(Click here for those who want to read about USC's offense vs. Cal's defense. Also check out my piece at SB Nation Bay Area on Kevin Riley, because I don't believe he's received enough attention this week, you know? Hope you heard my sarcasm grating like cheese.)
For the first time in nearly half-a-decade, the Trojan defense is the clear question mark of a feisty USC Trojans squad. Under the defensive-minded Pete Carroll, the Men of Troy dominated the Pac-10 with their strong front sevens and a secondary that feasted on quarterback errors. They marched their way to seven conference titles and thwarting two attempts by the California Golden Bears to topple them from the top.
That's no longer the case. Thanks to sanctions and the last half of a 2009 defense, the USC defense is very much a work in progress.
Departing seniors: Free safety Taylor Mays, defensive end Everson Griffen, defensive back Josh Pinkard, cornerback Kevin Thomas, safety Will Harris.
Transfer losses: Inside linebacker Jordan Campbell (to Louisville), defensive end Malik Jackson (to Tennessee), defensive back Byron Moore (to the JuCo ranks), linebacker Jarvis Jones (to Georgia), outside linebacker Glen Stanley (to Florida State)--check this helpful chart for more background. Jackson and Campbell are the biggest losses, but the transfers again harp on the need for depth in maintaining a strong defensive front.
All these losses have kept the Trojan defense from really maintaining the depth superiority that separated them from their Pac-10 counterparts. What remains is still plenty of talent, but most of it is clearly raw, and still trying to mesh with the new schemes the famous Monte Kiffin has put in. Hopefully, this isn't the week they put it all together.
Introducing the Tampa 2
The Tampa 2 defense is a modified version of Cover 2 (a defense that you see almost every successful college team run in pass coverage). The Cover 2 generally involves two safeties splitting the deep part of the field in half and taking away that part of the field.
Cover 2 Safeties (via clempsonfootball)
This is what the typical Cover 2 looks like. Cornerbacks handle the flats, linebackers cover the intermediate routes receivers run. UCLA ran this very well last week. Against Kevin Riley, UCLA generally put up two safeties, sometimes three (going into Cover 3) and split up the deep parts of the field, taking away that deep ball.
Here's what's going on in the Tampa 2.
Safeties now handle thirds of the field while the middle linebacker drops back further. The middle linebacker now takes on deep coverage responsibilities over the middle. In this case he's being asked to cover the slot, or come up and jump the tight end route. If he reads a pass, he drops back quickly, but usually his first step or two are toward the line of scrimmage to prepare for the run. The middle linebacker has to be very adept and athletic, and be able to handle both pass coverage and run support.
The outside linebackers stay close to the line of scrimmage to provide support and watch any of the intermediate routes, or to make sure that the run gets closed up. Defensive tackles are crucial to plug up the inside and blowing up the offensive line and the run game, and defensive ends need to get pressure off the edge. Cornerbacks are important to provide strong one-on-one coverage by jamming their receivers, but also to provide the outside run defense and make sure tailbacks don't get the outside.
Monte Kiffin is supposedly a wizard on defense. But Paragon of Conquest Chronicles is very much down on him through five weeks.
Finally, it is time for Monte Kiffin to hang it up. Blasphemy to some I know, but after six games this defense isn't getting any better. I know the Tampa 2 takes a little time to learn but I am now beginning to think that message just isn't getting through. The lack of tackling is frustrating but that is a different problem than what we are seeing right now. Players are still missing assignments and look lost out there...that tells me that the message is either not getting through or is simply garbled. Has Monte lost his edge? The guy is in his 70's and has forgotten more about football than any 20 people combined, but if the message isn't simplified let alone not getting through I don't care how great you were/are. Its almost like he is missing things...small pieces to the puzzle that could make this all come together.
I wouldn't be so harsh; this USC defense is a pale shadow of its former glory. Some talent remains, but this unit screams like Cal 2009 to me. Too many holes to plug up and too many offenses will pick on them all year. I hope we can be one of them.
Cal offensive line vs. USC front seven
USC injury report: Linebackers Shane Horton and Malcolm Smith and defensive end Wes Horton haven't practiced this week and are questionable. Defensive end Nick Perry has played hurt all season and should play. Chris Galippo (generally a middle linebacker but was displaced by Devon Kennard) has taken reps on the weakside (where Smith starts), and S. Horton is expected to give it a go on the strong side, with Kennard lining up the middle.
Cal injury report: Center Chris Guarnero didn't play versus UCLA, but is slated to start against the Trojans, although he'll probably mix snaps with Dominic Galas.
The clear strength of the Trojans was supposed to be their front line, but they've hardly been overpowering. The lone bright spot of the defense has been Jurrell Casey, who's already racked up 32 tackles and 2 sacks, very impressive numbers for an interior linemen. Dominic Galas had an impressive start versus UCLA, but I can understand why Tedford would want Guarnero back in there to deal with the uber-talented Casey. Expect copious double-teams on Casey with Justin Cheadle joining in the action while the Bears try to exploit the vulnerable outside edges.
But problems could emerge for the Trojan pass rush if Horton can't go. Mitchell Schwartz on the left side will have to deal with either Horton (if he recovers from injury) or Armstead (to replace Horton, and someone else would slide in--Hebron Fangupo or DaJohn Harris--to play DT). Although quite an imposing figure, Armstead was originally a defensive tackle and doesn't seem to be a huge pass rushing threat and should be easier to deal with Griffin. Horton leads the team in sacks and could present a real challenge for Schwartz, so we'll have to see who goes on gameday. That leaves Donovan Edwards and Matt Summers-Gavin to go at Perry. Both will be trusted to deal with a lot of one-on-one battles in pass protection, because neither of these Trojans have generated that much pressure on the edge.
