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Duck Soup: How Cal's Defense Can Break Down Oregon's Zone Read

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For a look at Cal's offense versus Oregon's defense, go here.

After watching last year's tape on Oregon's offense, I came to three conclusions.

  • I am so relieved we don't have to deal with Max Unger, maybe even more so than with Nick Reed (and that's saying something).
  • I was surprised Oregon didn't run the outside zone read much in the 4th quarter.
  • Jeremiah Masoli has a future in ballet. He's light on his feet, and it shows with some awkward-looking throws.

After watching last week's tape of Oregon versus Utah (thanks to danzig for sending that to me), I came to three additional conclusions.

  • Cal is getting their first big running test of the year in LaMichael James.
  • The Oregon offensive line is still piecing things together.
  • If Cal can stop the run, they will win this game, because Jeremiah Masoli seems to be auditioning for So You Think You Can Dance in the backfield.

Note: I probably got all of these most a few of these zone plays wrong (I'm sure I could've placed a few draws and counters in each vid too). If there's anything you see, let me know and I'll add your corrections in the post. Thanks again to ieeebear, who cut the videos for Cal's offense against Oregon's defense too.

Inside zone rush attack

(Music: Disconnected by Aceyalone, produced by RJD2, who was born in Eugene! Here's the instrumental.)

You're probably disconnected watching this. What do these runs mean? More elaboration, plus other facets of Oregon's offense after the jump (Scroll all the way down for play-by-play breakdown of each play in each video!).

How do you think Cal will disrupt Oregon's zone-read offense? Can we stop their ability to run the football?



There are so many details and subtleties in Oregon's offense that I can't really go into huge detail about this

Here are some of Chip Kelly's notes. (Hat-tip to Trojan Football Analysis for these valuable notes).

We give the running back the opportunity to run the same path every time he receives the ball. We call it a J-path. The step looks like the letter J. The running back takes a slight open step with is playside foot. His second step replaces the spot where the QB’s foot was. On this third step he starts to square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage. The running back takes his step and aims at the butt of the frontside guard.


The second fundamental on the play is the fake when you do not have the ball. It is not a great play if the QB hands off to the running back and watches him run every time. The QB fake is critical and he has to accelerate off the disconnect in the mesh area. The action has to look the same whether the QB keeps the ball or not.


The same applies to the running back. He cannot get the ball pulled and stop running. We grade the running back on his fakes. If he does not penetrate the line of scrimmage on his fake he gets a loaf. He needs to stay on the front side when he does not get the ball. Obviously when he has the ball he runs to daylight.

That is the concept of the play. It has to look like it is hitting one way and it has to go the other.


Alright, if that stuff confused you, here are the bullet points.

  • Usually on zone read plays one player is left unblocked, almost always a defensive end (In Cal's case, it's usually a linebacker because we run the 3-4). You'll see in the video above, in order, Mohamed, Alualu, Williams, Kendricks going unblocked on the first four plays, and similar shenanigans occur on subsequent showings.
  • Misdirection. The idea is to fool the defensive end rushing to the wrong side. Against the Bears, this happened on the second play from scrimmage (and the first play in the video above), with both Williams and Mohamed digging against the run and giving Masoli the perfect angle to break to space for the score.
  • Selling the handoff. Crucial. A bungled fake/real handoff could blowup the play, or worse, lead to costly turnovers. Sadly, the replay angles aren't usually good enough for me to tell if it's a good fake or a bad fake, and even I wouldn't really know the difference. Anyone who knows better on selling fake draw handoffs, tell us what we should look for in the comments!
  • If he has the rock, the running back tries to hit the hole quickly to evade the linebacker. He doesn't hit it immediately, but the inside zone is a power play for the running back.
  • If he's handling, the quarterback looks to stretch the field. You'll see Masoli almost always go north-south toward the sidelines, or angle away from the offensive-line package.
  • In either case, the fake allows for greater gaps to open for the defense, and this allows teams like Oregon (with fast, quick athletes).

I'd say this is probably the most important video to watch to get a sense of the 2009 Duck offense. Against Utah, Oregon was doing almost exclusively inside zone reads, at least on their successful plays. We'll see plenty of these looks on Saturday, I'd say at least 55-60% of the plays will have some variation of the inside zone read.

