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Opponent Defensive Preview: Oregon Ducks

Can the Mallards stymie the high-flying Husky passing attack?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 06 Oregon at Washington Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This is the week everyone’s had circled on the calendar. It’s Washington-Oregon week in the Pacific Northwest, and the stakes are high. Our Huskies have rebounded from a pair of conference road losses to find themselves at #25 in the latest CFP rankings with a shot at a 10-win season in the first year of the Kalen DeBoer era. Similarly, #6 Oregon has shaken off an abysmal start to their season and is tearing through the Pac-12 with a clear shot at a conference title game berth and a spot in the College Football Playoffs if they can make it through the conference unscathed. While we don’t have as clear of a path to the post-season, and aren’t favored in this match up, there are definitely weak links in the Oregon defense that our offense can take advantage of.

The Scheme & Personnel

Oregon v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Despite hiring their first defensive-minded HC in decades, the Ducks still have an offense-centric identity. While HC Dan Lanning’s defense is talented by Pac-12 standards and shouldn’t be considered a weakness by any stretch, it certainly doesn’t deserve the type of respect that his Georgia defenses commanded. By and large, Lanning has imported many of the principles that Georgia utilized in their championship defense, so I started my research there.

From the research I’ve done on UGA’s defense even before Oregon hired Lanning (usual offseason nerding out), the scheme isn’t some new innovation in any one area. Instead, it combines a number of concepts that have popped up at different programs to create a fundamentally sound scheme that allows them to answer the key questions of modern defense while maintaining the multiplicity and basic defensive structures that made Nick Saban & Kirby Smart’s defenses so dangerous during their run in the late ‘00s.

The key changes between the Alabama defenses of Kirby Smart’s early career and the 2021 Georgia defense under Smart and Dan Lanning were as follows:

  • 3-4 type LOS personnel in a tite/”Mint” front (3 down DL + 1 OLB on the LOS)
  • Mint front controlling interior gaps allowed for smaller and more athletic LBs
  • Emphasis on simulated pressure from multiple angles (“creepers”) rather than blitzing numbers
  • Designed pressure packages with an “aggressive” QB spy that is a blend between QB spy/delayed blitzer. Intent is to eliminate QB scrambles up the middle and provide LBs with blitz reads that are reactive to line protection post-snap
  • Setting defensive alignment to the passing strength
A conventional 3-4 alignment with a NT, 2 DEs over the OTs & 2 OLBs on the line of scrimmage.

Traditional 3-4 defenses had massive ILBs in order to handle their run responsibilities. This was because in the conventional 3-4 alignment (5-0-5 techs), the NT would tie up the center and maybe one OG, and the DEs would tie up the OTs, but there would be “bubbles” (uncovered/unoccupied iOL) where the LBs would be the primary run support in those gaps. This meant that more often than not, OGs would have clean shots at the ILBs, who therefore needed to be big enough to handle these blockers (think 6-3, 260lb Dont’a Hightower). These ILBs are not suited for coverage, so the defensive front would have to be reshuffled on passing downs in order to get better coverage personnel.

UGA’s Mint front keeps 3-4 defensive structures & gap assignments while protecting the interior gaps & the LBs at the second level.

Georgia’s Mint front, or a tite odd front as I know it, has been around for years, and they are modern 3-4 defenses’ response to spread 10/11 personnel. By kicking the DEs inside of the OTs, the DL could eliminate the bubbles in the defensive front so LBs didn’t have to worry as much about getting bulldozed by unblocked OL on standard downhill run plays like Duo. This means that the smaller athletes that could keep up in coverage on passing downs could still get the job done in the run game by spilling runs to the perimeter and making it a game of speed. However, spilling runs to the perimeter still isn’t a new strategy that suddenly spawned a dominant defense. It just allowed Georgia to put their most athletic LBs on the field at all times and utilize them in roles that suited their talents.

Oregon v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The problem for Lanning at Oregon is that some of his best players didn’t fit this new age style of defense. A LB like Noah Sewell is certainly an elite talent, but his style of play reminds me a lot of the aforementioned Dont’a Hightower. He’s a big and physical LB who can charge downhill with the best of them, but his value in pass defense is based on his pass rush abilities and not his coverage. If your defensive scheme is designed to use athleticism and versatility at the second level as a force multiplier, then having a one-dimensional LB like Sewell somewhat limits the ceiling of the defense. Teams like WSU and Arizona have already identified this in their game plans and tried to force Oregon to chase plays sideline-to-sideline. They were also able to more easily identify pressure looks given the playing tendencies of guys like Sewell.

Now that isn’t to say that Oregon isn’t effective with the players they have. Sewell still graded out well in PFF’s analysis, largely due to his run stuffing and pass rushing abilities, and the rest of the Oregon defense is made up of talented players that are good at their respective roles. Defensive linemen Brandon Dorlus and DJ Johnson have racked up pressures through out the season, and DBs Christian Gonzalez, Bryan Addison, and Dontae Manning have all graded out well primarily due to their strong tackling. I don’t think anyone would consider their secondary to be “lock down” quality, but when you can limit explosive plays after the catch and pressure the QB at a decent rate, you can make enough stops to win games with an explosive offense.

Keys to the Game

Oregon v Washington Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

As I’ve already alluded to, the key to this game will be to pick on Oregon’s weak links and tendencies on defense. Other teams have already proven that forcing Oregon’s LBs to run sideline to sideline and stick in coverage against our explosive pass catchers can be a recipe for success. I expect Grubb to lean heavily on our auxiliary pass catchers like Cam Davis, Devin Culp, and Jack Westover to win their match ups against Oregon’s LBs, and if the Ducks adjust by bringing pressure and leave their DBs on islands, then it’ll be time for our WRs to feast on the wide open underneath zones.

Pass protection will be another key to the game. Our offensive line has held up all season against a number of talented defensive fronts, but we’ve had our challenges when we over exert them with slow developing shots downfield. I expect Grubb to adjust with a heavier dose of screens, the quick passing game, and max protections to make sure that Penix is kept clean in the pocket.

This’ll be a huge opportunity for the Huskies to prove that they’re back from the depths of the Jimmy Lake era, and this is a match up that could turn into a shootout.