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Duck Tape: Film Review of Week 2, 2021 vs Ohio State

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Dead or alive, you’re coming with me

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Oregon at Ohio State Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Offense

The most significant offensive change from week 1 to week 2 was the return of the full 2020 RPO playbook which had been heavily curtailed in the opener, along with a few new additions that exploited structural vulnerabilities in Ohio St’s defense that were clear on tape.

The RPO requires a series of quick reads of the defense, and #13 QB A. Brown had a near-perfect outing in that regard - I only tallied one read error all day, and that play wound up being successful anyway. Here’s an example of a single RPO structure that was run several times, which can have three different outcomes depending on how the defense plays it, but the way Ohio St lines up essentially guarantees they’ll always give up something:

(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)

  1. :00 - The key is #12 TE DJ Johnson lined up on the opposite side of the formation, who slices under it as the play develops. He bluffs a block of the DE, who scoots a little inside as he’s eyeing the running back. That’s the first read; Brown therefore keeps the ball outside. Johnson continues out as a receiving option, forcing the WILL backer to make a choice on whether to crash on Brown or cover Johnson. He chooses the latter, so Brown keeps again for a 1st down.
  2. :10 - Same play, this time the WILL goes inside and the MIKE stays on Brown as a run threat, leaving Johnson wide open for the toss and a 1st down.
  3. :17 - Same play, though now it’s #18 TE Webb instead of Johnson. Again the DE is bluffed, but this time he stays outside on Brown’s run threat and the MIKE chases Webb as a receiving threat. Now there’s no one left to stop inside handoff, because #74 RT Jones gets a one-on-one block with the WILL. That guarantees a positive gain, and when the high safety makes a mistake and pursues Webb too, the last line of defense in this structure has been eliminated for a touchdown.

Another schematic vulnerability Ohio St presented was their insistence on a single-high 4-3 structure which didn’t change regardless of whether they were playing a true SAM or a Bullet safety as the third backer, and predictable man coverage in the redzone. Oregon faced a similarly predictable redzone man tendency when playing USC in 2019, and exploited it just as well. This resulted in several short-side runs (all to the left, but I think that’s just a coincidence) that allowed a receiver or tight end to crack the second-level defender, which effectively takes out three guys: the blocked guy of course, the defender inside of him who gets caught in the wash, and most importantly the man covering that blocker who has to follow him because of the coverage rules instead of setting the edge. They also pulled a lineman around, but often the crackback alone was enough to seal the play and he had no one to hit:

  1. :00 - The first time was the closest Ohio St came to successfully defending it all day, because Johnson only gets two: his man and the MIKE, and #53 RG Walk can’t quite make it to the DB in time. That still would have been enough to get a 1st down, but the high safety has a chance to stop the touchdown … however #7 RB Verdell outruns him.
  2. :15 - Oregon has gone to 12-personnel for this instance, and true freshman #8 TE Matavao is a wrecking ball - he blocks the Bullet in man coverage on Johnson, carries the corner who’s covering him (Matavao), and causes that corner to smack into the MIKE. Three defenders eliminated in one block.
  3. :31 - This time #3 WR J. Johnson gets the crackback on the WILL, while carrying the corner over him in man. #77 LT Moore gets up to the second level to hit the MIKE, who in turn obstructs the high safety. Ohio St’s structure tries to defend the short side by setting the DE wide and then having the second-level defenders play contain, but this is neutralized by reading the former and cracking the latter.
  4. :46 - Pre-snap motion verifies man and causes the outside corner to switch onto the TE. But in a tendency-breaker, they then back that corner out and have the Bullet play high. No problem, that’s what the puller is for - the TE blocks the WILL, the Bullet has to stay up out of the play until it’s too late, and Walk gets to take out the corner who’s finally trying to set the edge.

