[Editor's Note: Those who have followed this blog for the past four plus years know that every post that has been published on this site is my own work. Unlike some other Cal sites, BWF doesn't have a dedicated team of writers or contributors.
So it's with some unexpected but certain pleasure that I get to have a guest contribution to the site and what a contribution it is.
Berk18 from the Bear Insider Forums has been awesome enough to do a series of writeups detailing Cal's defense. His first post provides a fantastic overview of Cal's 3-4 defensive scheme under Clancy Pendergast, and quite honestly, I think it's one of the most important posts that have been published on this site.
Like Berk18, I'm hoping this will start a nice conversation not just on this site, but in the general Cal fandom about really understanding more deeply what we're watching on the field. I know I've already gotten a lot out.]
To me, football's easily the most interesting sport. The gap in knowledge between the average fan and coaches/players is bigger than in any other major American sport, and serious study is always rewarded. I've been trying to learn more about the X's and O's for a while now, and what's frustrated me the most is that there aren't a lot of thorough and consolidated resources for the average fan. As a result, you have to skip around from blog to blog and search through long indexes of articles to learn about any specific concept, and even then you often don't know what you need to be looking for in the first place. With that in mind, I'm hoping to put together here the kind of resource I would've wanted. I'm also still learning and what I say is by no means authoritative, so I welcome corrections and other ideas. That's part of the reason I'm interested in putting this stuff out there, so if you know more than me feel free to step in and make corrections.
This series of entries is about Clancy Pendergast's Cal defense, but it will also be an introduction to defense as a whole. Everyone knows what offense we'll be facing when we play Stanford, Oregon, and WSU next year, but most fans couldn't tell you whether those teams run a 4-3 or a 3-4 on defense, much less what kinds of things they like to do. Nonetheless, defensive game-planning is just as involved as offensive game-planning. A good defensive coordinator has a philosophy and tries to manipulate and attack the offense. A good defense also has balance and keeps things unpredictable. I'm going to bring this out by a study last season's games against Colorado and USC. This blog will talk about Pendergast's philosophy and tendencies. Later entries will look at interesting strategies and adjustments from those two games, bringing out things that worked well and things that didn't.
To get started, I should introduce some basic terminology for talking about plays and formations. One concept that's really important on defense is “gap control.” A gap is the space between two offensive linemen. The gap between the center and guard is called the “A” gap, the space between the guard and tackle is the “B” gap, and so on moving out from the center. Gaps with the same letter can be differentiated from each other with the terms “strongside” and “weakside.”
Generally, the tight end side of the formation will be the strongside (more blockers, and so more favorable numbers in the run game) and the other side will be the weakside. There are lots of more detailed ways to determine strongside vs. weakside (e.g. Which side is strong in a set with a TE on each side of the line?), but those can be specific to the team, the position on the field, and the gameplan.
So, if the offense is in a set with one tight end, that means there are seven gaps that need to be covered (strongside A, B, C, and D gaps, with the D gap being the space outside the TE, weakside A and B gaps plus the space outside the offensive tackle). If a defense can fill all the gaps, the runningback has nowhere to go. If a player blows his gap responsibility either by getting beat, making a mental mistake, or trying to do too much, the runningback will have a clear lane to picking up yards.
With that out of the way, let's talk about Cal. Everyone knows that Cal has been a 3-4 team since Bob Gregory's successful switch going into the 2008 season. There's a little bit of mis-information about what that means, though. As an example, early in the season some fans were blasting Aaron Tipoti for being too small to be a 3-4 nose guard. As the season wore on, Tipoti became less and less of a scapegoat, hopefully because people realized that he's actually pretty good. Tipoti isn't 340 pounds though, and he's not a monster. Why were people worried about him, and how was he able to be successful?
In the stereotypical 3-4, defensive linemen and inside linebackers are bigger than their 4-3 counterparts, and the main pass rush comes from the outside linebackers. Because there is one less defensive lineman to defend against the run, linemen must be responsible for 2-gaps each. A generic 3-4 set will place the nose-guard heads-up over the center, with the ends heads-up over the tackles, as pictured above. The NG will be responsible for both A gaps, and the DE's will be responsible for the B and C gaps on their side. To successfully fulfill two-gap responsibilities, the linemen need to be bigger. Instead of firing through the gaps and attacking the offense, they're trying to control the blocker across from them and are often dealing with double-teams while they wait for the RB to commit to a gap. Once the RB commits, they move into the gap and make the play when they can. In reality, they're mostly there to occupy as many blockers as possible so that the linebackers are free to make plays.
