Sunday, December 27, 2009

Rose Bowl Preview: Oregon Defense v Ohio State Offense

For further discussion visit the 'Ask the Insider's' Blog.

In my final preview, I'm going to look at how Oregon's Defense performed this year against their opponents, and then consider their match-up with Ohio State.

Oregon's Defense vs. The Field

To me, if I was going to summarize Oregon's defense it would be in the following ways:
  • Vulnerable to getting controlled and run upon up front;
  • But they will cause negative and short yardage plays in the run game through their various looks and blitzes;
  • Susceptible to big plays in the pass game because of the man-style they play;
  • And they do a fairly nice job in the red-zone holding teams to field goals and not touchdowns.
I saw this formula play out time and time again.  Oregon will stop a team for sub-optimal (less than 4 yards) rushing attempts.  It is easy to forget, but they actually started out pretty successfully against Stanford's run game.  But if a team does not lose patience they can run the ball on Oregon.  Here are the rushing statistics against Oregon for the last 5 games they played::

Ariz St
Ore St.

As can be seen, while Oregon has done a decent job against the run, the better running teams have been able to compile big rushing statistics and get big plays out of the run game.

Going into specifics,  as discussed, Oregon likes to 'compress' their line down and gain a numbers advantage to the strongside.  Teams have  successfully countered this by going 'double tight,' and making Oregon choose between balancing out up front or leaving gaps.  USC did so by going 2 tight, 1 back, while Stanford accomplished it largely by going double tight out of the I.

For Stanford, not only did this balance out Oregon's front, but it gave them another man in the box to block Oregon's 8 man fronts.

Turning to specific plays, Oregon's fronts are particularly vulnerable to the power, or what Tressel calls the 'Dave' play.  (I said the same thing about the analogous OSU 3-4).  Though the front drawn is different than what Oregon plays, the diagram below shows the general blocking of the play.

The power play has been successful for the following reaons.  Oregon's fronts sacrifice the C gap for having players on the edge to play the spread, leaving natural 'bubbles' at the C gap where the power play is run.  Add to that that Oregon's front side has shown a propensity to get collapsed by the frontside down blocks on the play and numerous teams have gained consistent yardage on this play.  This has probably been the no. 1 rush play vs. the Ducks. 

You will see in that last clip how Oregon shifted and then slanted their eagle down, leaving a big hole.  Teams are then able to follow up that play with the lead zone or ISO for success (as can be seen in the Stanford double tight clips above). 

Once teams established the run against Oregon, they have had big play-action pass play opportunities down the field.  As discussed, Oregon will bring that 8th player into the box, leaving man coverage on the outside with one deep safety.  Stanford had a field day running 'three vertical' routes against this where, no matter what the deep safety did, he was wrong (the top right diagram below gives a good flavor of the this play against Oregon's Cover 1 man, courtesy of SmartFootball).  In fact, I've never quite seen a team run that play that many times so successfully.

Andrew Luck completed 12 passes for 250 yards or 12.6 yards per attempt.  USC had these same opportunities but failed in execution, with  Barkely missing several opportunities.  USC then could not stop Oregon and fell behind.  Teams also had success throwing quick WR screens (as can been seen in the USC clip above) and out routes versus Oregon's off coverage. 

As one can probably tell by now, from Ohio State's perspective, Stanford had the best gameplan and execution versus Oregon's defense.   Stanford came out mixing between pro-style and shotgun runs (they also had success returning kickoffs for field position).  In fact, they loosened Oregon by running a mixture of power and zone read out of the shotgun:

 Stanford was then able to turn to the power running, mentioned above.  As noted, Stanford went to a two-tight I look that both evened out Oregon's front and added another blocker in the box to counter Oregon's 8th man.  Oregon could not stop Stanford without cheating towards the line of scrimmage, and Stanford was able to hit big play action passes behind it.

Stanford was able to ride this combination of power formations, power running and deep play-action passing to the tune of 25 first downs, 505 total yards and, maybe most importantly 37:41 time of possession.

OSU Offense v. Oregon Defense

What can we takeaway from Oregon's season and apply to OSU's gameplan versus the Ducks?  I think these are the keys for Ohio State's offense.

1.  Ohio State is fortunate in that their primary rush plays--Power (Dave,) Iso, Zone read--are precisely the plays that teams have had the most rushing success against Oregon with.  Ohio State must establish the run game between the tailbacks and Pryor a la Stanford to open other things up.  To do so, they need to mix and match between the pro and spread sets to keep Oregon off balance and not let them freely flip between their 7 and 8 man fronts.  The Dave and Zone read plays, in particular, will provide big play opportunities versus Oregon that OSU must take advantage of.  I know the 'Dave' play has been much maligned in some OSU-fan circles, but it needs to be the base of everything OSU does here.  OSU needs to ensure that they find ways to run those plays into favorable fronts and not where Oregon has overloaded.  So long as they do that they should be fine.  Inside running is Ohio State' bread and butter and is something their opponent is vulnerable to.  Henceforth, it goes without saying OSU needs to establish this, meaning that the offensive line must continue their late season performance in the run game.