In addition to all the very interesting playbook pages that were (re-)introduced for this game which Brown operated well, he also did a great job on downfield passing plays reading the field and manipulating the pocket. However, while I think nearly all of his throws were the right throw to make, I’m still seeing accuracy issues in delivering the ball where it needs to be. Overall, Oregon had 17 successful designed passing plays vs 21 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance, or 46%. The good plays were what I’ve come to expect from Brown, here’s a representative sample:

  1. :00 - Ohio St blitzes here, and Brown sees it’s coming and makes the right read to fill that void - the blitzer creates a two over three situation with the Bullet in conflict. He’s closing off the throwing lane to Webb more than he is Verdell, and Moore is losing control of his block, so Brown appropriately chooses the quick throw and lets Verdell run with it for a first down.
  2. :16 - Designed rollout left, with Matavao staying inside to seal the pursuit, so Brown has to make this throw on the move with a man in his face - that’s a pretty high degree of difficulty but it’s on the money.
  3. :25 - This is the only scramble of the day, on what I think is a route running error - there probably shouldn’t be two guys running the same crosser. But in a happy accident that means four defenders are bound up in the middle of the field and the veteran makes a run for the open green grass, then punishes the freshman corner at the 1st down marker.
  4. :47 - Ohio St switched to a more appropriate zone coverage in the 4th quarter, but that means the MIKE can’t be caught up on the run like this because his underneath coverage is the only defense on the TE releasing out. Brown makes the proper midfield read and puts it on his numbers.

The fact that Brown didn’t take a sack all day has occasioned some comment about improved offensive line play in pass protection. There are a few things to unpack here: first, yes, each lineman graded out on my tally sheet as having fewer errors per rep than last week - they certainly cleaned up some technique errors I was seeing then. Second, Brown and OC Moorhead should get some credit too - the former because of his effective pocket movement buying an extra second on several plays when breakdowns did occur, and the latter because there were more hot routes built into this more open playbook. Third, Ohio St’s defensive front, while certainly more talented on paper than Fresno St’s, was a lot less aggressive and schematically confusing - not many blitzes or stunts and with clear tells pre-snap, relying on their sheer size to get penetration instead and never really adjusting when they didn’t get any.

On my tally sheet the 21 pass play failures broke down like this:

  • 5 on the QB - an inaccurate pass or forcing a ball into tight coverage despite no real pressure
  • 6 on the OL - protection breakdowns that significantly contributed to a bad throw
  • 3 on the WRs - two drops and one bad perimeter block
  • 7 miscellaneous other - just good defense, or I can’t tell what went wrong because of a terrible camera angle, or I thought it was an otherwise successful play but the officiating should have been different

The last two categories aren’t particularly interesting in film study; they happen in every game and they’re built into baseline expectations. Let’s look at some examples of the first two categories:

  1. :00 - Walk’s getting beat by the blitzer here, and he gets his hand into Brown’s face at the release. It’s pretty good coverage on Johnson but there’s still room to drop the ball on the outside shoulder if it’s delivered perfectly - it just isn’t.
  2. :10 - Brown is going through his progression left to right, and with the MIKE coming into the throwing lane of the slant (he might have even tipped it), he probably should have come off and gone to Webb on the dumpoff. But there’s no time, because #70 LT Jaramillo, who was rotating every two drives with Moore, isn’t getting to the end.
  3. :25 - This is the right read of the defense and #14 WR Hutson has enough separation for a back shoulder throw, but Brown simply misses inside and too far.
  4. :33 - Here’s an underthrow - #2 WR D. Williams has a step on the corner and Brown should be leading him into the endzone, but instead Williams has to pull up.

The rushing performance was excellent, continuing the great performance from last week. I think they were facing the biggest and most talented defensive line they’ll see all year, and the offensive line pushed them around. On designed rushing plays, Oregon had 22 successes vs 11 failures, a 67% per-play success rate - that’s championship caliber, in my experience. It was explosive as well as efficient, with more than 20% of all runs going over 10 yards.

There are a couple of factors beyond offensive line play that also contributed: I think the running backs’ vision has improved significantly since they were freshmen in 2018 and I saw effective cuts and/or improvisation on 16% of all runs, they were getting much better tight end blocks on their bread-and-butter split zone plays than last week, and there’s a general toughness to the ballcarriers in not going down easily which was lacking in 2020 (probably a conditioning issue related to covid), contributing to several “yaco” plays in which they got the extra yardage needed to convert a failed play into a successful one after first contact.

Here’s a representative sample of all designed rushes:


Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Defense

Oregon’s per-play defensive success rate is deceptive because Ohio St’s offense, playing from behind the entire game, mostly abandoned the run toward the end and relied on their lethally explosive passing game to try and catch up, and what rushes they did attempt late had the benefit of playing against Oregon’s more passing-oriented configuration.

