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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Oregon Ducks Offense

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An impossible feat and I repeat. An impossible feat and I repeat. An impossible feat and I repeat.

The One Free Man.
The One Free Man.
Stephen Dunn

This week we wage battle against the Mighty O.  Of all the teams on our schedule, Oregon is the last one anyone would want to have to prepare for during a short week.  Sure, they get one fewer day to prepare for offense, but that's a topic for Nick's preview tomorrow.  Today we have 4,000 words of unrelenting despair.

Other than some stumbles induced by injuries to key players, Oregon's offense has continued to dominate opponents under Mark Helfrich's reign.  Their struggles under Helfrich have primarily occurred when key players were injuried.  After Marcus Mariota's MCL injury last season, the Ducks' offense dropped from 57.6 points per game to 31.3 points per game.  Without tackle Jake Fisher earlier this season, Oregon only scored 31 points per game, down from their average of 48.6 when Fisher plays.  Unfortunately for us, we have to contend with the (mostly) healthy Oregon offense.  Back at full strength, Oregon is well positioned to win the Pac-12 for the first time since the 2011 season.  Let's take a look at the offense that gives Pac-12 defensive coordinators sleepless nights.

Running

Oregon has run the ball slightly less under Mark Helfrich than it did under Chip Kelly.  Oregon ran on 58% of its plays last season and ran on 58% of its plays this season.  By contrast, Oregon ran 65% of the time in Chip Kelly's final year.  With a Heisman-caliber quarterback at the helm, Oregon has put more emphasis on the passing game.  The run game is still incredibly potent, however.

Scheme

We'll take a look at the bread and butter of Oregon's rush offense today: inside zone read, outside zone read, and option.  (Note: much of the following information and screenshots come from FishDuck.com. If you want to learn all the ins and outs of the Ducks offense, I strongly recommend you check out FishDuck.)

Inside Zone Read

Are you tired of reading about the inside zone read every week?  Of course you're not.  This week we learn from the masters of the zone read, the Oregon Ducks. Oregon uses both inside and outside zone read (they differ based on blocking and where the RB is designed to run). First, we'll introduce the inside zone read. The easiest way to tell that Oregon is going to run the inside zone read (IZR) is the alignment of the QB and the RB. If the RB is a yard to the left/right and a yard behind the QB, it's an inside zone read (unless, of course, it's actually a bubble screen, a play action pass, or an option).  I used this gif in last week's preview to help illustrate the difference between the inside zone read and outside zone read.

Secondly, you can tell it's an IZR by the way the O-line blocks the defenders. The linemen block straight ahead (downhill) on the IZR. Immediately after the snap the O-line typically opens a big hole between a tackle and a guard (see photo below).

Osu-overreaction-2_medium

via fishduck.com

At this point the QB will read the unblocked defender (typically a defensive end or outside linebacker) to determine whether to keep the ball or hand it off the RB. If the defender goes after the QB, he will hand it off to the RB who runs up the gut. If the defender goes after the RB, the QB will keep the ball. Take another look at the image above. If the defender goes after the RB, there is a TON of open grass for the QB to run. You DO NOT want to overpursue here. Force the QB to hand off every time and hope the D-line wins the line of scrimmage. They won't usually win that battle, but you still hope. Here's another illustrative example: if the QB keeps the ball, he's running around the edge, which is well sealed off by Ducks.

61-e1313720295332_medium

via fishduck.com

If the QB-RB positioning telegraphs to the defense that Oregon is running the IZR, why is it so successful? Execution and a numerical advantage. FishDuck explains:

There is also something much more subtle that I believe is the primary reason for Oregon’s success running the ball since the spread was implemented. If the DE isn’t blocked on the backside of the play, the blocking responsibilities shift over from one player to another on the play side. This means Oregon picks up AN EXTRA BLOCKER ON THE PLAY SIDE….where the play is going. That is HUGE! If we can get everyone covered blocking, "hat-on-hat" as they call it, then it shoots our running game through the roof, which in my mind is the principal reason we became one the nation’s leading rushing teams.