2.  As importantly, OSU must control the time of possession.  Nothing will help OSU's defense better than keeping Oregon's quick strick offense off the field.  Stanford kept the ball for nearly 2/3 of the game and must be the model here.  OSU needs to emulate their success late in the year against Penn State, Iowa, and Michigan and string together 15-17 play drives.  At the very least, Ohio State must average 2 first downs per possession (h/t:  CalBuck79).  If successful, Ohio State will control field position and give their defense a chance to rest and re-group on the sideline.

One of the keys to this game is who sets the tempo of play?  Oregon wants to play a fast-paced, offensive oriented game.  Ohio State wants to play a defense, ball-control game.  Whomever gets to set the tempo enjoys a huge advantage and OSU must look to play their style. 

3.  It therefore goes without saying that Ohio State needs a gameplan based around a ball-control, power rush game.  Which works well for Ohio State since that is who they are .  To accomplish this, Ohio State will likely take a page from what some of Oregon's opponents have done .  Specifically, look for Ohio State to use double tight or other means of balancing their formation to make Oregon 'de-compress' their defensive front.  OSU needs to be able to do so to run effectively to either side of the formation pre-snap to take advantage of whatever gaps Oregon may leave.

4.  From there, OSU needs Terrelle Pryor to be a factor in the run game.  Pryor's ankle has now healed, and he again showed his dangerous against Michigan carrying the football.  If OSU can equally mix in their pro-style power run game and some spread looks, Oregon will have to adapt to two different styles, which will keep Oregon off-balance.  Look for OSU to also continue to get Pryor outside on bootlegs, rollouts, and the like to give him opportunities to make plays with his legs, as he remains OSU's best big play threat.  

5.  Pryor and the passing game must hit at least one deep playaction pass opportunity in the play action passing game.  OSU succeeded in doing so against PSU, but failed against Michigan, missing the opportunity to open the game.  If the run game is working, those opportunities will be there and the Buckeyes must convert, as this could be the difference in the game. 

6.  Besides that, OSU must take advantage of opportunities Oregon affords by playing some off-coverage.  If OSU follows recent game-plans they will come out throwing early, and in so doing they should look to hit some quick WR screens and quick hitches and outs to get some positive movement and get Pryor and the offense in a rhythm. 

7.  Ohio State must handle the Oregon blitz.  Oregon will bring blitzes early and often and the line must continue their late season performance and pick up blitzes .  As, if not more importantly, Pryor must not hold onto the ball, but instead either get rid of it or, more importantly, look for holes to run when Oregon blitzes and plays man behind.

8.  With Pryor, blitzing is a two-way street.  This is an interesting choice for Oregon.  This is their bread and butter .  But Pryor has really hurt teams that have done exactly that.

So does Oregon sitck with this?  Or do they instead play a soft cover-3 behind their blitzes that will leave the underneath vulnerable?  Or do they try to spy Pryor?  Even if they do the latter, Pryor is usually fast enough to outrun the spying linebacker as can be seen above.  It is a conundrum for Oregon, and one Ohio State needs to take advantage of with Pryor picking up some crucial first downs scrambling.

9.  As I said in the defensive preview, it goes without saying that OSU must win the turnover battle.  They MUST take care of the football and keep their defense out of bad positions.  OSU must also get touchdowns, and not field goals, out of the red zone.  Oregon St. shot themselves in the foot against Oregon kicking field goals, and OSU must not replicate. 

10.  In sum, Oregon's defense sets up well for what OSU wants to do.  So long as they are able to stay away from running where Oregon has shifted, OSU's primary plays and style are what has fared best aginst the Oregon's defense.  Plus, Oregon's man coverage sets up well for OSU's biggest big-play threat, which is Pryor running the ball.  If Ohio State can a) run the ball successfully, b) have Pryor play a mistake free game where he makes plays both running and passing, c) hit some open plays in the play-action game, and d) control the tempo and pace of game, Ohio State will put their team in a good position to win a hard-fought game.

For further discussion visit the 'Ask the Insider's' Blog.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rose Bowl Preview: Oregon Defense: Scheme and Personnel

For further discussion go to Ohio State's 'Ask the Insider's' Site.
I will now turn to Oregon's defense.  Specifically I will focus first on Oregon's defensive scheme and personnel.  I will follow-up with the match-up with Ohio State.


Oregon plays a defense unlike any Ohio State has seen this year.  It is a combination of a "4-2-5" (that looks like a 4-4) and an Eagle defense with some unusual characteristics.

In run-first situations Oregon will play the 4-2-5.