So while, prior to garbage time, the overall rush defense success rate was 14 success vs 12 failures, or 54%, and downfield pass defense success rate was 28 successes vs 22 failures, or 56%, that feels somewhat backwards. Breaking it into halves feels truer to how the game proceeded:

1st half

  • Rush: 11 vs 3, 79%
  • Pass: 10 vs 9, 53%

2nd half

  • Rush: 3 vs 9, 25%
  • Pass: 18 vs 13, 58%

Those rush effectiveness splits by half are quite stark. Ohio St seemed to begin the game with the assumption they could run right at Oregon’s front, and repeatedly found a stouter group than they expected:

  1. :00 - The playside B gap gets shut down by #47 OLB Funa, so the back bounces outside into #1 ILB Sewell’s arms. Sewell stands him up to try and rake the ball out, because he knows he has backup coming - four Ducks are in on the tackle when he spins free and four more are coming.
  2. :11 - Called in to replace the injured starter, true freshman #21 ILB K. Brown clearly did his film study this week, because he knows that when Ohio St is in the pistol and the linemen start with outside zone, there’s only one gap these runs ever go, and he hits that hole immediately. Nice job by the tackles too, #93 DT J. Jones and #95 DT Ware-Hudson, getting their hats playside.
  3. :19 - I saw this kind of initial strike out of Ware-Hudson across the defensive line all day long - watch how the right guard is lifted off his feet, with his shoulders and head going back on impact. That’s winning with strength over a massive lineman, because it means he’s lost all power to command the block, and the DT can get around him into the running lane. Good work by Brown to scrape across the formation for the tackle.
  4. :26 - Veteran #50 NT Aumavae and freshman #90 DT Shipley are destroying blocks on this play. Shipley wrecks the slicing TE and Aumavae takes on the RT — whom Ohio St re-shuffled their entire starting offensive line to accommodate — and throws him to the ground.

The vast majority of Ohio St’s rushes were efficiency runs, just to keep the chains moving. They broke only two big runs on the day, both for 20 yards, and half of their successful rushes came in very short-yardage situations (two yards to go or fewer). Oregon’s defensive strategy was not to stack the box even in those instances and instead stay in a flexible defense that would sacrifice 1st downs to prevent explosive plays.

Here’s a representative sample of unsuccessful rush defenses:

  1. :00 - Ohio St used tempo several times in this game to catch Oregon’s defense while they were still getting the signal in. Here, former walk-on #46 ILB Heaukulani, pressed into service due to multiple injuries ahead of him, is still trying to correct the DL’s alignment and Funa hasn’t gotten into his stance when the ball is snapped.
  2. :09 - The Buckeyes weren’t able to run much between the tackles during the game, because the Ducks’ DTs either had them stacked up or, as here, they’d create too much of a mess when the OL did get something going. But they relied on some of the best backs in the country to identify it and cut back into open grass. I tallied seven of OSU’s 12 successful runs as created by the back rather than the line, either by running through a tackle or improvising a play.
  3. :15 - Here’s another cutback, with Heaukulani in position to make the tackle for a minimal gain, but the back breaks his ankles. A fully representative sample of OSU’s rushing wins would have an additional clip of Heaukulani being beat since those were the single biggest source of breakdowns, but due to a longstanding policy I don’t single a kid out for multiple negative plays on video.

Oregon played three ILBs in this game — Sewell, Brown, and Heaukulani — because as far as I can tell those are the only three currently available, with three other Ducks out with injuries. They may need to convert an outside backer like true freshman #17 OLB McNeill to round out the rotation if they’re not healthy at the inside soon.

The rush defense strategy generally complemented the pass defense strategy of giving up underneath throws and to the flats by playing off coverage - get the offense to try to march the field and not give it all up in one play, as Ohio St did to Minnesota. This too reminded me of Oregon’s 2019 game against USC.

