How Oregon Responds to Defensive Strategies
The Oregon offense has made some great adjustments this season to teams strategy of stopping the zone read. I’m going to walk through and explain how Oregon uses different running plays to counter adjustments by opposing defenses. (Disclaimer: In an effort to be instructive to a wide audience, hardcore x’s and o’s like me or the big fan who doesn’t have a strong background in the offense, I’m trying to find a balance between simplifying as much as possible but keeping the intricacies of each facet in tact. If you have a question or something is unclear please post something in the comments and I’ll address it.) I’ll cover the two basic zone reads, the pitch toss, switching who gets read on defense, the play action, triple option, and bubble screen, as well as how the defenses address each situation.
Outside Zone Read
There are two basic types of zone reads. The first is an outside zone read. No matter who the offense reads the running back is going to be moving side to side. While the offense zone blocks a whole will eventually form and the running back puts his foot in the ground and hits the hole hard. This one cut offense is what makes players like LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner so dangerous. In years past you could tell it was an outside zone read based on the position of the running back. If he was directly next to the quarterback, to the left or right, it was an outside zone read. Outside zone reads can key on many different players, most commonly the backside defensive end.
In this instance we see a goal line scenario and in the past Kelly used to read the defensive tackle because it moved a lot of space. If the defensive tackle went after the running gap there was a gaping hole for the quarterback to run through. If he stayed at home, like in this scenario, the handoff to LaMichael James is easy and he turns the corner for a touchdown.
Inside Zone Read
The second basic zone read is the inside zone read. The last few years the obvious cue for it was when the running back was next to, but behind the quarterback. Most of these reads were play side defensive ends and linebackers. This means that the Ducks are attacking one half of the field, the running back will run in to the hole opened by the defender staying at home, or the quarterback will pull the ball if the quarterback chases the running back and run to the space the defender vacated.
The inside zone read shredded Stanford in 2010 and here is a textbook example. Here the outside linebacker is being read (Stanford plays a 3-4 so the ends are to close to the middle of the line so the outside linebackers are better. The linebacker stays at home and it’s a handoff to LaMichael James for easy yards.
The Ambiguous Backfield
As stated, one of the cues as to which play Oregon was running was the position of the running back in the backfield. In multiple documents of Chip Kelly’s offense and statements he’s made he didn’t care. Now though, that appears to have changed. The backfield that the offense creates can now run an inside or outside zone read play without giving away the play. The running back is no longer clearly behind the quarterback or a far enough distance to the right or left of the quarterback to determine if it’s an inside zone read or an outside zone read. We saw this early on in the LSU game. In this example James lines up in the outside zone read but takes a hop to an inside zone read spot. However, this is a power play at the goal line, but it shows that Kelly is looking to throw the defense off and the placement of the running back won’t be a giveaway. Click to 5:08 to see this.
If you go back and watch any highlights from the year you’ll see a backfield that is to the side and slightly behind, allowing for an inside, or outside zone read from the formation. So what does this mean for opposing defenses? They have to get back to traditional keys. Linebackers and safeties are always taught to watch the line, and more specifically the guards. If the guard pulls to one direction, that’s where the play is going. If they pass block, it’s a pass. If they go straight ahead, it’s a run straight ahead.
Here is an example of the kick step in action. It’s also called a reach block because the blocker is “reaching” to get to the outside and push the lineman back inside. If the defender pushes outside hard then the offensive lineman can push him to the sideline and it will create a hole behind him.
The inside zone read has some similarities. You can see in this photo that the linemen are stepping to the right, but it’s not to reach, it’s to create a gap between defensive tackle and end in this case given the 3-4 front. You can see the players with defensive linemen in front of them are going straight ahead. (The zones only really apply to offensive linemen who don’t have a defensive lineman directly in front of them. If they do have someone in front of them they block the person in front of them, otherwise they double team and then mesh block to the second level.) The center and tackle in this case attack straight ahead, both guards mesh play side and will move to the second level.
The Scrape Technique
The scrape technique is a way to counter the offense reading the defensive end. The standard key is that if the end chases the running back the quarterback pulls the ball, otherwise the quarterback hands it off. The defensive response to this is to have the defensive end chase the running back every time and for the linebacker on the backside fill the spot and wait for the quarterback. I diagrammed this HERE. The counter to this, as seen in the link, is to block the defensive end, and rather than try to block the outside linebacker who is scraping the quarterback will simply read him.
Get Speed and Flow
The LSU defense gave a ton of problems for the Oregon offense because the defensive penetration slowed down the running back and the player who was read could come to a full stop and then catch up to the running back who was still waiting for a whole to open. Defenses are getting faster now as a reaction to spread offenses focusing on speed. No matter what strategy a defense has, almost all is lost if they defense is way slower than the offense.
Another strategy is to flow very hard to where the ball is going. The backside player will stay at home but hedge to the play. All the players not read will flow to the ball and up field as a way to create a hole that leads the back towards the read player. Teams got incredibly aggressive about flowing to the ball, like the Huskies, and that’s when the Ducks saw the pitch play which I went in to extreme detail HERE. It uses the flow against them by creating great leverage on blocks.
As a way to also cut off pursuit and create gaping holes in the middle Oregon began reading the defensive tackle. The Ducks did a lot more often with Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback because he could run over a linebacker, but we saw it again in the USC game this year. The stretch play works really well because it pulls linemen and creates leverage. It opens up alleys on the outside. That is diagrammed HERE. (Next three links are to this same article, but just put in three links in case you’re browsing quickly).
The final threat the defense makes is to bring in the safety to the box and essentially spy the quarterback. This simply brings too many players in to run a simple zone read. There are two options the Ducks have from here.
First, there’s the triple option. Often times the receiver will motion in to the backfield and come behind the quarterback as the ball is snapped. If the outside linebacker cuts to the running back and the safety spies then the quarterback can pitch to the wide receiver. I detailed this play HERE.
Secondly, the bubble screen is the best option. If the safety comes in to the box there is going to be a numbers advantage on the edge. If the safety crashes in the quarterback can quickly hit a receiver on the perimeter and get some easy yards. I went talk about that HERE.
Chip Kelly is Always Ahead
Defenses are reactive and Chip Kelly is doing a great job at staying ahead of the defense and having an answer for any strategy the defense can implement. When you’re going against Nick Fairley or the LSU defensive line there’s not much you can do to out-strategy talent, but against mortals there are a lot of strategies to keep the offense running at full speed.