The window for us fans that is the Spring Game revealed much more this year than many would believe as I too had a hard time fathoming what I was seeing on the field from Head Coach Mark Helfrich. Just as he has been aggressive in recruiting and charging ahead faster than previous coaches in pursuing recruits–he is doing the same with attacking the game plans of our opponents and using the 2014 Spring Game to test these counter-strategies in a game-like mode.
We will see the tactics used by Stanford and so many of Oregon’s opponents, and how Coaches Helfrich and Frost will contend with these tactics. I will also reveal a secret that the “Grizzled Ol’ Coach” and I have been holding for three years since it was disclosed in the footage of this year’s Spring Game….something that 99% of Oregon fans would NOT know.
Prep #1: Run Blitz in the A-Gaps
Note how the Nose Tackle of UCLA, (Above,and who is in front of the Oregon center) charges through the gap between the center and Oregon’s right guard, and the linebacker blitzes through the gap between the center and the Duck left guard. These gaps to the immediate right and left of the center are the “A” gaps and blitzing through these has been a common strategy by opponents (including Stanford) to blow up the highly regarded Inside Zone Read play of the Ducks.
Note the picture at the very top of the page where our linebackers are about to do the same thing only they are blitzing BOTH through the “A” gaps to blow up the play. (Red Arrows)
The best way to prepare for the inevitable A-Gap Run Blitzes (Above) is to have the Duck defense play it often on first down (when we like to run the Inside Zone Read) since the percentages last year favored the defenses that implemented that strategy against Oregon. When our offensive linemen block against it in real action and at game speed–the Oregon coaches learn that much more in how to defeat this defensive strategy.
Prep #2: Be Bigger Against the Bear Front
The big news around Spring Football was the increase in the size of the linemen on both sides of the ball. On average the offensive linemen (Above) gained an average of ten pounds more per man over the winter and could see it on many in person and on the telecast. Is this the direction that Coach Rad took or Coach Helfrich? That is an interesting debate that I’ll do an Op-Ed on later for us to ponder, (Summer it wonderful for that) but for now it is clear the Ducks intend to get larger to contend with the big fronts of Stanford, Michigan State, and UCLA.
Speaking of fronts–the “Bear” front on defense (Above) is an alignment that has given Oregon trouble from opponents for a long time. The Bear front is a Nose Tackle directly in front of the center with defensive tackles/ends lined up across from or a touch outside of the offensive guards. They are responsible for defending the gaps between the offensive guard and tackle, or what coaches call the “B” gap. We can go back a couple of years to see how Stanford haunted us with it in one of our weekly analysis back then. So rather than contend with it in the fall–the Oregon defense is coming out with it in the spring! The question–is Oregon doing this to prepare the offensive line, or is Defensive Coordinator Don Pellum running the Bear front because of all the Spread Offense teams in the conference and we know from experience the difficulty in blocking the Bear? Regardless of the reason–blocking against it in game speed is helping our preparation for this next season.
Prep #3: Breaking Tendencies
The Ducks offense began to show us some counter-counter punches in the game to again practice at game speed and to place some more doubt into defensive coordinators around the league. Above we see a typical play action pass in the Oregon playbook of running the offensive linemen and the running back in an Outside Zone Read to the right and then pulling the ball and rolling out left for the play action pass. As soon as the roll-out begins you can see the defense speed to their zones to stop the pass play as defending the OZR becomes an afterthought.
Oregon has a new wrinkle (Above) to take advantage of the over-reaction to the play-action pass and the open RB at the top of the screen as the Ducks run a “Smoke Screen” with a single Tight End up there to block. I do not believe it is a called play; I think it is another difficult option designed to stretch the defense and is there for the QB if other wide receivers are not open on the play-action. It reminds me of the a third option similar to how the Bubble Zone Read is to the Zone Read that already has the threat of the RB and QB running the ball. I love this new variation with the potential of a RB being one-on-one in the open field.
What is the secret that the Grizzled Ol’ Coach and I have kept for three years? Coach Mike Morris noted how we never run the “Sweep Read” play against an odd front, a defensive alignment that has the Nose Tackle square on our center. Why? It is hard for the center to pull and have the guard come over and block the opposing Nose Tackle in time in the space vacated by the pulling center. So we only saw it against “even” defenses such as a 4-3 where no defensive linemen were lined up across from Oregon’s center. The Coach would even tell me in advance before the games, “no sweep reads this game as they run an odd front” and sure enough the sage coach was correct.
It is a secret that I never wrote about although in reality we know that opposing teams have play charting software that tells you tendencies of plays based upon down and distance and formation. I knew opposing coaches knew this, but did not want to spill it anyway. Imagine our surprise (Above) when the FIRST PLAY of the Spring Game was a “Sweep Read” play to the left against an odd front! Tongues were wagging in the FishDuck ManCave as the Coach and I watched the footage a few weeks after the game. Wow–they really ARE trying to break their tendencies, and put the conference on alert that you can expect anything at anytime from Oregon on offense this fall. This unpredictability will help us enormously in the Red Zone!
I should mention that many of my assertions were not agreed upon by the Grizzled Ol’ Coach as he thought I took some stretches in my logic, and that is fair enough. In my view there were too many examples to ignore, and healthy disagreement is good for all debates as it will make the games that much more entertaining for all of us.
“Oh how we love to learn about our Beloved Ducks!
Charles Fischer (FishDuck)
Oregon Football Analyst for EugeneDailyNews/FishDuck.com
(Top Photo from Video)