Cal doesn't run that kind of 3-4, though. Pendergast's front of choice (the “front” is the combination of the defensive linemen and linebackers and the alignment they're in) is the 3-4 under, pictured above. On the first drive against Colorado, Cal was in an under front on every play except obvious passing downs, and this is the default front generally. It can be hard to tell exactly where the linemen are lined up on TV, but there are some clues. In the picture below you can look at where the lineman's feet are relative to the hash and relative to the offensive players around them. A better way to tell what the gap responsibilities are, though, is to look at where the inside linebackers are lined up. Kendricks is clearly in between Payne and Guyton, suggesting that he is in fact responsible for the A-gap. Holt is similarly aligned to defend the strongside B-gap. For this play Colorado is in a balanced formation without an obvious strongside, so Cal has designated the side of the field with more space as the strongside.
An under front puts the three linemen over the weakside guard, center, and strongside tackle. Instead of being heads-up over those blockers, however, they shade to a specific side of them. The weakside end lines up shaded outside of the guard, the noseguard lines up on the center's strongside shoulder, and the strongside end is shaded outside of the strongside tackle. They are all responsible for one gap (the weakside end has the weakside B-gap, the nose guard has the strongside A-gap, and the strongside end has the strongside C-gap). The remaining gaps are filled by the linebackers, with the strongside ILB taking the strongside B-gap and the weakside ILB taking the weakside A-gap. The outside linebackers are responsible for anything off-tackle.
Because everyone is only responsible for one gap, they don't have to line up directly over their blocker. By shading everyone toward the gap that they're attacking, the front creates favorable angles for the DL and an advantage for the defense. Smaller noseguards can succeed in this defense because they're asked to attack one and only one gap, so agility and quickness off the ball are valuable assets. They also don't have to deal with double-teams any more than they would in a 4-3 defense. The main place Cal's front gives up size to, say, USC's 4-3 under is on the weakside, where we'll have a DE and an OLB instead of a DT and a DE. Cal has no use for a 340 pound NG who can't run, then. The reason Moala is such an intriguing prospect for us at NG is not just his strength and size, but his quick first step. To block him, a center will have to be quick enough to get in front of him (remember, Moala will already be shaded into the A-gap) while also being strong enough to anchor and stop him, whereas in a stereotypical 3-4 the center could just focus on anchoring.
OK, so Cal's main front is a 3-4 under. Why? This gets to the heart of Pendergast's defensive philosophy, which isn't much different from any other defensive coordinator: Stop the run on first and second down and force the offense to become one-dimensional. The under is good for stopping the run because of the numbers it puts to the strongside. If you draw a line through the middle of the offensive center, you'll notice that the under puts four defenders to the strongside of the formation with three to the weakside. Since the strongside is where the offense has more blockers, this is a good run-stopping front, especially when combined with certain coverages (more on that later). This is contrasted with other fronts, which can be balanced (the stereotypical 3-4) or shifted to the weakside (such as the “over” front). The main place Cal messes with the front drastically is on obvious passing downs, where strict gap-control is less important due to the lack of a run threat. In these cases, they'll line up in several different fronts that are designed to create favorable match-ups for the pass-rushers/blitzers. Any of these fronts can be used to stop specific plays, so it's all about what you're trying to take away.
The under is also a good front from a coverage perspective. It puts a linebacker over the TE, which makes it easier to bump and reroute him and cover him man-to-man when the coverage calls for it. The alignment itself also puts pressure on the tight end as a pass-blocker, because the strongside end's alignment means that the strongside offensive tackle can't help the TE block the OLB without some kind of adjustment to the protection. The tight end is a good player to attack in pass protection, because he will be the weakest blocker on the line. The under also puts a lineman over the center, who has to worry about the snap and so is generally a weaker blocker.
That's the under and its responsibilities against the run. The next entry will look at some of the coverages Cal uses. As I suggested in the previous paragraph, fronts and coverages are intimately linked and the coverage you're in has a major impact on what runs you can stop, so we'll look at how fronts and coverages interact in addition to the different things that Cal runs.