Why is it so successful? The numbers advantage.  Even if the defense reads the play perfectly, it cannot do much to defend it if they are outnumbered at the point of attack.

To defeat the IZR, you must defeat every player on the offensive line and prevent the ball-carrier from bouncing outside for a big gain. It's possible if you have a defense full of NFL-caliber players (Cal 2010, Stanford 2012), but extremely difficult.

Outside Zone Read

Now let's take a look at the outside zone read (OZR). Like the inside zone read, the pre-snap formation can tell us whether to expect an OZR. As we saw previously, the spacing between the running back and the QB tells you which variant of the zone read Oregon will run.  A second indicator is that the blocking is distinct from the IZR blocking. Here the linemen kick-step to the outside (the playside) as they move towards the perimeter.

Nm-lineup_medium

via fishduck.com

This is a very flexible play and there are many reasons that explain why defenses have such difficulty defending it. First, the RB usually reads the blocks and reacts accordingly. He may run through the gap between the playside guard and tackle, or he may run off tackle. Or he might cut back and run backside.  He typically has more options than in the inside zone read. He'll run wherever the best hole opens up, and this is often decided by the defense. Look at the following example:

Ozr_zps03be75a2_medium

USC's defense sees the pre-snap OZR formation and rushes its defenders (red arrows) to the edge of the playside (the direction linemen are blocking). That is bad news for the Trojans. The middle of the field has opened up (see the hole about to emerge at the yellow arrow) and that is exactly where TheMichael is running for this 45-yard touchdown. The defense was so concerned about the Ducks' speed around the edge that they left the middle of the field open. Oops!

Cutback lanes are lethal in the OZR. The Ducks count on overpursuit by the defense, which allows wide-open running lanes in the middle of the field. Sometimes the QB or RB will even run around the backside edge (opposite side the linemen are blocking).

You need an incredibly disciplined defense to stop this. The defense must cover the entire field and shut down the running lanes--that is a herculean task.  Have pity upon this poor Oregon State defense.

If you want to learn more about the OZR (I find it to be the most interesting play of the Oregon offense because it is so hard to defend), spend 10 minutes watching this FishDuck video:

If that's not bad enough, the Ducks like to combine their bread and butter with other ingredients. They'll playaction out of this and run bubble screens from this. The possibilities/horrors are endless.

Option

Not only does Oregon use inside zone read and outside zone read, they also run the option.  FishDuck calls this variant the straddled triple option. It's a combination of the IZR and an option. As the image below illustrates, Oregon lines up in what appears to be its IZR. For added fun, they bring the WR across the field, behind the QB.

Sto-1-534x269_medium

via fishduck.com

When the ball is snapped, the QB runs the standard IZR. He can elect to hand the ball off to the RB or he can keep the ball. If he keeps the ball, he still has the option of pitching it to the WR.

Sto-2-534x279_medium

via fishduck.com

Fortunately for the Virginia defense, the QB opted to hand the ball off to the RB who was stopped for a loss thanks to Virginia's ability to overpower the guards and center.

Oregon will also run this from a two-back set, as I illustrate in the following gif.

What's particularly disheartening is that Tennessee had this play well defended but Mariota was too quick for the defensive end to make the tackle.

Personnel/Stats

For the first time in years the Oregon rushing attack looks mortal.  After the unstoppable death machine of the past few years, Oregon's run game has slowed down a bit this year.

  • 217.3 yards per game (21st)
  • 5.26 yards per carry (26th)

These are still great statistics, but it's not on par with what we've seen from Oregon during the past five years.  These numbers are down from 6.26 yards per carry and 273.5 yards per game in 2013 and 5.97 and 315 in 2012.

Oregon has a new weapon in the run game and he is going to be a handful for our defense.

