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Duck Tape: Film Review of Oregon’s New Defense

Schemes, principles, and personnel of a top-5 defense

Oregon v Stanford

Oregon’s defense has climbed to #4 in the SP+ rankings under new defensive coordinator Andy Avalos. This article will break down the principles of DC Avalos’ scheme, specifically the defensive front formations, inclinations in different game situations, and blitz patterns; I’ll attempt to answer what if anything makes it more effective despite using roughly the same personnel as last year.

The base defense is an even-front 3-3-5, with an outside linebacker playing on the line. That backer is usually a flexible STUD player, a hybrid DE/OLB who primarily rushes the passer but can also drop into coverage or move laterally to pursue outside runs and screens. Oregon uses its base defense on the plurality of snaps (about 40%), and shows no bias for field position, down & distance, offensive personnel, or anticipated play type. Some examples:

(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them in ¼ or ½ speed)

  1. :00 - This is a tricky play from the offense, a screen behind a fake screen to the opposite side. Oregon has a nose, a 5-tech, and a 4i on the line, with #56 OLB Young as the STUD. Young retreats to block off the throwing lane to the X-receiver on the bottom of the screen while keeping his eyes on the QB. As soon as his head comes around, Young crashes hard on the back and beats the guard to the play to make a nice tackle for loss. The reverse angle shows good hip fluidity so he can make all those direction changes without losing his posture or vision.
  2. :26 - Here Oregon has a 1-, a 3-, and a 5-tech, with #45 DE Cumberlander in a sprinter’s stance. Cumberlander gets outside the tackle and bends underneath to harass the QB’s throwing motion, while #90 DT Carlberg takes an outside step and simply bullrushes the guard and pushes him into the QB’s face.
  3. :40 - This is a power run with two tight ends and a couple of pulling linemen, meant to wall off most of the d-line and isolate a backer. #55 ILB Niu reads the guard movement properly and crashes down hard on the pulling center, squeezing closed the primary lane. That redirects the other pulling lineman and lets #8 S Holland get underneath him for the tackle. The reverse angle at :56 shows all the green helmets the back had in front of him for the lane that was left.

Oregon’s defensive front when facing obvious passing situations (2nd or 3rd & long, three or more wide receivers, and opponent scouting indicators for passing tendencies, which is about 15% of snaps) is a modified version of the base: two down lineman, two ILBs at depth, and two OLB/DEs on the line, and therefore still an even-front. Sometimes it’s a second true OLB, sometimes it’s simply having a pass-rush DE stand up and potentially fall into coverage. Some examples:

  1. :00 - The pre-snap motion causes the back end of the defense to re-align, and they’re all dropping into coverage, with #41 ILB Slade-Matautia taking the releasing back on a hot route. #45 DE Cumberlander and Young execute a nice T-E stunt (DT hitting first, DE coming around him so the RG blocks the RT’s attempt to follow, though here it’s DE-OLB instead) and flush the QB. The reverse angle shows a good handoff in coverage of the Y and Z receivers switching, and with seven covering five Oregon has a personnel advantage.
  2. :18 - Here #5 DE Thibodeaux is moonlighting as a stand-up backer, covering the flat and then the possibility of a backside escape by the QB. #32 OLB Winston beats the tackle and flushes the QB. The reverse angle shows the QB had nowhere to go, as Oregon had gotten pressure with just three rushers and most zones had double coverage.

Oregon has a defensive package for obvious rush situations -- short yardage plus heavy personnel and opponent tendencies that indicate it -- but it’s schematically uninteresting. They just put six guys on the line and smash real hard, for the most part. Happily, the Ducks haven’t faced those situations very often, only about 6% of snaps, and as a result I don’t have very good film even if I wanted to show it.

The really interesting schematic change comes in situations that are biased in some ways to indicate a rush, but not fully ... 2nd or 3rd & medium, longer distances but heavier personnel, red zone opportunities, an opponent in love with play-action passes, etc. In these cases Oregon switches to an odd-front: three down linemen, two backers on the line, and frequently abandoning the nickel in the secondary for a fourth LB in the box as well. This can apply a lot of force at the line, but it’s also a platform to back out and bring some disguised rushers. The Ducks use this front on about a third of all snaps, and in my experience it’s fairly unique for a team at this level to play so frequently with such a different surface. Some examples:

  1. :00 - Both Young and #35 ILB Dye are playing up on the same side of the line. Young is in position to take the H-back if he releases downfield, but when he crosses under the formation Young comes down hard like a DE and occupies two linemen. #99 DT Au. Faoliu as the 3-tech and #34 DT Scott as the 2i occupy the other three, leaving Dye and Cumberlander to beat the blocks in the backfield to pressure the QB and force this rushed throw into traffic and a nice pass break-up by #6 CB Lenoir.
  2. :19 - The offense is lined up in a heavy offset-I, but this team also throws play-action out of this formation about 40% of the time, so Oregon loads the box but keeps the safeties back to account for a releasing TE. Young throws an excellent hit on the pulling guard, taking out both him and the fullback. Dye maintains outside leverage to contain the ballcarrier if he tries to bounce outside, and #51 DT Baker, after dispatching the other guard as the 3-tech, cleans it up. Also note 5-tech Carlberg blowing past the TE to pursue the QB who might have been concealing the ball, and Slade-Matautia throwing the left tackle to the ground.
  3. :33 - Another heavy package and the QB under center. Note how the linebacker motion changes the guard responsibilities, giving Baker and Carlberg easier angles on the tackles. Both get off their blocks while Scott’s penetration alters the back’s course and gets the center out of the way, allowing them to close down hard on the ball.

There’s one other odd-front look that Oregon uses -- not very often, it’s pretty much exclusively for 2nd & long situations when they anticipate a run -- but it’s pretty intriguing that it’s in the playbook at all: a variation on the 33 stack that Oregon’s offense faced in weeks 2 and 3:

  • :00 - The key here is Dye lined up behind the nose, true freshman #95 DT Ware-Hudson. As is typical for this formation, it doesn’t so much stop the run at the line as it delays it while the blockers figure out where the MIKE is coming from. That gives the rest of the defense time to swarm to the ball and earn a sure stop, with a yardage gain they can afford.

I would say the organizing principle of this defense is creating confusion - by using stunts, a variety of fronts, disguised pressure, pre-snap motion, and players who could perform multiple assignments. They even blitz in quite a variety of ways:

  1. :00 - Simple but effective, Slade-Matautia comes down on the center hard and flushes the QB, who makes a poor, off-platform throw.
  2. :12 - The inside backer is showing blitz, but he and the outside backer instead go into coverage, while Thibodeaux and Lenoir come from the other side, twisting the protection around. The QB sees a gap to step into but Cumberlander and Lenoir have maintained leverage and close down on him, forcing a bad throw.
  3. :34 - The center is prepared to chip Niu on his way downfield to block this screen pass, but Dye comes instead and blows right past him, altering the timing of the play. Thibodeaux gets through his block and figures out what’s going on, diving back inside to get a fingertip on the ball.
  4. :49 - Dye delays showing blitz until the last second, getting penetration and forcing the QB to step up. Winston and Slade-Matautia spot it and converge for the sack.

However, the biggest upshot of this approach is that they’re consistently able to generate pressure without bringing the house, by doing what I have coded on my tally sheet as “weird stuff”:

  1. :00 - The offense keeps seven men back to block, but the cat blitz by Lenoir flushes the QB anyway while the six Ducks in coverage handle the three receivers and spy the QB. Nice job by Holland to pull the trigger immediately when the QB breaks the pocket, because he knows there’s double coverage behind him.
  2. :17 - Lots of movement before the snap here - the d-line switches shading, the backers move laterally twice, and #23 S McKinley comes down into the box. It mixes up the left guard who gets plowed through by Cumberlander despite outweighing him significantly. Young comes around to cut off the QB’s escape and Dye has moved out to take away the checkdown.
  3. :54 - This is already a strange front, with Winston out very wide and an ILB between the DTs. But we also get to see two different stunts - the inside linebackers switch out, with Niu dropping to cover the TE (obviously the primary read) and Dye working to the center’s left; also, Young is on a loop all the way around into the vacated gap, confusing the back as to his assignment (is it pass pro or release? he accomplishes neither) and pressuring the QB into making a bad throw, with fateful results.

My conclusion after reviewing the film we have so far is that the schematic change has been a good one: defensive alignments are appropriate to the situations in which they’re called, they create surprise and confusion in opposing offenses, and they’re effectively playing with more men because of several play designs that get results with fewer players.

But I think it should be clear from the videos in this article that the scheme is merely maximizing what’s already there: an organic growth in the actual talent Oregon is fielding. They’ve very smoothly replaced the four starters who departed from last year (in one or two cases it’s been a clear talent upgrade at that), every one of the large number of returning starters has gotten better in strength and technique, and they’ve added at least three new players to the regular rotation who are dramatic talent upgrades compared to the backups of previous years.