Friday, October 17, 2008

Game preview: Defending the spread offense and other matchups

Dear Bob Gregory,
I still haunt your dreams.
Mike Leach

The Bears and Bob Gregory revisit an old foe this weekend in Tuscon: the Texas Tech spread offense. Yes, they faced it last year, but it was Arizona's first year in the offense, it was early in the season, Tuitama still looked foggy-headed from the concussions, and Cal was at home. Plus, an offense like that takes at least a season to really get rolling. Now the Wildcats, in their second year under offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes (Leach's former coordinator), have the weapons, the senior QB, and the comfort with the system to execute it more effectively. The Bears better tighten their jocks and be ready to play fast, or else they could be in for a long evening.

The Leach spread (that sounds rather unsavory doesn't it) is a quick pass offense that typically uses five receiving options, and spreads them across the field both horizontally and vertically, stretching the defense out. In the Tech version, there is very little running game, with 4 yard quick slants serving as the run substitutes. Stoops has clearly modified this at Arizona by using the run game and the TE more, to try and achieve more balance and eat more clock up with a run game. Some Arizona fans are grumbling that Stoops needs to remove his fingerprints from the offense and let Dykes "go perm" with the Tech spread (if "go perm" means anything to you, then you are laughing right now).

The offense is predicated not only on completing short passes, but on hitting receivers in a weak area of the defense to allow yards after catch. Leach's theory is the more weapons available on a given play, spread across the field, the more likely the play will exploit a weakness. To increase that likelihood, the Leach offense uses a number of techniques.

First, the QB has pre-snap reads and line calls, as well as post-snap progressions, to identify the offense's weakness and attack it. Second, the QB gets rid of the ball very quickly. Third, the offense uses huge splits between the linemen, bigger than most teams' third down splits. The idea behind this is to spread the defensive linemen out so that the defensive ends are too far from the QB to get to him by the time he gets rid of it. Proof of the effectiveness of this technique is that Mike Leach has virtually never had a starting QB miss playing time due to injury. His QBs just don't get hit that much.

So how do you defend this unholy offense?

1. You must limit yards after the catch. When this offense racks up 40+ points, it is due to big gains off short passes. Think of how the Patriots used Wes Welker (who played at Texas Tech) last season, hitting him in stride all over the field. How do you limit these yards? There is only one way, and it's got very little to do with scheme or coaching: fast, athletic linebackers. If you have quick, rangy linebackers, the receivers will get stopped dead in their tracks. If you don't, this offense will run your defense ragged. Cal really didn't have that kind of quickness versus Tech in 2004, and it made it hard to stop them.

2. You must have success with disguised, well-timed blitzes, preferably zone blitzes. Arizona's spread is a bit more susceptible to the blitz than the Tech spread because they do not subsist entirely on short passes. They will look deep, and they do run the ball occasionally. But with 5 options to throw to, a good QB like Tuitama is going to burn a blitz if he sees it coming.

3. Punish the receivers for catching the ball. This offense needs receivers to catch over the middle to be truly effective and spread the defense out. A couple huge hits can cause receivers to be hesitant or drop balls, which kills the timing and rhythm of the offense.

4. Keep your offense on the field as long as possible. This offense can score alarmingly fast, so no lead is really safe. But it can also go 3 and out in 10 seconds. If you can make them pay by keeping them off the field, it disrupts their rhythm.

It stops the yards after the catch, or else it gets the hose again.

So how does Cal match up with this year's Arizona team?

When Arizona has the ball

Arizona is loaded with weapons on offense, plain and simple. They have the most experienced, and probably most polished passer (and most concussed) in the conference in Tuitama. They have returning 1st team all Pac 10 and conference leading receiver Mike Thomas (and their other receiver Terrell Turner is really good too). They have former freshman All American TE Rob Gronkowski. And they have a blazing fast tailback in Nic Grigsby. Yikes. You can see why I have some concerns about this game.

The obvious criticism is that with all that, Arizona should be 6-0, so they must not be that good. But we all know that you can throw that out the window when Cal plays talented teams on the road who have had some bad games. Good teams get up to play us, for whatever reason. Maybe it's because they are mad that we don't suck anymore. Maybe it is because we are ranked and they perceive themselves as underdogs (even though Vegas rarely does - this game's a pick 'em for example).