  • RB #21 Royce Freeman: 90.86 yards per game, 5.58 yards per carry, 11 TDs
  • QB #8 Marcus Mariota: 41.29 yards per game, 8.00 ypc, 5 TDs
  • RB #24 Thomas Tyner: 39.86 yards per game, 4.23 ypc, 1 TD
  • RB #9 Byron Marshall: 35.57 yards per game, 8.30 ypc, 1 TD

Let me tell you about Royce Freeman.  The true freshman is a 6'0", 229lb monster of a running back.  He already has the build of an every-down back in the NFL.  He doesn't have elite speed (4.58 second 40-yard dash), but he doesn't need it because he will bulldoze any defenders unfortunate enough to get in his way.  He is not fast enough to pull away from defenders in space, but he has decent lateral speed and cutting ability.  Freeman is a patient back who waits for his blocks to develop before hitting the hole.  Arm tackles are useless against Freeman; he needs to be met at the point of attack with strong, fundamental tackling technique.  If our tackling issues carry over from last week, Freeman will destroy our defense.

Royce Freeman has accumulated the bulk of his carries, yards, and touchdowns in the last four games after starting the season as a backup running back.  As the featured back in the last three games he has run for 85, 121, and 169 yards and scored 0, 2, and 4 touchdowns.  If these stats continue to grow at their current levels, he will run for 229 yards and 6 touchdowns on Friday.  That is science talking and you cannot argue with science.

The team's second leading rusher is Marcus Mariota.  The 6'4", 215lb quarterback is a capable, elusive runner who has 371 yards and 5 TDs on 10.9 yards per carry after adjusting for sacks.  He averages about six carries per game.  Although they combined for over 1700 yards and 23 TDs last season, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner have taken back seats to Royce Freeman this season.  Freeman is that good.

The offensive line has three seniors who combined for 110 career starts prior to this season.  Until the loss of left tackle Tyler Johnstone to an ACL tear, this looked like one of the best run blocking lines in the nation.  With All-American caliber center Hroniss Grasu and right tackle Jake Fisher, this is still an excellent line despite some inexperience at the tackle positions.

Passing

If you're feeling optimistic after seeing those Oregon rushing stats, I'm going to put a quick end to that optimism. The Oregon passing game is led by Marcus Mariota, the best QB in the Pac-12 and one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.  Sonny Dykes had the blessing/curse to face both Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota.  He says Mariota is the better quarterback.  He's bigger.  He's faster.  He's stronger.  And worst of all, he's a really nice guy and a good student.  At Pac-12 Media Days he comes across as a friendly, polite, confident player and there's really no reason to harbor dislike for Mariota.

Until he embarrasses our defense on Friday.

Scheme

Oregon's passing game will stretch the defense both vertically and horizontally to put its playmakers in open space.  They will also (to a much lesser extent this year) use some of the screen elements we saw last week against UCLA.  Instead of revisiting these concepts again, I'm taking a different approach to previewing the Oregon passing game.  I'm going to show some mistakes that teams commonly make against the Oregon offense.  This highlights two lessons that teams often learn the hard way against Oregon

Lesson #1: TRUST YOUR TEAMMATES AND STICK TO YOUR ASSIGNMENT

Oregon is good at running the ball.  Opposing defenses know that.  And Oregon knows that opposing defenses know that.  Oregon looks for defenses to overcommit to the run and attacks them when they make mistakes.

Below Oregon sends five receivers into the passing lanes (ESPN cut off the receiver at the bottom because their camera operators are terrible).  The receiver and tight end run go routes on the boundary side of the formation.  The RB runs a drag route and serves as a safety valve for Mariota.  The inside receiver on the field side (green route) hangs out behind the line of scrimmage and looks to be waiting for a screen pass.  Meanwhile the outside receiver runs a go route.  The circled defender is about to make a big mistake.

When Mariota first surveys the field, he sees that his receivers are mostly covered and he takes off.  The circled Tennessee defender loses sight of the inside receiver and bites on Mariota's run.  Mariota immediately recognizes this and turns this blown play into a 25-yard gain.

Had the CB stuck to his receiver, the D-lineman would have forced Mariota towards the sideline while the weakside outside linebacker could have stopped him after a ~10-yard gain.

In the next example Oregon lines up trips receivers on the right.  Tennessee is in quarters coverage (each DB is responsible for one quarter of the field).  Prior to the snap, this looks like it could be a screen.  The circled defender thinks its a screen and makes a colossal mistake.

