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Duck Tape: Film Study of Head Coach Dan Lanning

A review of Oregon’s new defensive scheme from the 2021 Georgia tape

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Sugar Bowl - Georgia v Baylor

Nota bene: This article is an overview of Georgia’s defense from a schematic and philosophical perspective, since it will in all likelihood be the structure that Oregon uses in 2022. It is not a preview of the 2022 Georgia defensive personnel, with its returning players and new coaches - that article will be published later in the month as Oregon’s opener against Georgia approaches.

The most significant observation from reviewing the defensive tape of Georgia’s 2021 championship season — for which new Oregon head coach Lanning was the coordinator — is that there are no major schematic or philosophical differences between that team and new Oregon DC Lupoi’s 2018 championship defense at Alabama. I reviewed Lupoi’s film earlier this offseason and went over some of the history and principles of the “Mint” defensive structure developed at Alabama by Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, before Smart took it with him to Georgia and Lanning operated successfully it in recent years. There are some minor differences in the blitz schedule, mostly having to do with bringing the nickel vs a backer, though that’s more likely to be about specific personnel strengths rather than a strong coordinator preference.

As a variation on the “Tite” front popularized by Dave Aranda (the head coach at Baylor and previous employer of new Oregon co-DC/DB coach Powledge), Mint teams use a 3-down front in a 4i-0-4i configuration, with the nose controlling both A-gaps and the big DEs plugging the B-gaps. The edge rush comes from the OLBs, and typically Georgia used one on the line with two ILBs at depth and a nickel secondary, though on obvious passing downs they’d play 2-down with two OLBs or even lose a backer and play dime, and they’d lose the nickel and switch to 3-down with two OLBs in run situations when the offense brought out multiple tight ends.

This should sound fairly familiar to Oregon fans, because the Ducks have been employing and recruiting for a 3-3-5 over the last five seasons, and these personnel concepts are virtually identical to what the last few years’ teams have been doing. This isn’t so much a scheme change (in the way that, say, going to a 4-3 would be) as simply some adjustments to priorities and assignments. Given the depth and talent of Oregon’s returning defensive front with the appropriate body types and position ratios for this scheme, I don’t expect any issues installing the defense or the staff needing to make significant changes to the way they’ve called it at their previous stops.

Philosophically, the main insight of the Tite and Mint defenses is that in modern football the pass is more lethal than the run, and so they devote as much of their resources as practical to stopping intermediate and deep passing without totally surrendering their rush defense. The secondary typically plays zone coverage though will switch to man on 3rd downs, but that’s common to a lot of defenses.

There are two unusual aspects of this front in pass defense. First, everybody but the nose tackle is capable of dropping into coverage – the ILBs play pretty patiently against RPOs and assume it’s a pass until they see the back has the ball, the OLB frequently backs out while an ILB or the nickel rushes, and the ends will even drop out for some exotic pressures. Second, the variety of blitzes is bewildering (though interestingly, I never saw a corner blitz), and the defense frequently uses simulated pressure and “creepers” to make the QB think he’s getting a blitz when really they’re only rushing four or even three. Essentially, the pass rush is constantly keeping the passer and the protection guessing about where it’s coming from, and are trying to create unblocked defenders whether they blitz or not. Some examples of the blitz strategy:

(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)

  1. :00 – The nickel (to the field, since that’s the passing strength) and the OLB are both on the line here, but both drop and the ILB crashes through. The OLB is taking away the checkdown and then gets the TFL when the QB tucks. Note the layered zone coverage on the reverse angle – the nickel is covering two throwing lanes, and the non-blitzing ILB hands the TE off to the safety to cover the crosser from the other side.
  2. :14 – This is a pretty common 3rd down look, 2-down with OLBs on both sides, one ILB in the middle of the line and the other at depth. Both OLBs drop and both ILBs plus the nickel blitz. The LT thinks the edge is coming so the LG takes the DE, leaving the blitzing ILB free and clear.
  3. :25 – This was the first actual 5-man blitz of the game, and the 1st quarter stats reflected it. Bringing numbers had a salutary effect – three rushers against two linemen on the right meant the back had to try and pick up a 3rd round draft pick and that was no match at all.
  4. :34 – Both ILBs are creeping up to the line making this look like a 6-man blitz, but back out to cover the crosser. That little bit of extra pressure was all that was needed for the RT to jolt inside, leaving the end unblocked with a direct shot on the QB who has to scramble and try a risky throw against tight man coverage.

The benefits of successfully simulating pressure are obvious – get the effect of hurrying the QB without sacrificing a fifth defender to the pass rush – and they’ve been getting more prominent throughout college football in recent years. Duck fans will recall seeing quite a bit of this basic idea during Andy Avalos’ tenure as Oregon’s DC.

What really caught my interest from reviewing Lanning and Lupoi’s film is the extent to which they were using sims (and exacting research into the opponent’s tendencies) to actually cut off plays before they began. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Same personnel as standard downs, but in a fairly common variation one of the ILBs is up on the line due to the offense being unbalanced to the field. He backs out while the ILB at depth rushes, and is free to make the play on the screen pass. Nice job by the nickel in block destruction too, though that’s not schematic.
  2. :07 – The guy with his fist down to the field is an OLB so this is technically a 2-down look. The boundary OLB drops, making this only a 3-man rush, and he takes away both the boundary options. The ILB is tracking the back the entire way and gets a TFL on the checkdown.
  3. :19 – A TE and a fullback means Georgia has 3-down and two OLBs. The weakside one drops to cover the crosser (and the flat if the QB runs), freeing the backside ILB to track the tailback the entire way. The blocking scheme assumes the OLB rushes and the ILB would be occupied with the crosser and so doesn’t account for him running from the far side of the field, and therefore no one is available to stop him.
  4. :25 – The 2-down linemen are to the right side of the OL, with a fist-down OLB on the other side and one of the three ILBs on this play over the center. He backs out while the fieldside ILB rushes, creating the desired effect – the C goes to the right to help with the d-linemen, the LT takes the OLB, and no one is left to block the crashing ILB from depth.

