’ protest to the contrary, Oregon clearly got pretty conservative on offense in the second half, and Nebraska made some adjustments to how their front-seven lined up which closed some of the gaping holes Oregon was getting when down blocking. Another big factor was that Oregon had a number of lucky bounces go their way in the first half which drove up the score (two INTs fell in the Ducks’ lap and they made a couple of miracle catches, that sort of thing), and then Nebraska got most of the good fortune in the second half to catch them up (most notably two 4th-down conversions on improbable receptions and an uncharacteristic fumble by Freeman) ... luck is a part of the game and it’s just not significant that it be clustered in this way.

Ultimately the final score was a little closer than it should have been – overall the game felt more like 45-31 if the good fortune were spread around more evenly in time – and I thought the more important takeaway was that even a fairly inconsistent (and by the end of the season, outright bad) team like Nebraska was able to kill nine of Oregon’s drives and exploit some big problems in the secondary ... and this was against the healthiest Duck squad all season. Both teams had four full-field touchdown drives against nine drive-kills; the difference in this game was Oregon capitalizing on kind of unearned short fields and Nebraska going into desperation mode early.

Week 3: Wyoming, 8-5 (5-3 Mountain West), #53 in S&P+

Oregon 49, Wyoming 13, in Laramie

This game was over at halftime when Oregon went up 42-10 on what was effectively a defensive touchdown just before the end of the second quarter, so again, not a ton of meaningful data. Wyoming turned out to be a fairly decent team in a fairly decent conference, ultimately overcoming the lack of pretty much any offensive skill talent outside of Josh Allen through excellent coaching and defense (#7 in defensive S&P+) and winning all the games they were supposed to with the exception of a bizarre season-ending dud against San Jose St. If you squinted real hard you could see a repeat of the second half “troubles” against Nebraska as the Ducks only scored 7, but this was even sillier than the complaints the previous week: they took the air out of the ball completely (only four downfield passes), played the second and third strings most of the game, and still took a goalline victory formation at the end to be merciful. Herbert recorded two turnovers, but neither were really his fault: the ball popped out after a sack and was incorrectly ruled a fumble, and a perfect pass bounced off the target’s hands and got picked off. The most significant takeaway was Charles Nelson’s ankle injury, which effectively took him out of the next four games.

Week 4: Arizona St (7-6, 6-3 Pac-12), #81 in S&P+

Arizona St 37, Oregon 35, in Tempe

In the first half, the Ducks spotted ASU some free points on some dumb special teams lapses, then patiently climbed back into the game by playing suffocating run defense and putting together impressive scoring drives. Then in the second half they did it all over again, but this time with defensive breakdowns and falling short on two final attempts to get into FG range. I was impressed with how the offense adjusted to the loss of Charles Nelson (rotating Mitchell into the slot and using Taj Griffin and Jaylon Redd for sweeps) and generally the QB and skill guys played well, but the offensive line had a shaky game with a number of drive-killing penalties plus several bad blocks resulting in big losses - the most telling stat was Oregon going 1-11 on 3rd down and 0-2 on 4th. On defense, this is one of the starkest examples of an excellent run defense getting betrayed by constant coverage failures in deep passing, including the single most infuriating play of the regular season: giving up a 52-yard sideline pass on 3rd & 27.

This is one of three games in which I think coaching failures cost Oregon a win:

  • A fundamentally unsound punt formation resulted in a blocked punt and short field
  • Special teams allowed a surprise onside kick
  • The defense was misaligned and unready at the snap on an early 3rd & 1
  • Two illegal substitution fouls by the defense after giving up big plays
  • Assigning single-coverage to true freshmen corners against much taller receivers
  • Five times were totally unprepared for Arizona St’s blitzes on key plays - protection failures, bad play calls to take advantage of coverage voids, slow playcalling and poor timeout utilization

Here’s what I consider to be the most galling example:

It’s a 40-second playclock from when the 2nd-down pass is ruled incomplete. The playcall is not selected and relayed in a timely manner, taking 26 seconds to signal in and another 7 seconds to actually get lined up. ASU shows one type of blitz at :07 remaining, which Hanson calls out, then switches to another with :02 on the playclock. At this point the Ducks’ fate is sealed - this playcall cannot possibly survive a seven-man blitz even with all six blockers doing their job (which they do): with a double-stack formation running these routes, there is no quick pass option for Herbert to dump off and take advantage of the huge void in the middle of the field. Even after making a delayed and incorrect playcall, the coaching staff still has the ability to take a timeout to avoid this incoming disaster, but that doesn’t happen either. To recapitulate: this coaching staff was surprised that Todd Graham blitzed, and did nothing about it. This happened on at least five key plays.

(Incidentally, the 2nd-down playcall – the rollout and throwback – is one that the Ducks never ran again. I wish they would have: assuming the tackle remembers to make his block, Herbert has the speed and arm strength for it and it puts a lot of stress on the defense to prepare for.)

On the other hand, this game featured one of the smartest examples of iterative playcalling I watched all year. It’s a modern, spread take on the old Bill Walsh splitback pro-set: out of the shotgun, 20 personnel and receivers set wide. Oregon uses this same base formation three ways on the same drive, forcing the defense to choose incorrectly every snap. Pay special attention to how the free safety, #30 FS Tautalatasi, lines up each time.

Above is a pretty simple outside zone read - the outside backer on the line stays home so Herbert hands off, #86 WR Schooler gets his cornerback and #21 RB Freeman takes care of #30 with some nice cut blocks, and #20 RB Brooks-James’ speed lets him simply outrun the inside backer.

Two plays later, #30 has sped up to the line to blitz onto the boundary side where the play went last time. But Herbert is reading the field-side defensive end, who is conditioned by the earlier play to follow the halfbacks on the outside run. He and the inside backer clear out, Herbert keeps the ball and takes the vacated middle lane - with no free safety to contest him.

Finally, on the very next play, the cornerback running onto the field late makes this too easy - he’s not ready when the ball is snapped and #80 WR Johnson blows by him. But check out our friend #30 on the same side: he can’t help his tardy teammate over the top because he’s pulled over to cover TBJ’s wheel route.


Position Group Spotlights

Quarterbacks

Returners: Departures:
Returners: Departures:
#10 QB Justin Herbert #12 QB Taylor Alie
#11 QB Braxton Burmeister

Needless to say, there’s no battle here: it’s Herbert’s show unless another disaster strikes. I really liked the diversity of the offense during this stretch of games, and that includes the role of the passer being able to hit the entire field. It’s hard to put too much praise on Herbert, I can confirm after rewatching film that it’s not an illusion or a fluke - he has a phenomenal arm and impeccable mechanics both in his throwing motion and footwork. I’m also seeing advanced pocket presence as he reads his progressions efficiently and manipulates safeties with his eyes.

My biggest criticism of his passing ability sounds like a backhanded compliment: he’s too confident in the strength of his arm. First of all, he holds onto the ball before throwing a bit too long, and second, he tends to throw straight through underneath coverage - in both cases, because he knows how much muscle he’s putting on the ball, to catch up to the receiver on a deep route and to simply blaze through a linebacker’s hands coming up a split second too late. The crazy thing? He’s been right about that every time so far.

I’m also a fan of the way he runs: fast, long strides, and very decisive when he goes. He doesn’t try to extend plays often, scrambling around in the pocket and trying to find a downfield option; instead, his reaction to pressure is just to go and get as much on foot as possible. And when he’s running, he doesn’t juke or fight for extra yards, he just slides or heads right out of bounds and pops up for the next play.

I think the biggest structural weakness to Oregon’s passing game (and I don’t know Herbert’s role in this, whether he doesn’t have the aptitude for it or the coaches just prefer to call it from the sideline) is that I don’t think I ever saw him adjust protection at the line to deal with blitzes or an unconventional pass rush, and when he doesn’t see a blitzer coming he lacks that sixth sense to avoid it. Getting surprised in the pocket happened fairly often and routinely resulted in sacks or turnovers.

