Oregon’s Bend-But-Don’t-Break Defense: It WORKS

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You have heard the comments in the stands; heck, you may have even said it yourself!

“I hate Oregon’s bend-but-don’t-break defense. I hate how we only rush three, and we give up third-and-long way too often!”  

Many people say that without understanding the reasoning behind utilizing the bend-but-don’t-break defense, and how it complements the Oregon offense. Let’s take a closer look at this defensive strategy against Florida State in the 2015 Rose Bowl through the eyes of FishDuck.com’s new defensive consultant, former Oregon safety Ryan Mitchell.

Defensive coordinator Don Pellum’s defense is based on the premise of observing early in the game how the opposing offense is attacking you, and adjusting from there. Against Florida State, we started out in a defense meant to take away what the Seminoles liked to do. Like Oregon, FSU loves big plays and wants to go over the top with long passes. Thus, we began in a Cover 2 defense with the safeties positioned deep to prevent the explosive play.

Look at the space between linebackers and safeties!

From Video

Look at the space between linebackers and safeties!

When we play a Cover 2 (shown above) the corners have the short zones near the boundaries, and when the FSU receiver goes deep — he is passed off to one of the two safeties. Look at the huge gap between the safeties (yellow arrows) preventing the deep pass, and the linebackers (green arrow).

A weakness of the Cover 2...

From Video

A weakness of the Cover 2 …

What you see in the GIF above is a weakness of the Cover 2, which is the middle of the field. Coach Mitchell explained how Florida State exploited it well a number of times in the first half, and in particular executed those passes just behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties to take advantage of that gap discussed above.

At halftime, Coach Pellum made an adjustment that Ryan noted was simple, but effective: he had the linebackers take a deeper pass drop. This took away the middle routes and kept the intermediate routes in front of the coverage. Indeed, the basis of the bend-but-don’t-break strategy is to make the offense work hard for every yard by forcing it to execute well play after play all the way down the field.

The Seminoles had the deep pass taken away by the safeties, and the middle routes were removed by Pellum’s adjustment. Further, Oregon knew the Noles’ running game was not going to generate points fast enough to keep pace with the Ducks. Does this sound familiar (this is a very high-percentage defense for Oregon to run considering the offense in Eugene)?

The linebackers are dropping deeper...

From Video

The linebackers are dropping deeper …

The beginning of the play above had the Oregon defense threatening a six-man blitz, but three linebackers dropped off the line of scrimmage and ran back to their deep zones (this rush is what I call the Three-Duck-Chuck). Note how the only pass open for Florida State is a short pass to the running back cutting in front of the linebackers (red dotted arrow above).

Great defense!

From Video

Great defense!

Now the Oregon defense (above) begins to feast! With the explosion plays negated by keeping everything in front of them, the Ducks can attack downhill to the young FSU running back with ball-control issues. This turnover was a turning point in the game as the Ducks scored two plays later and the rout was on!

Point-Counterpoint.

From Video

Point-Counterpoint.

But is there something the Oregon defense implements to counter the short check-downs to running backs, which can still eat up eight yards at a time? Absolutely. Note above how the FSU tight end (red dotted line) is pulling the linebacker over to cover him and opening up that zone for the running back (white dotted line above).

Whoa! The Ducks are running a Zone Blitz and dropping the Nose Tackle back into coverage (yellow line above of Alex Balducci)!

The Oregon Nose Tackle spoils the route...

From Video

The Oregon Nose Tackle spoils the route …

Above we see how No. 86, Torrodney Prevot, has beaten the massive Florida State offensive tackle and is closing in on a sack. Normally the pass would be thrown before Prevot arrives, but at the moment Winston wants to throw the ball — Balducci steps into the route of the FSU tailback and prevents the throw (red dotted line/arrow above)!

A Zone Blitz will stop that!

From Video

A Zone Blitz will stop that!

This is a great example of how a great defensive call (the Zone Blitz) prevented a first down and almost created a turnover.

Can you run this defensive play each time on second- or third-and-long? No, as the opposing offense will pull a play out to thwart the Zone Blitz. The takeaway concept is how Oregon has defensive countermeasures to offset how the opponent is attacking the Ducks. A good defensive coordinator will make adjustments implementing those countermeasures, as Pellum did. Clearly it was an unsung factor that helped decide the Rose Bowl.

At times we all get frustrated when Oregon morphs into the Three-Duck-Chuck pass rush and drops eight defenders into zone coverage; while the opponent does convert on occasion, the stats show that the vast majority of the time they do not. When you learn that more than 75% of drives starting on the opponent’s 25-yard line do not end in points, it becomes apparent how hard it is for an offense to drive the length of the field on the Oregon defense.

Ryan Mitchell

Ryan Mitchell

Ryan Mitchell

The Ducks defense has forced 25 turnovers or more in a season for seven years in a row — far more than any team in college football! During this streak Oregon has been the No. 1 defense in the nation for holding down the number of explosion play touchdowns against them (explosion plays being defined as touchdowns of at least 40 yards). As such, the stats support the strategy used by the defensive brain trust in Eugene.

Turnovers and missed third-down conversions are the usual result, and thus the bend-but-don’t-break defense begins to make more sense. Preventing explosion plays, keeping plays in front of you and making the opposition dink and dunk all the way down the field is the hallmark of the Oregon defense.

Defensive consultant Ryan Mitchell will be helping the analysis staff at FishDuck.com, as well as creating some articles himself. You may recall how he almost got impaled 15 years ago during a game at Autzen with the drums and cymbals on the sidelines? Life in the tech industry is certainly a lot safer for him now, and we appreciate his contributions to this and future analyses.

