Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Michigan State Preview - Part III - Defense

First and foremost, the Spartans are a defensive-minded football team. They derive their identity from their defense, and they model their game plan around their defense. Dantonio is a career defensive coach, training under two of the best in the business: Nick SaTan (who trained under Belichick) and the guru Jim "The Sweatervest" Tressel. While not nearly at the same level (and probably never will be), in terms of a defensive-minded team, think USC and Pete Carroll. Here is a preview of what the Bears will face on this side of the ball Saturday:

Defensive Style

The Spartans run out of a base 4-3 defense. Similar to Sweatervest and Carroll, Dantonio is not a huge gambler on defense, and likes to keep the offense in front of his defense most of the time. While he doesn't have the talent that Carroll or Sweatervest has (which allows them to play straight up most of the time), he gets the most out of his players by coaching them up and getting them to play very disciplined, assignment football.

The two things that jump out at you most when you watch this defense are (1) how physical they are, and (2) how well they flow to the ball as a unit. Just like on offense, they are looking to grind it out and make the opponent work for everything. They are not a gimmicky zone-blitz team or junk coverage defense. However, they do take some chances in trying to stop the run, especially early on in games.

In terms of flowing to the ball, they remind me a bit of John Chavis' Tennessee defense that really took it to Cal in Knoxville in 2006. On that dark day, Chavis sent his linebackers flowing laterally, but aggressively downhill, into the gaps at the snap of the ball, flooding the LOS and disrupting our zone blocking scheme (Dunbar really hamstrung our linemen with his blocking schemes that day - but that's for another post perhaps). Those backers moved quickly and were all over Lynch before he could get anywhere (it didn't help that we never had a chance to modify the run scheme that day because our defense gave up 21 points in the blink of an eye, but that too we shall save for another post). Dantonio's backers and safeties play the same way, and I suspect they will do so Saturday.

Defensive Line

While they like to be physical on defense and stop the run, this line may be the weak link in that scheme. They are a bit small up front, although they are athletic. Their feature defensive lineman is DE Trevor Anderson, a transfer who came with Dantonio over from Cincinnati. He is touted as a very good pass rusher, but he is only 6-2, 250 lb, which presents a challenge for him if he is asked to control gaps in the run game. The other DE is similarly smallish, at 6-4, 250. The DTs are bigger (6-5 273, 6-3 288), but overall, that is not an imposing front compared with Cal's o-line, which averages over 300 lbs. That is not to say a small d-line cannot succeed, as we have seen from Oregon State over the years (though Oregon State's dive-and-fill scheme is pretty unique). In terms of the stopping the run, smaller lines tend to have difficulty tying up blockers to allow LBs to make plays, which was Michigan State's model last year.

On the other hand, they are a very good pass rushing team, and at least based on last year, they can get pressure from the front four without relying on blitzes. While Cal was very good last season in avoiding sacks, it is starting two new OTs, Schwartz and Teofilo, who are going to get tested early and often. Plus Longshore was a master at getting rid of the ball and avoiding sacks, which was a major reason for Cal's low sack total last season. It remains to be seen how Riley will deal with that pressure.

Defensive Backs

If the defensive line is a bit undersized, the secondary might need to lay off the creatine: 6-2 210, 6-1 195, 6-1 202, and 6-0 210. Outside of USC, that might be the biggest secondary Cal faces all year. However, this unit did not play all that well last season. Some pundits have suggested they were just adjusting to the new scheme, which as far as I can tell was switching from "get out there and make some plays" under former coach John "Slap Myself in Press Conferences" Smith (we'll have more on this later in the week), to actually playing disciplined, organized defense under Dantonio. I guess when you think about it, that is quite an adjustment.

The most NFL-type player on the entire Spartan defense resides in the secondary, strong safety Otis Wiley, a 6-2, 210-lb wrecking ball, who led the team in tackles in 2006. He gets the inaugural weekly "Ball of Hate" Award for this week. The coaches moved The Ball of Hate to free safety last season after two years at strong safety prior to that, and he was so out of sorts, he eventually lost his starting job trying to adjust to the new position. Why? Because all The Ball of Hate wants to do is come up in run support and lay the lumber. He doesn't want to read formations, call out coverages, and roam. Well, The Ball of Hate's wish has been granted, and I expect he'll return to his 2006 dominant form this season.

However, Ball of Hate be warned: perhaps Tedford's most elegant offensive technique is the use of play-action. Remember the 40-yard TD pass to Jackson vs. UCLA on double reverse play action fake last year? Here's a refresher:

Tedford was quoted as saying they knew the UCLA safety was aggressive in run support and would bite. Genius. I'd look for more of this on Saturday.


Similar to the d-line, the linebackers are a little undersized (6-1 222, 6-0 224, 5-11 222), but also very athletic. They are led by Greg Jones, a 6-1, 222 linebacker who will be playing inside for the first time after playing on the strongside last season. This may be to Cal's advantage, as this switch tends to take about a year for the player to fully adjust (think about Worrell Williams last year). Thus, while he is talented, he may be a little slow footed now that he is quarterbacking the defense.

However, in general, this linebacking corps is very smart, they swarm to the ball, play sideline to sideline, and hit hard. They are going to make some plays Saturday and Cal's backs are going to have to work for big gains. Cal needs to find a way to slow them down with some misdirection, which I fully expect to see with bigger receivers blocking this year, and speedier tailbacks.

Next up: Key Matchups


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