Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Maryland Preview - Offense

21 points? Bring me Solo and the Wookie. They will pay for this outrage.

Maryland's offense is referred frequently as a West Coast Offense. I am always a little leery about that term because I think people overuse it when they see a lot of short passing. What I saw from MD last year was more of a traditional pro-style offense. Nothing fancy, just nice balance, short passing, a few fly sweeps, and nice inside and outside run game, featuring pulling lineman, nice angle blocks, and sound downfield blocking. In fairness, it did seem like Franklin tried to establish the short pass early on. And if he was trying to set up the run with those short passes (which is a WCO concept), it worked.

But in game planning against the WCO, in general, there are no real tricks to beating it. You just have to be very sound in your assignments, and you need lots of speed. If there is one thing that I'd say you really need maybe more so than versus a more conventional offense, it's linebackers who are speedy and athletic cover guys. The WCO is more of a low risk, low return passing game. But it has to be precise, with balls going into tight windows and timing being precise. Quick LBs can either tip those balls or at the very least limit YAC by being right there.

The other thing is you need a smart defensive coordinator who can start dialing up defenses to take things away from the QB. With 3 step drops, if first and second options aren't available because of good coverage or good blitzes, the window starts closing very fast on the QB.

Countering Maryland's Run Concepts

In terms of specific things MD does that the Cal defense needs to be prepared for, one thing is their run blocking in space, especially on the outside. Their big runs came on plays that looked eerily similar to the plays Cal was running with great success later in the season last year (especially against Miami), running out wide behind a pulling a guard or tackle and cracking down with a slot receiver. Everyone got a hat on someone, and Scott did the rest.

Watch the clips below to see some runs from that game:

[start at the 1:30 mark]

From the Cal defense's game planning standpoint, how do you counter this particular rushing concept? First off, your CB and playside OLB have to at least hold their ground and clog things up to slow the RB down. You'd prefer that they shed their block and make a play, but at a minimum, they have to disrupt things and eat up space.

This was the single biggest defensive lapse vs. MD last year, as you can see from the clip above. Darian Hagan got owned like a toy pony on the edge on multiple plays. And Tedford said as much in his comments afterward at the coaches' tour (if you are wondering, he did not use the term "toy pony"). He said they really chewed Hagan's butt for taking bad angles and giving up the edge. They made him do a repetitive tackling drill over and over the next week of practice. Hagan really took it to heart and responded well, playing probably his best games of the season from a run defense standpoint the following two games.

Eddie Young also got rolled up on the edge multiple times. His problems are little more excusable because he was usually taking on linemen and TEs and you're not going to expect your OLB to just cast a 300-lb guy aside in the backfield and blow up a sweep. But what Young didn't do that you need to is flow toward the ball. He tended to get locked up in a stalemate or drive his man straight back instead of sliding down the line and at least forcing the RB to pick a lane. He had this problem from time to time last year, seeming more concerned with out-muscling his guy instead of eluding him. This is a maturity thing which I'd guess he'll move beyond this season.

If CB and playside OLB can clog things up, it will disrupt the RB and others will get there to make the tackle.

Second, against this type of blocking scheme, your safeties and ILBs have to read quickly, close in quickly, and make tackles. If the CB and OLB can't get free, at least two of the safeties and ILBs should get there unblocked, but they have to get there fast or the play will blow by them. When they do, they need to wrap up. On one long run, Brett Johnson got there in time, but he just plain whiffed on a tackle that would have stopped Scott dead in his tracks.

Third, ideally, you'd like your playside ILB has to basically beat the OL trying to block him. If he's quicker to the ball and can keep his guy off him, he can blow the play up. While this is not a requirement, this is probably the area where a more talented defense would stifle this play. Last year, Felder was usually this guy. He didn't quite blow it up, but he got close.

MD also showed some off-tackle and inside power run concepts at the goal line, similar to Cal's power run. MD did a nice job with these in goal line situations against what appeared to be a shell-shocked Cal defense. Countering these concepts require pretty much the same things from the defense, except there is more pressure on the ILBs to shed big linemen and clog up the gaps.

Countering Maryland's Pass Concepts

Cal fans remember MD's big rushing gains last year, but a lot of those actually came from mistakes and poor execution by the Cal defense. What frankly impressed me more, and what I think Cal needs to be more prepared for this season, is MD's passing game.

While MD didn't put up a lot of passing yardage last year, they completed pretty much every pass they needed to, including several back-breakers on third down and for TDs. Turner was 15-19, 156 yds, 2 TDs. Pretty impressive. They threw two TD passes, both of which were pretty flawlessly executed high passes. They almost had a third one if it hadn't been for a play by Syd that probably 5 guys in the country could have made. That pass was right on the money.

So how do you stop this type of precision passing attack? Again, speed cannot be underestimated against precision, timing passing offenses. If the QB and WRs are good and well-coached, you're not going to stop every pass. Think Texas Tech, but more pro-style and balanced. So what you're trying to do is shrink the spaces in the field, take away anything deep, and smother whatever balls are completed. That way you limit the QB to pedestrian short routes, forcing the offense to have to run a lot of plays to move the ball. The theory is eventually, the QB or receiver is going to make a mistake, your pass rush is going to get to the QB, or your coverage is going to jump a route.

But if you're a step slow in coverage, a precision passing game will eat you alive. Luckily, this year's Cal secondary is very experienced, and the LBs are very fast.

The other thing that can mess with this kind of passing game is zone blitzing. In this kind of passing offense, the reads are pretty quick. A good blitz scheme can sucker the QB into thinking a LB is vacating a zone and then drop someone else into the zone at the last second. This will either fluster the QB and force him to waste time looking elsewhere, or he'll figure it out too late and throw into coverage.

Finally, Cal sacked Turner 4 times last season. And that was with a senior-laden offensive line. This year MD's OL is pretty green (though I am sure they're saying the same about Cal). While quick passing does neutralize blitzing, especially with an experienced QB, pressure still forces the offense's hand, especially if the OL makes mistakes. Last year, the 4 sacks didn't have quite the effect they normally would because MD had the scoreboard advantage and some success on the ground. This year, if those advantages are not there, this type of pressure is much more likely to disrupt the passing game.

Here's a link to MD highlights from last year's game, including a few of their short passes.

Bottom line, I am not expecting Maryland to come in and just stall offensively. They have good coaches, an experienced QB, two good RBs, and a good corps of WRs. They are going to move the ball at some point.

But Cal just needs to stick with its defensive assignments, stay home, don't freelance, and tackle well. Much like Tennessee 2006, had they just done that last year, it might not have meant a win given the poor offense, but things would certainly have been different. Plus the Cal defense is as experienced, athletic, and deep as it has ever been under Tedford. If Gregory can dial up some good pressure packages on top of that, this should look more like the rest of the defensive performances Cal showed last year.

Next up: key matchups and game keys.

Maryland defense preview here.


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