As can be seen, the line plays inside techniques, with none wider than a '5' technique.  The two outside linebackers/nickel players play in the 'grey area.'  The secondary then plays a 1-high look behind it.  An analagous defense is the one Washington St. ran in the early 1990's when they went to the Rose Bowl (H/T: Homer Smith):

Just as often, Oregon will play a form of a 3-4 Eagle defense.

In essence, Oregon simply removes a down linemen but otherwise lines up similarly.  In fact, its closest comparison is the  OSU's 3-4.   The linemen play a strong or weak shifted Eagle, meaning that from the base Eagle below their NG will shift to a '1' technique to the strongside (H/T: Trojan Football Analysis):

The outside linebackers play their same 'grey' area roles, but the secondary has more flexibility and can play a 2-high look.  

More so than alignment, though, what defines Oregon's defense is that they are a man-blitzing team.  They generally bring 5 or 6 rushers at all times.  They also look to give different looks to get pressure, such as overloading the line to one side in exchange for leaving uncovered gaps the other way.


A team playing Oregon must be prepared to face a multitude of blitzes from various angles.  Teams can get big plays out of this, though, if they find the open seams Oregon leaves behind. 

In the secondary, as the term suggests, Oregon is primarily a cover-1 team.  They  play as much, if not more, man coverage then any team.  Only ocassionally, when they line up with 2-deep coverage, will they play a cover 2, mostly in passing situations.  They put a lot of pressure on their corners to play man behind their blitzes.  This allows Oregon to bring pressure, but also leaves them vulerable to big plays down the field.  Teams can also rack off big run plays when they get to the second level.
Oregon also pretty explicitly telegraphs their coverages pre-snap.  This is particularly true with their 8-man front.  They have a 1-high safety and are pretty limited to playing man.  This is shown, for example, in the clip above.  When USC goes in motion, the CB follows.   Then, when they go to their 2-high look, it is a fairly good bet that they are going to play zone. 

In sum, Oregon plays an aggressive, blitz-happy style that puts a premium on attempting to confuse and overload the offense.  The downside of this is that Oregon is vulnerable to getting caught leaving big gaps in the front and giving up big plays in the secondary. 


Up front, Oregon is pretty pedestrian.  Part of it is scheme--they pack their Defensive linemen inside so their responsibility is to eat up blocks.  But part of it is that Oregon is fairly average up front.  They generally cannot get pressure with their defensive line only, which probably contributes to their blitz-happy frame of mind.  Their line is also susceptible to being overrun in the run game, which is, again,  likely why they choose to play 8 men in the box.

As one may expect from a 4-linebacker defense, the linebackers are the main engine behind Oregon's attack.  They are all solid blitzers and play well in space.  Matthews is a hard-nosed tackler and the defense's leader.  They are able to close quickly on rushing plays and take advantage of their aggressive style.

Their secondary is also fairly solid.  They obviously have a lot of faith in their corners to play almost exclusively man.  They are susceptible to getting beat deep, but play pretty well considering the scheme.  Their primary deep safety, is also a solid player who does a nice job of attacking the ball.

In sum, as one can probably tell, I find their defense to be made up of solid, if unspectacular players.  They make plays through playing an aggressive style and having good back seven play, but are also susceptible to big plays.

Up next I will focus on how teams have played Oregon's defense this year and how OSU might match-up. 


For further discussion go to Ohio State's 'Ask the Insider's' Site.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rose Bowl Preview: Oregon Offense: Matchups

For further discussion, go to Ohio State Scout's Ask the Insiders' Board

In my final look at the Oregon Offense, I will focus on how teams have played Oregon this past season and how Ohio State may attack the Ducks.

Oregon vs. The Field

What is so interesting is that every team I reviewed played Oregon with a different style  providing  multiple in-game experiments from which OSU can draw from.  I want to go through each individually.


USC was dead set on playing their regular fronts against Oregon, regardless of how spread out Oregon became.  In practice that meant that they played the same fronts OSU saw from them, particularly their 'Eagle' front.  This is turn dicatated that USC ended up playing a lot of '1' high cover 1 robber coverages as they had to cover up Oregon's 3 wide receivers.   While this seemed like a good theory, in practice it became disastrous on a number of levels.  First, as I discussed previously, Oregon found the weakness in this package, racking up yards by running the power play (see below) and the zone read with the read of the '3' technique. (For a good primer on what a 3 technique or 5 technique is, see here.)

So USC gained nothing by trying to get a numbers advantage in the box, but hurt themselves in the secondary.  First, once Oregon's running backs got past the initial level, USC did not have people present in the secondary to make tackles as they were playing man coverage.  Second, because they were in man, USC would get themselves in trouble in the playaction game with linebackers and safeties overcommitting to by run game and getting beat behind.  USC in general looked confused and out of position throughout the game.  Third, by playing man, USC gave Masoli big scrambling opportunities, leading to two of his bigger runs of the game.  Buckeyes fans should be familiar with this phenomenom with Terrelle Pryor.  In sum, USC gave up an average of 7.7 yards per play, not a recipe for success.