In pass defense, I didn’t see any particular structural exploitation from Ohio St, just battles between two of the most talented teams in the country that went back and forth. By far the biggest cause of the Ducks giving up passing plays in coverage was just getting beat by an incredibly athletic player. Some examples, which I trust don’t need narration:

However, about 40% of Oregon’s successful passing play defenses came on strong physical play:

  1. :00 - Heaukulani legally frictions the crosser near the line of scrimmage and forces it back upfield, while Sewell covers and makes the ballcarrier try to get around him and #15 DB B. Williams, who I think had his best game as a Duck, knifes in to trip him up.
  2. :17 - Just a perfectly timed hit to break up this pass by #23 DB McKinley, one of several he and other defensive backs had on the day. Also note #12 on this play is DJ Johnson, playing both ways on several reps - he’s still only got one move, the bullrush, but he’s putting the RT on skates.
  3. :33 - One of the reasons DC DeRuyter has historically liked playing out of a 5-man surface is that it allows weird blitzes like this one, in which two outside rushers come from the field side and #44 DE Swinson drops into coverage, here using his great length to break up the pass in underneath coverage and nearly pick it off.

The majority of Oregon’s successful pass play defenses were due to a good pass rush throughout the game. That may surprise readers who use sacks as the only proxy for a pass rush’s performance (although the Ducks had a couple at timely moments), but I was consistently seeing the QB hurried and flushed. Additionally I tallied a sack, scramble, or throwaway on 18% of all dropbacks. Some examples:

  1. :00 - Good penetration here by Aumavae followed up by #91 DT Kr. Williams flushes the QB, and a nice job by Swinson to stay disciplined by covering the running back until the QB commits to running across the line of scrimmage, then plowing through that back to force him out of bounds for a minimal gain.
  2. :08 - Oregon blitzed more in the second half, here bringing six with Heaukulani getting through the back to hit the QB during his throwing motion, forcing an errant pass.
  3. :15 - Swinson beats the left guard, the converted left tackle from last year, and Ware-Hudson has another tackle moonlighting as guard shoved so far in the backfield that the QB can’t step up in the pocket. Swinson breaks free of the guard’s adhesive blocking technique for the sack.
  4. :23 - #3 DT Dorlus beats the left guard this time, and picking up right where he left off in high school last year, #43 OLB Buckner beats the left tackle around the corner. Both fight their way through inventive blocks to flush the QB, and McKinley collects his desperation pass to end the ballgame.


Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Accountability Corner

Last week’s preview pointed out Ohio St had an explosive but inefficient offense, particularly in the passing game, and we certainly saw that. I thought their talented new QB would get over first-game jitters and play better, which I think he did, but we still saw much of the same inability to improvise like the veteran he was replacing as documented last week. The biggest surprise was that I thought Ohio St’s playable WR depth was in trouble because nearly all of their passes over the previous nine games were going to just two receivers, and though I never explicitly said it I admit I was skeptical of what every Buckeye writer and fan told me, which is that Smith-Njigba would step up and be that third guy - and he certainly did. Everything else about the offense checked out exactly as predicted: the RBs were phenomenal, TEs weren’t really used and are a downgrade in blocking compared to 2020, and the OL had pass pro issues likely stemming from their screwy re-shuffle to put in a new mid 3-star at RT. Their formational tendencies held up almost exactly as I charted: they ran 80% of the time out of 12-personnel and 75% out of the pistol, but that dropped to just 27% rushing out of 11-pers shotgun.

On defense, my structural description of the Buckeyes’ “new” nickel defense as just a 4-3 with a skinnier SAM turned out to be accurate, as well as my description of the single-high, frequently man coverage that Oregon’s offense built their attack around. However, they didn’t perfectly adhere to the substitution matching (2 TEs means 3 LBs) that they used the previous week, sticking with the Bullet on several of Oregon’s 12-personnel plays. I called Ohio St DTs the strongest unit on the defense, and I still think that’s true in relation to a pretty poor performance from their LBs and DBs, but I was still a bit surprised at how effectively Oregon’s OL had them controlled. I think the note that their DEs are good but not elite turned out to be correct, though I wasn’t expecting Tuimoloau to play in the regular rotation since he hadn’t last week. Ohio St got Trojan transfer Gaoteote cleared by the NCAA after publication and he played, but he was no more effective against Oregon in 2021 than he was at USC in 2019. I thought the LBs were often liabilities in coverage, which was heavily exploited. Oregon’s biggest plays came from DBs having big problems tackling in space, something I documented extensively last week. I also described all the new CBs as fast but very grabby, and they were, but they drew no flags in coverage. Reader, I leave that question to your judgment.