Oregon’s heated interstate rivalry game this Saturday with the Washington Huskies is a nationally televised primetime matchup of two Top 25 teams. The Huskies featuring Michael Penix Jr, and the No. 1 passing game in college football look to validate their season with an upset win over the Ducks. Can the Ducks scheme up a defensive game plan to slow the UW passing juggernaut down?
Penix is the nation’s leader in total passing yards, and the left hander has an NFL type arm. New coach Kalen DeBoer is the architect of the UW passing game that has seen nine players record over double digits in catches. DeBoer’s system that creates matchups in space has allowed Penix to spread the ball around between his running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers.
As impressive as the ball distribution has been by Penix, the WRs are the leaders of this passing game. The Huskies have a three headed monster at WR in Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillian and Ja’lynn Polk. The three have a combined reception average of just under 15-yards per catch with 18 touchdowns between them. They also each have long explosion plays of 61, 84, and 53 yards.
It’s clear the Ducks primary focus needs to be on these three wide receivers. Not only can they strike at any time for a long explosion play, but half of Penix’s completions on the year have gone to these three players. This means Penix is looking mostly for these WRs on third and long, or for a deep shot play.
Oregon’s Base Cover-2 Scheme
As the season has progressed Mr. FishDuck and I have brought our readers many articles this year about the defensive scheme Dan Lanning has employed this year. The safe Oregon Cover-2 scheme of the Bend-But-Don’t-Break Redux has been the primary base defense this year. FishDuck readers should now possess a good understanding of the two deep safeties of the Oregon Cover-2 scheme.
On Monday I wrote how DeBoer could use schemes and Penix’s NFL arm talent to attack the Ducks’ Cover-2 in ways other teams have not been able to. While I don’t expect the Ducks to abandon the Cover-2, it would not surprise me to see Lanning add some scheme twists.
The Tampa-2 is a variation of the Cover-2 that has the middle linebacker take a deeper than normal drop into the 20-yard range in the middle of the field. That gives the defense three deep defenders. The safeties each cover one deep half past 20-yards in the Tampa-2. The Tampa-2 lets the safeties not have to cover the normal soft seam in the middle of the field between the linebackers and safeties. The cornerbacks cover the sidelines up to the 15 to 20 yards range along with deep drop by the middle linebacker.
Tampa-2 frees up the safeties to focus even more on not letting explosion plays over the top in a Bend-But-Don’t-Break on steroids. The Tampa-2 requires a linebacker uniquely suited to play this deep dropping linebacker. Typically, the player is undersized, has good instincts, is good at reading plays and has the speed to get him into the plays. The Tampa-2 middle linebacker might read run one play and stuff it at the line of scrimmage, then the next play read pass and drop deeper than all the other linebackers to his deep middle zone.
Enter Oregon’s Jeffery Bassa as the middle linebacker for the Oregon Tampa-2. Bassa at 6’2″ 212 lbs. is a big safety who was converted to linebacker after the start of last season, who could be called a hybrid. That Lanning values his pass defense skills has been shown by Oregon using Bassa as his primary middle linebacker on third and long this year.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Oregon mix in some Tampa-2 coverage to counter the Huskies trying to push the ball down the field.
Oregon has been playing more Cover-1 with one deep safety the last two games. I’ve been wondering if Lanning has been doing this in preparation of using it more against UW, and possibly USC in a Pac-12 title game? In the Cover-1 the deep safety must help over the top on any deep route they read. The other underneath defenders are in man-to-man coverage, including the corners who are on an island on the outside with only the one deep safety to help on a deep ball.
Playing Cover-1 gives the Ducks options they don’t get with a Cover-2. The Cover-1 lets the Ducks have an extra underneath defender against the bubble screens, slants, short to mid crosses teams will look to run on third and medium. It also puts an extra defender in the box to stack up against the run on third and short.
