Football is often described as a chess game, but it’s more like the violent chess game in “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone” where the pieces are trying to kill each other.
Athletic, disciplined and intelligent, the Stanford defensive front seven has a plan for stopping Oregon’s patented zone read. They “slow-play” the option, making the quarterback commit first, then cutting off either path of escape.
Rook to D8: Marcus Mariota and the Ducks found little room last year running or passing against defensive end Josh Mauro and Derek Mason’s defense. They held Kenjon Barner to 66 yards on 21 carries, and Mariota to 207 passing yards in 37 attempts (Steve Dykes, Getty Images). Mauro was a 5th-year senior last year, since graduated.
The read option has been so effective for the Ducks because it makes the defense account for the threat of the quarterback, which changes the numbers at the point of attack. In a traditional offensive running play the defense has a man advantage, defending a ball carrier and nine potential blockers with 11 defenders, having six, seven or eight in the box against five offensive linemen and the tight end.
A fast running quarterback like Marcus Mariota changes that equation. Since Mariota “blocks” one defender by making him choose between him or the running back, the defense has to guess, and with Oregon’s speed that defender often guesses wrong. He crashes in, Mariota keeps for a big gain. He stays wide, the quarterback gives to Byron Marshall or Thomas Tyner.
But The Cardinal change the chess game by staying at home and waiting the quarterback out, then hunting down whichever option he chooses.
In the video below from si.com Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason talks about the guiding principles. “The quarterback wants to make a fast decision,” he says. “If you come up the field, it’s a give.”
“Don’t give him a fast read, give him a slow read,” continues Mason, Stanford defensive coordinator since 2011. The Northern Arizona graduate is one of the rising stars of coaching nationally, a Broyles Award finalist in 2012 after turning out Top 15 defenses in each of the last two years.
Mason will have linebackers Trent Murphy, James Vaughters, Shane Skov and A.J. Tarpley herding and rampaging against the Oregon running game. The Ducks will have to execute, and have counters for the read-and-react strategy that was so successful last year.
Slow-playing the option is just one part of the plan. In addition the Stanford defenders have tremendous discipline in the open field. They tackle as a unit, pursuing and framing the ball carrier, cutting off his avenues of escape. In the first two plays in the defensive highlight film below, Keanon Lowe and Kenjon Barner are limited to short gains as three, four defenders frame the ball carrier and then close in on him. There are no cutback lanes. They neutralize Oregon’s speed with good angles and crisp, aggressive tackling.
On the next play De’Anthony Thomas breaks free for a first down on a quick screen, but watch how four Stanford defenders cut off the play to prevent a big gain. It’s like they’re on an invisible tether, each taking a correct angle to the ball carrier to form a net around him, using the sideline as a fifth defender. Thomas can’t get started with a patented juke or burst of acceleration, and strong safety John Flacco, now graduated, shoves him out of bounds.
The Cardinal defense commits hard to containing everything the Ducks do, betting they can force a negative play and disrupt the rhythm of the offense before Oregon breaks a big play, confident they can stiffen and close and force mistakes.
They want to dictate the game with physical intensity, shorten it, turn the explosive machine into a tentative and uncertain shell of itself. Every ball carrier gets hit. Every blocker gets a punch to the shoulder pads. They revel in the collisions and confrontations. Every chess piece swings a scythe of domination and ruthlessness.
In 2011 and 2010, the Ducks beat Stanford decisively with speed. In 2009 and 2012, the Cardinal won with power and violence.
At 11:31 in the first quarter, Mariota runs a quick option left with Barner trailing as a pitch man. The Stanford front seven recognizes the play quickly, each defender spreading out to take a lane and waiting for the quarterback to choose one. Mariota runs sideways but nothing develops. The pitch man is covered, Keanon Lowe misses a block and cornerback Alex Carter stuffs the grounded Hawaiian for a four-yard loss.
Scott Frost and the Oregon offense have been studying these tendencies and working on a better mix of plays this week. This year, the results could be different. Oregon will try to loosen up The Cardinal with crisp passing, and trust their speed in the running game and be more decisive.
On 2nd and 14, Mariota fakes the outside zone read to Barner and keeps. He gets the one-on-one matchup he wants with linebacker Shane Skov, alone in the middle of the field with an open field ahead of him, but Skov makes a great tackle in space, taking out the quarterback’s legs.
Oregon has to win those one-on-one matchups. They have to be a half-step faster in Palo Alto, and get The Cardinal winded and on their heels.