Interestingly, during the Utah game, Masoli sometimes went inside into the teeth of the defense on the inside zone, which makes you wonder how much he trusts his linemen to seal the gaps. That doesn't mean he won't go outside--he caught the Utes biting not once but TWICE on the backside, racing untouched to the end zone with nary a defender within range.

As for LaMichael James, as a freshman, he's definitely got  moves.  Against Utah there was one particulary impressive play where the right guard completely whiffed on his block, the D-linemen came racing in to blow up the play, and James adjusted, spun around, and raced through the crease for 25 yards. Wow. You can't teach that stuff:

Also, there are times where he can hit the hole, stop and then go again. Running backs who usually charge ahead full steam hit a defensive wall and pretty much go again, but when you stop and go it allows you to adjust, maybe fall down and pick up extra yardage. He picked up a first down that way. He's a little elusive and definitely has a smaller frame (5'9" 180 pounds), which could pose difficulty if the offensive line executes its blocks.

There are of course deficiencies in his game. Most notably, and understandably, he doesn't quite have the vision yet to find the gaps, and took several wrong moves that ended with him getting cradled by a Ute. But for a freshman to get 152 yards on 27 carries against a 10 senior Utah defense...most impressive. I'd probably expect similar numbers this week against Cal.


Outside zone rush attack

Music: The Game by Jurassic 5, instrumental track here.

Here's the other variation on the zone read. See the differences between outside and inside?

Chip Kelly talks about what's going on here (big ups again TFA).

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.

The blocking rules for the offensive line 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. The farther you are from the point of attack, the more ground you can lose.

Again, bullet points for those who glossed over all that.

  • The big difference to notice between the inside and the outside zone run is the way the running back is moving his feet. Usually you'll see the inside zone run, the back is cutting to the hole and then cutting back if he can't find space. In the outside zone run, the Oregon back is usually running north to south until he finds a hole suitable for him to blast through. It's really difficult to discern the difference between the two, because sometimes a running back can get blown up on the coverage.
  • Look for that 90 degree turn. The moment a running back sniffs a hole, he turns right into it. Johnson was really good at this last year; Blount not so much against us, but better against other teams; James is a total unknown at this time.
  • You'll also see the blocking change a little. The O-linemen usually are moving forward on an inside zone read, here you'll see a lot more pulling or at the very least the backside opening up and moving to open holes in the area where the running back would turn 90 degrees inside.

Cal got killed on this play last year, as you can see during the last plays of the vid above. Signed, sealed, delivered by Max Unger. In the third quarter, Unger snapped, then immediately pulled and blocked out the unblocked defender. Every. Freaking. Time. You'll get some great clips near the end of the video of Worrell Williams getting engulfed like he was hugging Robert Paulson and Marcus Ezeff flying like a Dutchman.

If you wanted to say Unger was the most valuable offensive player, you get no arguments for me--he unleashed the runs responsible for the three sustained drives Oregon had the entire game, all in the 3rd quarter. Mysteriously though, I think Oregon ran the outside zone only once in the fourth quarter after falling behind by 10, and it didn't involve Unger. Thanks Coach Kelly!

Interestingly enough, against Utah, I don't think the Ducks went to the outside zone more than a handful of times. In the clips danzig sent me, I only noticed one involving James, and he was quickly chased down. I can kind of see why--at the moment the offensive line and downfield receivers aren't really doing their job grappling with their defenders, and the pull blocking really generates no momentum, not the way it did with Unger leading the charge. Utah's D-line had plenty of freedom to operate, and they had no trouble chasing down LaMichael going north and south.

This is probably where the Ducks miss Blount the most. He was unspectacular against the Bears and the Broncos, but he did have the vision to find a hole to cut to. Against the athletic Cal defenders, he was swallowed whole, but at least he gave the Ducks a second option in the zone attack.

Would Oregon try this anyway? I'd think they'd have to give it a shot, but the weapons that made this so effective (Unger, and his left guard pulling companion Jeff Kendall) aren't there, and Johnson and Blount are gone. That leaves Masoli as the only true weapon to the outside, and he hasn't nearly been effective as he was last season. I'd expect a lot of the plays to go inside, because the O-linemen at least seem competent at times doing this.

How should Cal beat the zone read?

Despite the succeses Oregon shows above, Cal has plenty of examples of them stuffing the run game. So it's not like the Ducks have gashed us. Several things are big on this front.

