November 07, 2008
USC's defense seems more or less impenetrable at the moment. Since losing at Oregon State, the Trojans have allowed a grand total of 20 points in five games, pitched three shutouts and currently stand at No. 1 nationally in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and pass efficiency defense; they're also in the top 10 against the run and in tackles for loss. Athletically and statistically, this is the toughest D lining up anywhere right now.
If there's an offensive mind on the schedule that can put together a comprehensive plan of attack, it's Jeff Tedford, whose Bears come into the Coliseum Saturday with the same high Pac-10 title hopes as USC, and a chance to move into the role of conference frontrunner with an upset and a trip to Corvallis looming next week. Like the Beavers, though, Cal will have to have to have the right plan to establish the run first and execute it flawlessly to keep the Trojans on their heels enough to have a chance.
Let's Talk Game Plan
Defensive coordinators often try to game plan their defenses around taking an offense's strength away from them and force them, in coaching parlance, to "dribble with their left hand." So far, USC has failed at this only once, in the famed upset to Oregon State and diminutive jitter bug Jacquizz Rodgers. Cal's Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen are similar back to Quizz, small and quick in tight spaces, though the Bears' running game is based more from straight ahead, two-back sets than the Beavers' probing zone attack:
But Cal has never been a one-dimensional team, and even if USC isn't going to catch Best in the open field, either, the Bears aren't likely to beat the Trojans with an overdose of Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen. Coach Jeff Tedford is a firm believer in 50:50 run:pass balance, especially on first down. The idea is to run just often enough, well enough to keep the defense guessing, and one of the things the Bears have specialized in under Tedford is the ability to freeze the defense with the threat of running and throw over the top of the linebackers. When the Bears run successfully -- and they usually do -- play-action passing on first down and other running downs is a staple of Tedford's philosophy.
Let's Go to the Tape
Early in last year's game in Berkeley, USC met Cal's three-receiver set early in the first quarter with eight men around the line of scrimmage, including an outside linebacker walked up more like a defensive end, leaving no one over the slot receiver and a safety (not shown) playing center field:
Even on second and nine, this is a run-focused defense that can only hope to get quick pressure in a passing situation, and the result was an easy curl between the linebackers (Rey Maualuga can't make up the ground in the hook-to-curl zone) and in front of the free safety for a first down:
These types of underneath routes tend to stretch the linebackers horizontally, and in zone coverage, there really is no physical way to cover all four receivers if they're spaced across the field. The match-up favors the offense's skill players in space against the bigger backers.
Getting the linebackers to move horizontally rather than vertically is important to opening up the downfield passing game, and these routes also prevent the linebackers from dropping vertically into deeper zones. For example: by the second quarter, though Cal is still in a run set here with a fullback and tight end on first down, USC has dropped both safeties in a cover two; again, the outside linebacker showing much greater interest in the line of scrimmage than the uncovered slot receiver immediately tips zone coverage:
And the initial run action catches the linebackers looking into the backfield ...
... opening up a nice lane to drop a post to the slot receiver between the distracted backers and the deep safeties, who are more concerned with deep routes by the outside receivers.
The Bears attacked the middle of the field in a similar way in the second half, bunching receivers in a four-wide set against another apparent Cover 2, and getting the mismatch it wanted in now-departed slot man LaVelle Hawkins on Rey Maualuga:
... with predictable results:
Everything starts, though, with the threat of the Cal running game being worth the linebackers' attention in the first place, and with the Bears' defense keeping the USC offense in check long enough to keep Tedford's entire playbook open. If the Best and Vereen are off the table, either by virtue of the score or of USC's front seven dominating the line of scrimmage, those receivers won't find much room between the linebackers, and the quarterback -- be it Kevin Riley or Nate Longshore -- won't have much time to think about it.