My take on Arizona this season is that they have a young defense, they've made some mistakes in pressure situations on the road, and they've had some injuries, especially on defense. That, combined with maybe taking some teams lightly, has caused them to lose a couple games they shouldn't have. But make no mistake, this team is loaded, hard-nosed, and hungry to put a whipping on the Bears in front of their home crowd. I expect them to play their best game of the season this weekend.

Before getting to the matchups, here's a highlight of Arizona emasculating Washington earlier this season. Some things to note: (1) To see why you must limit yards after catch, watch the two passes to Gronkowski in stride at the 1:13 and 7:43 marks. (2) How fast RB Grigsby is, especially on cutbacks, which Gregory's defenses have had trouble with. (3) The quick routes to Gronkowski in the red zone at the 5:20 and 7:22 marks. Not sure how you stop that. This kid might be the toughest matchup in the conference.

Here's highlights of Arizona's road win over UCLA earlier this year:

Arizona passing game vs. Cal secondary

While I think the Bears match up as well as any team against Arizona, I think the secondary is going to have trouble with this offense. As you can see from the highlight clip, if you get caught out of position against this offense, it will kill you. Where the trouble lies is our zone coverage with receivers running from the middle to the deep zone. A lot of teams have trouble with this, the "baton exchange" between the corner and the safety as the receiver continues from the middle to the deep zone. In a recent example, FS Cattouse totally misread this on ASU's first TD last game. Syd covered the guy short and then let him go and Cattouse was supposed to pick him up as he came through the middle to the deep zone. Cattouse was a step slow, did not recognize that he was running a post and went straight at him instead of taking a wide angle (it looked like he expected a short, comeback route). The result - receiver caught the ball in stride and blew right by Cattouse for 6.

Arizona will try to catch our zone out of position by hitting guys in stride in the seams and by using receivers to clear out certain areas by taking defenders with them. With the Pac 10's #1 returning WR and #1 returning pass-catching TE, I see some big plays against Cal here.

Edge: Arizona

Arizona passing game vs. Cal linebackers

This is an area where the Bears match up very well with this offense. Other than Eddie Young, Cal has a lot of speed and athleticism at linebacker, particularly Mohammed (who should start in my opinion) and Williams. Both of these guys can stay with Gronkowski man to man. But all of our linebackers are fast enough to limit the yards after catch consistently. This can go a long way to taking some things away from the Arizona passing game. What will be interesting is if Gregory goes nickel and uses only 3 linebackers, rather than 4, figuring he wants an extra DB on the field. I cannot disagree with this approach, but it will make blitzing more difficult.

Edge: Cal. I think Cal's linebackers are going to be all over the place tomorrow.

Entire defense vs. Rob Gronkowski

I have no doubt that Stoops and Dykes are going to do everything they can to get Gronkowski the ball. Everyone - the media, the coaches, the players - is talking about Gronkowski not getting the ball enough versus Stanford. I think unless you double team or go bracket coverage, you are not going to keep this guy from getting the ball. Like I said, I think we have the speed to cover him, but that doesn't mean he's not going to catch it. You can give him these catches most of the game and just try to limit yards after catch, but on third down and in the red zone, Cal is going to have to gamble to take him out of the play. Thing is, Gregory rarely does double teams or bracket coverage on TEs.

On the other hand, if Free Willie tries to force it to Gronkowski, there may be some opportunities for interceptions.

Edge: Gronkowski. I think he is going to have a good game. The hope is Cal can stop him in 3rd down and in the red zone.

Cal blitz vs. Tuitama

If Tuitama sees the blitz coming, he is going to signal or check to a hot route, such as a quick slant to where the blitzing defender is coming from. The best ways to counter this are either send multiple LBs up to the LOS but only blitz one, or use a zone blitz. We've seen more zone blitz out of Gregory this season because he finally has the defensive linemen with the athleticism to drop into coverage. In the zone blitz, the linebackers, safeties, and corners can come on a blitz and the d-linemen take their place dropping back in coverage. Of course, who goes and who drops is disguised completely before the snap. This allows the defense to stay in zone coverage and still blitz.

As an example Syd has blitzed only twice this season, both on a zone blitz, and both went for sacks.

I think Gregory can have some success here, both with zone blitz and with faking the blitz in man coverage, if it is timed right. Jordan is fast enough at DE to drop into coverage. Browner might be as well. And our linebackers are very quick on the blitz up the middle.

