Circa 2012: Lanning Replicates Bend-But-Don’t-Break Defense

DazeNconfused Analysis

Duck fans, sometimes two heads are better than one, and amazing minds tend to think alike. It appears Oregon’s head coach Dan Lanning has concluded that the best path to follow with his team during his first year is the Chip Kelly recipe. Kelly certainly displayed an amazing mind during his tenure coaching the Ducks. Lanning can’t do any better than emulating the Kelly Era.

Charles, AKA Mr. FishDuck, and I were discussing all things about Our Beloved Ducks’ defense, when I asked him this question.

“Am I wrong in thinking that Lanning’s Cover-2 defense with his simulated pressure four-man rush was a return of the Bend-But-Don’t-Break defense, and why?”

Mr. FishDuck agreed and gave me the following reasons:

1. Lanning must feel his offense is the better unit than his defense and is building his blueprint to victory based off of that. He trusts the Ducks are going to score a ton of points.
2. He must feel the back seven is the better unit to build his defensive scheme off of than the front seven.
3. Oregon will be the team with the explosion plays and fast scoring drives, while Lanning’s defense will limit the opponent’s explosion plays and short scoring drives. He is going to make them burn clock, drive the field, and not let them get cheap scores.

The final point Mr. FishDuck put out there to ponder is if we will see these Ducks flex up in the Red-Zone, much like legendary Nick Aliotti’s defenses did in the Chip Kelly Era. Aliotti’s defenses were notorious for stopping long drives in the Red-Zone and holding opponents to a field goal.

Mr. FishDuck then said, “you know, Daze, there’s an article to write about the return of the Bend-But-Don’t-Break Defense.

Ifo Ekpre Olomu epitomized Aliotti’s defense, as he was saving a touchdown in 2012.

I have to say, Mr. FishDuck answered me very well, and I agree – we have the Bend-But-Don’t-Break Redux. But more than that, we are returning to the closest thing we have seen to the Era of Chip Kelly Oregon Duck Football! (Can you say Oregon Brand?)

This Duck offense ranks No. 17 in total offense, even after opening with Georgia who fields the consensus best defense in college football. In Bo Nix we have our best QB since first-round NFL draft picks Marcus Mariota and Justin Herbert. The offensive is anchored by arguably the best offensive line in college football. The Ducks OL led the way to posting the highest yards per carry against Georgia since 2019. It’s the only unit this year that hasn’t allowed its QB to be sacked!

Much like the Kelly squads, this team has a stable of running back talent that Ducks OC Kenny Dillingham is using in a rotation that goes five deep. Oregon is averaging 193 yards per game on the ground with a 5.1 yard per carry average. Nix also has a stable of talented WRs to throw too, and he has been spectacular. Nix has spread the ball around at a 72% completion clip to the tune of 296 yards per game.

Despite being held to 3 points in the opener against Georgia, the Ducks have put up a scoring average of 39.5 points per game. The last three games, the Ducks are averaging 56.6 points per game! Oregon’s posting an average of 495 yards per game and it’s not crazy to expect the scoring and yardage average to keep rising!

With an offense like that, it’s no wonder that they are the strength of this Ducks team.

The emergence of Troy Franklin has helped Oregon’s offense explode, as he burns WSU to score the go-ahead touchdown.

Lanning has turned Duck fans expectations of a downhill, havoc defense on its head. Lanning is employing a Cover-2 scheme, while mostly rushing four and getting pressure through simulated pressures (or zone blitzes, which is what they called it a decade ago!). The Ducks back seven, employing two deep safeties, has done a great job of limiting explosion passing plays. Lanning is making teams one-dimensional on offense, as the Ducks have the No. 16 rated rushing defense in the nation giving up 86.5 yards per game. (BTW, Lanning’s old unit is giving up 86 yards per game.)

Oregon has faced two teams, in BYU and Wazzu, that have elusive QBs. Despite mainly relying on a four-man rush, Oregon has recorded 5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and 4 QB hurries. I would guess we could credit another 10 coverage sacks to the back seven with passes the QBs have thrown away, or have been flushed for a short loss.

Lending to Lanning’s Bend-But-Don’t-Break defense success is the robust amount of defensive depth at Oregon. The Ducks are playing six-deep on the interior defensive line, and into the three-deep at the LB and DB spots. Not only does Lanning keep starters fresh for the fourth quarter, but the backups are getting better with game experience each week, as well. The negative is that backups make mistakes, which hampers the defensive stats, but Oregon is developing quality depth that will be game-ready if a starter goes down.

BYU’s Jaren Hall and Wazzu’s Cameron Ward have been projected by some as future first-round NFL draft picks. The last two weeks, the Ducks forced those QBs into 2 interceptions, 5 punts, and 3 FG attempts. That’s 7 drives stopped stone cold, and 3 others that only netted 6 points! Combined, the teams scored an average of 27 points against the Oregon defense, and that includes the short TD drive after the Ty Thompson interception in the BYU game.

Oregon scored an average of 39 points in those two games while leaving plenty of points on the field. Ty Thompson got two drives against BYU starting in the third quarter. Against Wazzu, the Ducks only put up 9 points on four first-half Red-Zone possessions. The Ducks quite possibly could have averaged 45-plus points in the last two games.

The 2012 defense played off the Oregon offense superbly, as No. 20 John Boyett intercepts a pass, with No. 21 Avery Patterson, No. 4 Erick Dargan, and No. 46 Michael Clay observing.

As lethal as the Oregon offense has been, it’s understandable why Lanning is playing it safe with the Bend-But-Don’t-Break approach. It is already beginning to work much the same as Aliotti’s did during the Kelly Era, although this Ducks’ defense can do even better. They extended a Wazzu scoring drive with a defensive penalty, along with giving up chunks of yardage with personal fouls. The last two weeks, the Ducks’ kicking game has made key mistakes. A 29-yard punt gave BYU the ball at its 45-yard line for a short field touchdown scoring drive, and the Ducks had a kickoff go out of bounds against Wazzu.

We know that Lanning will be coaching his players on correcting these mistakes, as they are critical to eliminate when playing the Bend-But-Don’t-Break scheme. It is comforting that Oregon has shown they can put tons of points on the board against two good defenses in back-to-back games. The defense has stuffed the run game, gotten pressure with four rushers, and the back seven has kept two good QBs from getting any consistent deep passing game going.

I sure would love to get Nick Aliotti’s thoughts on this 2022 Ducks team and the defense coach Dan Lanning is fielding in his first year. The strategy of scoring tons of points on offense while making your opponent work hard to score (and burning up clock), shortening the game time remaining for an opponent comeback? It is a logical and proven strategy.

I suggest Duck fans get used to seeing some Duck football circa 2012 each week. It’s working and it’s here to stay!

Duck fans, what do you think about the return of the Bend-But-Don’t-Break defense at Oregon? Please share your thoughts in the OBD FORUM!

Portland, Oregon
Top Photo by Cliff Grassmick

Andrew Mueller, the Volunteer Editor for this article, works in higher education in Chicago, Illinois.

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