Fish Report: Oregon’s New 3-4 Defense

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck Announcements

(Please note that this white paper was written and distributed onto a number of Oregon forums in June of 2010, but this article of the White Paper was not published until the origin of in June of 2011.)

What are we doing on defense?  I have struggled trying to discern how the defense is different from past years, as I noted more blitzing and different defensive formations last season….but I did not know what we were doing.  I’ve been writing reports for Spring and Fall Scrimmages for a dozen years and this was the first time watching spring drills that the quarterbacks were so uncomfortable.  Not because they were new to the job….but because they rarely had time to settle in the pocket before being sacked, forced out, or having to throw the ball away.

They were clearly uneasy in the pocket all spring and rarely had the time to get into a rhythm.  I noticed that the LBs (linebackers) were disguising their blitzes better and while you would see a couple of flashes of color headed into the offensive backfield, but what were they doing and why?  As fast as the plays went … you can’t see what all the defenders are doing as the play starts, especially if you’re trying to watch the ball.

It was frustrating; I knew something was up because I hadn’t seen the defense put so much pressure on the QBs before, and we did have an experienced OL (offensive line)… this shouldn’t have been happening.

I am at one of the scrimmages and I began talking to a man who played in the NFL and was a Pro-Bowler (many times) on the defensive side.  I mentioned how much pressure the defense was applying, and how it appeared to be different from the past. He set his square jaw, looked out at the defense, and then said, “we’re running the defense better since we put the 3-4 into place a year ago.”  What? A new defense? I asked him more questions about specifics, and he answered that, “what we’re doing is very similar to 3-4 defenses in the NFL.”

What in the world?!  We are doing stuff from the NFL, and clearly we have a new defensive strategy, and none of the Oregon media or fans know about it?!  I read up on Oregon Football every day getting the links from around the country on and if this was written up, I missed it.  It appears to me that this is the most massive conversion of defensive strategy and philosophy at Oregon in fifty years!

Dion Jordan loved Oregon’s new 3-4 defense…

Now I had to find out what we’re doing, and what began as an overall Spring Analysis became a personal quest to dig in and learn the elements that comprise the Oregon Defense that we will see this fall.  I’ve spent over 30 hours writing this report, researching the NFL, and studying the Oregon Spring Game (four times) to decipher what you will learn in the next 25 minutes. (Please, don’t skim this.  If you don’t have the time now to fully read and comprehend it, then print it out and take it home.)

For most Oregon fans…this presentation will change the way they view our defense, and Coach Nick Aliotti was very gracious in giving me an interview to confirm my conclusions.  What’s the best way to study our team?  Use a TiVo DVR with a High Definition TV as you can watch Hi-Def in slow motion without any blur.  This helped me enormously as I could lock things an instant before the ball is snapped and then slow-mo it and watch the amazing defensive packages be unveiled before my eyes.  Stunning.  Amazing.

And it was all there, but I couldn’t see it before due to how fast they play in real time.  How special is this defense?  Less than 5% of college football teams will be implementing the defense that you will see at Autzen….as it is truly extraordinary and will mark a transformation in college defenses just as the Spread Offense has changed the college football landscape.

Please do not be insulted; I am NOT dumbing this stuff down, because I did not know this stuff. I played on offense in High School, and loved it; I just never learned much about defensive alignments and strategy, as I didn’t have to in High School or for watching our beloved Ducks.  Some of you coaching types will sneer at the simplicity of what follows….but heck, every Duck fan I’ve spoken to about this,  (and even a fellow who PLAYED college football)…..didn’t  know this stuff either.  I’ve learned more about defensive alignments and strategy in the last two weeks than I knew in my entire life prior to this project.

A classic 3-4 defensive alignment…

Let’s start with what they call a “4-3” (said out loud as four-three) and the “3-4” defense.  I always assumed that the first number of the 4-3 or 3-4 defense was the number of DL (defensive linemen) on the LOS.  (Line of Scrimmage)  Wrong.  How do account for five DLs on the LOS?  What do we call that?  The answer is….the 3-4 defense.  What?  How can that be?  It is because the first number of the 4-3 or 3-4 refers to the number of DL who put a hand down into a stance.  In the Rose Bowl….we had a ton of plays where all front four DL were down in a stance with a hand down.  That was a 4-3 defense, meaning that we had four down DL, and three linebackers spaced out behind the DL on the left, right, and in the middle.