Edge: Cal

When Cal has the ball

Arizona's defensive scheme, engineered by Stoops, is an effective, aggressive, smash-mouth style, that relies on zone blitzes, aggressive corner play, and mixing up looks. They have fast linebackers and a cagey, disciplined secondary (this is the strength of the Stoops defense). You can bet he has watched the Maryland game film and will try to expose what went wrong there. Cal has never really been able to dominate Arizona offensively. They've scored some points, but it's been ugly, and it's often relied on some big plays. It's really been Cal's defense that has been the difference in the Tedford-Stoops games.

The difference this year is Arizona is a bit green and undersized on the defensive line, something they haven't been in a while under Stoops. They lost all 4 starters to graduation. While Cal may be able to take some advantage of this in the run game, Arizona is strong at linebacker and secondary, led by Ronnie Palmer at MLB and Nate Ness at FS. Palmer is one of the best linebackers in the conference, a sure tackler and a big hitter. Ness tied the team high for INTs as junior last year with now NFL corner Cason, and they expect an all Pac 10 season out of him this year.

I expect to see Arizona's linebackers crashing to stop the run, and I expect a lot of pressing by the corners at the LOS to jam our inexperienced WRs. Their hope is they can shut down the run with the LBs and throw the WRs' timing off so Longshore cannot burn them with the pass. There is going to be some pressure on Cal's passing game to work tomorrow.

Cal run game vs. Arizona front 7

A lot of people are saying that because Stanford and New Mexico rolled up 200+ yards on the ground against Arizona, that they cannot stop the run. I don't see it that way and I don't think Cal is going to run over these guys. First off, Stanford and New Mexico have big, power backs, unlike Cal. Second, Arizona was not up for those games and they got punched in the mouth - they will be up for this game. Third, Cal's run game can be stopped if you gamble. ASU and MSU chose not to gamble and Cal ran well against them. MD gambled and it paid off. Until Cal proves it can make teams pay for this, I think Stoops will gamble.

Edge: Push. I think Arizona is going to keep our run game in check, but not shut it down. If we don't make them pay in the pass, we will lose.

Longhore and WRs vs. Gambling Run Defense

Arizona is going to give Cal chances to beat them deep in the passing game. The question is whether Longshore and the receivers can take advantage. Cal looked deep with play action vs ASU but it did not work because ASU did not gamble against the run. Arizona will gamble. The receivers have to shake loose against some very aggressive and young corners, and Longshore has to hit these guys in stride.

Edge: Cal. I think this is a game where Longshore finally hits some receivers deep.

Longshore versus Arizona's zone coverages

Longshore has struggled against clever zone defenses. Arizona is going to mix things up. Longshore has to read this and check to run if he suspects a conservative zone, and check to pass if he sees them cheating up and then playing press on the edges. If he reads these defensive looks correctly, Arizona can be had. If he does not, the offense is going to struggle a bit.

Edge: Arizona. I think Longshore is going to have some success when they go man, but I think Arizona is going to take some bread and butter things away. I think they are going to take away the screens and the short stuff, and I think we are going to see a lot of 3rd and long. To date, Cal has not been good in 3rd and long.

Other Intangibles

Cal is without its starting kicker
If this game is close, which Pac 10 road games tend to be, this is going to be a problem.

Cal has not performed well when ranked and favored on the road against a good offense
The players can talk all they want about taking Arizona lightly, but the fact is, Tedford's teams have struggled on the road, especially when favored or ranked. Until I see something different, I think that trend will continue tomorrow.


Before the season, I thought this game was a loss: Tech spread run by a Sr. Qb, in Tuscon, Arizona looking for payback from last season, and Cal coming off a bye. Though our defense is better than I expected, Cal is now ranked, missing its starting kicker, and still finding its way a bit on offense. On balance, I'd still give the slight edge to Arizona.


daviszabb said...

if only all of football could be draw on such a perfect "Haiku Tunnel" reference...

danzig said...

wow... excellent analysis and funny. Well done.

SDGoldenBear said...

Some things are metaphors for everything. Haiku Tunnel is probably not. But it deserves whatever small corner of relevance it can be given in any forum. I laugh as I am typing this.

SDGoldenBear said...

Thansk Danzig. Since you are the Coppola of Cal videos, I have some questions for you about making highlight videos or clips from torrent downloads saved as .iso files, if you don't mind. I'd like to convert and then be able to edit. I use VLC to mount and watch, but not sure the best way to edit after that (best format, best program, etc). By the way, your videos are some of the best I've seen. When's the next one coming?

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