Nota bene: This article will break down the defensive statistics from my tally sheet of every Oregon game in 2021; last week I examined the offense. These numbers exclude garbage time, but otherwise include every meaningful snap the Ducks played in 2021 that I charted. I tested excluding the data from the FCS, Pac-12 title, and Alamo Bowl games (and every combination thereof), but with one exception in a single defensive category that I’ll discuss below, doing so didn’t significantly affect any of the figures I track. So I’ve included them all for a more robust personnel-level dataset. It represents over 800 plays in 14 games on offense and a similar number on defense.
Oregon had both a scheme change and a disproportionate number of injuries for its defense in 2021, and disentangling those factors is a challenge. The Ducks had a playoff-level performance in two of the six major statistical categories I track from charting, but while the other four were above average for a Power-5 team in my experience, they were only slightly so and that’s usually not enough to win a championship.
Philosophically, it was clear that former DC DeRuyter wanted to prevent explosive plays, force opponents to march down the field, and generate turnovers. He was willing to make a strategic tradeoffs if need be — box personnel numbers, tackling technique, man vs zone coverage — to allow the offense short plays in order to achieve those goals. It’s beyond the scope of this review to comment on the wisdom of that philosophy, but we can grade the performance within it.
Against designed passing plays, Oregon defended 255 successfully vs 199 unsuccessfully, or 56.2%, given the down & distance. That’s a pretty decent number, one of the best in the Pac-12, but below the 60% threshold that playoff-caliber typically achieve, and about 2.5 percentage points lower than the 2019 performance in the Ducks’ last full season. They did improve the rate at which they harassed the passer though, with 27% of opponents’ designed downfield passing plays resulting in a sack, scramble, or throwaway compared to 24% in 2019. Overall, their defensive passing success rate should have been better if Oregon wanted to make the playoffs, but a bit of a hit to efficiency was probably inevitable given the scheme and so this isn’t really the most important factor to evaluating the squad as a whole.
Oregon allowed 7.25 yards per passing attempt, and fewer than 15% of opponents’ designed passing plays gained 15+ yards. These numbers are on the happy side of average, in my experience, but given DeRuyter’s schematic focus on preventing explosive plays I’d say this was below expectations within that philosophical framework. It’s about 0.8 yards per attempt worse than 2019, however it’s about 1.8 percentage points better in preventing explosive plays, so I think DeRuyter made some progress but not enough to fulfill the goals he set out. If he’d gotten those passing defense yardage and explosive rate numbers closer to the goals of 6.0 and 10%, that would have more than made up for the hit to efficiency performance, which is why I think the problems here are more significant.
Oregon’s worst quadrant of football from an efficiency perspective was its rush defense, with 182 designed runs defended successfully vs 180 failures, or 50.3%. This is where both the scheme change and the concentration of injuries in the defensive front combine the most to hurt the numbers, since Oregon chose to play lighter boxes to deploy resources in stopping explosive plays and those boxes were frequently populated by backups that were freshmen, a converted safety, and a former walk-on. It’s almost 3.5 percentage points lower than the 2019 performance. That year, tackling on first contact was the defense’s biggest problem, allowing about 1.2 yards after contact on average each run. In 2021, the issue was defenders not being able to get off blocks to get to the ballcarrier in the first place.
However, rush defense is also the area where the scheme was most effective at achieving its purpose: they allowed just 4.4 yards per carry, and fewer than 12% of opponent runs gained 10+ yards. That’s because safeties in this scheme were able to come down and keep successful runs from becoming explosive, by design. In fact, the one category where the numbers change when excluding a single game that I mentioned earlier is that explosive rush defense rate jumps 1.5 percentage points when excluding the bowl game only - the massive amount of defensive unavailabilities in that game had an effect on this alone. Using the dataset without the Alamo Bowl, Oregon’s rush defense yardage and explosive rate in 2021 was virtually identical to their 2019 Rose Bowl-winning year.
Situationally, Oregon in 2021 actually improved compared to 2019 in defensive efficiency on 1st & 10 – a 53.5% success rate, up from 52.5% in their Rose Bowl year. However, the 2021 Ducks were far more path-dependent on 1st-down performance than their 2019 iteration, and that’s what resulted in allowing more prolonged drives.
