The most remarkable observation from reviewing 25 years’ worth of Oregon DC DeRuyter’s defenses is how many turnovers they generate. That’s especially relevant for a Ducks team that last season had its worst turnover margin per game this century, including no takeaways at all in five of their seven games.
The analytics community has been engaged in a robust debate for years about whether defensive takeaways can be coached independently of ordinary sound defensive play, and as a result happen more often than expected for a defensive squad of any given quality. There’s a chicken-or-the-egg problem here - do they generate turnovers only because it’s a good defense, or is it only a good defense because it generates turnovers? Almost all the statistical evidence is inconclusive, because a lot of luck is involved in converting turnover opportunities (havoc plays generally, sacks, pass break-ups, putting the ball on the ground, etc.) into actual turnovers. One can cut through that with careful film study by eliminating the turnovers that are pure dumb luck — and I’ve done so for this article — but no comprehensive review project of every defense for this object has been undertaken.
For our purposes, however, whether takeaways can actually be coached or not is somewhat irrelevant, because it’s very clear from both the film and his public statements that DeRuyter himself believes they can and he intends to do so. He concluded his introductory press conference at 22:53 by saying:
“We’ve got to do a better job of teaching our guys to attack the football and take the football away. There’s no more critical factor in football than turnover margin. And our job as a defense is not to wait for a turnover, it’s to take the damn ball away. We’re going to stress and emphasize that, it’s going to be part of our mentality every day in the Spring and every day in the Fall, and it’s got to be part of what the Oregon defense is going to be.”
When we talked to Rob Hwang of Write for Cal on the podcast, starting at about the 1:19:25 mark, we discussed this question and Rob confirmed not only that DeRuyter had made similar statements in the past while in Berkeley, but that when he was watching practices the coaches were emphasizing tip drills, driving on passes, disguised coverages, and affirmative attempts to cause fumbles. This article will document examples of these techniques throughout DeRuyter’s career, beyond his four years at Cal.
The most significant opportunity for increased turnovers that this scheme change presents is layered coverage. Previous Oregon DCs shared a basic strategy of playing tighter and either discouraging the QB from making the throw in the first place, or if he does, play for a break-up or at worst allow the catch but tackle immediately to prevent an explosion play or conversion. DeRuyter’s scheme gives defensive backs looser zones and the freedom to break on the ball and return it for yardage. Some examples:
- :00 - There’s some guesswork involved here, once the QB rolls out the corner correctly deduces that his WR is unlikely to be running a deep sideline route and will probably be on a comeback instead. He knows the two DBs are coming over to help in case he misses, so he can jump that route for the pick-six.
- :29 - Once the TE and RB stay in to block, the boundary defenders have a big numbers advantage with the corner accompanied by a safety and two backers over just one downfield receiver. That frees him up to come off the WR and drive on the ball.
- :41 - Another numbers advantage against the double-slant, three over two. The safety can afford to undercut the route and take the ball to the house.
- :59 - This is the biggest philosophical difference I see in how DeRuyter’s DBs play against Air Raid-inspired teams with a bunch of quick throws built in - other defenses tend to let them have the short catch as long as they immediately make the tackle and force the offense to march the field; his DBs take a risk and shoot for the ball instead.
Watching DeRuyter’s film, I tallied tipped passes recovered as interceptions at a greater rate than any DC I’ve watched in over a decade of doing film review. Part of that is based in scheme — having over-the-top help on most coverages — but from talking to Rob and observing just how often these defenses haul them in, I think DeRuyter’s tip drills in practices have to be something extra:
- :00 - In previews of Cal defenses over the last couple years I’ve written that these drag routes are a good way to engineer openings against their zone defense because the underneath and over coverages are put in binds. But if the throw is late or behind, the DB is in a great position to pick up a tip because his eyes are on the ball.
- :17 - That’s #40 OLB Von Miller backing out against 5-wide instead of rushing the passer. The seven-yard square-in from the other side puts three different backers around where the receivers are going to cross. Two are covering WRs, but look at the third dropping a bit to play on top and watching the QB and the ball the whole way - he’s locked onto the tipped ball.
- :41 - This is a disguised blitz, with the corners showing man coverage and ILBs having to quickly fill the void. The principle shown here is that even when one-on-one with a different target, your eyes go to the ball, and you must come off of your WR to play it.
- :55 - The most common tip-drill interceptions that I saw were these, because the structure of this defense almost always has a rangy safety over the top. The all-22 shot shows him immediately gaining depth and keeping his part of the play in front of him, and when the ILB gets a hand in he has his eyes on the ball and is able to lay out and scoop up the tip.
