Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oregon Recap Part II (Defense and Closing Thoughts)

With the exception of a few times last year, I have always felt that Tedford's teams have been offense-driven. The defense feeds off the offense, and tends to derive its confidence from how the offense is doing. I doubt seriously Tedford and Gregory have ever entered a conference game saying, "Let's just keep it vanilla on offense, and let the defense and field position carry us." Tressel, Carroll, Stoops - definitely. Tedford? No way. Tedford is the anti-Tressel, the anti-Big 10: "Let's just keep everything in front of us on defense, don't give up the big play, and eventually the offense is going to get untracked and put them away." More often than not, as the offense goes, so go Tedford's teams.

And to a degree (keep that qualifier suspended in mid-air for a moment while I make this point), I think that rang true Saturday. While giving up 42 points and 500+ yards of offense is an unmitigated failure defensively, I can't shake the feeling that the offense's continued failure to score, let alone put together sustained drives, was like a weight around this defense's neck. And I am not just talking about being on the field so much, though that is a big part of it. I am talking about playing (and play calling) with confidence. The secondary and linebackers just looked a little hesitant out there, as did most of the early defensive calls. It was almost like they were just trying to bide their time until the offense to get rolling. Then late, they looked desperate, and started taking the wrong kind of chances to make plays.

I'll get to my criticisms of the game plan, lack of adjustments, and the execution problems in a moment. But let it be said that while the defense's failures were the straw the broke the camel's back, the offense's struggles to make key plays time after time after time were the big pile of hay that was already there.

So the first question that jumps out is whether that is an acceptable identity for a team? It seems so foreign to assume a Tedford team would come into a conference game expecting to lean on its defense. But should that be a foreign concept, especially with this group? My answer is no way, and that's where I get off the page with Gregory, not the x's and o's stuff.

Gregory knows his scheming. He's a really technical, cerebral defensive coordinator, more than people give him credit for (maybe too much so, frankly). But in the 7 going on 8 years I've been watching Gregory's defenses, I have never, not once, gotten the sense (and that's all it really is - a sense) that the Cal defense has gone into games with the notion that they are going to dominate the game and carry the team. To me, that's an identity-level, pit-of-your-soul type mindset. That starts with the coach. And I just don't think Gregory approaches defense that way.

That is where the problems started Saturday - attitude. The defense did not play like a defense that intended to shut Oregon down and win the game for the team, come hell or high water. Don't misunderstand, it's not that they did not play hard (I didn't see dejected body language on defense until very late in the game). It's that they appeared to have more of a passive approach.

While I agree that you have to be careful attacking Oregon too much given the potency of their offense, you also have to keep an offense out of its comfort zone. That means pressure, variable coverages, stunts and blitzes. And early.

And that really comes down to the game plan, which is squarely on the coach. Game plan and attitude go hand in hand. When the coach says Monday last week, "We are going to shut this offense down by attacking it and taking them out of their comfort zone, until they make mistakes," it changes the way the team practices all week long. And it affects their attitude going into the game.

That clearly was not the game plan, and that is my second criticism. The game plan was (1) stop the inside run (slavishly) and (2) keep everything in front of the secondary. Those are not bad things by themselves, but that game plan needed more. First off, it needed more attacking and confusion elements. Second, it was simply not prepared for many of the wrinkles Oregon threw at it.

Beginning with attacking, I get that you have to be careful sending the house and going cover 0 when you're playing the Oregon offense in Autzen. But Masoli has proven to be much, much worse when he tries to throw under pressure. He was against Cal last year, and he has been this year. Similarly, the Oregon offensive line was green and had shown some struggles all season. Cal has some of the best pressure front 7 players in the conference. Why not use them? Do some stunts, delayed blitzes, and altered fronts to confuse the blockers. Cal did very little of this in the first half. Consequently, Masoli and the blockers pretty much ran their blocks the way they practiced them. That makes things pretty easy when you're at home on top of everything else.

Second, and this is a big one, the Cal defense looked just plain unprepared for several of the plays Oregon ran. First thing to say there is hats off to Kelly. He drew up some really nice plays. And he clearly had some things waiting to unleash on this defense (as I predicted he would). In particular, the run-pass option plays were killers. Masoli would show like he was running and then quickly fling the ball out to a receiver. Much like a pump fake, the quick feigning of run froze the pass defenders and gave the receiver a bubble. While this is one of the toughest types of option plays to stop, the defense clearly was unprepared for it.

The other thing they were clearly unprepared for was the bubble screen. And we've seen this before from Gregory's defenses. USC scored on it against Cal last year with relative ease (and will again Saturday if Cal is not careful), and a few other teams got some nice gains out of it as well. This play can be tough to stop cold if it is well-timed or audibled to against outnumbered coverage, but even then, you can keep it to under 5 yards if you are prepared to defend it properly.

This leads me to my third concern: lack of adjustments. I get that if you're hell bent on stopping the run, you're going to be vulnerable on the edges and over the top. And I get that if you go into the game expecting Masoli's arm not to hurt you badly (a reasonable expectation at the time), you're not going to be dropping 5 into coverage on first and second down. Ok fine, stick with your game plan and see how it works.

