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

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