Jim Leavitt’s Oregon Defense

By Cameron Soran

Being that I live in Oregon (though not a Duck fan myself), I’ve had a sort of voyeur interest in watching both the collapse and rise of Oregon’s defense in recent years.  For a decade and a half, the Ducks defense was guided by the adaptive hand of Nick Aliotti.  Following his departure, Oregon enjoyed one more good year on defense before one of the most dramatic collapses I’ve ever seen in college ball.  With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Aliotti’s presence was more critical than likely anyone – perhaps even Oregon’s own coaching staff – had previously believed.

Following the defensive disaster that was the 2016 season, Oregon snagged one of the better defensive coordinators in the Pac-12 in Jim Leavitt from Colorado.  After his hire, the Ducks bounced back in a big way on defense, going from atrocious to fairly solid.  But what intrigued me was the high-level of secrecy that surrounded Leavitt’s defense: beyond the fact that it was a 3-4, no one knew much of anything regarding the details of his scheme.  And to the best of my knowledge, that has remained the case.

So I decided to take the opportunity to analyze a defense that didn’t already have a lot written about it previously.

Basic Structure

Jim Leavitt’s defense, at bottom, is disguised simplicity.  Operating on a 3-4 structure, Leavitt uses his ability to rush either, both, or neither outside linebacker to hide his intentions before the snap.  This flexibility allows Leavitt to disguise what is an otherwise fairly straightforward coverage scheme.  Leavitt’s central idea is to limit the information a quarterback can glean pre-snap and force them to make reads and decisions on the fly.  And for the most part, it that works.  But a well-coached quarterback (e.g., Chryst) can, at times, see through the disguise and capitalize on the built-in simplicity.

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Before the snap, each outside linebacker will roam in the area between over the slot receiver, to the area on the outside edge of the tight end (or 9-tech even when no tight end is present).  At the snap, each outside linebacker will drop into coverage or rush the passer from whenever they happened to be at the time the ball is snapped.  This “roaming” technique sometimes leaves the outside linebackers out of position, but it does an excellent job of hiding their intentions.

While Leavitt’s defense is based on a 3-4 structure, the personnel is hardly that of a 3-4 defense from the 1990s.  All of the linebackers on Oregon’s 2017 defense, even the inside ones, are closer in profile of a heavy-hitting defensive back then a bulky linebacker, prioritizing speed and quickness over size or strength.  The field side outside linebacker – or the Duck in Leavitt’s terminology – will often operate in a similar role to that of a traditional nickel back.  And the boundary outside linebacker isn’t much different.  That it is because both outside linebackers are expected to both rush the passer and drop into coverage.  This set up allows the Ducks to better much up against spread offense speed on the field, though the trade off in size does come with drawbacks against heavier personnel sets at times (see e.g., Oregon’s game versus Stanford).

On the defensive line, only the nose tackle fits the profile of a traditional two-gap, space-eater. The other two defensive line positions, while playing two-gap technique much of the time, did not quite fit that description. The Ducks were transitioning from more of 4-3 defense, however, so it remains to be seen if recruiting in subsequent years will alter that trend.  (At Colorado, Leavitt’s starting defensive line all weighed about 300 pounds.)

Leavitt has a strong emphasis on keeping his interior seven (defensive line and linebackers) in the box against the run.  On most RPOs and play-action, the interior seven would play the run, leaving the secondary to handle the pass options.  This puts a lot of stress on the safeties and cornerbacks to hold up in coverage.

And Charles Clark – Oregon’s cornerback coach in 2017 (now at Ole Miss) – definitely lived up to his end of the bargain.  Even when Oregon’s cornerbacks allowed completions – and they did at times – they were almost always in solid position on the receiver.  (Clark was also the corners coach at Colorado under Leavitt, when both Awuzie and Witherspoon were drafted, so let’s say his resume checks out.)  In addition, Keith Heyward – Oregon’s safeties coach – also did a very good job of enhancing the play of the backend.  This marked a theme of Oregon’s defense in 2017: improvement was less a result of change in scheme so much as better execution of assignments and techniques.

The Fronts

Leavitt runs five main defensive fronts: 3-4 Base, Tite, Okie, 3-4 Over/Under, and 2-4-5 Even.