The circled DB thinks this is a bubble screen based on the innermost trips receiver's movement behind the line of scrimmage (a clear sign that he's expecting to be a receiver on a screen pass).  Instead of sticking to the outside WR, the DB gets greedy and tries to blow up the play behind the line of scrimmage.

Because the Vols are in quarters coverage, no one is behind that DB to save this touchdown.  Instead of trusting the linebacker to maintain his assignment, the DB tries to buy a few yards on a TFL and ends up giving up a touchdown.

The main reason the 2010 defense turned in such a masterpiece of a performance against Oregon was because everyone stuck to their assignments and trusted their teammates to do their jobs.  Without any safety valves, a Cover-0 approach requires unwavering commitment from the defenders.  Regardless of the coverage the Bears employ against Oregon, defenders cannot betray their assignements and, by extension, their teammmates.

The next lesson should sound very familiar.

Lesson #2: ALWAYS COVER THE TIGHT END

The tight end is a slippery beast in the Oregon defense.  He will look like an ordinary blocker until he releases into the flat for a wide open reception.  Or he will slip past defenders when they shift their focus to the QB or RB.

In our first example Oregon runs a slip screen at the top of the screen.  The outside WR at the bottom runs a go route.  The focal receivers of our play are the RB and the tight end.  The RB runs a drag route and the TE looks like he's blocking the middle line backer.  He's not.

After briefly engaging with the LB the TE breaks free and finds a huge hole between the LBs and the DBs.  Those go routes pulled several of the DBs too far downfield to stop the TE before he turns this into a huge gain.

We even need to keep track of the tight end during seemingly obvious run plays.  Look at this image below.  It looks like a garden variety outside zone read.

Mundt-1-534x278_medium

via fishduck.com

BUT IT'S NOT: it's a naked bootleg.   And look who is about to break free for a big gain: the tight end.

Mundt-2-534x265_medium

via fishduck.com

So now we have to cover the outside zone read AND cover the tight end?  Yes we do.  Let's watch Oregon do it again.

Here is another outside zone read that turns into a big play for the tight end.  The tight end looks like he's run blocking until he releases and heads downfield.  The safety in the middle of the field reads this as a run play and goes flying towards the line of scrimmage.  This leaves no one to cover the tight end.

DOOOOOOM.

Mariota will surgically attack any hesitation or miscommunication in our defense.

Personnel/Stats

Abandon hope all ye who continue reading.

  • 309.7 yards per game (15th)
  • 10.4 yards per attempt (1st)
  • 192.06 pass efficiency rating (1st)

This is just ridiculous.  Not only does Oregon have the best efficiency rating in the nation, but the next team's rating is only 179.  That is a huge difference.

Somehow, some way, Oregon manages to upgrade its quarterback every time the previous one graduates.  Marcus Mariota may be the best QB yet in the Ducks' recent series of excellent QBs.  Not bad for a guy whose only scholarship offers were from Memphis and Oregon.

  • QB #8 Marcus Mariota: 279.6 yards per game, 70.2% completions, 10.4 yards per attempt, 19 TDs, 0 interceptions
  • WR #5 Devon Allen: 62.9 yards per game, 19.13 yards per reception, 6 TDs
  • RB #9 Byron Marshall: 55.4 yards per game, 11.41 yards per reception, 3 TDs
  • TE #85 Pharaoh Brown: 44.9 yards per game, 17.44 yards per reception, 3 TDs
  • WR #7 Keanon Lowe: 44.3 yards per game, 15.65 yards per reception, 4 TDs

Marcus Mariota is a fantastic quarterback.  He owns an impressive collection of awards and records.  He was the first-team All-Pac-12 QB in 2012 and 2013 and named the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2012.  He has earned Oregon's Team MVP award for two consecutive years and won the CFPA Quarterback Trophy last year.  He owns Oregon's single-season and career records for yardage and touchdowns.  His 6-TD game against Cal in 2012 set Oregon's single-game passing TD record.  And he's only halfway done terrorizing defenses this season.

Among his incredible stats is that Mariota has not thrown an interception yet this season.  That seems like a great accomplishment until you realize that last year Mariota set the Pac-12 record with 353 consecutive passes without an interception.  The steak came to an end after he regressed following a partial tear of his MCL last season.  Currently at a pedestrian 240 consecutive passes without an interception, Mariota could break his own record next month if he continues at his current pace.