So what do you call it when we had five DL on the LOS in the spring game?  Answer: it was a 3-4 defense because the middle three DL had their hand down and the DLs on the ends were actually LBs who were standing up…even though they were on the LOS.  OK….then what do you call the Defensive Line formation in the Spring Game where we had four DL, but only three had their hand down, and one was standing up?  Again….that was a 3-4 defense because three of them had their hand down.  Makes it easier to understand doesn’t it?

I began to wonder if that alignment was the famous “Elephant” USC defense created by Pete Carrol for Brian Cushing (A sensational LB for the Trojans who just won the NFL Rookie of the Year Award over Oregon’s Jarius Byrd)  USC ran a 4-3 defense in practice, but simply had Cushing on the end standing up to free up his talents for rushing the passer and shedding blocks. We on the other hand, are running the 3-4 defensive strategies with the four DL, (one up & three down) DL alignment.

We’re running a 3-4?  I knew Cal was one of only a handful in the United States running a 3-4 in college football, and more are beginning to make the move.  At Georgia, the fans are buzzing over the change to the 3-4 and the new DC (Defensive Coordinator) from the NFL has been explaining it to the press and Bulldog fans.  To be certain, I went back and charted each defensive play in the Spring Game, asking six questions which revealed a ton of information when compiled.  We ran defensive fronts with three hand-down DLs with either one or two standing up in addition at the LOS 75% of the time.  What?  That’s a 3-4 baby!  Seventy five percent of the plays run in a 3-4?

The 3-4 defense creating turnovers in a big way for the Ducks.

Coach Aliotti confirmed that over 50% of the defensive plays in 2009 were run in a 3-4 alignment with Zone Blitzing components on many of them.  We ran some other alignments in the Spring Game that I’ll cover in minute, but for now, three quarters of the time in a 3-4 means that it is our base defense for the first time ever.  Nick explained that the percentage of being in the 3-4 would be greater next year (2010) than 2009….perhaps as much or more than the Spring Game.

So how does our 3-4 work?  The original 3-4 defense or the “Bullough” 3-4 was adopted and used by Bill Parcells to begin all those Super Bowls wins by New England.  (Last year, four of the top five defenses in the NFL ran the 3-4)  The front three DL are HUGE and have to be as they are “two-gap” defenders.  This means that a NT (Nose Tackle lined up in front of the center) has to occupy the center and one of the offensive guards so that the linebacker is free to make tackles.  The heck of it is……they are responsible for running plays on both sides of the man they line up in front of.  In other words, a nose tackle is responsible for the gaps on both sides of the center.

A big and difficult responsibility which requires a gargantuan DL who have to stand their ground, hold off blockers, read the play, and go to it. (Or read and react) Nose Tackles in the NFL average 330 lbs, and the biggest is 360 lbs!  These are not fat guys; they must be huge athletes, as Oregon’s Haloti Ngata at Baltimore is 348 lbs, and we know what an athlete he was for the Ducks.   The problem with this version of the 3-4 is the scarcity of Defensive Linemen who can play it.  There are hardly enough of these for the pros, especially since so many more NFL teams are going to the “Bullough” 3-4.  So how do you make it work in the college game with much smaller DL?

The other 3-4 defense that is in the minority, but picking up interest is the “Phillips” One-Gap 3-4 defense.  It was originated by Bum Phillips who coached a ton of years in the NFL and now his son, Wade Phillips, ran this defense at the San Diego Chargers before becoming the Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys and is continuing this innovative defense.  The three DL in this defense are only responsible for one-gap, and they charge into it with gusto on each play.  The intent is not to “read-and-react” like the Bullough 3-4, but to penetrate and be disruptive—to make sacks and Tackles-for-Losses.  (TFLs)

Taylor Hart, No. 66 became a great run-stuffer in the new 3-4 defense.

