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Opponent Defense Preview: Oregon Ducks

In an offensive showdown on Montlake, can the Duck defense slow down Penix & the Husky passing attack?

Washington v Oregon Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

For the first time in the 100+ year history of the UW-Oregon rivalry, both teams will face off as with a top 10 ranking. Interestingly, the top 10 ranking isn’t the only thing the two programs have in common for this year’s matchup. Veteran Heisman hopeful QBs lead high-powered offenses that have defined each team’s success this season (yes, technically Bo Nix is a Heisman hopeful), and both defenses have looked improved in their second year under the current staff. Improvement is all relative though. On both sides of this game, the defenses have looked phenomenal when playing flawed opponents, but questions still linger if either is truly ready to stand toe-to-toe against an elite offense.

The Scheme & Personnel

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 Washington at Oregon Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Year one of the Lanning era down in Eugene was defined by their offense, despite his defensive background, but year two has seen the Duck defense continue their transition towards the style of defense that Lanning ran while at Georgia. It’s cliché to use the “just wait until [insert coach’s name] gets his guys” line, but I actually think there’s some merit to it in Oregon’s case last year. Some of their key pieces just didn’t fit Lanning’s scheme.

To understand what I mean by that, I have to take a not so quick tangent to explain how Lanning approaches defense, and that means I have to explain Georgia’s defense. At one point I was working on an exhaustive breakdown of modern spread defenses, specifically Georgia’s defense, but since I never got around to finishing it, here’s a few of the key points that apply to this weekend’s matchup against Oregon:

  • 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

Now I know that’s a lot of jargon, so let me try to translate that into something easier.

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 Donta 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. 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.

A size comparison between the 2009 Alabama defense and the 2017 Georgia defense

What really elevated Georgia’s defense was their elite talent and their fit within the scheme. Fast and instinctive LBs who can scrape and run to plug gaps, paired with stout yet athletic DL, have already proven to be a deadly combination. Nick Aliotti’s Oregon defenses in the late 00’s and early 10’s heavily utilized a version of the tite/”Mint” front during the Chip Kelly era, and they used two future 1st-round defensive linemen (DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead) in this front to protect their pair of smaller/athletic (and relatively unheralded) ILBs to produce a top 15 defense in 2013. Georgia did the same but with a 5-star combo at ILB.

Last year, Oregon didn’t have those LBs to make the defense click (and to a lesser extent the right DBs to turbo charge the defense). Oregon’s most talented LB was Noah Sewell, but he was built in the mold of Donta Hightower. He was big and physical, but he wasn’t a sideline-to-sideline guy. Justin Flowe had the traits and talent, but he didn’t have the instincts and mastery of the scheme to capitalize. This year, Oregon’s gotten leaner and more athletic at LB. Guys like Jamal Hill, Jeffrey Bassa, and Bryce Boettcher have all gotten extended snaps at ILB while playing at or under 230 lbs. When paired with athletic and versatile OLBs like Mase Funa, Emar’rion Winston, and Teitum Tuioti, Oregon’s been able to call a much more multiple defense where pressure and coverage assignments can be varied from down to down and present a more confusing look for opposing defenses.

Confusion on offense helps the pass rush, and a good pass rush helps the coverage. My impression of the secondary is that they’re talented, and they have depth, but I don’t get the feeling that their high-end talent is producing at the same level as last year’s squad featuring Christian Gonzalez. I also don’t think that they’re playing as cohesively as they’d like just yet with a few coverage busts or loose hand offs in coverage biting them against a few opponents. There will be opportunities to win down field, but everything is predicated on stopping their pass rush.

Keys to the Game

Washington v Oregon Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

It might not fit the narrative heading into this game, but I think that the OL and steady play calling will be the key to our offense’s success against this Oregon defense. Everyone’s expecting a shoot out, but it’ll be more important to stay efficient and on schedule than being blindly aggressive going for the deep pass. An effective run and screen game should help take the edge off the pass rush, and there’s a few formational tricks that can help decipher the pass rush/coverage disguises, but it’ll all come down to how our OL does against a talented defensive front. Parker Brailsford will have his most difficult challenge to date keeping the whole unit in sync, but his performances so far have been extremely promising.

As for the play calling, Coach Grubb and Coach DeBoer have a long track record of being effective play callers and successful game managers, but situational play calling will be extremely important this week. Those decisions ended up being the difference in last season’s game, and there have been times this season where it felt like we weren’t making the calls necessary to maximize our chances of winning. Take Arizona for example. On the second to last possession, we called three pass plays and a couple deep shots when Arizona had the offensive momentum on their side. Instead of trying to run out the clock, it felt like we were pressing for the kill shot. If it worked, then no one would’ve batted an eye, but instead we had to hold our breath on an onside kick attempt. I’m still confident that we’ll have a good game plan for situations like this, but it is something worth keeping an eye on.