Linebackers

Returners: Departures:
Returners: Departures:
#35 ILB Troy Dye #18 ILB Jimmie Swain
#39 ILB Kaulana Apelu #55 ILB AJ Hotchkins
#12 ILB Sampson Niu #53 ILB Blake Rugraff
#11 OLB Justin Hollins #3 OLB Jonah Moi
#32 OLB La’Mar Winston Jr #45 OLB Gus Cumberlander (converting to DE)
#19 OLB Fotu Leiato II
#56 OLB Bryson Young

I considered splitting this position group in two and discussing inside and outside backers separately, since their roles in this defensive structure are radically different. It’s officially a 3-4, but just like DC Jim Leavitt ran at Colorado, operating out of a 5-man bear front during standard downs, with outside backers on the line shaded on the far man’s outside shoulder, and two inside backers always set back. On passing downs, this defense usually rests the nose guard, keeps all four backers, and adds a nickel DB. The assignments, then, are pretty straightforward: OLBs are the outside rushers, and the ILBs are responsible for picking gaps and setting the edge on run plays, and managing the low hole in pass coverage. Blitzing is fairly rare and usually comes from the secondary instead of the inside backers.

Dye started in 2016 as a true freshman and was one of the few defensive bright spots; he followed up with an even better 2017 as he switched to inside backer and played nearly every snap. I really love his speed and instincts for the ball, and his decisiveness is excellent. Possibly a bit too aggressive sticking his nose in early, I’ve seen him get baited into a lane and then crushed hard by a pulling lineman more times than I’d like, and he’ll abandon pass coverage too readily to pursue a scrambling QB and wind up with the pass going to his vacated man.

The other ILB spot went through a lot of injury drama. I believe the preferred starter was Apelu, who I think played very well in the first four games, particularly in zone coverage, and is the reason I’m highlighting the linebackers in this phase. He was spelled by Hotckins a couple games, but then they both suffered season-ending injuries in consecutive games. Rugraff and then Swain took over the spot for most of the rest of the season, with Niu playing backup (and when injuries really hit hard in the second half of the bowl, Leiato moved inside for a bit). This is going to be one of the great position battles to watch in the offseason - if Niu or one of the freshmen/transfers beats Apelu for the starting spot, I’ll have a lot of confidence in his talent.

I thought the three outside backers who got almost every snap – Hollins, Moi, and Winston – were by far the most underappreciated members of the team. These guys are all excellent at their jobs and I was honestly shocked after reviewing their performances, featuring a ton of sacks and TFLs and out-muscling tackles and tight ends who looked much larger than them, that they didn’t get as much of the praise and attention as the defensive line. I didn’t see much of Young and was less impressed with Leiato when he rotated in - a lot was made of his “Duck backer” position last offseason but I just didn’t see it much, and it sure looked like Winston was just playing a pretty standard OLB role on the line. With only Moi’s spot open because of graduation, this battle is probably more about who’s going to back up Hollins and Winston and I wouldn’t be surprised if one the newcomers steals Leiato’s position in the depth chart.


Questions

  1. Any trends I’ve missed or players I’m being unfair to?
  2. I haven’t seen much QB leadership out of Herbert, but I wasn’t able to attend any of his games in person, and that means missing out on his actions on the sidelines or as the players line up which the broadcasts omit. Does anyone have live-game insights into that?
  3. What did Duck fans think of the pace of play during the first four games? The advanced stat I like to check for this, Adjusted Pace in S&P+, ranks Oregon as the 8th fastest offense in 2017, but I feel like that might be skewed by the fairly different playstyle during the non-Herbert games.
  4. I admit to being confused about what the role of the hybrid Duck backer is supposed to be, and I’m not particularly confident asserting that we just didn’t see it much and instead had identical OLB assignments on both sides of the line. Can anyone shed light on this?
  5. Any bets on who wins the starting ILB position next to Dye? I’d take Apelu because I feel like experience without glaring deficiencies usually wins out over young talent, but I’d love to hear other takes.