The DL in this defense do not have to be big; in fact the emphasis  is on fast and athletic defensive linemen who can plug a gap in the running game, and yet penetrate and pressure the QB on pass plays.  This is how the NT at Dallas (Jay Ratliff) can make first team All-Pro this last year while only 298 lbs!  When Dallas played their first preseason game with the new Phillips One-Gap 3-4…..the smiles were wide by the defensive linemen.  The most common quote given was, “this is FUN to play!”  So lighter, faster, more athletic D-linemen who only have one-gap responsibility and have the charge to “create mayhem” are the standard needed to run this defense?

I smiled reading that because now I understand how Brandon Bair at 6’7″ and 267 lbs can excel in this defense, and it explains how he got Honorable Mention All-Pac-10…even though he is not the normal size needed for D-Line.  (BTW….Coach Nick was in Dallas for a few days in May!) Oh yeah, we have a defensive match-up here for Oregon; we are a Phillips One-Gap 3-4 Defense and we are doing this with the defensive personnel we have right now.

The profile for Linebacker changes in this defense as well; we need speed to be able to cover the field and yet be able to blitz.  Big size is not crucial, but speed and smarts are.  They are responsible for the middle gaps not covered by the D-Line, and the outside gaps of the D-Line.  (Remember…there are four LBs now, two inside, and two outside)  They check down first, and if it is a running play they burst into their gap, hence the entire LOS is covered.  Early in the game we had the four DL with three down alignment, (four on the LOS with one standing up and three with a hand down, in a stance) so it would appear that running on this would be easy.

At the snap we see the D-Linemen penetrate their gaps and the LBs step up and fill their gaps, thus there was no place for LaMichael James to go and it was stuffed for no-gain.  Now that was what I was looking for the One-Gap Run Stuffing on film, (after reading about it) and it was great fun to actually see it in action in the Spring Game as they draw it up in the NFL.  Remember what Chip said about his 2010 signed recruits?  He didn’t say he had a highly decorated group of recruits or the number of big recruits, (as in size)…..he said that they went for and got…..“Speed, Speed, Speed.”

Michael Clay, No. 46, filled gaps beautifully in the 3-4 defense.

The young guns at LB like Michael Clay and Boseko Lokombo are perfect for this defense, and now things are beginning to make sense as to why Dion Jordan can successfully make the transition from offense to DE. (Defensive End)  Verbal recruit Tyson Coleman is ideal for this 3-4 as is potential recruit Colt Lysera; these guys would blow up in this defense at OLB (Outside Linebacker) with their combination of size and speed.

As you’ve learned, this is not your father’s defense and you sense that the “Bend-but-don’t-break” philosophy is probably gone.  Baby, you haven’t seen nothing yet, as the coaches added another major element to our new defense.  Dick La Beau turned the NFL on its head with his infamous “Zone-Blitz,” but it became more than a package for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  It became integrated into the defense as an attacking philosophy that could be utilized on any play.  It became an attitude, an opportunity for tactical moves, and a type of defense unto itself.  It takes the elements of the 3-4 and turns it into a nightmare for QBs and Offensive linemen because the only consistent thing seen by the offense–is the initial defensive formation before the snap of the ball.

After that any one of the D-Linemen, LBs, or Def. backs could be coming, but the offense doesn’t know who and where from.  The defense was created to put pressure on the QB in the safest way possible.  In the past, you had to run a fire-house blitz with six and seven coming to sack the QB or force a quick throw.  Problem was, it was very risky as you could get burned badly with that many blitzing.  So LeBeau came up with the concept of leaving six back in coverage in case of a mistake to prevent the big plays against them, and to send five defenders on nearly every play.

So….we send five defenders taking on six blockers? (The offense has the center, two guards, two tackles, and RB in to block)  (RB=Running Back) Normally I would say “big deal” to five rushers taking on six blockers.  But what if you don’t know which five are coming out of eleven on the field?  Would that change things?  Oh yeah.  You can blitz every play and not lose coverage in the secondary?  Wow.

Terrell Turner, No. 45, closes in on a sack in Civil War.

In the first half of the spring game, when the first teamers were playing–our LBs blitzed an astounding 66% of the time.  Did you get that?  We blitzed our LBs two-thirds of the time and made it work?  Good grief, how aggressive is that?  This is unlike any Oregon defense ever in our history.  So, what we run is a “Phillips, One-Gap, 3-4 Defensive alignment with the LeBeau Zone-Blitz Attack Packages.”  Holy Crap.