The biggest plays against Georgia’s defense came from simple player error rather than schematic vulnerability, just as the biggest successful plays came from the Bulldogs’ extraordinary talent in the defensive front (including 1st round draft pick Jordan Davis moving in ways that defy my understanding of human physiology). Those aren’t useful for the purposes of this article so I’ll skip that film for now. There are a few areas, however, where the structure allows the passing offense some breathing room: throws to the flat, rubs vs man, and the extra strain put on the ILBs in coverage. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Zone coverage is pretty clear by leverage. That means the CB has to carry the No. 2 receiver on the go route and the safety needs to collapse into the flat, but he’s in conflict and keeps dropping even though the CB is pointing and telling him to get the No. 1 camping out.
  2. :07 – Really physical play by the backers on short-to-intermediate routes is a hallmark of this defense; they walk right up to the line of defensive holding and try to intimidate the QB from making the quick throw without committing a safety to it. It backfires here, where the bigger TE just goes up and gets the ball anyway.
  3. :23 – Rub routes against man coverage are effective against most defenses and this is no exception. The safety’s positioning ensures it’s never a huge gain but throws like this are pretty much an automatic four yards for the offense.
  4. :30 – The backer’s assignment is to play tight to the releasing TE, since per philosophy that throw is more of a threat than leaving the middle of the field open to a scrambling QB. Turning his back to the play means there’s really no shot of stopping the QB at all, and Georgia gave up an average of about three and a half more yards than typical offenses I chart on scrambles that got past the line of scrimmage.

In rush defense, this scheme uses a “spill & kill” philosophy – completely stone inside A- and B-gap running with the three linemen and force the back to bounce outside, giving the backers and safeties time to come down from pass coverage before the back can turn the corner from East-West to North-South. Oregon fans may be familiar with Pete Kwiatkowski’s 2-4-5 that he ran at UW for years which has a similar “stop the pass at all costs” philosophy, but that scheme takes it so far that physical, disciplined teams could run all over them. Tite/Mint defenses represent something of a compromise in that sense, and doesn’t produce such wild disparities in pass vs rush yards allowed (Georgia was 12th and 2nd ranked, respectively, in those raw stats in 2021).

Here are some examples to illustrate the rush defense philosophy:

  1. :00 – The playside OLB has his leverage right – not too far upfield, able to get off the LT inside to get into the lane – but the hit is delivered by the safety who comes screaming down from off screen to deliver the hit and save the conversion on this 1st & 5. He has the extra moment he needs because of the ILB taking on the pulling C with inside leverage – that means the back has no shot of taking this run inside off the LG’s heels and has to go outside.
  2. :07 – The ILB doesn’t get the tackle here but he’s tracking the back the whole way, forcing an outside run to go even wider and giving the DBs time to get off their blocks and work him out of bounds.
  3. :14 – The end gets his hat inside the RG and closes down the inside running lane, forcing the back to try and bounce out. But that’s where the OLB is waiting for him, so he tries inside again, however it’s too late as the nose has gotten off his double team and the read end from the other side are free to bring him down. Note how the B-gap is non-existent even though both the end and OLB are outside of it.
  4. :20 – The front has stemmed off the usual 4i-0-4i, but the principle is still the same – clog the B-gaps. This requires some high-quality technique from the big guys to move laterally and deal with double-teams, but they get it done and the back has to bounce out. That’s more than enough time for the safety to come down and wrap him up.

The areas where this scheme chooses to allocate resources away from to shore itself up against bigger threats all come in the rush defense. Because the Mint defense typically aligns the nickel to the passing strength (this is the most noticeable change from the Tite front, which usually uses field/boundary instead), offenses can create big running room outside to the field as well as some space for delayed QB runs after the ILBs drop out. Also, because of the extra pressure on the front to stop the run with fewer resources, they tend to sub a lot and so rush defense pays a bigger price when they’re caught off-guard by tempo than the pass defense does. Some examples:

  1. :00 – The offense is using an unbalanced formation to the boundary, which per the typical rules of this defense means the only defenders to the wide-side grass are the OLB and the field safety. The OLB is somewhat distracted by the RT illegally taking his helmet off so when the back gets outside the only one left to track him down is a big linemen who’s not quite quick enough for it. The safety does come down to stop a big play but schematically they don’t have anyone to prevent a ~10-yard pickup.
  2. :17 – It’s a sign of how the worm has turned in college football that the toughest run for Georgia to defend is I-formation outside power toss, since the Bulldogs won their second most recent national championship in 1980 on this play. The ILB gets cut brutally by the center and is losing his footing so I don’t count it against him too much that he can’t make this tackle; the bigger issue is that every defender is accounted for by the blocking scheme.
  3. :34 – Most defenses would assume 2nd & 14 is a passing down but philosophically this defense is definitely going to drop the ILBs immediately and deep to play the pass. That opens things up for a decent gain on the QB draw.
  4. :42 – The officials could have flagged this for 12 men on the field at the snap, the sub is a little late and tempo in general got under this defense’s skin. The boundary safety is messing with his gloves or something instead of coming down on this RPO with a screen component.