When a defense has to guess if an offense is going to run or pass the ball, there is usually a 1 to 2 second hesitation by the linebackers and safeties (and sometimes cornerbacks if they are not covering a receiver) to make his post snap read before he reacts to the play. Defensive linemen react "instantaneously" but even they are diagnosing run or pass when engaged with offensive linemen after the snap. However, those split seconds give the offense a huge advantage over the defense. To neutralize this advantage, the defense’s strategy is to win 1st down as much as possible thus forcing the offense into long distance situations (ideally, 2nd and 9+ and 3rd and 7+).
When an offense is put into passing situations, they become easier to defend in theory since the chances of a run play being called decreases as distance to convert a 1st down increases. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this theory. Sometimes an offensive coordinator will call a run play to try to keep the defense off balance, catch them off guard, or because of the field position. When a defense forces a team to pass, they make that offense "one-dimensional." How does a defense make a team one-dimensional? By successfully winning first down from causing incompletions, mixing up the blitz to create a loss of a yardage or no gain, or stopping the run. The defensive game plan changes every week but a goal of Cal’s each game was to stop the run.
More after the Jump
Football is very much about running the ball and stopping the run. Whichever team can do those two things has the better chance of winning the game. There are exceptions to this rule like when an offense is pass oriented (think Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense). Cal was solid against the run in 2009 ranking #23 in rushing yards/game and #19 in yards/rush in the country. However, those statistics are skewed because they are averages and do not reflect what happened in each game. Two indicators of how any team performs is their time of possession (TOP) and total rushes per game (rushes/game). If a team is on top in both of those statistical categories at the end of a game, there is a very good chance they won. To demonstrate this point, here are the TOP and rushes/game statistics facts from Cal’s 2009 season:
- In 10 games, the winning team had the edge in TOP and rushes/game each time.
- In 1 game, the losing team (Maryland) had the edge in TOP and rushes/game.
- In 2 games, the losing teams (Eastern Washington and Washington State) had a greater TOP but rushes/game was in favor of Cal.
- In 3 lopsided wins (Maryland by 39, Eastern Washington by 52, Washington State by 32), the opponents’ TOP averaged approximately 4:30 minutes more than Cal’s.
- In 5 closer wins, Cal won the TOP battle each time and held the ball approximately 8:75 minutes more than their opponents.
- In 5 losses, Cal lost the TOP battle each time and held the ball approximately 9:30 minutes less than their opponent.
- In 8 wins, Cal had approximately 41.75 rushes/game to the opponents’ 28.5 rushes/game.
- In 5 losses, opponents had approximately 41.4 rushes/game to Cal’s 25.2 rushes/game.
The common trend where the winning team did not control the TOP nor have more rushes/game was that they were all blowouts. Cal scored points quickly, which put the defense back on the field more often and caused the TOP to flip. The rest of the games followed the observation that winning TOP and carrying the ball more are key ingredients in the recipe of a win.
The main point to take from this installment is that stopping the run is critical to a defense’s success as well as the outcome of the game. Cal’s run defense was solid for the most part in 2009. However, there were breakdowns during both losses and wins that setup scores, were touchdowns, or helped sustain drives for the other team. It would be really boring if I was breaking down the 5 yard gainers so in the video portion of this installment, I will show five clips that are more entertaining to watch, albeit more painful.
In this first clip, we see a play that should have resulted in a tackle for loss but it went for a touchdown. Why? This was actually a very good play by Maryland because they ran to the weakside of their formation and brought 3 blockers to outnumber Cal at the point of attack. Focus on Cal’s bottom most defender (Mike Mohamed) on the line of scrimmage before the snap. The Maryland left guard is supposed to block Mohamed but as the guard is pulling, he trips and does not lay a hand on Mike. However, Mike is tuned into the fullback and is expecting run so he lowers his shoulder in preparation for contact. When the fullback doesn’t lower his shoulder, Mike is likely thinking "play action" and followed the fullback. If Mohamed kept his eyes on the ball, he would have blown the running back up due to the Maryland guard’s miscue. I will go as far to say that if Mohamed was blocked by the guard as planned, this play would not have gone for a touchdown because he eventually gets in the way of Brett Johnson's pursuit of the ball carrier
You may want to brace yourself because this video is painful. Before the snap, focus your attention on the left defensive end (Cameron Jordan) and left outside linebacker (Eddie Young standing on the 20 yard line) at the bottom of the screen . After the snap, Jordan is double teamed and completely blocked out of the way. Young opts to "shed" his blocker by going around him towards the outside rather than engaging him and going inside. The Oregon running back then takes off through the area Jordan was cleared out of and Young ran away from and goes untouched for 9 yards before THREE Cal defenders mistackle him. The back picks up 25+ extra yards after the initial contact. Oregon did not go on to score during this drive but they changed the field position game big time, which consequently set up their score on their next drive due to a Cal special teams miscue.
The next clip shows one of Cal’s safeties (Brett Johnson) taking a terrible angle to the ball carrier. Johnson was a very aggressive run defender and he often took himself out of plays attacking the line of scrimmage too quickly. There is not much to breakdown as to what went wrong on this play as it the clip should speak for itself. In the context of the game, this 28 yard run from the OSU 10 yard line took immense pressure off them and helped set up their second touchdown score at the end of this drive.
This was a 3rd and 2 situation and everybody in the stadium knew Stanfurd was more than likely going to run the ball. Concentrate on Cal’s defensive end on the lower part of the screen (Cameron Jordan). He is the third defender from the bottom of the screen in a 3 point stance on the line of scrimmage. There was an initial double team on Jordan by two offensive linemen and he was completely blown off the line of scrimmage. If the safety (Sean Cattouse, who is standing on the 44 yard line pre-snap) was not aggressive nor shooting a gap, he would have been farther back to make a play. Aggressiveness backfiring? Something to think about. After Cattouse made his reads on the eligible receivers, he picked the correct gap to shoot through but it closed up too quickly. Some good blocking and a quick move by the Stanfurd running back led to daylight and a 7-0 lead. So who is to blame? Cattouse? Nope, he did his job and had the gap he chose stayed open a fraction of a second longer, this would have been a tackle for loss. Jordan? It is not easy to blame him because taking on two 300 lb offensive linemen is no walk in the park but theoretically, he is supposed to hold the point of attack. If he does hold his ground, it likely would have turned into a pile and your guess is as good as mine if Cal could have stopped them. However, a 61 yard TD score would not have happened.
In this last run defense clip, I am going to pin most of the blame on the safety (Brett Johnson) for this touchdown. It's hard to see at first but I clipped 2 different angles. UCLA blocked pretty well on this play and beat Cal's front seven. Note the UCLA WR that comes in from the bottom of the screen goes straight to block the safety. It is not much of a block but for some reason it distracts the safety so much that he disregards his run responsibilities, turns his back away from the action, and takes his eyes completely off the ball. The running back runs right by the area the safety should be defending and sprints for a touchdown. The safeties are the last line of defense and need to at least be making an effort to tackle the ball carrier.
Execution is critical on every play. There is a list of reasons for run defense breakdowns: mental errors, bad angles, mistackles, bad luck, and players getting straight up beat. Though, credit has to go to offenses because they do out-execute the defense at times. The key to successful run defense is execution with 11 guys on the same page, covering their assignments, playing focused and disciplined, and winning their individual match-ups against the offense. If one defender is out of sync, the results, as shown above, often times are not pretty.
Part 4 of 5 to come very soon