In contrast to USC, Stanford played Oregon in a very basic over and under nickel cover 2 shell (think Iowa).  Stanford's goal was basically to play gap sound in the interior, have their force players (outside linebacker and nickel back) attack the line agressively on action their way, have their cornerbacks fly up when they saw bubble screen action, and not give up big plays.  They then coupled this defensive plan with a ball control offensive attack. 

Stanford was pretty successful doing so.  The final score was deceiving, as Oregon scored two late touchdowns and Stanford was in control throughout.  I am not sure why (Stanford's defensive scheme should not have forced them to do so) but Stanford got up by one or two scores and Oregon abandoned their run game far too much and became pass-happy--a situation Oregon should not put themselves in.

Oregon State

Oregon State sought out to avoid the trap USC fell into--namely leaving themselves open to having either their 3 or 5 technique read on any particular play.  So Ore. St seemed to purposefully line up in an 'over' formation that gave them a 1 and 5 technique on the back side.    

In so doing, Oregon St. had some early success stopping the running game.  Like an option team, if you can limit the choices Oregon has in who they read, you are limiting the potential things you have to worry about as a defense.  That in turn, let their interior defensive line play aggressively.

But Oregon countered by lining up, and then moving their halfback to the other side.

Oregon St. did not correspondingly shift, and Oregon began to have success running the zone read thereafter.


I personally think Arizona had the most interesting gameplan for Oregon and, correspondingly, the most success until the Fourth Quarter and Overtime.  Like Stanford and Oregon St., Arizona mostly played an over look.   What Arizona did different, though, was play almost excluisvely cover 4.  Cover 4 is an aggressive run-stopping defense from a secondary standpoint, as the two safeties can play with their eyes in the backfield and react immediately in force run support, but at the same time keeps two deep safeties.

Here is how Trojan Football Analysis describes cover 4 and contrasts with Cover 2.  

As the name implies cover 4 employs four deep defensive backs that can be aligned either four across OR aligned in something closer to a Cover 2 Shell. Often it is difficult to tell the difference pre-snap and can only be determined post-snap by the movement of the safeties. In basic Cover 2 coverage the safeties play 12 yards deep and normally step backwards upon the snap of the ball. After back or soft pedaling for two steps they read the offensive line and WR release they determine if the play is run or pass and react accordingly. Extreme emphasis is placed upon not getting beaten deep on the post patterns or corner patterns to their respective area.

In cover 4 however although the alignment may appear the same pre-snap there are some subtle differences. Normally the safeties line up closer to 10 yards deep instead of twelve and play down field toward the line of scrimmage more aggressively at the snap of the ball. Instead of retreating or soft pedaling two steps the safeties play flat foot and come forward at the snap of the ball (see images below). This difference helps to get nine men in the box more quickly versus run plays and yet still enables time to get four defenders deep on pass plays. When multiple WR's release down field past the initial seven or eight yard area cover 4 becomes essentially a man coverage scheme in the deep part of the field.

What is interesting is that Tennessess and Monte Kiffin used the same scheme to slow down Florida's offense.  As discussed in the article, the benefit against spread-to-run teams is that it its an inside to out defense that focuses first on stopping the running backs, then the quarterback, and only last on the outside receivers and dropback passing game.  But, as discussed previously, the dropback passing game is precisely what most spread teams do least well.  (Note:  Tennessee, like USC, also ran the Eagle against Florida in running situations).

Arizona was thus able to use this scheme to immediate force support on the outside versus zone plays, as can be seen below:


With these precedents in mind, how may Ohio State try to defend Oregon?  I think we can look for the following.

1.  I think it is likely that OSU will mix and match their 3-4 in run situations with their base nickel package.  They do not want to get in a situation where they are limiting what they can do in the secondary, but at the same time the 3-4 gives them strong force support on the edges.  And they do not want to become so predictable in playing it like USC that Oregon can playcall to counter. In either case though, like Arizona, I think OSU will have their force players come up hard on zone action to funnel the play back inside.

2.  Correspondingly, OSU will likely mix and match their coverages.  On the one hand, OSU wants, as above, to be able to bring bodies to bear on the running game.  On the other hand, OSU's trademark is making team string together long drives and not give up the big play, and will try to maintain adequate safety play.  Therefore, look for OSU to mix and match cover 4, cover 2, and cover 3 to give Oregon different looks and try to use the down and distances to their advantage.  Man coverage is not good against this team  (except as an occasional change-of-pace) for the reasons discussed above:  a) it takes the secondary out of run support, b) it opens up big plays if those secondary players get nosy and c) gives Masoli scrambling opportunities.  Therefore look for OSU to play a lot of hard-nosed zone with their safeties eyes in the backfield. 