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In 3-4 Base, each of the defensive linemen are asked to two-gap against any running play.  The linebackers were then asked to fill based on the offensive line’s blocking scheme and the defensive linemen’s ability to take on double teams, which seemed to vary based on blocking scheme.  Interestingly, the nose tackle is given the freedom to disengage with the center if he thinks he can get a clean release to the backside of the play (backside A-Gap) and attack the ball carrier directly.  This can often leave the linebackers exposed to the center, but it turned out to be a solid trade-off in practice.  The ends, however, are given no such discretion.

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In short yardage situations, Leavitt would frequently turn to a Tite front.  Unlike in Base 3-4, everyone in Tite has a single gap-assignment except for the nose tackle, who retains 2-gap responsibility. The Ducks most commonly ran 2-Read and one-high coverages from this front.

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In 2-and-8+ or 3-and-6+ situations, Leavitt will often switch personnel and run an Okie front.  He will nearly always send an additional linebacker or two to rush the passer from this front, mixing a variety dogs and blitzes to confuse the offensive line’s protection.  While effective in that regard, it was often susceptible to draws and running plays involving pulling guards.

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In situations where Leavitt wanted to simplify assignments for his players (typically in short-yardage or when the defense backed up), he ran a 3-4 Over/Under.  (Note: while he does not normally change personnel, though the boundary end will stand like a linebacker.)  He will align the 3-tech to the tight end when present, and primarily align the 3-tech to the running back when the offense is in 10 or 20 personnel (though not always).  Leavitt ran much more of this front at Colorado (and in more varied situations), so I expect to see more of it in 2018 as the Ducks gets a better handle on Leavitt’s system.  It was, however, more of a change up in 2017.

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As an alternative to the Okie front in obvious passing down situations, Leavitt will run a 2-4-5 Even front.  For the most part, he does not mix any complicated blitzes in with this package like he does with the Okie, but instead prefers to stunt his front four.

The Triangle Coverages

Leavitt appears to run only 3 triangle coverages (3-over-2) out of 2-high: Quarters, 2-Read, and Halves.  But he does have the ability to run any one of the three to either side of the field.  All three involve the cornerbacks largely in a press-alignment, which can make it difficult at times for opposing quarterbacks to discern the exact coverage pre-snap.

Leavitt’s calls for which outside linebacker will be rushing appears to be based primarily on a field/boundary distinction (as opposed to, for example, strong/weak). What I mean is that when the pressure is set, the pressure is set – motion will not change the designated rusher.  In addition, Leavitt will not push his inside linebackers out of the box to make the coverage work.  So against change of strength motions, the coverage will frequently change.  So, for example, if the boundary outside linebacker is rushing and the offense motions to trips into the boundary, then Leavitt will simply roll into Cover 3 rather than changing the designated rusher.

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  • Leavitt Quarters (Triangle Coverage)
    1. Corner – The corner will be man-to-man on all #1 except when #1 breaks at 5 yards or less (e.g., shallow, 5 yard hitch). If #1 breaks at 5 yards or less, zone to deep quarter.
    2. OLB/ILB – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc. If #2 begins to go vertical, always reroute #2 before breaking to cover the first man to the flat.
    3. Safety – Take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1.
    4. ILB – Depends on the call to the opposite side:
      1. If 2-Read or Halves to opposite side: Take any #3 that will not be covered by the CB, Apex, or Safety, but in no case shall you cover anything within the first 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, defend the hook area deep to short.
      2. If Quarters to opposite side: Man on #3 if he threatens to go beyond the first 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, defend the hook area deep to short.

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Leavitt will run Quarters to both the field and to the boundary on nearly every down and distance, and it is his most common coverage to the field out of 2-high.

Leavitt will, on occasion, appear to run Quarters to the field even when the field outside linebacker is rushing.  This frequently leaves a massive void for any short route to the #2 wide open, though Pac-12 offenses capitalized on this gift less than I expected.  Admittedly, however, when facing two-detached to the field with the field outside linebacker rushing, Leavitt more commonly ran 2-Read.

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  • Leavitt 2-Read (Triangle Coverage)
    1. Corner – Align with an inside eye on #2. Man on #1 for everything except when:
      1. #2 is out in first 5 yards, then take #2.
      2. #1 breaks at 5 yards or less (e.g., shallow, 5 yard hitch), then zone to deep quarter.
    2. OLB/ILB – Man on #2 except when #2 is out in first 5 yards. Then relate to #3. If no #3, then defend the hook. You do not have #2 vertical.
    3. Safety – Take #1 vertical if #2 is out in first 5 yards. Otherwise, take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1.
    4. ILB – Take any #3 that will not be covered by the CB, Apex, or Safety, but in no case shall you cover anything within the first 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, defend the hook area deep to short.