Although meteorological intervention spared us from the full wrath of Mariota in 2013, the QB threw 3,665 yards on 8.7 yards per attempt and had a fantastic 36:4 touchdown to interception ratio.  Although he's a brilliant quarterback, Mariota doesn't play very well underwater and only threw for 114 yards on 44% completions against the Bears last season.  He's more than capable of embarrassing our defense, as he did in 2012 to the tune of 377 yards and 6 touchdowns.

What's even more impressive is that Mariota is doing this with a new cast of characters in the receiving corps.  Josh Huff has reunited with Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, De'Anthony Thomas has moved onto Kansas City, Daryle Hawkins has graduated, and Braylon Addison tore his ACL and has missed the entire season.  Those players together accounted for about 2,500 receiving yards last season.

None of the returning players had more than 18 receptions last season.  Oregon's leading receiver this season Devon Allen is a standout athlete in track and field who has translated his incredible speed to the football field.  He will be Oregon's best deep threat against the Bears.  Byron Marshall is a big, physical player who is not particularly fast.  Despite his team-leading production as a running back last season, he leads the team in receptions this season.  Tight end Pharaoh Brown is still learning to stay disciplined (he was suspended for last year's Alamo Bowl and draws too many flags for Helfrich's taste) but is a dangerous receiver who can catch a defense by surprise with his big play ability.  I sincerely hope he's not the second coming of Ed Dickson.

The Oregon offensive line had some issues with pass protection following injury to Jake Fisher.  Against Washington State the Ducks started a walk-on and a true freshman at the tackle positions.  Mariota was sacked 7 times by the Cougs.  The line has improved substantially since his return and has only given up 11 sacks in the remaining 6 games.  The line held up very well against UW's pass rush and only surrendered three sacks, two of which were during garbage time.


Miscellaneous

It's only going to get worse from here.

Total Offense

As is their modus operandi, Oregon puts up plenty of points and incredible yardage quantities on remarkably efficient play.

  • 43.6 points per game (6th)
  • 527.0 yards per game (11th)
  • 7.41 yards per play (4th)

Ugh.

Conversions.

With such a diverse offense, Oregon is great at executing in difficult situations.

  • 51.72% third down conversions (6th)
  • 73.53% red zone TD conversions (15th)

If by some bizarre happenstance Oregon finds itself in a third down situation, the Ducks are very good at converting third downs.  They are also lethal in the red zone (although they frequently score long TDs that negate the need to play in the red zone).

Negative Yardage

  • 2.57 sacks allowed per game (101st)
  • 5.43 tackles for loss allowed per game (54th)
  • 3 turnovers (T-1st)

Much of Oregon's negative yardage occurred when Jake Fisher went down with injury.  I do not expect to see them move backwards much on Friday (especially against our defense).

Clock Management

This should come as no surprise.

  • 25:19.86 average time of possession (125th)
  • 71.1 plays per game
  • 21.36 seconds per play (moderately fast pace)

Oregon's fast pace and propensity for quick scores lead the Ducks to have one of the worst time of possession in the nation (this is typical for them).  I was surprised to see how much slower their pace is this year, however.  The Ducks ran a play every 20.48 seconds in 2013 and 20.68 seconds in both 2012 and 2011.  That 2012 pace is even more impressive when you consider how much more frequently Oregon ran that season.

Conclusions

Oregon runs the best offense in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the nation.  The Ducks will test the discipline of our front seven with a barrage of inside zone read, outside zone read, and option.  Stopping this means stopping one of the best running QBs in the nation and containing a bulldozer of a running back.  If we show the slightest hint of overcommitting ourselves to the run, Marcus Mariota will find the hole in the defense and he will exploit it.  It is paramount for our defense to stick to their assignments and execute.  The only thing worse than having a defender blow his assignment is having a teammate abandon his assignment to assist.  Errors against this defense are multiplicative.  Once the bleeding starts, it will not stop.  May Oski have mercy on our souls.