3.  I would not be surprised, therefore, if OSU employs a gameplan similar to Tennessee or Arizona did above.  Mix and match playing their 3-4 look and cover 4 in 1st down and run situations, and then fall back into more of their traditional cover 2 looks on passing down.  Have stronvg force support in the run game, while at the same time maintaining discipline pass coverage and not get beat down the field.  OSU does not want to get in a situation like USC where they are selling out too many guys in the run game because it opens holes elsewhere and once Oregon gets to the second level no one is left.  OSU wants their safeties and corners playing their force and contain, but also playing zone discipline.

4.  I would also perhaps look for OSU to do something similar to Ore. St. and, when in nickel, try to maintain the 1 and 5 technique to the backside to take Oregon out of their comfort zone of being able to read either the defensive end or '3' technique tackle.  Perhaps OSU will shift over if Oregon tries to motion their HB.

5.  First down will be even more crucial in this game than normal  and Ohio State must win it.  Oregon is dangerous when they start stringing together big running plays and get the no-huddle going.  That is where defenses get tired and have mental break-downs.  Conversely, they start to sputter if you hold them to short running plays, or force them to throw extensively on first and second down.  It slows them down and takes away their speed-of-play advantage.

6.  Relatedly, OSU must stop the run and force Oregon to become more pass-reliant than they otherwise would be.  This is the true matchup of strength versus strength:  OSU has not allowed a 100 yard rusher in almost two years.  If Ohio State can force Oregon to out of their comfort zone it will go a long way to holding Oregon in check.  Oregon becoming even 50-50 run/pass is a win for OSU, as Oregon does not have the scheme or players to string together drives through their downfield passing game.  Stop the zone read, and OSU can go a long way towards slowing Oregon down.

7.  Within that battle, Ohio State's front line must control the line of scrimmage.  OSU's defensive line are more talented than Oregon's offensive line and  must play to their billing.  Against the zone play, the front side must stalemate the offensive line, maintain their gaps and keep the O-line off the linebackers.  After doing so, they can then make plays.  Then on the backside, Ohio State must stay disciplined.  The benefit for OSU is that they had the athletes in space to play down on the zone, and then recover on the read.  Thad Gibson had a field day against Illinois playing the zone and still recovering on the QB and making tackles for loss.  Masoli does a great job getting up the field quickly though, so it will be an interesting matchup to watch.  Finally the inside backers must run sideline to sideline, mirror their counterparts and not get pulled out of position by faking and misdirection.   

8.   OSU's defensive secondary must maintain discipline and not get overzealous in run-support.  Oregon basically gets easy points out of the pass game this way; if Ohio State can limit those it will keep the game's pace at the speed OSU wants to play.  And, related to that, OSU must get pressure with their front four when Oregon does pass.  OSU does not want to commit more guys to rushing the passer because 1) their linebackers and secondary must maintain discipline to stop the run and 2) they do not want to give Masoli scrambling opportunities by playing man.  Masoli has not gotten pressured very often because teams are concerned with the run, but when he does he will force plays and become innacurate--he is not tall enough to stand in the pocket and make throws over defensive linemen.  

9.  Tackle!  Oregon gets big plays out of poor tackling teams.  OSU is one of the most disciplined, sure tackling teams in the country so this is another key matchup. 

10.  Finally, OSU must continue their practice of forcing turnovers.  Oregon has given teams opportunities this year by turning the ball over and OSU must win the turnover battle.

OSU's defensive goals should be 1) do your assignment, 2) tackle, 3) force Oregon to drive and 4) win the turnover battle.  If the defense does these things, and the offense does this part, OSU can turn the game into the style of football they want to play and put themselves in a position to win.

 For further discussion, go to Ohio State Scout's Ask the Insiders' Board

Rose Bowl Preview: Oregon Offense: Personnel

For further discussion visit the Ohio State Ask the Insiders Site. 

In my second look at Oregon's Offense, I will focus on Oregon's personnel   Part 3 (I've decided to expand) will then feature matchups, both how teams have defended Oregon and how Ohio State may attack the Ducks offense.


As one may expect, Oregon's personnel fits their scheme.  As a whole, there are not a lot of guys that project to the NFL.  But they are effective players for the 'spread option' system and execute well collectively.

Oregon's offensive linemen are chosen first and foremost to be successful zone blockers.  They are undersized, both in height and weight.  This reduces their effectiveness as prototypical pass blockers.  And there is no one linemen who stands out  as dominant or a future high round NFL draft pick.  But in exchange they are effective zone blockers.  They are also obviously well schooled on zone blocking and one can see how well they work in tandem on zone blocks.  In those screen shots I posted earlier (from TJA) one can get a sense of how well their line moves in tandem zone blocking.


