Anyone who has been watching Oregon closely over the past half-decade or so noticed a bit of a hiccup in last week's road game against the Virginia Cavaliers. For one, the Oregon offense wasn't nearly as fluid as we all anticipated; dropped passes, missed blocks, etc., nor was it as efficient as we all know the Duck's high octane attack can be. Oregon converted just three third downs all game, and didn't convert on one of its two fourth down attempts, something that the Ducks became nearly famous for converting while Chip Kelly was in town.
However, there is always a silver lining. Not only did the Oregon defense play out of its mind against the 'Hoos, the big-name playmakers on offense found ways to shred up the Virginia defense despite not having truly prolonged success against what turned out to be a fairly decent front line from the ACC.
Of course, it might seem like nitpicking a bit. Oregon did win by 49 points, but if we're being completely honest, there was definitely room for improvement as the Ducks prepare for the bulk of its schedule.
Over the offseason, everyone had been wondering whether or not Marcus Mariota's responsibilities in the Oregon passing offense would expand, given a more or less passer-friendly coaching staff. But for now, it really seems as if Head Coach Mark Helfrich has kept the dynamic Oregon rushing attack as the forefront of the offense, even more-so than how things were last season.
One concept that really caught my eye as one that Mark Helfrich and Offensive Coordinator Scott Frost really utilized well was the "Sweep-Read" play. In fact, I find it interesting to see how much this play package has evolved over the years. First used as a counter to Cal's pesky defensive scheme in 2010, the sweep-read play demolished Arizona a week later, and really became a major staple for Chip Kelly's best teams in 2011 and 2012. Over that time span, teams started keying in on the concept, opening the door to more and more counters that Oregon could utilize in reaction to the defensive adjustments. From varying which defender the quarterback reads, to inverting the blocking scheme entirely towards the QB's side, the sweep read play may singlehandedly be the best and most important play in Oregon's playbook.
For any fans that can remember Lombardi's sweep play with pulling linemen ran in Green Bay way-back-when, this is essentially the same play with a little modern flavor. Watch how Oregon's center and right tackle lead the way for De'Anthony Thomas on this long touchdown run early in the game.
While this play might look like a simple sweep up front, there could very well be a lot more to this play than what meets the eye. First of all, the sweep play usually does indeed attach a "read," or "option," to the play. The quarterback Marcus Mariota will make the decision to give the ball to the running back to loop around the pulling linemen, or keep the ball for himself and cut straight upfield.
The decision Mariota makes is based on the behavior of a specified defender. In the play above, you'll notice how none of the defenders along the defensive line are left unblocked- meaning that none of those defenders are actually, "being read," by the quarterback. However, on the second level of defenders, it becomes obvious that there is one defender in particular that is left unblocked, and Mariota just happens to stare directly at him after the play starts.
Take a look at the play from a different view. Can you see which defender Mariota may have been reading on this play?
If you look closely, it becomes apparent that Mariota was indeed reading a linebacker, rather than a defensive lineman on this play. For a split second, the linebacker (#13) hesitates, forcing Mariota to hand the ball off to the running back. With De'Anthony Thomas carrying the ball, a split second is all the Ducks needed to spring this play for big yardage and a score. Of course, the absolutely spectacular block by the tight end (#15) Colt Lyerla is the real reason this play got off the ground, while the pulling linemen Hroniss Grasu (#55) and Jake Fisher (#75) capped the play off with some devastating blocks downfield.
Coaches take note, this is exactly how you're supposed to block the sweep-read play.
Now let's take a look at another variation of the concept. This particular wrinkle has been seen only a handful of times, and surprisingly it was one of the first plays Oregon ran to start the game:
As you can see the blocking scheme is nearly identical to that of the previous play shown. The two pulling linemen pin two defenders in the middle of the field, while the tight end seals the edge. However this time, the blocking scheme is actually oriented around the quarterback as opposed to the running back. In the plays further above, the linemen pull in front of the running back's path, as per the usual in these sweep read plays. But in this play shown directly above, the linemen are pulling in front of the quarterback.
The reason why Helfrich and Frost would call this play is because they have identified which keys defenders are reading to get a read on each play. As you can see, the linebackers bit hard on De'Anthony Thomas' route, and by the time they realize that Mariota kept the ball, the quarterback had already turned the corner on the sweep. It was a good read, and an even better play-call so early in the game.
The last time Oregon ran this particular wrinkle was against USC last season, but the last time Oregon had ran this play extensively was back when Jeremiah Masoli was calling the signals. The coaches call this concept the "Bash" play.
So at least we know that the Chip Kelly-esque cat and mouse game hasn't fully vanished from the Oregon offense. Of course, those famous countering play-calls will be a lot tougher to make once the competition starts to increase. For now, we'll just have to wait and see how good Helfrich and company really are with this playbook after a seemingly promising start.