Oregon is back.
After an incredibly disappointing 2016 season that resulted in the firing of head coach Mark Helfrich, the Ducks appear to have reestablished themselves on the national stage under first year head coach Willie Taggart. Led by a true sophomore gunslinger in Justin Herbert at quarterback, the offense has exploded to average 56 points per game through their first three contests (Southern Utah, Nebraska and Wyoming). One reason why? Their passing game has been explosive, specifically with their use of the curl-post combination.
A fairly simple two man passing concept (that Oregon will occasionally convert to a three man combination), the curl-post combination contains a deep curl route on the outside, usually over 10 yards of depth, and a post route from the slot. Here’s a basic design below:
Zone With Middle of Field Open
If the receivers (and quarterback) read the middle of the field as open, which would occur when facing coverages like Cover 2 or Cover 4, then the post route should be a sharp cut meant to split the safeties. The goal of the outside deep curl route, then, is to occupy the play side deep defender (usually a safety) and hold them close to the sideline to open things up for the post.
Here’s an example of exactly that, from Oregon’s game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Facing 3rd and 3 from their own 32, the Ducks have a pro formation to the left and a slot formation to right out of 11 personnel. Oregon will run the curl-post to the boundary side of the field, with the X receiver Dillon Mitchell (#18) running a deep curl route and slot receiver Charles Nelson (#6) running the post route.
Nebraska shows the middle of the field open, with both deep defensive backs (one safety and one cornerback) shaded towards the outside of the field. Nebraska will run Tampa 2 coverage here, meaning the middle of the field will indeed be open.
At the snap, both Mitchell and Nelson push vertically, forcing deep half defender Eric Lee Jr. (#6) to stay wide and respect the possible go route from either receiver. Just before Nelson breaks hard to the middle of the field, you can see Lee’s eyes turn to watch Mitchell, concerned he may be going deep as he sells the vertical part of his deep curl.
Nelson breaks inside, behind linebacker Mohamed Barry (#7), and the quarterback Herbert (#10) hits him right on time between the two deep defenders, allowing Nelson to get downfield for a gain of 42 yards.
On the replay angle you can see how the middle of the field remains open for Nelson, and how beautifully Herbert lofts this throw over Barry into the arms of Nelson.
Cover 2? Beaten.
Zone with Middle of Field Closed
Can Oregon find the same kind of success when facing middle of the field closed defenses, such as Cover 3? Just ask the Wyoming defense.
The adjustment against a single high safety defense again comes from the post route. The post becomes a bit skinnier, closer to a seam route or bang 8 “skinny post route”, that goes in between the outside and middle third defenders.
Here against the Cowboys in the opening quarter of their Week 3 contest, the Ducks offense comes out with 11 personnel on a first and 10. The curl-post will be run to the top of the screen out of an inverted slot formation. Nelson (#6) is once again in the slot, running a very skinny post/seam route this time, and Mitchell (#13) is once again on the outside, running a deep curl.
The playside cornerback, Robert Priester (#2), executes a zone turn, and starts to bail to get to his deep responsibilities in case Nelson runs some sort of out-breaking route. This allows Mitchell to push vertically, with Nelson occupying both Priester and free safety Marcus Epps (#6). Mitchell then quickly breaks off his route after about 9 yards, and Herbert quickly hits the wide open true sophomore in space.
Mitchell then absolutely embarresses about 3 Wyoming defenders, with LB Adam Pilapil (#45) getting an especially rough treatment. Overall? A gain of 17, a first down, and about 6 broken ankles for the Wyoming defense.
That’s Cover 2 and Cover 3 zone down for the Ducks.
One more adjustment the Ducks can make? Beat man coverage with the curl-post. Oregon is well known for having some of the best athletes in the country on their team, and matching up in man coverage is dangerous for defenses for just that reason.
The adjustment Oregon makes when looking at man coverage pre-snap is to convert the post into a sharper in-cut, a sort of post route-dig route hybrid.
Once more from the Wyoming game, out of 11 personnel, the Ducks will attack with a curl-post combination. They have a slot formation to the left, with a wingback to that side of the field as well. Taj Griffin (#5) is the slot receiver here, running the sharp cut post route. The outside receiver runs a curl at a depth of about 11 yards, and the wingback will actually release down the seam.
Wyoming shows man pre snap, and will indeed play Cover 1.
Notice 5’10’’ 196 lb. “linebacker” Jalen Ortiz (#8), who is lined up across from Griffin in the slot. He’s turned at a 45 degree angle, giving Griffin the middle of the field where he knows he has help in man coverage.
However, the way Griffin adjusts his route to get across the field, Ortiz will not be able to cover him as he goes horizontally. Griffin gets open immediately and Ortiz is unable to recover. Herbert hits Griffin in stride for the touchdown to go ahead by 18 and dash any hope of a Wyoming comeback.
The curl-post is a really simple two man concept for Oregon, but one that has been incredibly effective. Credit the coaching staff and the players for adjusting so well to the coverage the defense gives them, as it has allowed the Ducks offense to defeat just about anything the Cornhuskers or Cowboys threw at them. It was clear on tape that both the receiver and quarterback knew exactly what the other was seeing across from them, and both were diagnosing it exactly the same.
Curl-post or not, the Ducks are back.