But, because of their relative undersized nature, Oregon's line can get controlled at the frontside point of attack on their zone plays.  Defensive linemen are able to stalemate and control the gaps, te most surefire way to shut down zone rushing plays.


Turning to their Wide Receivers and Tight End, they remind me a lot of Penn State.  They are nice players, but not people that you gameplan around or worry about beating you.  Their Wide Receivers beat you off of scheme; i.e. a team overcommitting to stop the run, not through their individual ability.

No. 23, Maehl, is Masoli's favorite target and the guy they most often look to for a big play off the play action game.  Their TE, Dickson, is a solid threat over the middle--though similar to many of the good TEs OSU has played this year.  But, as I said, none are the type that you change your coverages are schemes to defend:  if a secondary play theirs assignments well and don't get caught on playaction, they will be fine. 

The two biggest threats are obviously Masoli and James.  I will start with James first.  To me, he is the guy a team should focus on shutting down, because he is a homerun threat.  He has very good patience waiting for zone plays to develop, and is very elusive.  He prevents people from getting clean shots on him and bringing him down.  To me, he is the key player to slow down, as everything is based around getting the frontside zone play going.

Turning to Masoli, he is a great runner.  He does a great job getting vertical immediately when he keeps off the zone read and is a tough inside runner.  But he is also more elusive then he appears at first.

Masoli is also a great faker.  He accelarates through the fake, no matter whether he keeps or gives the ball.  This is not to be underestimated, as faking holds backside defenders and "makes long runs."

Compared to this, Masoli's weakness is as a passer.  This is not to say he is not a passing threat; he is.  But like the wide receivers, I would say his success derives a lot from the opportunities provided off the running game.  In my mind, he is not an accurate enough passer to be a consistent threat.  For whatever reason, Oregon came out throwing against Stanford and had trouble moving the ball because they could not string together completitions.  Moreover, he is limited by his height, (5'11''), which makes it difficult to see over defenders, forcing Oregon to use a lot of half rolls and bootlegs. 

Masoli (and Oregon generally) also have shown the potential to fumble.  This is a downside in general of the spread zone read scheme.  Whether OSU's D, which has shown a propensity to create turnovers this year, can cause fumbles for turnovers could make a big difference in this game.

Next, I will focus on matchups.

For further discussion visit the Ohio State Ask the Insiders Site.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Rose Bowl Preview: Oregon Offense: Scheme

For a discussion of this article go to Ohio State Scout's 'Ask the Insider's' Site.

I'm going to break this up into two-part series on each side of the ball.  The first section will focus on Oregon's schemes; the second will address Oregon's personnel, how opposing teams have played against Oregon and what Ohio State might do.


By now much has been written about Oregon's offense.  Like Michigan, Oregon is a 'spread to run' team.   That means they go to shotgun and multiple wide receiver sets (4 x 1 or 3 x 1) to run the football.    First, I will discuss their run game, followed by their passing game.

Run Game

Oregon is a run-first team.  Oregon ran the ball 62% of the time this year (Ohio State, for comparison ran 64% of the time) for over 250 yards per game for the last several years.   

More specifically, as a spread to run team Oregon's offense is built around two plays:  the inside zone and outside zone read.  (See also here).  Based on a talk this summer by Chip Kelly, Trojan Football Analysis concluded that:

Oregon ran the ball 585 times in 2008. Using Coach Kelley’s 202 figure above this translates into 34.5% of the runs coming from the inside zone play. Outside zone was run 122 times averaging 6.8 yards per carry and comprised 20.8% of their rush attempts.

In other words, 55% of Oregon's running plays consisted of two plays.  Here is how Coach Kelly described his offense:

This offense (the zone read option game) fits for us. This past season we finished second in the nation in rushing the football.  We averaged 6.2 yards per carry. We have four main running plays. We run the inside zone, outside zone, counter, and draw . . .
Coach Kelly then explained his two favorite plays thusly:
The inside zone play is our “go to work” play. We want to get off the ball and be a physical downhill running football team. This is not a finesse play. This is physical football. The offensive lineman play with confidence because they know they have help from their teammates in their blocking scheme. This is the offense we run and everyone knows that. We have great players but we also execute it well. We ran this play 202 times this past season. We averaged about seven to eight yards per carry with this play.
The outside zone play is a complement to the inside zone play. The inside zone is a hole to cutback play. The outside zone is more of a hole to bounce play. The reason we run the outside play is to circle the defense. When you get good at running the inside zone the defenders begin to tighten their techniques and concentrate on squeezing the inside gaps.
If we feel that is happening or we start to get many twists and blitzes inside we run the outside zone play. It gives you speed in space and the offensive line can play with confidence when you have something to change the focus of the defense. We ran the outside zone play 122 times last season for 6.8 yards per carry. It is a good compliment to the inside zone play.