Winning on 1st & 10 sets up 2nd & long, which the Ducks defended well in 2021 at a 62% success rate. In turn, winning on 2nd & long sets up 3rd & medium or 3rd & long, which combined they defended even better at a 64% success rate (it’s 74.5% for just 3rd & long). In 2019, they defended 2nd & long and 3rd & medium-long by a few percentage points better, but still 2021’s numbers are very good. Combined with pretty good explosive play defense, Oregon would achieve its goals when they won on 1st down – they’d either force a punt two plays later, or they’d force the offense to do it again by keeping them out of the end zone and would eventually force a kick.
But the opposite was true when they lost on 1st down. That sets up 2nd & short or 2nd & medium, which combined the Ducks defended poorly at just a 45% rate. Losing that down would then set up 3rd & short or 3rd & medium, which they did even worse at with a terrible 35.5% rate (in particular, rush defense on 3rd & short was just 16% … most teams aren’t great at this but that’s an extremely bad number). Oregon was much better in 2019 at recovering from a bad 1st down – they were 3 percentage points better on 2nd & short or medium, 12 percentage points better on 3rd & medium, and a whopping 20 percentage points better at 3rd & short in 2019.
Put that together, and Oregon’s overall 3rd-down defensive efficiency collapsed by 10 points, from 65% in 2019 to 55% in 2021. Stopping more than half of meaningful 3rd downs is still pretty good compared to other teams, but it’s a major factor in keeping the Ducks from having a championship-caliber defense.
The other major factor was redzone defense. In 2019, Oregon bowed up against their endline, winning on more than 65% of plays snapped inside their 20-yard line, which was significantly better than their 55.5% success rate on the rest of the field that year. In 2021, the Ducks performed almost identically outside the redzone, falling less than a percentage point. But inside their 20, the situation reversed to just a 50% success rate – in other words they got worse the closer the opponent got to scoring in 2021. Put another way, in 2019 only 15% of opponents’ plays snapped inside the 20 resulted in a touchdown, but in 2021 that skyrocketed to almost 23%.
The final philosophical goal DeRuyter’s defense set out for itself was generating turnovers. From film study, I can certainly say that we did see a greater emphasis on forcing loose balls both tactically — standing up ballcarriers and raking the ball — and strategically — layered zone coverage to bait throws and have a player in position to catch tipped balls. Happily, in 2021 the Ducks got far more takeaways compared to the previous season in 2020, and their 17 interceptions tied them for 5th place nationally in raw stats, behind only Iowa and Baylor in the Power-5.
But 2020 was an ahistorically terrible year (in more ways than one), and I think much of 2021’s performance in this regard was simply regression to the mean rather than schematic. At the very least, it didn’t constitute an improvement on the 2019 numbers at all. In 2021, they forced 7 fumbles during meaningful play and recovered 4; in 2019 it was 6 and 3. They earned 14 interceptions defending against 409 designed downfield passing plays outside garbage time in 2021, which is almost precisely the same rate as the 15 on 431 in 2019. If all they did was replicate the 2019 performance that would be fine, but I believe from film study (though this is hard to quantify) that they were making some strategic sacrifices to achieve this and so on balance I’d grade this performance as a slight net negative within DeRuyter’s philosophical framework.
According to the official roster, Oregon’s defensive front had three different positions playing on the line of scrimmage: defensive tackles, defensive ends, and outside linebackers. In practice, other than the nose guards, those guys moved around quite a bit and the official designations aren’t very helpful. I’ll evaluate them all as a group. There were 13 such players in the regular rotation and with enough meaningful reps to grade.
Two of them are departing, #5 OLB Thibodeaux to the NFL and #93 DT J. Jones to Auburn. Both were pretty valuable to the defense, the former as a generational edge rusher who forced offenses to commit extra resources to blocking him, the latter because his combination of size and motor is difficult to find for a nose. Of the other eleven I graded, everybody came out pretty well in the simple metric I use, which is the ratio of good reps to bad ones when they had a significant impact on the play’s outcome. All but two graded out above the 75% (that is, three good reps for every one bad) threshold of which playoff-caliber defensive fronts are entirely composed, in my experience.
Oregon’s in great shape with the players I think should be considered tackles, as 2022 returners #50 DT Aumavae, #3 DT Dorlus, #95 DT Ware-Hudson, and #91 DT Kr. Williams all graded out over 82% on my tally sheet in 2021. Backup #94 DT Poti also had a high grade but his sample size is fairly limited.