The Cover-1 also lets the Ducks show more aggressive pressure looks on the line of scrimmage pre-snap. Oregon can put six men on the line and bring them all, or drop two of them. We can shift into an overload blitz right before the snap, or run a delayed linebacker blitz. Stunting the defensive linemen, and blitzing the linebackers is more effective with more men in the box. We can even run a safety or corner blitz.
The Cover-1 gives the ability for more aggressive havoc plays resulting in sacks, tackles for loss or short gains. Couldn’t you see Lanning rolling this out on key downs against the Huskies?
The 7- Jeff Defense
Remember when I said Bassa has some special speed, range and pass coverage skills at linebacker? What I’m calling the 7-Jeff is a 4-1-6 dime package with Bassa as the lone linebacker. I call it the 7-Jeff because Bassa’s speed and range lets him cover in pass defense like a 7th defensive back.
This is a great third and extremely long package. It also works when we are sitting on a multiple score lead late and making teams drive the field and burn clock. This is a package I really like, given Bassa’s ability and our depth at defensive back. Bassa’s speed allows him to get sideline-to-sideline in this set to cover the underneath check-down routes, or spy on the QB if the running back stays in to block. If the offense goes empty set with five receivers, Bassa can drop and cover the underneath crossing route.
Watch for this set as I’ve seen this dime before used by the Ducks, but not featured. Could Lanning be sitting on the 7-Jeff to use against UW or USC and their loaded passing games? No other Pac-12 team has the quality of game experienced player depth to run an effective 7-Jeff like Oregon.
Playing Cat and Mouse With Penix Jr.
I’m looking for the Ducks use the ‘breaking tendencies” to their advantage. Oregon it seems to me has played over 80% in its base Cover-2. Much of the time Oregon shows its Cover-2 set early, as if saying (“here it is, run what you’re going to”). Maybe showing Cover-2 so obviously has been Lanning’s way of getting QBs to take the read of the underneath passing game?
For this game I’m looking to see of Oregon elects to play head games with Penix, and disguise its coverages more to throw him off. Will Oregon show Cover-2 but get a Bassa interception on a deep middle cross by dropping deep in a Tampa-2? It’s very easy for the QB to miss the middle linebacker taking that deep Tampa-2 drop, especially when its done in a “tendency break“.
Look to see if Oregon shows Cover-1 pre-snap and rolls the second safety back into Cover-2 right before the snap. Look for the same with showing Cover-2 pre-snap and then moving the safeties into Cover-1 right before the snap to get an extra defender into the short passing game.
We should also watch if the Ducks are more aggressive on early downs showing Cover-1 and bringing blitzes. Will Oregon stack the line with six men and bring them all early in a havoc attacking style? Will Oregon blitz back-to-back on first and second down? Will Oregon show its Cover-2 on third and long, and bring both linebackers on a delayed blitz with a stunt mixed in? Might we see a corner or safety blitz result in a key third down sack?
I don’t expect Oregon to reinvent itself with its defensive scheme. But I do think the opportunity is there to break defensive tendencies that the Huskies have seen on film, and game plan expected.
A half dozen well-timed defensive play calls in the first half can shake a QBs confidence in his game plan, and can get in his head for the rest of the game. When you can get a QB the caliber of Penix second guessing what he is reading, you’ve gone a long way towards making him miss his reads for explosion plays.
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Top Photo by Joe Jackson Jr.
I was born a Cali kid and my uncle is a USC Alum. Remember going to an SC game when I was like 5 with him. I moved to Oregon in 77 when I was 6 and became a Duck fan long ago. I remember Reggie Ogburn OB days, so it was before the Ducks got good. I’ve been a sports nut since I was a kid.
I went to Tigard High about the same time as linebacker Jeremy Asher did, and I watched him team with Rich Ruhl on the inside of the Gang Green defense.
Lots of Ducks memories, Danny O’Neil’s passing in 1st Rose Bowl, Kenny Wheaton, Joey’s comebacks early in his career and how jacked up he got!
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