As Oregon faces Stanford soon, the Ducks again boast one of the nation’s most prolific offenses. Under new head coach (and former offensive coordinator) Mark Helfrich, the Oregon offense remains predicated upon Chip Kelly’s spread-to-run system. The underpinning of that system is arithmetic. By rule, the defense always has one unblocked defender – the ball carrier’s counterpart. Once the quarterback hands off the defense gains an additional unblocked defender, gaining a two-man advantage against the offense.
The Ducks seek to minimize that arithmetic advantage with the quarterback reading one of those unblocked defenders. With one defender neutralized by the quarterback, the defense now only has one unblocked defender against Oregon’s base inside zone, outside zone and power run plays. The Ducks utilize multiple wide receivers to clear other defenders out of the tackle box, providing Oregon better numbers to run the football.
It is no surprise defenses seek to regain that arithmetic. Defenses use two common tactics. One is to have a defensive back that looks like he is covering a slot receiver actually sneak inside that receiver to play the run. The second is to bring a safety down aggressively against run action.
The strategy behind the Ducks’ offense flows from punishing a defense that wants to use these strategies. If a defense tries to cheat a slot defender against the run, Oregon will throw wide receiver screens. If a safety is going to aggressively attack the run, Oregon will throw play action passes behind those vacated defenders.
While the basic principles for the 2013 Ducks remain the same, however, the implementation is somewhat different. Oregon is more of a pass-first unit then previously under Kelly. Part of this is that the Ducks have not been as consistent on their inside zone play. But a far bigger aspect has been the emergence of Marcus Mariota as one of the top draft prospects for 2014.
Mariota has all the physical tools, but what makes him particularly effective is his decision-making. As Kelly makes clear, the key aspect to a quarterback in his spread system is not his running ability (though that certainly helps) but decision-making. That is because the quarterback must quickly decide where the football is going on nearly every play, whether it is a run or pass. Mariota excels in this aspect, which is what makes him the perfect trigger-man for the Oregon offense.
The Ducks’ passing game is most effective when it stretches a defense off play action. This is also where Mariota is at his best. One Oregon staple is a backside skinny post off inside zone.
Defenses often play cover 1 or cover 4 against Oregon to combat the Ducks’ spread. Oregon counts on the safety coming upon in run support, where Oregon can hit the skinny post behind the vacated area.
Oregon then takes this concept a step further, combining a skinny post with a bubble screen.
Following the fake, Mariota reads the backside corner. If he plays the bubble Mariota will throw the post. If he plays back he will quickly deliver the bubble screen, providing Oregon easy yards.
These concepts, combined with naked bootleg flood routes, constitute some of the core passing plays for the Oregon offense. Mariota generally makes the correct read and then utilizes a quick, compact release to deliver the football before the defense can react.
Oregon asks as much of Mariota’s decision-making in the run game. Nearly every Duck run play involves Mariota making the proper read and determining when to give or keep. The Ducks also design plays to feature Mariota’s running ability. For instance, one base Oregon play is a sweep read. The Ducks pull their playside guard and center. Mariota reads the interior defensive linemen. This allows Oregon to pull its linemen and get outside without having to block one defensive tackle who is quickly out of the play once Oregon beats outside contain.
Below, however, Oregon alters the play to get Mariota on the edge. The Ducks fake sweep read, but have the linemen pull the opposite way to lead Mariota around end.
It is therefore not too much to say that Oregon is a quarterback-centered offense more so than any time in its recent history.
Projecting Mariota to the NFL is the perpetual problem with spread quarterbacks. If Mariota has a weakness it is that he struggles at times with accuracy. This is more noticeable with drop back pass plays with tight coverage. That is not to say he does not have success in the dropback game, but he is sometimes less crisp. He will need to improve his ball placement to thrive at the next level.
That is not to say that Mariota must play in a pure spread offense to succeed. It simply seems sub-optimal to play Mariota in a traditional drop back offense, which will lead to a longer learning curve. With his quick decision-making and release, Mariota should thrive in the hybrid spread offenses that now exist throughout the NFL. This will feature Mariota on play action and bootleg passes where he can make quick decisions without requiring him to regularly carry the football.
As to this year, Oregon’s offense will likely go as far as Mariota can take them. One thing to watch is how Mariota throws the football if a defense is able to take away Oregon’s run game without devoting additional defenders. This will require for Mariota to exploit drop back opportunities and allow him to demonstrate his versatility for the NFL.