Popped out of nowhere.
Source: The Daily Nathan
Source: The Daily Nathan
In some previous years under Coach Tedford, Cal’s defense had been the obvious Achilles heel of the team, undermining Cal’s “prolific” offense, and preventing the team from putting it all together for a Rose Bowl or BCS bowl run. Granted, there had been the exception that was the 2004 season, and some stellar individual performances, but the Bears’ defensive unit had rarely been seen as the strength of the team.
That all changed however, after Defensive Coordinator Bob Gregory and Coach Tedford decided to buck the trend, and implement a brand new 3-4 defense. The decision appeared to make absolute sense when considering Cal’s personnel which featured a number of question marks on the defensive line unit which had ranked among the worst in the country in 2007 in tackles for loss, and conversely had one of the top linebacking corps in the conference.
The change was a risky one however, as no one really knew what to expect, or how quickly the team would be able to acclimate to the change. More importantly, how would the 3-4 stack up against the offenses in the Pac-10, known for being some of the most dangerous and balanced in the country?
By the time the final seconds tickets off the clock in the waning moments of the season opener against Michigan State though, it had become abundantly clear that Cal had stumbled upon something special. The Bears had held Javon Ringer to just 88 yards, a number that would sound ridiculous for a back who would later close the season as one of the top rushers in the country. In addition to finishing among the statistically elite defensively, the switch to the 3-4 reignited NFL dreams for some players, and quite possibly revitalized Bob Gregory’s career from the “bend but don’t break” guru to again being considered a top head coaching prospect. In sum, the switch to the 3-4 had been a resounding success.
With 8 returning starters on a defensive unit that figures to possibly be the best in the conference this year (yes, even possibly over USC), Cal fans are salivating and dreaming big—Rose Bowl big. Questions, at quarterback? Who cares!? We’ve got our defense.
(Stop and think for a second about that. When did you ever think you’d say that at Cal?)
Yet, I can’t help but consider a number of reasons why our defense might stumble this year. Naturally, it could come down to me being the eternal pessimist (or Cal fan, same thing). However, when I think about our defense, I wonder whether our switch to the 3-4 scheme and its unfamiliarity to offensive coordinators in the country might be the precise reason why we may not see as much success this year.
That is to say, the 3-4 scheme may have been so successful not because it was inherently better than the 4-3, but because it was different from the 4-3.
Cal was the only team to use the 3-4 in the conference, and that naturally presented a new set of challenges for both players and coaches of opposing teams. Many opposing quarterbacks last year talked about the difficulties that came from trying to read the Bears’ defense, because they weren’t quite sure where the pressure would come from. Coaching staffs at times had little to no game tape on Cal, or any experience on how to play against the 3-4. The Bears’ defense was fresh, new and foreign. This meant chaos and confusion for other teams.
Thus, it makes sense, at least in this blogger’s mind, that going into the 2009 season, opposing offensive coordinators will be that much more comfortable against Cal’s defense. They’ve seen the Bears’ 3-4 scheme fleshed out over the course of a full season and have played against firsthand. They’ll know what to expect, and won’t nearly be as wide-eyed or confused come game day.
Though, with every moment of apprehension and fear, I’ve come to settle myself a bit in the hope that while Cal’s defense might not be as unfamiliar this year, it might be even better. Consider this: our entire defense basically learned an entire new scheme over a summer. Imagine what they’ll be able to do after having played in the 3-4 over a full season. Smarter and nastier.
Also, Cal’s defense will be more experienced, and quite frankly, might even feature better talent. Mike Mohammed may have been the best all around linebacker last year, and young Mychal Kendricks might be the most talented. Throw in Eddie Young’s experience and the pass rush threat we’ll need in incoming JC transfers Jarred Price and Ryan Davis, and all the pieces might be in place for a golden run to Pasadena.