Aliotti’s Zone Coverages Keep Wildcats’ Pass Game in the Kitty Carrier

In the Fiesta Bowl, even though the Ducks began closing down the running game in the first half, Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein piled up short completions to his receivers, most notably former Duck Chris Harper.  As the Cats converted first downs via short completions again and again in the first half, I could almost hear the collective groan from Duck fans: “Oh, man. Allow-a-lotti is blowing it.”  (Admit it: you thought this.)

But as I watched Klein repeatedly looking deep, then either miss the throw or be forced to check down to the short receiver, I said to myself: “We’re going to win this thing if this is all Klein’s gonna get.”

We noted last week that Klein’s longest completion of the night was 21 yards (which was after a short throw), and that none of his completions traveled over 10 yards.  We also went through how Oregon’s zone blitz made it difficult for K-State to throw deep. But let’s go to the rest of the K-State passing stats that paint the picture:

(i) Collin Klein went 17 for 32, 151 yards, 1 touchdown (on a shovel pass), 2 interceptions (one on a last-second-of-the-half Hail Mary).

(ii) That’s a QB rating of 90.6. Mariota’s for the game? 135.6. Klein’s for the season before the Fiesta Bowl? 149.5.

(iii) Finally, Klein averaged under 9 yards per completion, and 4.7 yards per attempt. Wow.

Decry him all you want, but give credit to “Allow-a-lotti,” because pass defense stats like those straight up win games. Let’s see how he did it.

First, don’t be scared by all the arrows and circles above!  This shows a very typical coverage scheme during the Fiesta Bowl: two high safeties covering deep, one corner (top of screen) dropping into a deep third coverage, another corner (bottom of screen) matched up man-to-man, the middle linebackers have the middle of field, the outside linebackers have the flats. Conservative? Yeah, it’s conservative. It’s built to “keep everything in front” of defenders, to utilize an oft-used phrase.

In summary: fairly easy to throw short against, but very hard to throw long against.  Also, it works great against pattern combinations like the red arrows above for K-State: two receivers cross short (big arrow is eventual target), the other three go deep on fade and seam routes.

When Klein sees that the safeties and corners sell out to prevent the long throw, he dumps it off to his crossing receiver right at the line of scrimmage.  Aliotti and the Ducks don’t mind this one because they have four linebackers (from top: Boseko Lokombo, Kiko Alonso, Michael Clay, and Tyson Coleman) ready to run to the ball.  This completion results in 7 easy yards, which might cause some fans to groan, but coaches like Aliotti are happy to give up the short gain in lieu of the back-breaking and game-changing long ball.

Above, we see a similar coverage scheme later in the game, but with a different alignment: one VERY deep safety in Brian Jackson; the other DBs line up 6-10 yards deep, who can quickly drop to deeper zones in order to, once again, keep everything in front of them.  Here, it’s effective again.  K-State dials up a three-deep route play, with one safety valve to the flat (big red arrow).  The Ducks’ response? “Big whoop. Throw short.”

We can tell Klein really wanted things to open up with one of the three deep routes, because he waited in the pocket until he was forced to flush and throw to his check down route in the flat.

Throwing to the safety valve isn’t always a sure thing against the speed of Oregon’s DBs.  Once the ball’s in the air, we see three defenders – Ifo Ekpre-Olumu, Erick Dargan, and Dion Jordan – put a bead on Tyler Lockett.

As you see above, Ifo is right there when the ball arrives.  So let’s review: the Ducks were able to defend against three deep routes, but then get a speedy, sure-tackling corner within one yard of the receiver just four yards deep, with two other defenders in the area for support.  I’d label that a “win.”  (Also, spoiler alert: Lockett is about to get laid out.)

BOOM.  Ifo lays a big hit and strips the ball for an incompletion to force 2nd and long.

Let’s fast forward to the halfback-pass trick play the ‘Cats tried in the second quarter that had every Duck fan’s heart in his or her throat.  This was the only time a receiver got free deep all game, but the Ducks’ defensive speed eviscerated the threat.  See above BoLo get to the tailback right as he was ready to launch it deep to the open receiver.  BoLo forces him to double-clutch, throwing off the rhythm of the play, which is lucky for the Ducks, because the deep man was VERY open early.

Because the tailback was forced to heave it up later than he wanted to, our safeties were able to catch up to the route.  We see above Brian Jackson (the new favorite defensive Duck of yours truly) make a truly elite defensive play to break up a potential game-changer.

