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Reviewing Cal @ Maryland: What Happened to Cal's Running Game?

I apologize for my lack of posting (prior to this post, I've only put up one meaningful post this entire month).  School is now in full swing and unfortunately it takes up quite a bit of time leaving me little time to put aside a large chunk of time to blog or even sleep.  Nevertheless, despite the busy life I lead, Maryland has been on my mind. 

You see, I was perusing the internet a few days ago and read something by fellow Cal sports blogger sdgldnbear of The Bear Will Not Quit that caught my attention.  Sdgldnbear wrote in his Maryland debriefing:

I have read a lot of criticism that the Cal o-line was "dominated." This is simply untrue. Yeah, they got beat a few times, but their problem was missing blocks and blocking the wrong guys most of the time. In my pregame write-up, I predicted this very thing would present problems for the Bears vs. Maryland, because I noticed Wazzu have some moderate "success" with it when their linebackers played aggressively, rather than passively. I was worried that with the odd numbers, pre-snap shifts, and overloads, Cal's blocking schemes would be frustrated.

This got me wondering, was Cal's OL really "dominated?"  Off the top of my head, I want to say Yes.  Perhaps "dominated" is a bit too harsh of an adjective, but I don't think I could say the Cal OL played excellent, great, good, well, above average, or even average.  Maybe "dominated" is a bit much but I thought it certainly was below average. 

Friend of the blog and fellow sturdy Cal sports blogger Avinash over at Bears Necessity wrote in his report card review:

Run blocking: What does humidity do to these guys? The same problems emerged in the Tennessee game, where Cal could not move the ball or protect the quarterback. Chet Teofilo and Noris Malele did not look sharp. Even Alex Mack went mad. Everytime [sic] early in the game it seemed the offense made a big play, the offensive line committed a stupid penalty to bring it right back.

The Bears had three rushes over seven years [sic] the entire game. They had three rushes over forty yards last week. This is a slight downgrade.

Grade: F

Pass protection: Kevin Riley got sacked five times and knocked to the ground a few more times. Some of it was due to his holding the ball, some of it wasn’t. This was still their worst performance in years, especially considering the underwhelming performances of the the team they were facing. Oh well, Maryland’s pass defense seemed to finally awaken after their trashing last week.

Grade: D-

Avinash seemed to think the OL didn't do so well.  So here, we had two notable Cal sports bloggers differing in opinion. 

Naturally, I began wondering if the OL didn't really play well at all such as Avinash suggested or if there were other problems such as sdgldnbear suggested, namely that Cal's OL was frustrated by "the odd numbers, pre-snap shifts, and overloads" (sdgldnbear supra).

Sdgldnbear finds confirmation of his theory in a quote by Jahvid Best:

"They loaded up the box. They came with a lot of blitzes. They overloaded on the strong side. It was just hard to pick up the right guys and make a read so we just got to go in there and watch the film and get better at it."

Well, a careful reading of the quote seems to verify that indeed the offense was stymied by "overloads" as sdgldnbear suggests, but only a very big stretch in interpretation of the quote can be conclusively read to confirm the two other factors that sdgldnbear suggests: odd numbers (fronts), and pre-snap shifts. 

Of course, this doesn't mean that sdgldnbear is wrong.  He could very well be right.  But I wanted to find out what really the problem.  Jahvid Best seems only to suggest it was because Maryland loaded the box.  Sdgldnbear suggests it was a combination of 3 factors.  Avinash seems to suggest the OL just straight up didn't play well.  Who was right?  Was it just because the Maryland D loaded up the box?  Or was it truly a combination of the three factors suggested by sdgldnbear?  Or did the OL just not play well as suggested by Avinash?  Or was it a combination of all of those reasons?

To answer my question, I watched the game over again...

In my analysis, I only focused on Cal's running game which, as many of you hardcore Cal fans know, is the stamp of a Tedford offense instead of the passing game. 

So my question was: what went wrong with Cal's running game? 

The answer I found: Maryland's defensive alignment.  More specifically where their DL guys were lined up as opposed to the fact that there were only three. 

Here's what I saw...


Above is the pre-snap look.  Cal has "base" personnel ( aka 21 personnel - 2 backs; 2 WRs; 1 TE) on the field.   Maryland is in their 3-4 look with the leo as a stand-up linebacker on the LOS to the offense's left.  


But then the defense shifts into a different formation.  It's not a 4-3 (four down linemen and three linebackers) but it more or less looks like one but there are some critical differences.