The LeBeau 3-4 Zone Blitz packages are known to create more turnovers and stop teams more often on 3rd down and it is the only defense that still confuses Payton Manning.  One NFL offensive lineman admitted that when he takes on this type of defense he, “hated playing against it and this defense caused them to spend twice as long in preparation.”  The reason is the number of combinations of zone blitzes you can employ.  Remember….even though we blitzed two-thirds of the time in the first half of the Spring Game, it doesn’t mean that it’s risky if a D-Lineman backs off and moves into the pass coverage zone of the blitzing LB.  (He replaces the LB in pass coverage)

The flexibility of the 3-4 is a major attribute since this defense can easily morph into something else for a given play or two.  In the Spring Game–we went into a 4-3 defense 10% of the time.  This is situational, based upon down, distance, and personnel on the field.  It is easy for a LB to put a hand down and “sha-zam”….we’re a 4-3.  Lift a hand up and stand up….”sha-zam”…we’re back into a 3-4.  It’s easy to pull the LB altogether and bring in another corner in order to go into an eight man zone passing defense, or pull a D-Lineman and have another light pass-rushing DE type on the D-Line for some situations.

(Cal calls this their “Gold Rush” where they have three rushers with an eight man zone, but they pull the big NT and bring in another fast rushing DE, so they have real athletic players for the front three rushers)  There were even plays where we had only two DL with a hand down….and two others on the LOS standing up!  Those were used in pass-rushing situations as well, and as a way to mess with the O-Linemen’s heads.

Eddie Pleasant, No. 11, is about to intercept!

So, 75% of the time we are in a 3-4 defense, and the other 25% of the time we shift into something else, and that makes us a Hybrid 3-4 DefenseBill Bilichick at the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL was known for a 3-4 that does all the elements I’ve referred to as a Hybrid, but the negative is too much complexity from the week to week changes.  We are also a Hybrid Defense due to the gaps that we play; while we are primarily a One-Gap Phillips Defense…..Coach explained that about 20% of the time we will be in a Two-Gap, “Read and React” mode.

That was a relief to hear because when I looked at the Spring Game replay–I could have sworn that there were some plays where the D-Linemen were NOT penetrating, but holding their ground, like they were playing a “Two-Gap,  Read-and-React.”  (It turns out that they were!)   So the names I give this defense apply the majority of the time and Nick will adjust and use the attractive elements of other defenses when the situation calls for it, and that is the best kind of Hybrid!

While the Phillips One-Gap 3-4 Attacking Defense will switch into a 4-3 on occasion, it will also shift into other unique defenses.  One play at the Spring Game had five DL and four had a hand down, (the only time I saw that) and a LB blitzed for a total of six coming at the QB.  Unusual, but it’s another package for situational use.  We actually had a “Jailhouse Blitz” on one play where we sent seven on the blitz with four in secondary coverage.  It was 3rd down and the White team was trying to score a TD and put the game out of reach, while the Green team was trying to stop them and force the FG attempt.

Sure enough, one man out of seven rushing was completely unblocked and forced a throw in barely two seconds that flew over everyone’s head for a 3rd down stop!  Receivers were open, but the QB couldn’t get the ball to them!  My sense is that our packages (13 at least) have highly defined roles for each player and you simply memorize your role in that package.  Since we are not morphing into something different all the time the “Hybrid” aspect is a smaller part of the overall defense.  (25%)  But at this moment I would call our defense, “The Hybrid Phillips One-Gap 3-4 Defense with LeBeau Zone Blitz Attack Packages”.  Phew!  Since it is so unique as a combination/creation of our coaches….let’s just call it the “The Oregon 3-4 Attacking Defense.”  Better?

Eddie Pleasant, No. 11, points the way to a big Rose Bowl turnover.

Today we will focus on the DL and LBs since the coverage can vary significantly by the secondary.  There is “Cover-One”, “Cover-Two“, “Tampa-Two”, and a ton of other coverages, but it is a separate discussion.  Ditto for the how they line up, as to whether a player should be a “3” Technique, or “5” Technique;  the difference of 12 inches in lining up can change everything.  We will also discuss the unique characteristics of the positions in this 3-4 defense another day.  (Like the Hybrid LB that Kenny Rowe is a perfect Prototype for….)  Since this has turned into a White Paper on the alignment and philosophy of the new Oregon Defense–I will save the details and nuances from my interview with Nick for another report.