They need superior athletic play from the front seven. Cameron Jordan, Derrick Hill and Tyson Alualu got great penetration in the clips above, and Zack Follett, Mike Mohamed and Anthony Felder did some great work closing up the holes during the middle and later stages of the game. The athleticism needs to be on full display to make sure zone reads get blown up early and often, otherwise the Ducks might be able to break free for big, game-changing plays.

The front seven should have the experience and talent edge over the Oregon offensive line, but this is all contingent on the linebackers being solid in support. If the defensive line struggles at all in puncturing the gaps, Young, Kendricks, Holt, and Mohamed better be prepared to deal with Masoli's decision-making and make sure they don't freeze up on one or overpursue the other. They'll have plenty of unblocked opportunities, if the Ducks do stick with the inside zone rush.

Clamp down on the outside zone. It was only when they were turned to the outside and trying to chase Masoli and Johnson that the Bears nearly lost their grasp on last year's game. While Unger and Johnson are both gone, the Bears shouldn't take any chances with this. Any sniff of the outside zone read, bottle it up so that they don't think twice of doing it again. Keep the Ducks running in the middle of the field with the inside zone and take your chances with that.


Pass coverage 

Music: Wylin Out (RJD2 Remix)check out the instrumental used in the video here.

There isn't really much to say on this front. If Oregon has to rely on their passing game to win, they're fucked. SoCal Oski elaborates.

I love [Masoli]. He is nothing but guts and determination. But he can’t throw a freaking ball. JTLight is right to place the blame on his shoulders — but it’s not really as if anyone should be surprised. Masoli is just not a passing QB. He’s a running QB who can make some passes some time if the planets are aligned and Ganesh is feeling extra happy. Otherwise, if Oregon needs his arm to win, they are in a bad place.

The key in this area for Cal will be to have solid zone pass coverage. Big emphasis on zone. Yeah, I know, some people will be bitching about this because Adam Weber to Eric Decker killed us last week. Whatever. Oregon has no Eric Decker on their team, and even though Adam Weber isn't about to light the Big Ten on fire, he's still way ahead of Masoli in terms of pocket presence and precision throwing. (Staring his receivers down though? I'd say they're on the same playing field.

Against our zone coverage last season, he completed one-third of his passes in Memorial last year, and threw two terrible interceptions (both times he stared down his receiver, both times Cal defenders made plays on the ball).

The only time Masoli had a good throw against the Utes was in stride, downfield, against what looked to be man coverage (and I have no idea what happened to the defender on the play, either he got beat or tripped up). On another one, the Utah defender overpursued, and that led to a sizable gain. After that? Two more completions.

How much this has to do with having inexperienced receivers and O-line can be debated, but it's not going to be easier going against a Cal secondary that didn't have its greatest week and is looking to perform much better.

Look for the Ducks to try and exploit with the screen and the middle of the field, especially in obvious passing situations. Because, you know, everyone has. And if the run game stagnates, for the Ducks to win, Masoli is probably going to have to up it to at least 55-60%. Any figure below that against zone coverage without a decent run game is a recipe for doom.


Bonus: Extra runs

Music: Duck Tales for the win.

Mostly fly sweeps and draws/options I noticed here. Against Utah, I did notice some fly sweeps to take advantage of the receivers, including one fake. Masoli also did attempt a quarterback keeper here and there (Question: When he's drawing, is that a midline option? TFA identified it in the Holiday Bowl, and I've seen similar plays with these characteristics). I might be missing some of the counter plays, or I mistook some of them for zone rushes.

I expect Kelly to unload more running plays like this to surprise the Bears, because he knows that it's always a tough slog against the Bears's defense. And it'd probably be very difficult to win with the strategy he played last week. Expect either more outside zone runs or sweeps, something out of the ordinary.

California has had pretty good run defense against the best teams in the Pac-10 the past two seasons, even against Ducks. Although Oregon put up 206 ground yards in 2008 and 191 in 2007, it's fairly below their average of 280 and 252 yards per game those respective years, tied for second and sixth best rushing YPG in the country. Also, the Ducks averaged 4.9 and 4.1 rushing yards per carry in 2007 (9th in the country in YPC) & 2008 respectively (when they were numero uno), which are both fairly below those averages.

Stop the run (like we did in 2006 when we held), you stop the Ducks. Keep it going, and Oregon will be in this one to the end. Go for the kill Bears. The race to Pasadena is on.