The take home point for this analysis is that the Ducks score quickly, while making the opponent scratch their way down the field in a low-percentage endeavor. This is a superb formula for creating pressure on the opponent, which leads them to take more chances, which results in more turnovers for the opportunistic Oregon defense.

Regardless of our opinions on the defensive philosophy at Oregon, it is quite apparent that it works.

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

Charles Fischer  (FishDuck)
Oregon Football Analyst for CFF Network/FishDuck.com
Eugene, Oregon

Top Photo from Video

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Charles Fischer

Charles Fischer

Charles Fischer has been an intense fan of the Ducks for thirty years and has written reports on football boards for over a dozen years. Known as “FishDuck” on those boards, he is acknowledged for providing intense detail in his scrimmage reports and in his Xs and Os play analyses. He and his wife Lois, a daughter, Christine, and their dog (Abbie) reside in Eugene, Oregon, where he has been a financial advisor for 30 years serving clients in seven different states. He does not profess to be a coach or analyst, but simply a “hack” that enjoys sharing what he has learned and invites others to correct or add to this body of Oregon Football! See More...

  • Rusty

    Now we all love the bend don’t break! Thanks Charles!

  • duckusucker

    Really nice analysis!
    But, of course, those stats should be restricted to the tough games, i.e. Stanford, CAL, AZ, and… Ohio St.
    Sometimes, the other team CAN keep up with our scoring, for a myriad of reasons. The inability to stop the opponent cold in those games, to get the ball back in a timely manner for the offense, has led to some painful losses.
    Let’s face it, we haven’t had a dominant front 7 in many years: that changes this year (barring an unheard amount of bad luck). Putting some hurt on an opposing QB is a great deterrent and, if done early enough, will get in his head and lead to mental as well as physical fatigue by the fourth quarter.
    Best result: if we can force the opposing team off the field quickly AND early, we can get a lead that forces them to take risks and that puts unbelievable pressure upon them.
    Anyhow, it’s great to have a defensive Karpov to analyze Pellum’s system and comment upon his tweaks and variations.

  • Locutus

    Good analysis Chuck…i see how the defense fits into a ‘philosophy’, but how about comparing ‘bend don’t break’ to “over powering cement wall”… Why wouldn’t a ‘three and out’ defense complement Oregon’s blitzkrieg offense???

    • FishDuck

      We ALL want to have a “cement wall,” but we also have to be realistic; everyone is scoring so many more points these days and other teams are superb as well. Ohio State put 42 points on Alabama and 59 on Wisconsin…and no one would call them soft teams. (Yet that is the narrative on Oregon)

      We have to play a way that statistically works best over time and with the talent that we have. The good news is how the talent continues to improve; I could not believe my eyes during the open practice and seeing so many stud defensive linemen.

      Redshirting Rex Manu? That would not have happened in the past…

      • Locutus

        Good stuff, Chuck!!!

  • tristanh314

    The “bend-but-don’t-break” strategy worked excellently against Florida State. The Duck’s forced plenty of turnovers and turned them into touchdowns. Additionally there were a couple of key drives deep in Oregon’s part of the field where the Seminoles failed to convert on 4th down (goal line stand by Tony “Oregon,” missed FG).

    The plan failed in the NCG because, to put in bluntly, Ohio State was a much better team than Florida State was. More precisely, the Ducks won the turnover battle 4 – 0, but only turned them into 10 points. Ohio State was able to consistently move the ball on the ground, especially in the second half, and won a key number of 3rd and 4th down conversions on both sides of the ball. All those key plays added up to a big loss.

    With 20/20 hindsight riskier strategies on offense and defense might have been the Ducks only shot to upset the Buckeyes, but given the final margin I’m not confident it would have worked.

    • hokieduck

      Urban Meyer waited until after halftime to run the counter play. Again and again and again, because the linebackers were overrunning the initial surge and Pellum failed to adjust and stop that single play. The decision not to not use the counter until after half so the Ducks were forced to adjust on the fly (which they failed to do). Obviously, Meyer saw something on tape which he waited to exploit after halftime. It was pretty brilliant coaching. Credit where credit is due.

      • tristanh314

        Spot on, FishDuck even had an article about that months ago.

  • Godux

    Thanks for the X’s and O’s. I can pretty well tell what is going on but don’t have the background to figure out why. Of course I won’t complain or dig deeper as long as whatever they are doing works.
    Got to also wonder if the fact that teams have learned they can’t trade FG’s for TD’s when playing Oregon holds the scoring down a bit. As the defensive zones compress the athleticism becomes more of a factor and we have reached the point where the Ducks have athletes at every position. Yet the opposing team still has to go for the TD.

  • Jon Sousa

    I suspect we will see more 3 and outs in the years to come as we recruit bigger and better people. Look at the massive difference in the size of our O and D lines between the last time we played in a NCG and this time.

    • Mike Green

      no – fewer 3 and outs — qb has all day to throw

  • Mike Green

    I just watched the defense vs ewu, and it was horrible — giving them all day to throw — and of course somebody was always open

    time to end the failed experiment and bring in a better defensive coordinator

  • Anthony Joseph Gomes

    in the EWU game the total number of plays run in that game was 168. by contrast the in michigan state/western michigan game 142 plays were run. in the U$C/arkansas game 151 plays were run. in the stanford/northwestern game 141 plays were run.

    EWU and oregon are both spread teams that go with a fast pace no huddle offense so you are going to see about 20% more scoring in a game like that. i love it when some idiot claims defense wins games. defense does not win games. scoring points wins games.

  • Mike Green

    college QBs are too good to let them have time to pass the ball,
    so you need blitzes — which can get burned

    bottom line is: offense has 5 linemen + 1 or 2 massive TEs,
    when you only have 3 DL, that gives the offensive line too much of an advantage

    Ducks can go back to a 4-3 (with a stand up DE) and still utilize their strategies