The Sports Daily > Duck Stops Here
The fundamental problem with the Oregon defense, and how to fix it

There’s a famous scene in Rocky II where Burgess Meredith is training Rocky for the rematch with Apollo Creed and he growls in that marvelous “taking the one-eyed snake to the optometrist” voice, “Ya gotta be quick like a chicken.”

Mickey then releases an ordinary white chicken in a dusty alley and makes the reluctant 5-9, 178-lb. cinematic boxer chase it around in his baggy gray sweats. The chicken wins until the inevitable training montage just before the big fight.

No, the Ducks shouldn’t chase chickens. But watching back the tape of Friday night’s game with Cal, it’s evident that they have one critical, fundamental problem as a defensive football team, and it isn’t scheme or rushing three.

The Ducks have trouble finishing plays in space. There’s a serious, chronic problem with their balance, agility and technique, particularly in open-field tackling.

Watch the game again. Over and over against the Bears, Oregon defenders are squared up and free to the ball carrier but whiff completely. Here are a few examples:

On Cal’s first third down play, Jared Goff drifts left to pass.  He gets a little pressure and throws wildly, and Reggie Daniels makes some slight, inadvertent contact with a Cal receiver and gets whistled for pass interference. The throw is nowhere near anyone, a ball no one has an opportunity to catch.

Bad call? Maybe, but before that it’s a failure of execution. Before the throw, Rodney Hardrick is one-on-one with Goff, his numbers square to the quarterback with no blocker in sight. He misses him completely and looks, well, clumsy and top-heavy as Goff slides by him easily. If he can make any kind of contact, the penalty never happens.

The Ducks had a horrible time defending reserve Cal quarterback Luke Rubenezer, who ran 11 times for 48 yards and 2 touchdowns. It should have been clear through film study that most of the time he entered the game the call would be a designed run, usually a keep, but the Ducks seemed baffled by the switch.

Worse yet, they missed him repeatedly. On the opening series on 3rd and 2, DeForest Buckner makes a nice penetration and he’s in the backfield, alone, one-on-one with Rubenezer and makes no contact. It happens again later in the first quarter.

A few plays later, Troy Hill makes a good read on a fade pattern at the goal line. He’s in perfect position to make an over-the-shoulder catch, but stabs at the ball and it goes through his hands.

Cal took an early 14-7 lead when backup running back Vic Enwere sweeps left and every Oregon defender on the left side parts as he rumbles into the end zone, 19 yards and far too easy. No one flows to the ball carrier. Nobody fills the gap.

These are just a few quick examples, and the point here is not to knock individual players, but to illustrate the Oregon defenders keep breaking down in one-on-one situations, and balance, agility and technique are the problem.

There are five weeks until the PAC-12 Championship Game. Twelve weeks until the start of the college football playoff. The Ducks shouldn’t be chasing chickens, but they have an opportunity to get significantly quicker and more fluid on their feet in one-on-one situations. Body control and balance can be taught with agility drills, cone training, one-on-one against Tony James and Ty Griffin.

The Ducks have to get better with their feet and their heads to be a better defense, and it could be that quicker, faster linebackers like Johnny Ragin III and Danny Mattingly need a bigger role in the rotation.