I'll be more blunt about the USC linebackers: They haven't performed well. It starts at the middle linebacker (Mike) position, the cornerstone of the Tampa 2. Devon Kennard converted from defensive end to strongside linebacker last year, and then moved to middle linebacker this season. This essentially means Kennard is playing a virtual safety role. The results are predictable--he's been getting picked on a lot the past month. Honestly I thought Galippo looked like a decent Mike linebacker last year and Kennard was suited well at the strongside, but Monte knows best, right?
Morgan is alright. He's pretty much the next hard hitter along the lines of Rey Maulauga, although not quite as talented. He can act dumb though. Paragon again.
As much as I liked to see Morgan flying around the field he made some bone head plays as well. Morgan gives us some play making scenarios even if he makes a bone head play here and there.
The wild-card is Galippo, who will probably start with Smith out.
"Regardless of if (I can play it), I am," said Galippo, who's a middle linebacker. "At the end of the day, playing linebacker is playing linebacker." Smith sprained his knee and is unlikely to play against Cal. His replacement last weekend, Shane Horton, is limited because of an injury. "You've got to work on covering wide receivers," Galippo said. "It's a completely different kind of leverage you need to play it."
"Regardless of if (I can play it), I am," said Galippo, who's a middle linebacker. "At the end of the day, playing linebacker is playing linebacker."
Smith sprained his knee and is unlikely to play against Cal. His replacement last weekend, Shane Horton, is limited because of an injury.
"You've got to work on covering wide receivers," Galippo said. "It's a completely different kind of leverage you need to play it."
So you have Galippo on the weakside, Kennard in the middle, and Morgan on the strongside. Maulauga/Matthews/Cushing they're not (not that anyone is, or ever will be).
USC 2010 looks a lot like Cal 2009--a team with strong linemen up front being let down by the second level of support. But even Cal's 2009 D-linemen were stronger than what USC's front four have shown so far this season.
Cal pass attack vs. USC secondary
The talented Shareece Wright draws Marvin Jones for sure, making you think freshman Nickell Robey draws freshman Keenan Allen. It'll be Allen's best shot at breaking through in weeks after seeing experienced secondaries versus UCLA and Arizona keep him at bay. It'll be interesting how many times Andy Ludwig throws out three/four wide receiver sets given the lack of USC cornerback depth.
What Anthony Miller does down the middle against Kennard will be totally up to how good Kennard's reads are. T.J. McDonald seems like a real playmaker at safety. Jawanza Starling seems like a placeholder until the Trojans can find someone ready to step into the position.
Remember all that huballoo about Keenan Allen possibly playing both ways this summer at wide receiver and safety? Well, it looks like he might be outdone by a fellow freshman phenom. Robert Woods has been taking reps at cornerback.
"They only gave me one task this week: to play my man and get the ball," Woods said.
Now that USC has tested Woods as a player who can work on both sides of the ball, the only question that remains is whether or not he will be used defensively against Cal.
Well now. Woods probably has the athletic talent to play man coverage, especially on a third receiver when Cal goes to their empty set formations.
How to best attack the Tampa 2?
Outside runs with strong receiver blocking. The interesting thing about Cal is they have a very capable set of blocking receivers in Marvin Jones, Keenan Allen and Michael Calvin. Could we see sweeps, tosses, and other sorts of off-tackle runs to Shane Vereen and Isi Sofele to try and attack the outside edge? If they can block out their cornerbacks and put their bodies between the corner and the sideline, that'll open up huge running lanes.
Utilizing the slot receiver and fast tight end. Generally the linebackers are not going to cover the underneath routes with the middle linebacker dropping deep into coverage, so you could see ins or slants being run as well trying to exploit the holes in the zone. Additionally, the seams should be ripe for exploitation.
Unfortunately Anthony Miller has looked slow so far this season; I'd be happy to get any contributions this week. I also don't know how much Riley trusts Jeremy Ross and Alex Lagemann taking it inside. We have run Jones in the slot a bit, so we might see him go inside for a few plays to get drives going. Knowing Andy Ludwig, we can probably expect a lot of empty set to try and exploit the weakness at cornerback and stretch USC's pass defense depth to its limit and get the slots their touches. This is pretty much how Andrew Luck and Jake Locker picked apart the Trojan defense the past two weeks as they checked toward the hashmarks.
Flood the deep zones. Show off Kevin Riley's deep ball. Roll him out and put three guys on straight vertical routes deep. Let him throw it up for grabs against what should be only safety coverage with retreating cornerback help. Either the coverage will bite on the deep receiver and there'll be at least one intermediate option wide open, or they'll stay to cover everyone and you'll have a one-on-one matchup with a big receiver against a safety.
More background on the Tampa 2
Bucs Nation (the SB Nation blog who covers the team that made the Tampa 2 famous) has the must-read on the Tampa 2. Revenge of the Birds (Arizona Cardinals SBN site) also has an excellent primer, as does Windy City Gridiron (Chicago Bears)
Shaking the Southland (Clemson SB Nation blog) had an excellent Cover 2 post on defensive strategies for the scheme.
Smart Football had a brief primer on attacking passing coverages, including Cover 2/Cover 3, the closest variants to the Tampa 2. Also a nice story on Monte's struggles adapating to the college game and the lack of time required to install the scheme.
Jake Locker's final drive against USC's defense, Andrew Luck's highlights against USC's defense, Hawaii passing attack highlights.