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Leavitt will run 2-Read generally two the wide side of the field against two detached receivers, or into the boundary against any 2-man set formation.  It was his preferred coverage against two-detached to the field with the field outside linebacker rushing, but beyond that, I could not discern a really clear pattern as to when he wanted to use 2-Read.  (This is likely no small part, however, to the fact that 2-Read operates by all the same rules as Quarters unless the #2 was out short.)

  • Leavitt Halves (Triangle Coverage)
  1. Corner – Align with an inside eye into backfield. Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc.
  2. OLB/ILB – If #3 releases to your side, then man on #2 for everything. If #3 does not release to your side, then man on #2 for everything except when #2 goes out to the flat, and then cut (rob) #1.
  3. Safety – Take all of #1 vertical. If #1 is not vertical, then bracket #2.
  4. ILB – Take any #3 that will not be covered by the CB, Apex, or Safety, but in no case shall you cover anything within the first 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, defend the hook area deep to short.

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Leavitt seems to only run Halves to the field against a tight end and flanker (and it wasn’t that often even then), but primarily into the boundary, looking to involve the corner in short-side run support.  So against run-heavy offenses, Leavitt ran mostly 1-high coverage or Halves into the boundary.

The Trips Coverages

With 2-high safeties, Leavitt will run: (a) Stubbie, and (b) a couple Poach coverages.  Problematically, there were a lot of coverage breakdowns (i.e., missed assignments) when facing trips, and as such, I could not identify another trips coverage then these from 2-high.  I suspect then, that Leavitt did not install the entirely of his trips coverages in the 2017 season.

  • Leavitt Stubbie
  1. Strong Corner – Press alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.
  2. Strong Apex – Man on #2 for everything except when #3 is out or #2 runs under. If #3 is out, then take #3 man to man. If #2 runs under, then zone off.
  3. Hook – If #2 or #3 runs under, then match that crossing route. Otherwise, wall off the #3 from the inside and take him to safety if he goes vertical.
  4. Strong Safety – Take all of #3 vertical. If #3 is not vertical, then take/bracket #2 if he is vertical.
  5. Weak Apex –Take any #2 weak. If no #2 weak, then take first crosser.
  6. Weak Safety – Bracket any vertical routes by #1. If none, push to direction of where the quarterback is looking.
  7. Weak Corner – MEG on #1.

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Stubbie, as it is most commonly known, is the most frequent trips coverage from 2-high in football, and Leavitt is no exception.  Understanding that the least likely man to catch the ball in trips or trey is the outside receiver, defensive coordinators everywhere prefer to lock him down with only man coverage. Then it is effectively Quarters on the #2 and #3 receivers.

  • Leavitt Poach
  1. Strong Corner – Play Quarters or 2-Read on #1 and #2.
  2. Strong Apex – Take first man to the flat. If none, then play Quarters or 2-Read on #1 and #2.
  3. Hook – Man on #3 except when #3 is out to the flat. If #3 is out to the flat, then zone to defend against #2.
  4. Strong Safety – Play Quarters or 2-Read on #1 and #2.
  5. Weak Apex – Man on RB unless he’s out to the strong side flat, then take the first crosser.
  6. Weak Safety – Play Poach technique: Rob #3 vertical, but if #3 is not vertical, then poach #1 vertical backside.
  7. Weak Corner – MEG on #1.

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Two of the main points of Poach coverages is to: (a) give the Hook player help on any #3 vertical, and (b) give the strong side flexibility on how they want to play #1 and #2.  Given that Oregon’s corners will sometimes – though definitely not always – take #2 to the flat, I have judged that they have both varieties in their playbook.  Leavitt seemed to use Poach, however, primarily to free up the weak safety in run support while remaining in 2-high.

The Single High Coverages

Leavitt ran two forms of Cover 3 when sending four rushes, both of which operated by the same coverage rules as Saban’s and Venables’.  The first version had the corners playing from a press alignment and the safety coming down within about 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.  The second had the corners play from an off alignment and the both safeties hanging at about 10 yards from the line of scrimmage before the snap, then only rotating after the snap.

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When sending five rushers, Leavitt ran two forms of Fire Zone that mirrored his Cover 3 coverages.  One had the corners playing from a press alignment and the safety coming down within about 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.  The other had the corners play from an off alignment and the both safeties hanging at about 10 yards from the line of scrimmage before the snap, then only rotating after the snap.