When I refer to “right or left” on defense…it means from the perspective of the Middle Linebacker (MLB) looking at the offense.  For the Quarterback looking at the defense, his Left Offensive Guard would be lined up against the Defense’s Right Defensive Tackle, and is the “right” side is from the perspective of the MLB.  Right for the defense is left for the offense.  It is dependent upon each of their perspectives to keep it straight.

Just four rushers can actually create errors by the QB, if the offense doesn’t know where the pressure is coming from.  On one play in the Spring Game, we had four DL (one standing up, and three down in a stance) and the RDT, (Right Defensive Tackle) Brandon Bair did a hard slant into the offensive guard to his left.  (Slanting is another zone blitz strategy to tie up offensive linemen and create a gap for another rusher to penetrate into the pocket.)  So Brandon crashes down into the OG, and the LT on offense blocks to his right into Bair to help out his OG teammate.

The problem is that Bair did such a good job crashing down that he tied up the center, guard, and tackle and two rushers (DE and ROLB, Right Outside Linebacker) had a clear shot at the QB.  The TE was open in the flat, but Darron Thomas had no time to deliver and had to throw it into the turf to prevent a sack.  While all this was happening….the NT faked inside and pulled back into zone coverage to replace the blitzing LB!  So let me get this right; we had seven back in coverage, but between the slants, blitzes, and zone coverage replacement we created pressure and an incomplete pass with only four rushing?!

Washington QB Keith Price is going down…

Recall the play that Thomas had the “Pick-Six” against him?  We started with four DL on the LOS, but pulled the NT, Zac Clark, who went into zone coverage replacing Michael Clay who blitzed at the snap of the ball.  (Zac began immediately guarding a TE in his zone)  The offensive linemen didn’t see Clay coming until the last millisecond, (too late) and LMJ stepped up to block, but Clay brushed him aside and made the “touch” on Thomas that represented a sack.  Darron was flustered and threw into double-coverage anyway for the pick.

A preferred blitzing strategy is having a RB trying to stop a Blitzing LB, because they usually can’t stop a stud like Clay that has launched like a missile into the pocket.  Whoa baby, we had seven in coverage and in the end only had four rushing, and it created the winning points for the White team?  Cool.  Now that is how you create pressure, yet remain safe from a big play against you!

In the Utah game, we lined up like a huge blitz on the Utes 3rd down, but Eddie Pleasant started rushing from the extreme right side of the LOS and then retreated backward and to his left to replace the coverage zone vacated by a blitzing LB.  As he cleared the mass of bodies rushing/blocking he drifted into an open passing lane that had a Utah RB moving into it.  In a blink, the pass going to the RB was intercepted by Pleasant, because the QB never saw Eddie move into his field of view until after he had released the football!  Zone Blitz baby!

The most obvious advantage of the 3-4 with zone blitzing is speed, as we will have four LBs on the field that are fast, thus more play-makers are going to the ball.  Blitzing is easy to disguise in the 3-4, and our defenders have become much more savvy at timing their blitz at the precise instant.  The defense looks set, and then at the snap we have the safety on the left side of the formation who covers the slot man– blitzing which pulls the RT out to block him, the LDE occupies the ROG as they slide to the Offense’s right and backward.

Troy Hill knocks away a pass in Civil War.

This creates a gap for the shooting ILB to create another bad throw from the QB.  Where are they coming from?  The inside?  The outside?  The whole defensive scheme creates overloaded sides with blitzers, yet the offensive linemen and QB don’t know which side it is coming from or who is coming until it’s too late.

The nightmare for Offensive linemen is illustrated by a Left Offensive Guard who could see that his teammates are being overloaded on the other (right) side…..four rushers taking on three blockers, but if he moves over to help….a delayed ILB blitz on his current side could shoot through his abandoned gap.  Yet if he doesn’t go over to help…..he’s standing there blocking nobody while his QB is being overrun.

