Basketball on grass: How Oregon football uses 5-man matchups

Byron Marshall and Marcus Mariota - Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is all about putting the five players on the floor who best challenge the other team's five. Designing a college football offense around five skill players works kind of the same way.

The NBA Finals and college football might share more in common than you'd think.

For instance, the two-time champion Miami Heat cause serious problems for their opponents when they play small-ball lineups. Whether you can accurately describe a lineup that features a front-court consisting of 6'11" Chris Bosh and 6'9", 260-pound LeBron James as "small" is another issue.

The point is that when Miami has played groupings such as Allen-Wade-Battier-James-Bosh in the past, opponents have not been able to match up. The Heat have been able to use these lineups to get James defended by the helplessly slow or helplessly small. Meanwhile, they'll use these flexible lineups to move James over to defend point guards, shooting guards, or whoever gives them problems on the defensive end. It's all afforded by James' ability to run the offense, guard any position on the floor, and the overall athleticism of their roster.

In this Finals, it's been their turn to struggle, as the Spurs have heavily deployed a Parker-Ginobili-Leonard-Diaw-Duncan five-man lineup that has been hard for the small-ball Heat lineups to contend with. Whether they can adjust or not will determine the series.

In modern football you often see these same tactics at work, and you also see them come in the form of five-man offensive lineups. Each team's starting offensive 11 almost always includes the same five linemen and one quarterback, but the players who fill the five skill position roles vary.

Some teams have deeper rosters that will allow them to field multiple groupings to cause matchup problems for their opponents, such as the juggernaut squad assembled by Nick Saban at Alabama. Other units, like the new Florida Gator offense, thrive in a particular and versatile base personnel grouping.

Some of the nastiest offenses today are hurry-up, no-huddle teams that can field one or two specific personnel groupings that can attack you with multiple concepts and formations. For the last few years, the Oregon Ducks have utilized a fairly unique five-man lineup that most opponents have not had an answer for. (Speaking of the Finals, the Ducks actually inspired Heat coach Erik Spoelstra in his development of Miami's offense.)

We'll call it the Flying V because, you know, the Disney movie and all that.


The Flying V: Personnel

The makeup of the group is as follows.

The tight end

The Ducks rotate between different players, but ideally the tight end is a player who is an effective blocker as an in-line TE and also effective making blocks in space as a flexed-out TE. Colt Lyerla was the perfect player for this role, or would have been had his personal life allowed him to maximize his college career.

The running back

Oregon has used a good deal of two-back formations, employing an additional hybrid on the field besides the tight end. However, they also like to have a traditional running back on the field who can run between the tackles, bounce runs outside, or make zone cuts. In the triple-option portions of the Duck playbook, this is the "dive" player.

The slotback

This is they hybrid position that will flux between joining the running back in the backfield or aligning wide as a slot receiver. This player is the "pitch man" when the Ducks run option, but the role is much more than just that.

The slotback exists to take advantage of a fundamental flaw in most defensive systems: the way their coverages handle routes by the running back. Because backs typically run to the flat or release short or perhaps flex out and draw the attention of a linebacker, defensive pass coverages don't typically concern themselves with stopping them.

Consequently, things like this are possible:

In other instances, the slotback will run the route that a defense makes the lowest priority, the one it intends to stop by just rallying to the ball before the first down marker -- such as a quick flare route. Or the slotback will line up as a slot receiver to run routes against a linebacker or safety.

The problem for the defense is when the slotback is a player like De'Anthony Thomas, one whom you can't expect to consistently tackle in the open field. The Ducks use the slotback position to make the easy plays that a defense will often gift to an offense an explosive part of the offense.

The wide receivers

There's nothing particularly special about how the Ducks use their wide receivers. Some of their better offenses have not featured amazing talent at the position, as the greater glory tends to go to the QB, tailback, or slotback.

The Ducks have many of the same passing plays that other spread teams employ, utilizing some air raid and west coast concepts, taking deep shots off play-action or fake screens.

The Flying V: Formations

Okay, so I've not yet actually seen the Ducks form a V with their skill players.

Typically, they do stuff more like the following:

Oregon_s21f__medium

They'll often initiate a play from their two-back formations by having the slotback (S) flare out to the field (the side with more space between the ball and the sideline; in this diagram, it's where the two receivers are). That puts stress on the defense to defend a quick screen thrown to the slotback, but it also has to account for the threat of a run by the tailback (T) to the tight end side of the formation.