Let’s take a look at K-State’s final offensive snap in the game.  Down 35-17 with 2:30 left, Klein knows he has to make a play deep.  He puts his eyes on his receiver going for the deep corner (red arrow), but obviously our deep-sitting free safety, Erick Dargan, has his eyes right back on Klein (green line).  We’ve got a corner playing man-on-man on that receiver too (small circle).  Quickly scan the rest of the field and see the rest of the Ducks conservatively dropping, with their eyes on Klein.  This is typical of the coverages the Ducks showed for the entire game.  This time, howeve, the defense knows that Klein has to throw it deep.

Above, we see that Klein takes a gamble and throws to the deep corner, but we’ve got a man-up defender and a zone defender right in the area of the ball.  Usually reserved for late-game “prevent” defenses, Oregon gets away with bringing only a few pass rushers and dropping lots of defenders into space because of the threat of the zone blitz package.

Dargan puts on the burners, beats the receiver to the corner, and jumps right in front of the throw. Dargan’s outstanding pick seals a 2nd BCS bowl win in a row.  Klein hadn’t been able to throw deep all game, both because of Oregon’s coverages and pressure packages, but knew he had to in this situation.  The secondary smelled blood in the water, and made a game-ending pick.

Duck fans have made a habit of lambasting Nick “Allow-a-lotti” for his “bend but don’t break” style, but he drew up the perfect game plan against a balanced passing attack: take away all the long throws, concede the short throws, and bet that the Wildcats’ slow methodical drives won’t net as many points as Oregon’s point-per-minute ambush.  He was right, and the Oregon defense dominated a game that was close for only a matter of minutes in the 2nd quarter.

I’ve had a lot of fun reviewing the defensive principles that confounded Kansas State’s rushing and passing games in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl.  Stay tuned for more defensive analysis over this long, arduous offseason.  I expect great things from the 2013 Duck defenders: the 2011 unit finished third in the nation in sacks (45), and our 2012 crew finished first in interceptions (25). What will the 2013 version look like?

“Oh, how we love to learn about our Beloved Ducks!”

Sean Goodbody
Oregon Football Analyst for
Grand Junction, Colorado

Top Photo from Video

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Sean Goodbody

Sean Goodbody

With a high school defensive-coordinator-turned-offensive-coordinator-turned-head-coach as a father, Sean Goodbody has always had an interest in the X's and O's of football. He played two years with FCS University of Pennsylvania as a fullback, but having grown up in a football family Sean has spent much of his life studying the game--reviewing game film, designing offensive and defensive schemes, and game-planning upcoming opponents. Sean has coached running backs, option quarterbacks, linebackers, defensive linemen, and safeties for his dad's high school program. He has been a rabid Duck fan since meeting his significant other Maeve (an Oregon grad). Residing in Grand Junction, CO, Sean and Maeve both work as attorneys while cheering on their beloved Ducks from the Rockies.

  • qdu

    Great analysis! Really enjoyed reading your posts on the defensive strategies used by our Ducks! Thanks from a fellow Penn Alum.

  • Chris Charbonnier

    This is great Sean. Really well done. It’s funny because Allioti’s zone coverages often drive me crazy. I’ve broken down a lot of film from the 2011 season in particular and have wondered whether we shouldn’t be in press coverage more often.

    I definitely see the value of a zone coverage like this, especially against a KSU-type team as you so eloquently showed. Nonetheless, I would still love to see us man-up on the outside, send five guys and say, “beat us over the top.” What’s the worse case scenario? A team gets a quick score on us and then we march down and score again? How many teams can win this matchup enough times to outscore us? With Ifo and Mitchell, I hope Crazy A really mixes it up next year and says, “beat us; 8 times because that’s how many touchdowns you’ll need to outscore our offense.”

    • SeanG


      Thanks for your input here. I am very prone to agree with you: my dad was (and still is!) an unapologetic press-1 guy. (I remember he trained his corners to – literally – try to push receivers out of bounds off the line.)

      I think next year, we’re more likely to see more man coverage. Our shift and almost total reliance on zone later in the year was a product of our safety depth: we had three starting free safeties over the course of the season! But next season, picture the starting secondary: Ifo, Mitchell, B. Jackson, A. Patterson, with Troy Hill (Rose Bowl hero) and Erick Dargan (Fiesta Bowl hero) backing them up. That’s scary stuff. And we haven’t even talked about the young guys. I think we’ll have the ability to lock up, too.

      The other upside of Zone is it has a symbiotic relationship with our Zone Blitz attack. It’s, at once, aggressive and conservative: we bring 4 or 5 rushers from unexpected places, but drop enough men into coverage so there’s no “hot” read or easy dump off. QBs know who to look for when blitzers overload a side. But when there are still 7 or 8 in coverage, it’s tough to find those gaps.

      I love to see tough press 1, too. Talmadge Jackson was a freaking beast in cover 1. I think we may stray that way, but expect a healthy dose of the boxing-in zone against big passing teams again next year, to limit risk and also facilitate the zone blitz.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for the shout!