The big difference is the location of the Maryland strong side DE which I've circled above.   In a 4-3 defense, that player circled above would be a DT and would be lined up on the red triangle instead of where the player is currently lined up.  See, in a 4-3 defense, the DT usually lines up to the outside shoulder of the guard (in a 3 technique) which is where the red triangle is.  But Maryland uses its 3-4 defense and plays its strong side DE shaded to the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle (in a 5 technique) which is where the player currently is above.  The location of the strong side DE will cause lots of problems which we'll get to later.


Before we can understand how the location of the strongside DE will affect Cal's blocking schemes, we first must understand how Cal's power running game works against a 4-3 defense.  Why a 4-3 defense?  Because that's what most schools use for their defense (at least the ones that Cal faces in the Pac-10).  So the purpose of understanding how Cal's running game works against a 4-3 defense will allow us to see what Cal normally tries to accomplish with their power running game.  So in the picture above, I've photoshopped out the Maryland players on the LOS (line of scrimmage) and put triangles where Maryland's defensive linemen would be lined up if they played a 4-3 defense.  Those positions would be to the outside/left shoulder of Cal's LT (left tackle), to left shoulder of Cal's C (center), to the outside/right shoulder of Cal's RG (right guard), and to the outside/right shoulder of Cal's TE (tight end).


There are a couple of ways in which Cal can block against a 4-3 defense.  I will explain one particular way.   So when Cal wants to block against a 4-3 defense, the center will block the NT (nose tackle) and the LT (left tackle) will block the WDE (weakside defensive end).  I've put the blocks as blue lines above.


On the play side, Cal's RG and RT would provide a combination block, a block where both the RG and RT engage the DT (defensive tackle), with one of the players later breaking off to block the WLB (weakside linebacker).  Which player breaks off to block the WLB depends on the angle which the WLB takes to the ball carrier.  If the WLB takes a lower angle, the RG will break off to block.  If the WLB takes a higher angle, the RT will break off to block because he'll have a better angle (an angle that is more head-on and not so perpendicular).  Anyways, I've shown the combo block as yellow lines.  The Cal TE also blocks out the MLB (middle linebacker).


Then the Cal FB (fullback) kicks out the Maryland strong side defensive end.


And finally, the Cal LG pulls around and blocks the Maryland SLB (strong side linebacker).  As you can see in the picture above, all 7 players in Maryland's 4-3 defense would be blocked by Cal's 7 blockers leaving the Cal RB to run free.


But Maryland isn't in a 4-3.  They're in their 3-4 which is shifted around to the strong side.


So what happens, is that because the Maryland SDE is lined up shaded outside the RT instead of the RG, the combo block must be carried out by the Cal RT and TE because the SDE is between them instead normally being between the RG and RT.  I've shown the combo block of the Cal RT and TE above (the RT and TE will still work to block the a Maryland backer but this time it's the MLB instead of the WLB).  The RT & TE combo block is a problem because the SDE has a better angle of attack into the backfield when combo blocked by the RT and TE (rather than the RG and RT) because the TE has to reach on his combo block and is later left alone to block the SDE at a bad angle when the RT comes off the combo block to block the MLB.  As we'll see later on, the bad angle results in the TE giving up inside leverage to the SDE who gets in the backfield to stop Cal's run.  But first let's finish up the blocking assignments...


Continuing along with the rest of the blocking scheme, the backside guard (the LG) pulls to block the Maryland MLB, and the fullback kicks out the Maryland SLB.  I've shown these blocks with blue lines above.  I've left out the other blocks, but essentially, C, LT, and RG would block the three remaining Maryland defenders who are a part of the 3-4 defense.


Now let's get to the problem with the location of that Maryland SDE.  Here is a post-snap picture.  I've circled the RT and TE executing the combo block on the Maryland SDE.


In the picture above, the RT has broken off from the combo block to engage the Maryland MLB leaving the TE to block the SDE.  As I said earlier, the SDE has inside leverage on the TE leaving the TE reaching on his block.  Thus the TE is not blocking the SDE head on but sort of at a 45 degree angle.  Unless the TE gets his feet around quickly to block the SDE head on during the brief combo block, the SDE will get leverage on the TE and get into the backfield.  That is what exactly happened on this play.  I've circled the TE and SDE in the picture above.  It's hard to see, but the SDE has already beat the TE and is heading into the backfield.


And once in the backfield, the SDE hits Jahvid Best in the backfield which would result in a tackle for loss (picture above).

That's the problem with Maryland's defensive line alignment with their 3-4 defense. 