The edges will need some help from development and new players. Thibodeaux is going to be very difficult to replace, and of the six players who return here, only four graded over 75% - #47 OLB Funa, #29 OLB Jackson, #44 DE Swinson, and two-way player #12 DE DJ Johnson. Funa’s an old hand at this point and Johnson is fun to watch as a bullrusher in certain packages. Jackson is great on obvious passing downs, with great speed to track down a scrambling QB or drop into coverage in the flats, but he doesn’t have Thibodeaux’s ability to bend while keeping his feet to get around tackles and simply doesn’t generate the same pass rush. Swinson has a lot of promise but he jumps inside too easily on run plays and losing the edge is a big problem. #90 DE Shipley and #48 OLB Ma’ae were used as backups and both come in under at about 65% on my tally sheet – both are pretty young and need to develop a bit more to be reliable, but have the size for the job at least. #43 OLB Buckner looked pretty fun subjectively as a true freshman but I have too few meaningful reps on him to evaluate.
The injuries to the inside linebacker unit were extensive. Blue-chips #23 ILB K. Brown and #10 ILB Flowe played enough to get some numbers on, but the former was nursing an injury all year and the latter was coming back from one before he got hurt again, so they’re inconclusive. #42 ILB LaDuke and #54 ILB Mathis were hurt for so much of the year that I can’t even run the numbers on them. That situation forced former walk-on senior #46 ILB Heaukulani and converted safety true freshman #33 ILB Bassa to rotate alongside 5-star #1 ILB Sewell at the position. As far as I’m aware all but Heaukulani return in 2022, and this will be the unit to watch in Spring ball assuming they’re healthy again.
Sewell is excellent, incredibly fast for his size and with great instincts for the ball, but his grade suffered a bit because he often overruns the play – I think he gets overexcited at the prospect of a TFL or sack and runs himself out of position, and developing some more maturity would be valuable. Heaukulani is a very sharp player and I rarely recorded him as out of position on my tally sheet, but his grade suffered quite a bit from his athletic limitations. Bassa showed why he was a 4-star safety recruit and has some real promise at strong safety (or maybe bulking up and staying at inside backer, though I would prefer him returning to the secondary) given his speed and tackling ability, but his grade on my tally sheet is slightly underwater because he just couldn’t hold his own when getting off blocks from o-linemen who outweighed him substantially.
The secondary will be losing its general, #23 DB McKinley, as well as Boise St transfer #32 DB Happle. #19 DB Hill is returning, who played the whole season and graded out fairly well, with a real advantage from his size but some speed limitations in coverage. The other two safeties, #7 DB Stephens and #15 DB B. Williams, missed a lot of the season with injuries. Williams grades out very highly on my tally sheet and his absence had a big impact on the defense. Stephens came in with a fairly mediocre grade, and it’s not one thing either – I’ve got coverage, tackling, and positioning problems scattered across my charts for him. I don’t have enough reps on converted receiver #13 DB Addison to evaluate.
Between the departures, uncertainty from injuries and inexperience, and some dings on my tally sheet, I think the safeties and nickels will need some help in terms of personnel. Hill and Williams are a good start but I’d like to see Bassa move back to this group, Stephens to step up his game, and possibly a portal player or talented true freshman get into the rotation.
Oregon lost both its starting corners from 2021, #2 CB Wright to the NFL and #0 CB James to Auburn, and neither played in the bowl game so we got to see their backups as the new starters. Those two, #11 CB Bridges and #8 CB Manning, got enough reps during the entire season to evaluate, but corners are always the hardest for me to do so because of the lousy broadcast angles.
I had a lot of criticism for true freshman Manning during the regular season, but I think he played a very good bowl game as a starter (at least, he was facing a good QB and WR corps but was almost never thrown against, and if you aren’t seeing a corner that’s generally a good sign), so maybe he’s coming into his own. Bridges had kind of a curious season – he’s a pretty big guy, and for most of the year his strength was playing physically but there’d be some coverage issues. However in the bowl game when Bridges became a starter that flipped: decent coverage but frequent leverage and tackling problems defending the run and short passes. I didn’t get enough reps on young corners #14 CB Davies or #28 CB Dickerson to evaluate.
This will be a very interesting position to watch. If the bowl performance was for real, 5-star Manning could become a real lockdown corner. Bridges has the potential to be pretty effective too, and his size gives the Ducks some options that other corners don’t bring, but he needs to be a lot more consistent to be a starter. The young players and possibly some portal or true freshmen corners may need to grow up fast for depth in this unit.