On Tuesday I mentioned that many fans don’t associate zone defenses and off coverage with exciting play, but DeRuyter uses deception and coverage disguises to confuse quarterbacks and create havoc plays. This defense is constantly showing one kind of coverage pre-snap and then switching to another, and it blitzes or backs out linebackers at odd intervals:
- :00 - On an earlier drive, Northwestern had gone empty and DeRuyter blitzed the ILB, with the OLB going inside to fill the void and cover the No. 2 receiver breaking in. On this play he changed it up, keeping the ILB back and letting the OLB go outside to get underneath the No. 1 receiver.
- :16 - Looks like a blitz is coming with all those black jerseys crowding the line and champing the bit, but it’s just a 3-man rush. The two safeties switch off in response to the sweep - the boundary firing down to get in the backfield, and the field coming over then backing way out. Look at the boundary corner changing posture at the snap - he’s going to cover the sideline route deep, letting the safety play under him and go up for the ball.
- :34 - Another constant guessing game DeRuyter’s defenses make the offense play is what the ILBs are going to do, since they could be anywhere from blitzing to 10+ yards deep in coverage. This play looks like the QB just lost track of the backer’s position on the field.
- :49 - This defense doesn’t always play with a nickel but when it does he’s part of the disguise. This play could have had the ILB blitz with the nickel coming over to cover the TE, but instead the ILB stays out, hits the TE as he goes to catch, and the nickel comes out of underneath coverage on the WR’s out route to bring it in.
The most conventional way that DeRuyter’s defenses generate interceptions, in that all defenses try to do so, is harassing the QB with the pass rush into making a poor decision and/or an inaccurate off-platform throw. On Tuesday we covered the pass rush structure and the wide array of blitz patterns he uses to turn up the pressure, which naturally pays off with more errant throws for the back end to collect. I think each of these clips shows pretty well how the QB is hurried or hit as he throws, resulting in obvious poor throwing mechanics, so I won’t narrate them:
Most teams teach their players to stand up the ballcarrier and rake at the ball only in desperation situations - when they’re behind and it’s getting late in the game, and surrendering extra yardage is worth the tradeoff if it increases the chance of a turnover. But watching DeRuyter’s defenses, I believe that I’m seeing deliberate attempts to knock the ball loose during normal play with a variety of techniques. Here are some examples to illustrate:
- :00 - Watch the big DE’s helmet on this play - he’s locked onto the ball the whole way. Even as he’s getting past the LG cutting him and then has the QB in his grasp, he doesn’t lower his helmet to bring him down but instead keeps his eyes up and his effort on striking the ball, then tracks it when it gets loose for the recovery.
- :31 - The nose tackle is using his hands on this play first to engage the center’s chestplate and work him playside, then give him a punch to separate and disengage to get to the back, then as he wraps up and brings him down on top of his body he uses his left to work the ball out and his right to grab the back’s uniform and pull him away from the dislodged ball. He also uses his hand to signal the turnover.
- 1:00 - I think #89, #91, #93, and #90 are all deliberately trying to strike the ball on this play.
- 1:31 - This is a two-man tackling technique that I see pretty often out of DeRuyter’s teams - the first man (#89) wraps up and then swivels around so that the ballcarrier is on top of him instead of hitting the ground immediately, while the second man (#59) rakes at the ball.
Knocking the ball loose is only half the equation for getting turnovers on fumbles; the defense also has to recover it. Another factor that I see as being clearly coached over DeRuyter’s career is his players rallying to the ball on every play … there’s no special technique here, every defense preaches it and it’s part of any fundamentally strong squad, but I believe I’m seeing it more regularly and with a greater emphasis on tracking and coming up with the ball:
- :00 - The defender who picks this ball up is the boundary safety, who isn’t on screen at the snap and whose coverage responsibilities take him to the other side of the field on top of the X receiver. That means he covered about 15 yards getting there and he must have gotten started well before the tackle was initiated, on the general principle of rallying to the ball.
- :11 - The corner misses the TFL, but there are six other defenders within five yards of the ballcarrier as he crosses the line of scrimmage, and by the time the ball is recovered all 11 white jerseys are on screen.
- :37 - The DB who recovers the ball was blitzing from the field to start the play - he runs all the way in, turns around, and sprints all the way back to the ball and beats #61 RT Nick Cody to pick it up.
- 1:08 - It’s easy to tell teams that are well coached from teams that aren’t by watching the players’ effort and body language at the end of a play.
Part 1 of Film Review on DC DeRuyter: Structure, Personnel, and Blitzes