Now, this play I just broke down was Cal's 5th offensive play and Cal's first attempt at running their power run game against Maryland's defense.  So, on Cal's first rushing attempt with their power run game (which has traditionally averaged over 5 yards per attempt), the play results in a definitive tackle for loss.

After this play resulted in a loss, Cal switches immediately to a zone blocking scheme for run plays (except for a few special circumstances due to the design of those plays).  Cal normally likes to use man-blocking and has traditionally been highly successful with it against 4-3 defenses.  But things change when facing a 3-4 and Cignetti switched to zone blocking. 

I think Cignetti wanted to run Cal's power running play once to see how well Cal's players could execute against Maryland's alignment.  If it worked well, I think Cignetti would have stuck with it.  If it didn't, Cignetti was ready to switch the zone blocking.  As we saw here, it didn't work and Cignetti made the switch.

Now, Cal can be successful with it's traditional man-blocking scheme against the 3-4.  Certainly, it's not impossible to use Cal's normal blocking scheme against a 3-4, which is what Cal tried to do, but it requires that: (1) Cal's players block against a scheme they are not used to, and (2) some of Cal's players execute from a less desirable position - namely the TE.  Who is Cal's starting TE?  Morrah.  What's his strength?  Pass catching.

Later in the game, Cignetti gave the man-blocking power run game another shot and called up the same play above (formation flipped).  The following play was called in the 2nd quarter.


Note that the formation in the play above is flipped than the first play.  This play was once again supposed to be man-blocking with a backside pulling guard (in this play the RG).  Maryland shows their usual 3-4 defense.  The "leo" linebacker is the one to the offense's right that is on the line of scrimmage.


But then Maryland shifts over to the strong side.  If you look at Riley, he is looking towards the RB and FB and conveying that the play has been changed.  Yes, Riley has changed the play.  Riley was probably under direction by Tedford or Cignetti to change the play to a zone blocking scheme should Maryland shift back over to the strong side.  Cal knew that Maryland would be ready for the play and this time Cignetti was ready to change out of man-blocking to zone blocking.


Here's the post-snap picture.  As you can see, there is no pulling backside guard.  The entire OL blocks left trying to open up some sort of seam for Best.


But unfortunately, there is no seam.  A Maryland defender comes in down in a gap of the zone blocking (circled above), and...


tackles Best for a loss (above).  For those of you with the game still on your Tivo, I would suggest watching this play.  The entire sequence of the defense shifting, and Riley subsequently changing the play is very obvious.

Anyways, Maryland had Cal's running game scouted out pretty well.  You see, Cal has a HUGE tendency to run its power run game out of the formation seen above (I-Formation).  I think this tendency is somewhere near the 75% range and perhaps even more.  It's something I've noticed over the past few years but have refrained to point out for the team's protection but it's just so painfully obvious now that it doesn't matter.  It was blatantly obvious to me, and apparently it was obvious enough for Maryland to notice on game film. Whenever Cal showed I-Formation, Maryland seemed to shift over in anticipation for the run. 

Cignetti needs to improve the playcalling diversity out of this formation for the team's protection, success, and efficiency.

So, going back to the whole point of this post: what happened to Cal's running game? 

Cignetti didn't like how our man-blocking power run game was matching up against Maryland's defensive line alignment and went to zone blocking (which we rarely use).  As I said earlier, the very next run play after the disastrous first run play was a zone blocking scheme.  The following few run plays were also zone blocking plays (aside from a few select plays which were different in nature).  The Cal OL is not as effective zone blocking as they are with man blocking.  The blocking wasn't as good.  Runs weren't as effective. 

In the end, I do think both Avinash and sdgldnbear were correct in their theories.  Avinash is correct in concluding that Cal's OL didn't play well - they certainly didn't.  Sdgldnbear suggests that perhaps "dominated" isn't the correct adjective to describe their performance since there were missed blocks and missed assignments as opposed to hitting all the blocks and assignments and still getting overpowered.  Sdgldnbear has a point but I'm still inclined to believe that Cal's OL was not creating holes for the RBs as they normally do, and as they are capable of doing. Thus, I can't quite agree that the Cal OL wasn't "dominated," but I can agree that "dominated" is perhaps too strong of a word choice.

As for whether the pre-snap shifting and the odd fronts was also a problem for our OL.  Well, certainly they had an effect, but I think the greater underlying problem was not that Maryland uses an odd front (3 down lineman) and executes pre-snap defensive shifts, but the bigger problem was where those defensive players were lined up.  The location and scheme of their defense was the greater problem last Saturday which forced our offense to adapt by executing in a manner that wasn't their specialty.