From the angst-filled opener in Dallas, to the dramatic finish in Pasadena, Duck fans marveled over Andy Avalos‘ 2019 Oregon defense. No amount of glowing anticipation could match the outstanding improvement Avalos’ troops demonstrated in just one year.
With only two key additions, Oregon’s defense garnered 97 tackles for loss, 41 sacks, 20 interceptions, 42 quarterback hurries and yielded only 16.7 points per game. Given that Avalos had basically the same set of players as Jim Leavitt had in 2018, what made his defense that much more effective? Simple: Avalos is a master at maximizing his players’ strengths.
What’s in store for 2020?
The more I scour last year’s games, the more I enjoy the idea Avalos is only scratching the surface of the kind of defense he wants to establish. Let’s delve into why I feel that way.
We’ve seen the video above in numerous FishDuck.com articles. What strikes me is not only how Kayvon Thibodeaux is used at nose tackle, but also how Mase Funa is placed at middle linebacker. My first inclination was to assume Funa was being groomed to play middle linebacker. This would assist Isaac Slade-Matautia and Sampson Niu inside while Avalos and company groom highly-touted stalwarts Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell. When I watched footage of the Utah game, I also believed Slade-Matautia and Niu were being groomed to play as outside linebackers once Sewell and Flowe take command inside.
But alas, the play in the video was just a blitz package Avalos designed to utilize Funa’s strengths (Funa netted 4 sacks, 4 quarterback hurries and 8 1/2 tackles for loss). But the idea still sticks in my mind: Funa can slay guards and tackles in the middle, while Slade-Matautia and Niu are effective at both spots. I believe all three will be used both inside and outside this year.
Avalos develops players like Picasso paints pictures
Did you know a stunning 27 players had tackles for losses (TFL) last year? (up from 18 in 2018) Production in the linebacker ranks shot up dramatically. Nearly every linebacker, including the back-ups, registered sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hurries (only Dru Mathis failed to net a quarterback hurry, but he got his TFLs and sacks).
This bodes well for heralded four-star linebacker Adrian Jackson because his body type allows him to play both inside and outside like Niu and Slade-Matautia. Furthermore, Andrew Faoliu has moved from tackle to outside linebacker. I doubt Faoliu only plays linebacker, though.
Say what? Well, Faoliu showed some good skills inside with his quickness at the tackle spot, but Avalos seems to want the flexibility of adding depth with another stout outside backer to join Funa and still be able to utilize smaller “missiles” such as Jackson, Niu and Slade-Matautia — unique to their individual strengths — for specific packages designed to wreak even more havoc this year.
And that’s only the beginning.
Speed vs. Speed
During Spring Practice, there was plenty of talk about Thomas Graham moving to safety as part of his duties. In my opinion, it makes total sense. (I also believe Mykael Wright should get more time at safety as well, in order to add firepower to counter the lethal offenses that field those NFL-caliber wide receivers we’ve seen so often over the last two to three years.)
In Nickel packages (use of five defensive backs), Graham, Wright and Deommodore Lenoir can utilize their man-to-man coverage strengths on the three best wide receivers they’ll face, while ball hawks Jevon Holland and Brady Breeze use their strengths to suffocate tight ends. Furthermore, both Breeze and Holland are available for their awesome run defense skills.
The Next Chapter
Clearly I’m focusing on the back seven, and for good reason. I believe these personnel moves will bolster an already effective defensive tackle group against the run. In addition, the linebackers have proven their ability to blanket running backs. Imagine jet fuel coverage from the likes of Lenoir, Wright and Graham (when they start facing these awesome wide receivers), and the lock-down match-ups Breeze and Holland will win — oh my!
With Blitz packages galore (see the video above for an introduction to Blitzkrieg 101), we’re primed to witness Avalos’ expert use of his roster’s greatest strengths. Buckle up, Oregon fans — the best is yet to come!
Las Vegas, Nevada
Top Photo by Kevin Cline
Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.
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