How Joe Moorhead Beat the Bruins’ Blitz

Joshua Whitted Analysis

Oregon’s trip to Los Angeles was the perfect opportunity for all of the Mario Cristobal skeptics to say “I told you so.” Chip Kelly and his Bruins run one of the more creative offenses in the country, with wild run-blocking schemes, plenty of tempo and a wide variety of formations. Cristobal — on the other hand — has become infamous for wanting to pound the ball down opponents’ throats with a relatively straightforward approach. It sure seemed like a coaching mismatch was on the horizon.

A coaching mismatch did occur on Saturday, but shockingly, it was Cristobal’s Ducks who out-schemed Kelly’s Bruins.

In truth, while Cristobal deserves plenty of credit for fully trusting his offensive coordinator, Joe Moorhead was the mastermind behind Oregon’s thrilling victory. The Ducks faced a defense that is hellbent on stopping the run and creating disruption in the backfield. Instead of sticking to their usual run-heavy approach, Moorhead countered with a lethal passing attack that took advantage of a defense playing with reckless abandon.

Moorhead’s Game-Winning Strategy

UCLA has one of the best run defenses in college football. The Bruins currently rank 13th in rushing yards allowed per game, but it’s not strictly due to their personnel up front. Last year, the Bruins ranked seventh in the country in blitz percentage, sending extra rushers a whopping 51% of the time, according to PFF. Defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro hasn’t dialed back the pressure this year, either, and committing so many bodies to the line of scrimmage has made it very difficult for teams to find running room against UCLA.

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Moorhead knew that his best shot at having success on Saturday would be through the air; the Ducks wisely avoided running against the hard-charging Bruins for the majority of the game. But he also didn’t complicate things for his quarterback, leaving him as a sitting duck (pun intended) in the pocket, just to get thrown to the slaughter. Instead, Moorhead simplified the game for Anthony Brown, and for the most part, Brown executed the gameplan beautifully.

In the drop-back passing game, Moorhead routinely took advantage of the Bruins’ off-coverage. Off-coverage is when defensive backs line up up over wide receivers with plenty of separation between them. (See UCLA’s cornerbacks circled below.)

UCLA’s cornerbacks (circled above) give Oregon’s receivers a massive cushion.

The primary reason teams use off-coverage — as opposed to press coverage — is to avoid getting beat deep. It’s easier to keep pace with receivers running downfield when a cornerback has a five-yard head start. Teams that blitz utilize off-coverage more often than not, as committing more defenders to rush the passer takes one or even both safeties away from their deep-coverage responsibilities.

Knowing that UCLA has a recent history of blitzing on over half of its snaps, Moorhead knew the Ducks would face their share of off-coverage. The Bruins lined up that way all game long, determined to not get beat deep, and aside from one 50-50 ball on a free play, they didn’t. But Oregon picked them apart underneath with quick outs and hitches on the outside, and quick passes over the middle against very conservative underneath zones.

An example of this is in the video below, where UCLA bails out of a slot corner blitz. The outside cornerbacks give plenty of cushion, covering the deep quarters, and the slot cornerback isn’t wide enough to the sideline due to him acting as a blitz threat. The result is a quick out to Johnny Johnson, who is perfectly located in the cushion between the bailing outside cornerback and the trailing slot defender.

UCLA isn’t just aggressive in its blitz looks, though. The entire defense plays with its hair on fire and attacks the ball with lightning speed. Moorhead used this mentality against the Bruins by running tunnel screens time and time again. The tunnel screen is a pass to the perimeter that breaks inside, with a convoy of blockers forming a “tunnel” for the receiver to run through.

UCLA’s back seven reacted aggressively towards the perimeter nearly every time, over pursuing, and leaving plenty of space inside for the receiver to follow his blockers. An example of this is in the video below.

By the end of the game, Oregon had done so much damage in the screen game that Moorhead used a fake screen to spring Brown loose on what resulted in the game-winning touchdown. The Ducks motioned the running back on a fake swing screen, and as the picture below shows, the just about every defender pursued the running back at the start of the play.

UCLA bites on the fake swing screen.

With the defense running itself out of the running lane, the Ducks brought two pullers on a QB counter, and Brown ran untouched for the score.

The Bruins dared Oregon to step out of its comfort zone and win a game by developing a passing attack that could take advantage of the weaknesses of a fast, frenetic, attacking defense. That’s exactly what the Ducks did, thanks to Moorhead the Maestro, who orchestrated a clinic in Westwood.

Joshua Whitted
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Tom Corno

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