Courtesy of Smart Football here is the basic inside zone read:

And here is some shots of Oregon running the outside zone read (H/T:  Trojan Football Analysis):

The key difference between the inside and outside zone is the launching points for the offensive line and tailback.  Here is Coach Kelly distinguishing the two:

The blocking rules for the offensive line (on outside zone)  are the same as the inside zone. The difference is the aiming point of the offensive linemen. The “who we block” is the same, but the “how we block” is the difference in the outside zone. The linemen take a kick step to the outside and a crossover step to get up the field. The backside opens on the playside foot and loses ground . . . This is not really a cutback play (unlike inside zone). It is a cut up play.
From there, if the backside end starts flying playside to the tailback, the QB will keep the ball.  Masoli is very good at making these reads and immediately getting vertically upfield.

Oregon's inside zone and outside zone read form the basis of everything Oregon does.  But off of these two plays is where the "interesting" features occur.  First, Oregon will make variations to their zone read game, specifically by  reading the inside '3' technique defensive tackle.  Here is a Smart Football diagram:

By doing so, Oregon can disarm techniques teams use to defense the zone read, such as the scrape exchange.  As importantly, it puts a Defensive Tackle in a position he is not used to and has not practiced for.  I did not think Oregon would do this against a '1' technique (aka Nose Guard) because it compromises the front side zone blocking.  But while I believe they would prefer not to do it, they have in fact done so:

 Oregon also had great success adding an option to the slot receiver off the zone read play against Oregon  St.

From there, as Kelly mentions, Oregon likes running the counter play.  Specifically, they like faking zone, and then run the counter trey with the Guard and Tackle pulling and leading for Massoli.

The final change-up to Oregon's run game is that they like to shift their Halfback about a yard behind the QB.  They do this to get more of a 'downhill run game' feel, more like a pistol team.  Specifically, they like to use the QB to be able to reverse pivot and then run the bootleg off of it.  The primary plays they run from this is a fly sweep and 'power play.'

On the fly sweep, Oregon will either line up a yard to the outside and behind the QB or is bring the RB in fly motion.  They block this just like the outside zone read, but it hits quicker and designed to get outside, rather than bounce up inside.

Oregon consistently gained yards against USC with the power play (or as Tressel calls it 'Dave'), gaining over 100 yards on this play alone.   USC was determined to play Oregon in their 'eagle' front, giving Oregon a natural C gap hole.  Oregon took advantage of it.  Although the power play was very successful here, I did not see it the rest of the season, indicating it may have been something they employed for USC's front.  However, it may be something OSU sees because OSU's 3-4 is somewhat similar to the Eagle.

Inside zone, outside zone, power, and counter trey are the basic features of nearly every modern offense.  But it is the ability of Oregon to use their QB as an inside runner on the zone read and counter that gives them an arithmetic advantage over their counterparts and the tempo at which they run plays when they get going that makes them so difficult. 

Passing Game

I do not mean to make Oregon's passing game seem an afterthought.  But the spread run game is Oregon's bread and butter.  Teams that have successfully defended Oregon have done so by making them pass more than the 30-40% they would like because they are not efficient enough in the pass game.  Oregon's pass offense is not a sophisticated NFLesque down field passing attack (nor is it designed to be) and their Quarterback succeeds first and foremost as a runner and a faker. 

Oregon's pass offense's design is instead to get big plays off of teams overcommitting to their run game.  They are primarily a play action team.  They have two basic play action movement passes.  The first is off their zone read game where the QB will either pull back or take a half roll and look to get the ball vertical or on deep crosses.

They also like, off the deep tailback alignment, do a reverse pivot fake sweep bootleg.

Finally, like other spread teams, they will throw the bubble screen and other screens often off the zone read fake.  Oregon probably throws around 5+ bubble screens a game. 

Oregon's dropback passing game comes last in terms of importance.  That is not to say that Oregon is not proficient in this area, rather Oregon would prefer to not be in a position where they are relying on dropback passing.  However, like other spread teams, Oregon's dropback pass offense is based around the quick game and shallow crossing routes.  Masoli is also a threat to scramble against teams that want to play man coverage and gained several key 3d downs doing so against USC.

This covers the basics of Oregon's offense.  My next post will focus on their personnel, how teams defend their offense, and what Ohio State may do. 

For a discussion of this article go to Ohio State Scout's 'Ask the Insider's' Site.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Did Ohio State Run Too Little This Year???

Amazingly, the answer to my provocative question is maybe.  Bear with me and I will try to explain why.  Earlier this year, I mentioned in response to complaints regarding the Buckeyes running too often that tpeople were not getting the full picture.  The key question was not "balance" in the sense of how many runs vs. how many passes, but rather whether Ohio State's run-pass equilibrium in terms of yards per carry versus yards per pass attempt was efficient.