Well, it worked well for a quarter. But even during the first quarter, you could already see that Oregon was intent on establishing the pass. And though Cal held them on the scoreboard in that quarter, Oregon was completing passes all over the place. Once you see that as a defensive coach, you have to start adjusting to it.

In the second quarter, it became clear Oregon was going to stick with using the pass to loosen up the run, and it worked. In particular, they were using Dickson and the bubble screen, and then mixing in run plays inside. 5 minutes into the second quarter, after Oregon's second TD, Masoli had thrown 17 passes, and Dickson had 6 catches for 84 yards. Ok, coach, the game is still close, but your game plan isn't working. Time to adjust your coverages, and time start putting a spy on Dickson.

But that really didn't happen. Oregon continued to work the sidelines with the pass, and continued to hit Dickson on a variety of plays.

Before I get to my closing thoughts, the last thing that warrants mentioning is that this group of LBs still has a lot of maturing to do. Several times, they just looked confused on anything other than a zone run. I think this maturation will occur over the course of the season, but be prepared for this group to have a few more slip ups along the way, because teams are going to come after them with fullbacks, TEs, rollouts, and short routes, starting with USC this weekend.

In closing, I said I'll reserve judgment about how good this team is until after the UCLA game. I still think playing at Oregon is the toughest game on Cal's schedule in the odd numbered years, and that's why I circled it as a loss heading into the season. As bad as the loss was, there are lots of reasons to throw it out as probably not likely to repeat itself this season: unique offense, toughest road venue in the conference, #6 ranking, and lots of unforced execution errors. If Cal rights the ship by beating USC and UCLA, it will be 5-1, 2-1, with in my opinion its two toughest road games and toughest home game behind it. Before the season started, I'd have taken that in a second.


Anonymous said...

You always do a great job explaining the nuances..but I for one can't figure out Gregory..he has shown in the past that when he is more aggressive out D can dominate...when he plays soft or doesn't show different blitz packages he is just terrible... I respect your opinion but tell me this...Both Minnesota and Oregon had played pretty poorly on offense UNTIL Cal came to town and then their offenses become more prolific...Minny couldn't score that many points against Air Force at home..then Cal lets them pass all over the place..Masoli was terrible the last few games and BAM!, we give him 5 seconds to throw with NO pressure and even he can complete passes...I agree our LB's have much more to learn..but I am not fond of Mr. Cerebral Gregory...he overthinks it and exposes himself as a lousy field commander on Saturdays..thanks..

KoreAmBear said...

I'm not sure why BG seemed so intent on not adjusting. It's not like he's not had a game plan for a guy who is explosive at the QB in the Duck spread. See plan against Dennis Dixon in the 2006 Cal v. Oregon game.

All we know is that this keep the plays in front of you, look for takeaways, 3 man rush in a 2 point stance, zone D is not good enough to beat the upper echelon of the PX, esp. at a place like Autzen. I hope BG did some reflecting and realizes that we've made very mediocre QBs look like world beaters in the past due to our passive scheme (Masoli, Canfield, Bonnell, etc.).

Barkley has not been hit hard yet. Please BG, go after the guy. At least go down trying like that. I may have an aneurysm if I see Barkley in the pocket all day picking apart our defense.

Let's do it BG. Go Bears! Attack!

SD said...

I don't know what it is about Gregory. I give him a little bit of a pass for the years where the defensive talent wasn't there (03, 05, 07). And in fairness, in a lot of games, he does a decent job of taking away the run. But he does tend to give up passing yards, and his zone does tend not to close up holes as quickly as I'd like. Hard to pinpoint why.

One thing Cal has lacked I think is great safety play. DeCoud was good vs. run, but so-so vs. pass and play recognition (some of that was probably Littlejohn). Ezeff is solid, but not dominating. The last really good safety tandem we had was 2004. Johnson is great vs. run, so-so vs. pass. Cattouse is the reverse.

I do wonder if an upgrade in talent here would make a difference. SC, Ore, OSU and UCLA have had great, all-conference type safeties the past few years, and AZ too, whereas Cal has not. Those have also been the best defenses not coincidentally.

SamoBear said...

Great analysis once again. Fundamentally, I am troubled by the way we approach our tackling, especially the open field stuff with the LB's. I get that Young, Holt, Kendricks are not Follett, Williams, and Felder, but I have seen many times this group over-run plays, take poor angles, out of position, and not wrap up. This was exposed at Autzen last Saturday and will be exposed vs SC again this Saturday with short screen (bubble screen passes as you suggest) to McKnight, McCoy, and Williams. Shouldnt part of the defensive game plan be to take away this short stuff (or at least limit it) and make Barkley beat you over the top?

SD said...


As I will get to in the USC preview, LB play is the key to beating USC. SC is going to try and get guys the ball all over the field, notably McKnight, Havili and the TEs. On bubbles and slips in particular, the LBs cannot put the burden on corners to blow up blocks and makes plays. They have to get there in a hurry and stop these plays cold.

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