Defensive Coordinators call this the “plus-one” dilemma for Offensive Linemen and the intent is to make them guess on this 50/50 scenario at least once in each offensive possession.  The confusion, frustration, and even panic at times can lead to other mental mistakes later in the game.  So the psychological strain on the offense adds to the 3-4 Attacking Defense’s effectiveness?  Sweet!

What are the disadvantages of the Zone Blitzing 3-4?  Well….we have to give up the attitude of “keeping them in front of us”, or “Bend-but-don’t-Break”, or “don’t give up the big play.”  Why?  Because we will give up the big play once in awhile.  There were times in the Spring Game where we slanted away and created a bigger hole for the RB to zip through, or the blitz was unsuccessful and allowed time to complete the pass with WRs (Wide Receivers) on a crossing route.

Look what Wade Keliikipi, No. 92 and Duck defense found in Husky Stadium!

But this is a percentage game here, as we know that we will make more 3rd down stops and create more turnovers with this defense.  I saw it happening this spring and it is why the QBs were so uncomfortable.  What if the offense tries to catch us in a blitz?  It’s risky for them too; if they are wrong it puts them in a hole for 3rd down which makes our defense pin their ears back even further.  They don’t want that…….

What is the other disadvantage?  The 3-4 is vulnerable to an Inside Power Running Game, but again, the offense is taking their chances doing that.  Why?  Our Oregon Spread Offense is going to score a ton of points, and if you employ a power running game, then you are playing poor odds as to whether you can outscore the Oregon Offense.  Add to all this-the concept of being a Hybrid 3-4, which means that we’ll adjust to a 4-3 with beefier LBs if need be for a game.  We all know the story, as that type of team has to have an extraordinary day throwing beyond the DBs fingertips on a play-action pass or tossing up a Mini Hail-Mary to a TE.  It can happen, but that is low probability of occurring for their team, and I like our odds with this defense and our coaches.

What about the impact upon recruiting?  Hmmmm……do you think defenders would like to play in this defense?  FishDuck is an old, fat Offensive Lineman who would have loved to have played in this defense.  Penetrate and disrupt?  Slant/Crash down O-Linemen like bowling balls?  Be sneaky and blitz?  Pull out and go into zone coverage as a nose tackle?  Totally screw with the Offense’s heads?  Yeah-Baby!  Count me in!  The feedback of players and fans is unanimous; it is great fun to play and it now doubles our entertainment as a fan to replay in slow-motion the Zone Blitzes and the chaos this defense creates.   Geez, can I sign up?

Dion Jordan puts the hurt on…

Consider the impact upon TOP.  (Time of Possession)  Right now our offense has low TOP due to scoring quickly, and I believe that Chip has told the defense (in the past) that they had to expect to play an extra quarter per game, (and they did) and the offense would overcome it.  But what if?….  What if this new defense forces more turnovers and 3rd down stops, and the offense gets the ball for more possessions?  The TOP could balance out, but baby we could end up scoring much more over the course of a season.  The combination of the No-Huddle Spread Offense coupled with this new 3-4 Attacking Defense could create a snowball effect in a game where a couple of minutes can blow a game open for us.  Wow.

There will be no team in America like Oregon; who else runs the Spread Offense and this 3-4 Attacking Defense?  No one.  What do both the defense and the offense have in common?   Cutting Edge,..Speed, and Aggression.  As I pondered all of this, I shook my head as it all came together.  This is Chip Kelly isn’t it?  The No-Huddle Spread Offense….the Unusual Drills that I’ve never seen before……the Rock Music lifting us through practice…..and a 3-4 Attacking Defense?  It fits, doesn’t it?

Buckle up America.  Oregon will be the most entertaining and exciting package of Aggression between Offense and Defense in all of college football… and I cannot wait to watch!

We love our Ducks.

Charles Fischer   (FishDuck)
Eugene, Oregon
Top Photo by Amazing Moments Photography

New 2024 FishDuck Publishing Schedule….

During the off-season the publishing schedule will consist of articles on Mondays and Tuesdays. Do keep checking as new articles could be published during the week when a writer has something to say.

In mid-August of 2024, we will go back to the seven-days-a-week of articles during the football season as we did in the football season of 2023.

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