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Why have both versions?  Initially, I thought Leavitt’s preference was dictated by how he judged the strength of the quarterback’s arm and the speed of the outside receivers.  But the more film I watched, the more it seemed as a method of disguising the coverage to the opposing quarterback.  Regardless of theory, sometimes alternating between the two worked pretty well (e.g., against Kalil Tate and Arizona), and sometimes it didn’t (e.g., against Chryst and Stanford).

And here’s as good a time as any to mention that Leavitt ran the same play, shown below, on nearly one-third of the snaps in their game against Arizona.  If that sounds a bit crazy to you, understand that it worked really, really well.  Kalil Tate just never seemed to be able to figure out the coverage while under pressure this entire game.  It’s a hallmark of Leavitt’s play calling in general: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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When Leavitt wanted to run Cover 1, which was fairly often, he’d just rotate his safety to the same side as his rushing outside linebacker.  Like Saban and Venables, he appears to have his two inside backers run a Funnel concept.  To quote my article on Saban:

“Funnel means that two players will eye the running back, and the near side player will take the running back if he breaks to one side. The opposite side player will become the Rat. So if the running back goes to the right, then the right Funnel player will take the running back, and the left Funnel player will become the Rat. Funnel serves two purposes. First, it ensures the nearest linebacker will have responsibility for the running back, who is commonly faster than their linebacker counterpart. Having the far side linebacker, for example, try to get across and match the back is only inviting disaster. Second, it increases the likelihood the Rat player is dropping from the side the quarterback isn’t looking post-snap. Most offenses like to use half-field reads with the running back as the third option. By having the Rat come from the backside increases the likelihood the quarterback will not see him while reading a front side on a dig or other crossing route.”

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Overall, it worked pretty well, despite being about as simple a play as you can get at the college level.  Sometimes fancy and complicated plays are just that: fancy and complicated.  Simple can be good, too.

The Red Zone

When backed up into the red zone, Leavitt’s most common play was to run a Cover 0 Rat double outside linebacker blitz from a Tite front.

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In general, once backed up, Leavitt would run predominately 2-4-5 and Tite fronts, and blitz early and often.  Rushing four and playing coverage became the exception instead of the rule.

The Eight-Man Drop

Leavitt appears to have a single eight-man drop play at his disposal that adjusts based on offensive formation.   Against 2×2 sets, it will operate like Quarters (or 2-Read) to each side with an extra Hook player inside.   Against Empty (aligned or motioned to), this will convert to Stubbie to the strong (3-man) side with the weak (2-man) side coverage staying in Quarters (or 2-Read).  And against 3×1 sets, it converts to a form of Cover 3 outlined below:

  • Leavitt 8-Man Drop vs. 3×1
  1. Strong Corner – Man on #1 unless #1 goes under, then zone off to deep third while eyeing #2.
  2. Strong Safety – Align over #2, if any. Man on #2 unless #2 goes under in the first 5 yards, then zone off to the curl-to-flat, looking to rob #1.
  3. Strong Apex – Take first man to the flat (frequently #3). If none, then eye quarterback from flat area.
  4. Strong Hook – Zone to strong hook. Reroute any strong #3 going vertical to deep middle.
  5. Weak Hook – Zone to weak hook. Reroute any weak #3 going vertical to deep middle.
  6. Weak Safety – Drop to deep middle of the field
  7. Weak Apex – Align over #2, if any. Man on #2 unless #2 goes under in the first 5 yards, then zone off to the curl-to-flat, looking to rob #1.
  8. Weak Corner – Man on #1 unless #1 goes under, then zone off to deep third while eyeing #2.

Leavitt runs this eight-man drop fairly frequently against pass-heavy teams (e.g., Wazzu) to flood all of the available zones.  But against more balanced and run-heavy teams, Leavitt will stick almost exclusively to a four-man rush.

Conclusion

As hopefully this article showed, Leavitt’s defense is not particularly complicated, but it is effective.  Leavitt’s ability to disguise his fourth rusher and develop better execution by his players did wonders for Oregon’s defense from the 2016 and 2017 seasons.  I would expect Leavitt’s defense, however, to enlarge with even more tools to attack opposing offenses in the upcoming season.

You can reach Cameron Soran on Twitter at @cameronsoran. See his other articles here: https://rileykolstefootball.com/defense-archive/

 

 

 

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