Oregon_s20f__medium

There are only a few changes here, but they make all the difference. Now you have the slotback in position to run backside routes with the receiver to his side. That will make it difficult for the defense to focus in on stopping that receiver by shading the linebacker to help.

Additionally, screen passes to the field -- either to the slotback or another player -- also benefit here. The tight end is lexed out and available to block smaller defensive backs. If you shade your coverage to defend the backside, you might get out-leveraged to the field.

Oregon_s11rtf__medium

In this formation, by flexing out the slot back rather than the tight end, the Ducks can create several more dilemmas for the defense. Primarily, where to set the defensive strength? Oregon can run the ball to the TE side or throw it to the side with three receivers. If the defense shades in one direction or the other, it is at risk of being victimized.

The different formations that just one group of the same five Ducks can create are far too numerous to list. But you get a sense of the conflicts that opponents are dealing with.

The biggest problem is that they can use all these formations with tempo and prevent the defense from subbing in different players to account for different threats. Personnel that might be great against a flexed-out tight end might not be so great at defending a flexed-out slotback or stopping a run to the TE side of a formation.

The Flying V: Concepts

Of course, the Ducks are an option team, so they can present multiple threats on the same play even if your defensive personnel are rangy enough to adjust before the snap. Perhaps the nastiest play in the Duck arsenal is the option with a flared-out slotback:

Oregon_option-oz_medium

Oregon_option-oz_medium

While many teams use power or inside zone blocking, Oregon relies more on outside zone as its main play. Some of this is related to recruiting. Take a look at the current starting OL:

Left tackle: Tyler Johnstone: 6'6, 283. Redshirt junior. Four-star.

Left guard: Hamani Stevens: 6'3, 307. Redshirt senior. Four-star.

Center: Hroniss Grasu: 6'3, 297. Redshirt senior. Three-star.

Guard: Cameron Hunt: 6'4, 285. Sophomore. Four-star.

Right tackle: Jake Fisher: 6'6, 299. Senior Three-star.

Oregon's linemen are mobile, lighter players who are better at reach blocking and sealing off than driving people backwards. It's easier to find these types of players on the West Coast, and it's also easier to recruit smaller athletes on offense than to consistently find powerful running backs who can run between the tackles and break away in open space. Thus, Oregon's concepts are more horizontal and speed-driven, to match the personnel they can consistently bring to Eugene.

They'll run plays like outside zone or pin-and-pull that get their linemen moving in space and allow their runners to get going laterally before darting upfield through creases. This does require a tight end who can handle an end or outside linebacker without help, but he at least has favorable angles to block with, either pinning them inside on pin-and-pull or sealing them off in outside zone.

When the Ducks run inside zone, they love to do it with a quarterback keeper read, so that they can leave a defensive end unblocked and get double teams on both defensive tackles. Then, their sub-300 linemen are put in position to have success.

The passing game for Oregon relies on similar concepts as other spread offenses. The effectiveness of these concepts in this personnel group depends on having versatility at tight end and slotback. Players that can run some routes at these positions make this grouping impossible to shut down.

The Flying V, 2014 edition

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As effective as this group has been for the Ducks over the last two years, it's not clear that we'll see it get as much action in the 2014 campaign.

The Ducks lose receiver Josh Huff, receiver Bralon Addison (injured), and slotback Thomas. What worked to set those players up for success might not be what works best in 2014.

The key for a HUNH team like Oregon is finding a lineup that can handle as much of the playbook as possible while working together to maximize the best features of the personnel.

For 2014 Oregon, the best features of the team are quarterback Marcus Mariota's ability to run or throw on the move, a veteran OL, the explosive running of Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall, solid blockers like Evan Baylis and Johnny Mundt, and a good flex TE in Pharaoh Brown.

The running backs aren't exactly the receivers that DAT was, but they do offer the Oregon coaching staff some versatility in the passing game. What could end up happening is that the Ducks embrace some bigger lineups in an effort to maximize the roster, perhaps using some of the same formations with more tight ends on the field:

Oregon_2te_medium

If they can find a lineup that leverages their abundance of good blockers and strong runners while still giving Mariota options in the passing game, they should be able to find success on par with Oregon offenses of recent years and run people ragged up and down the field. If they have to shuffle in different packages of players due to an inexperienced roster of skill talent, or if they can't get multiple playmakers on the field at the same time, they may overly rely on Mariota's running and fail to use tempo and speed to the same effect as in years past.

Of course, the other question: if Oregon can find multiple lineups as effective as the Flying V, how can defenses respond? We'll broach that subject next.

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