Tale of the Tape: Breaking down Oregon’s offense

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Chip Kelly might’ve left Oregon, but his offense sure didn’t. After the first three games of the 2013 season under new head coach Mark Helfrich, the Ducks are averaging more than 61 points per game.

On Saturday, Helfrich’s offense will face off against Cal in both teams’ Pac-12 opener. Under new head coach Sonny Dykes, Cal’s defense has been atrocious in its first three games — surrendering 556 yards per contest.

It’s safe to assume the Bears will fail to slow down the Ducks. In a matchup between an unstoppable force and a movable object, the unstoppable force almost always wins.

The staple of the unstoppable force — Oregon’s offense — is the read-option. As demonstrated in Oregon’s dismantling of Tennessee on Sept. 14, it’s still just as explosive and effective as it was under Kelly.

All it takes is one play to understand why the Oregon offense is so impossible to contain. On this particular play, quarterback Marcus Mariota and wide receiver Daryle Hawkins connect for a 45-yard touchdown pass on fourth and six with 4:28 left in the second quarter.

At first glance, what you’ll see is a blown coverage by a Tennessee defensive back and an easy throw by Mariota and catch by Hawkins. Look closer, though, and what you’ll see are the intricacies of the Oregon offense.

The Ducks line up with Mariota in the shotgun and running back De’Anthony Thomas to his right. On the right of the line are three wide receivers: two bunched in the slot and Hawkins near the sideline. The Ducks also have a tight end lined up to the left of the left tackle.

With a tight end to the left of the line, it appears a handoff to the left could be on its way. Knowing this, the Volunteers commit two linebackers to the left side of the field, leaving their left outside linebacker isolated on the right.

The ball is snapped to Mariota, and he immediately fakes a handoff to Thomas, who continues running into the left flat. The play action freezes the left outside linebacker, preventing him from running out to cover the wide receiver positioned to receive a bubble screen. The second slot receiver and the tight end mirror each other and run crossing patterns over the middle.

The Volunteers have the middle of the field overcovered — four defenders cover the two crossing patterns.

But Mariota’s attention is centered on the outside, where he has identified two one-on-one matchups. The matchup of a wide receiver running a bubble screen against a linebacker is enticing for Mariota. But near the sideline, Hawkins runs a simple go-route. In nonfootball terms, he just runs straight.

Instead of running with Hawkins, the outside defensive back covers the open screen pass. Despite the simplicity of Hawkins’ route, he finds himself with 10 yards of separation from the defensive back. Mariota lofts a pass to Hawkins, who walks into the end zone for the score.

So how exactly does Hawkins get so wide open?

The touchdown comes as a result of the fake handoff to Thomas, which prevents the linebacker from properly covering the bubble screen, which in turn makes the outside defensive back think Mariota will dump it off to his slot receiver in the flat for a first down. Down 24-7, the defensive back wants to stop Oregon short of the first-down marker and give his offense some field position. Instead, he allows a backbreaking touchdown.

Tempo also plays a crucial role. Oregon’s offense is designed to tire out opposing defenses through its no-huddle play-calling. A fast tempo not only fatigues a defense but also makes it more prone to mental lapses. Prior to the snap, the Tennessee defense scrambles to line up properly, which results in a key defensive error on the play. It’s safe to assume the strong safety’s role was to provide help for the outside cornerback covering Hawkins.

Instead, the safety zeroes in on slot receiver No. 2, running a crossing pattern. But there’s a problem: The inside cornerback is already covering this route. As I mentioned earlier, four Tennessee defenders are covering up two Oregon players.

Leaving a linebacker matched up with a receiver is deadly. The outside defensive back knows this. As a result, he overcommits to the screen and is burned deep, thinking over-the-top help was coming from his strong safety.

The score also occurs because of the read-option. While it appears that Mariota and Thomas weren’t going to run the ball by design, because Oregon runs the read-option so frequently, the Tennessee defense is forced to respect the running element of the offense. Instead, it gets burned for a 45-yard touchdown pass.

When Cal travels to Eugene on Saturday, it should expect to see plenty of the read-option and play-action passes. While shutting down the Oregon offense isn’t a realistic option for Cal, containing the explosive plays that doomed Tennessee takes priority for defensive coordinator Andy Buh.

If Cal keeps explosive plays at a minimum, Oregon will be forced to sustain long drives down the field. There is no evidence to suggest the Bears will be able to slow down the Ducks; the defense will inevitably bend, but its primary objective will be not to break.

Sean Wagner-McGough covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.