Oregon’s Offensive Strategies As Seen Against Colorado
Against Colorado Oregon used the ace formation and jet sweeps that haven’t been seen since the national championship game. There are a few interesting takeaways from the jet sweep play and the screen options that Oregon creates for itself.
The spread offense is a great equalizer. It takes speed, puts it in space, and forces defenses to keep up. It’s easier on the quarterback because since the defense is so spread out they can’t hide their intentions as easily, often it’s a dead giveaway. The zone read originally gave the offense the chalk last by reading the defensive end and doing the opposite, essentially making him wrong every time there’s a play. If the defensive end stays at home to guard the quarterback then the ball goes opposite with the running back, if he chases the running back the quarterback keeps and runs in the gap the end vacated.
Now these principles extend to passing options. As defenses get faster and defensive coordinators learn ways to counter the spread’s tactics, the offense need to evolve. Oregon has been at the forefront of evolving under Chip Kelly (but then everyone knew that).
This is a tunnel screen pass to De’Anthony Thomas that reaches the end zone against Colorado in the last Oregon game. But believe it or not, this look was the second option on the play. Here we have two receivers right, David Paulson on the left, Tra Carson next to the cornerback on the weak side, and De’Anthony Thomas motioned out of the backfield to the near side of the field.
The ball is snapped and Bryan Bennett’s first read is at the Mike linebacker (the middle linebacker). The outside linebacker to the wide side is blitzing and the safety is rolling over the top to the bubble screen. That is a lot of the players flowing to the football. However, if the mike linebacker had not flown to the wide side then there would have been a numbers advantage for the offense and Bryan Bennett would have hit him for a big gain. Since the linebackers flow to the wide side Bryan Bennett looks at his second option, De’Anthony Thomas.
Bryan Bennett, after seeing the linebacker move to cover Tra Carson looks to his second option, De’Anthony Thomas. De’Anthony Thomas, although not shown due to crappy camera work by Root Sports (shocking!), is cutting towards the middle of the field and is waiting for the pass. By the time he catches the pass the near side guard will take the deep safety, the center will take the playside linebacker, and the other guard will perform a chop block on the defensive tackle who was within tackling range of Thomas.
This frame you can clearly see how great the blocking was and De’Anthony Thomas has a wide-open lane for a touchdown. This play was so successful because there were two plays in one. The receivers were bunched together and the bunch that would get looked at was dependent on the movement of the linebackers. Let’s take a look at another screen pass that set up the De’Anthony Thomas touchdown.
Here we have a 2×2 formation, meaning two receivers to each side. I’ve drawn in yellow lines showing the clear man to man matchups that Colorado showed presnap. This means that the safeties are doing some form of deep coverage, I would’ve guessed standard cover 2 pre-snap but instead the Buffs did a little rotation with the safeties where they swapped sides and slid to right, away from the camera.
The safety that started deep on the far side rotates towards the center of the field. Since he moves between the hash marks we know this is either a cover 3 or cover 1 by rule. In this case the Buffs are in man coverage so we know it is a cover 1. The Buffs might have checked in to this due to a matchup on the far side because Oregon ran four verticals and the safeties only slid to the far side. Regardless, you can see Bryan Bennett looking deep at the safeties and he is standing strong in the pocket. Throwing deep is his first look and he sees that the safeties are going to protect the deep ball. If the safeties hadn’t covered deep it would be an easy deep pass to a wide receiver who has a step on a single defensive back. So the second option is to hit Kenjon Barner in the are vacated. You can see in this photo the linebacker who matched up on him pre snap is now blitzing after recognizing that Barner is in pass protection.
Look at all that green area in the middle of the field. Two linemen have released down field and the only people with their eyes towards the quarterback are the two safeties who can get picked up by the linemen. This was a huge gain for the Ducks on third down and on their second touchdown drive.
Here’s the safety pickup I was talking about. The Oregon line is very quick and it’s a huge help to the offense that they can pick up blocks in space. Another play where the blockers need to pick up people in space is the jet sweep play which we saw more than a couple times against Colorado.
We’ve seen the ace formation this season multiple times and have seen it pop up a couple plays since the 2009 Holiday Bowl. It was run a lot in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State and has basically just been used as a change of pace and to force the defense to prepare for a lot of looks like the jet sweep, which is shown here. The play starts with two tight ends to the left, one offset, and two receivers to the right, with De’Anthony Thomas off the line allowing him to motion (as shown by the crooked line).
At the snap of the ball the line moves forward and takes the players in front of them except for one, the defensive end. The defensive end is left completely unblocked. The jet sweep against Colorado was run exactly the same as the play in the national championship game. In the national championship game the Auburn defensive lineman sprinted upfield and tackled Kenjon Barner in the backfield that led me to believe that it was a mistake he was unblocked (I’ve scoured the internet for the play but can’t find it on film. There used to be cutups of the game online but they have apparently been removed). Against Colorado the defensive end was once again left unblocked on every jet sweep Oregon ran. It could be that defensive players are taught to stay home and read the defense instead of shooting upfield when they are left unblocked. This would allow the running back to run by the player before he can react. The tight ends shoot up field and takes out the cornerback with the tight end lined up on the line taking the deep safety. Chip Kelly is trusting that De’Anthony Thomas to outrun the defensive end and the near side linebacker (both of which are circled.). This is one example where Oregon’s speed takes players out of the play.
Here you can see the blockers are in front of the defenders and that De’Anthony Thomas has gotten to the sideline so quickly that the near linebacker and defensive end are too far behind to make a play.
This is the last play I’ll talk about and it’s a zone read out of a shotgun ace formation with a run-pass option. One receiver on each side off the line and tight ends on each side of the line. The running back position tells us that the read will be going left to right whether the line goes straight ahead or takes a kick step to the right.
The defensive end is being read on this play, and while he’s doing a good job of keeping his shoulders square to make it seem like he’s staying home, he’s really shooting for the running back, so Bryan Bennett pulls (I think this read could’ve gone either way, a handoff could have been made for a gain. What makes me confident in saying that the defensive end is chasing the running back is that the non-play side linebacker is doing a scrape where he replaces the defensive end, effectively picking up the quarterback when he keeps it. As a way to counter this counter by the defense, there is a third option on this play and his name is Nick Musgrove.
The linebacker shoots up field to pick up the quarterback leaving Nick Musgrove at the bottom of the photo all alone. The defensive end is chasing Bryan Bennett after realizing he kept it but is too far behind to make a play. The lineman highlighted probably had the responsibility of picking up the linebacker who scraped and is moving out to block for the third option (since the only reason a scrape would occur is if the defensive end chased the running back and linebacker filled leaving the tight end by himself).
Nick Musgrove catches the ball in space, the ultimate goal of the spread option. It’s a 1-on-1 opportunity that carries him all the way to the three-yard line and an eventual touchdown. If Musgrove cut back to the middle the offensive lineman is waiting to throw a block on the Buff player chasing from behind.
There were many plays that I thought of writing about but these four really stuck out to me because they create a lot of options for the quarterback or are rarely seen but had some interesting characteristics. While these plays have varying personnel groups and have pass-run triple options, the ultimate goal is to get the ball to fast playmakers in space.
Big thanks to Mike Wines of madmike1951 for putting together the YouTube video I used screenshots of.