Now we have some data from which we can assess this question   As alluded to above, I am basing my determination of this on Chris Brown's discussion of run-pass balance and game theory here, here, and here.  I highly recommend it all, but if I could boil down Brown's position on run-pass balance it would be the following:

[A] football game is a series of Nash Equilibriums: Every down is a little contest and each side must figure out its best strategy using a mixture of runs and passes or different defenses (a "mixed strategy") and should pick the mixture of runs and passes that maximizes (or minimizes, if on defense) average gain per play, subject to the "passing premium," which requires that passes yield more than runs because of their greater risk.
 I will not try to fully restate Brown's position but will give this further synopsis.  The goal is not to shoot for a particular run/pass 'balance' be it 60/40, 50/50 or the like.  Rather the goal is to maximize yards per attempt.  (Note that, like Brown, I am focusing on yards per pass attempt, which counts an incompletion as '0' and a sack as negative yards.).  To do so, you want to get to a point where your yards per run play and yards per pass attempt equal out to the nearly the same thing--if they are not then you are leaving yards on the field by doing one or the other too often, meaning the defense is able to too fully focus on one to the exclusion of the other.  So if you are gaining 15 yards per pass attempt and 5 yards per rush, you should keep passing until the defense has to focus on your passing game more, which will increase your yards per rush attempt and decrease your yards per pass attempt until they reach an equilibrium.  So theoretically a team could pass 80% of the time and rush 20% of the time and be perfectly balanced if they are maximizing their yards per attempt.

But, as Brown argues, the run and pass numbers should not be identical--instead their should be a built-in "passing premium."  To make this point, he cites an old adage that Buckeyes fan will recognize:

 Three things can happen when you pass, and two are bad.
Basically, because loss of field possession, long third downs, (harder to convert) and turnovers are so costly, passing is riskier than rushing.  As such, teams should average more yards per pass attempt than yards per carry.  If they do not have a "passing premium" they are passing too much relative to running under game theory and opening themselves up to mistakes.  Brown acknowledges that it is unclear what this premium should be, but it seems it should be anywhere from 1-2.5 yards per attempt (Brown notes the NFL had a 2.5 yard per premium, and I personally tend to defer to NFL coaches in making such run/pass determinations because they have the most time to study these issues, but for now the exact premium is irrelevant).

In sum, as Brown says:

Balance, then is not a matter of how many runs and how many passes, but how good you are at both and making sure you are rewarded for passing's increased risk as this is the way to more first downs, more points, and more wins.

Taking this framework as a given, we can now assess Ohio State's run-pass "balance"  this year.  Basically we are trying to assess whether Ohio State took a maximal or inefficient strategy under Game Theory based on yards per carry vs. yards per pass attempt.  Fortunately, TheOnlyColors.Com put together a great scatterplot graph plotting each Big Ten Team's yards per carry and yards per pass attempt in Big Ten play (MGoBlog discusses the same graph here):

As we can see here, in Big Ten play, Ohio State rushed for 5.2 yards and passed for 5.4 yards per attempt .  That means that Ohio State rushed too little because they do not have a sufficient pass premium built in!   According to Nash Equilibrium, Ohio State should have ran more in Big Ten play until they established a sufficient yards per attempt balance (by contrast Penn State has about the optimal balance; Iowa should have passed more).  If anything then, Jim Tressel was inefficient by not running the ball enough.

Two caveats apply.  The first , as Brown notes, is that such a study should ideally focus on First and Second down, because the goal on Third Down is not to maximize yards, but to gain a First Down.  This may make the above data not as refined, but my own intuitive sense is that because rush plays on Third Down are often short yardage plays, this may actually skew the stats in favor of passing, only further establishing the point.

The second, more important caveat, is that (I do not believe) this yards per pass attempts include Terrelle Pryor's rushing yards from scrambling on called pass plays (though I could be wrong, the study does not say).  Because this ability is a clear benefit to Ohio State's passing game, these numbers should be included in the yards per pass attempt.  However, I do not believe that those yards are sufficient to point the statistics in the other direction; very likely it would instead create a sufficient passing premium for Ohio State and  demonstrates that Ohio State came close to a Nash Equilibrium.*


Jim Tressel gets a lot of flak for being too conservative, and he would probably not argue the point too vigorously.  But, using Brown's position as a baseline, statistics from Big Ten play, and the caveat I state above, Ohio State was not "too conservative" in its playcalling.  Instead, it appears OSU wasentirely rational in their playcalling and perhaps did not run the ball enough.  Under Game Theory, Ohio State's run/pass balance was nearly spot on.  I would not be surprised if, following the Purdue game, the Ohio State staff studied similar statistics and saw they needed to run the ball more, leading to their late season gameplan.    

*By contrast, note that Brown's study of 2005 Texas included Vince Young's rushing stats in the rushes per carry--including his scrambles into the yards per pass attempt would have only increased the sub-optimal nature of the run-pass play calling for Texas that year).