Building Lanning’s Defense: Off-Season Problems to Fix

David Marsh Editorials

Dan Lanning had a strong first year for a first-time head coach, going 10-3. However, it fell short of what he can actually achieve, and there are some glaring holes in this Oregon program that must be addressed if this team is going to ever reach the College Football Playoff again to compete for a National Championship.

Replacing Matt Powledge

This is something that needs to happen regardless, as former Co-Defensive Coordinator and Safeties Coach Matt Powledge has returned to Baylor to become their DC. Powledge and Tosh Lupoi teamed up as Defensive Coordinators this last season with Powledge in the box and Lupoi on the sideline. Lupoi was constantly featured signaling from the sideline, and has been mentioned as the next defensive play-caller. How much of a role Powledge actually had on the defensive side of the ball it is difficult for fans to fully know, as we are not privy to the inner workings of the coaching staff. One thing is certain: the defense did not live up to its potential this year.

This is a great opportunity for Lanning to find someone who may be a more experienced defensive coordinator and perhaps someone with some playcalling experience. Lanning needs to fix the defensive side of the ball right away, so getting someone to help with playcalling should be at the top of that list.

Linebacker Play

The linebacker corps was supposed to be the biggest strength on the defense this year, but instead it was the biggest liability. The linebackers were constantly exposed in pass coverage, especially in the underneath routes and they never really improved as the year went on. Help is on the way with Iowa transfer Jestin Jacobs and it does look like Keith Brown and Jeffrey Bassa are the projected starters, at least for now, at middle linebacker.

Mike Snow

Oregon’s linebackers look to contain UNC’s run game.

Both Brown and Bassa performed admirably in the Holiday Bowl, but they still have a long way to go. A potential option here is that Lanning could bring in a new coach to replace Powledge, but have him take over linebacker duties and shift Coach Demetrice Martin to coaching safeties in addition to his current duties with the corners. This comes with the risk of spreading Martin too thin and we could see a regression in the secondary — a secondary that was finally coming together toward the end of the year.

Lanning himself has coached linebackers in the past, and perhaps it is time he takes a more hands-on approach when it comes to coaching up his LBs.

Establish a Pass Rush

Lanning is well aware of Oregon’s lack of a pass rush and he has worked to address it with this year’s defensive line recruiting class. But simply having the talent is not enough; this talent needs to be developed into a pass-rushing monster. A key point in Lanning’s defense is only rushing four defenders to put pressure on the quarterback. That worked well at Georgia, who had a plethora of talent at defensive line, but Oregon didn’t have enough depth and didn’t have a big-time pass rusher who demanded the offensive line’s attention.

Generating a solid pass rush is vital to ensuring the rest of the defense works. Without a pass rush we have seen the secondary struggle at times, because they have to hold their coverage for much longer than they should. That allows the quarterback to find a receiver who is able to get open. It is too much to ask a secondary to constantly maintain coverage play after play; the receivers today are just too good and they are going to get open eventually. The defensive line needs to get the pass rush in there to speed up the quarterback to help the secondary.

In the Holiday Bowl, Oregon’s pass rush put some pressure on Drake Maye, and that allowed the secondary the opportunity to break up some key passes. Look for Mase Funa to become the disruptive force we all thought he could be as he spends another year in Lanning’s system, but Oregon is going to need players other than just Funa to step up to generate the pass rush.

Mike Snow

Oregon’s pass rush sacks Drake Maye in the Holiday Bowl.

Getting Off the Field on Third Down

This is perhaps the most important thing that must change for Oregon, and everything else above plays right into this. Oregon’s defense was unable to get off the field for third down this year as opponents converted 47% of the time. The Ducks didn’t give up a ton of explosive plays, but that didn’t matter when their opponents still marched down the field and weren’t stopped on third down. Even in 3rd-and-long situations, teams seemed to convert far too frequently.

If the Ducks want to make a run at a conference championship, let alone the playoff, Lanning will need to get his defense off the field on third down.

Oregon’s defense has talent, but it doesn’t quite fit the mold for what Lanning is looking for in his defense. With another recruiting class and transfer portal season under his belt, Lanning needs to make sure his defense works. There is confidence within the Oregon fanbase that Lanning will make this happen, but will it happen fast enough or are we in for some more hard lessons?

David Marsh
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By Nancy Paiva

 

Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the medical technology industry in SLC, Utah.

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