For the first time in the Jeff Tedford era, the Cal defense will have a little spice added to it.. Clancy Pendergast arrives to upgrade a defense that has vacillated from very good to very bad over the past decade, bringing with him a new array of looks and moves that have many fans excited over the possibilities.
Probably most important for Cal fans is how it differs greatly from Bob Gregory, who relied heavily on discipline and making sure people stuck to their assignments. His schemes mirrored that of Pete Carroll’s USC defenses, which focused heavily on stopping the run to force opposing quarterbacks to beat them. Unlike Carroll though, Gregory only rarely had the personnel to match up and stop the best Pac-10 offenses. It was a slow death rather than a quick one, and depended a lot on how well the offense performed in achieving the final outcome.
So what will be the main differences between Gregory and Pendergast? I refer you to the three Ps.
The overall issue with Gregory’s defenses was that they entirely relied on personnel--if the players were good, he looked like a genius (as in 2004 and in 2008); if they weren’t, his units looked foolhardy (as in 2006, 2007 and in 2009). Cal fans were flipping the coin and hoping it turned up heads.
Pendergast’s defense won’t depend as much on personnel as Gregory’s (although don’t all defenses require some basic looks in personnel?). However, scheme will play a much more predominant factor with the base 3-4 and 4-3 under sets he likes to run, and could provide a major obstacle for Pac-10 offenses not sure what to expect next season. There are a lot of new wrinkles, and it should present a challenge to the best of the conference’s offensive coordinators.
However, they weren’t predictable because they were the same plays (if you watched closely, Gregory would generally try and add new wrinkles to every play). They were predictable because they followed a pattern on passing defense--read the quarterback’s eyes and make a play on the ball. They followed a similar philosophy--stop the run at all costs. Unfortunately, our lesser skilled corners and linebackers often took that strategy too literally and lost track of their receivers, especially on the intermediate routes. And often guys overcommitted to the run and left open massive running lanes for running backs to cut through and dash unencumbered to the end zone.
Several big thoughts seemed to emerge from last year’s pass defense debacle:
1) The screens would generally be there because Cal played so strongly to stop the run, and there were plenty of times when the Bears were caught looking run on the bubble screens when they should have been looking to the outside. Gregory’s insistence on playing run put a lot of pressure on the outside corners to make tackles--aside from Squid, in 2009 they were horribly out of form.
2) Quarterbacks knew which parts of the field would generally be covered by Gregory’s zone coverage: I’d say at least 60 to 70% of an opposition’s successful throws came from going over the middle to the tight end or slot receiver, as well as to the flats on a receiver on a fade, comeback or out route. Additionally they’d pump-fake or play action to make an overanxious secondary bite. When a quarterback showed he could throw to those areas, they’d eventually start airing it out even more as safeties overcommitted inside and left wide receivers open down the sideline.
3) Experienced quarterbacks facing Gregory’s defense for a second time (Masoli and Canfield in particular) surveyed the field and checked multiple options before finding the designated target. It was first truly exposed when Adam Weber pump-faked out Darian Hagan and even Syd’Quan a few times in Minneapolis. Masoli took it to disastrous levels and other Pac-10 quarterbacks did their best to pile on.
4) No strong pass rusher to rush the quarterback. In a zone defense scheme, especially in a 3-4, blitzing is usually a solid scheme, but Cal’s ability to find a pass rushing linebacker (like, say, Devon Kennard) has been frustratingly tough until the 2010 class (And our outside linebackers from there have either transferred or are greyshirting. The fun never ends). The inability to rush the passer with any linebacking support turned the 3-4 into a shadow of its 2008 majesty. Linebackers backed up early and often on passing downs and prayed that Alualu, Jordan or Hill would get loose and force the quarterback to stop standing in the pocket and surveying the landscape before committing to a receiver.
Zack Follett’s 2008 campaign (10.5 sacks) equalled the entire linebacking sack production of 2009 (10.5 sacks). Our linebacking replacements just weren’t strong enough to replace Follett, Felder and Williams, and it’s not clear if they’re strong enough this season.
Experienced quarterbacks like Sean Canfield and Jake Locker ate this up, and even "God knows how good they are at anything but running a spread offense" quarterbacks like Jeremiah Masoli and Jordan "Barely Legal" Wynn managed to exploit this coverage.
Thanks to those methods of exploiting Gregory’s pass schemes, weak corner play and shoddy tackling (and a lot of the time those issues blended into each other), the results were lamentable. Five opposing quarterbacks completed over 70 percent of their passes (Masoli was 21 for 25). Knowing that stat, it’s no surprise that the pass defense plunged back down to 105th in completion percentage in 2009 after being 4th in the country in 2008 . Seven quarterbacks completed over 8 yards per attempt, an atrocious number (and the Bears dropped from 10th to 86th in yards allowed per passing attempt).
Pendergast will definitely bring a new flavor to a unit that hasn’t seen a lot of it lately. Schemes will be more variable as Cal should see plenty of 3-4 and 4-3 action (although the base defense remains 3-4). The blitz looks will come from everywhere. There will be a slight degree of unpredictability in facing a Golden Bear defense for the first time since...well, the Hit Squad days.
Could all these new plays be too much for our defense to decipher in its first season under the new DC? Possibly. But at least it provides something new for our defenders to express exuberance in (and all indications from spring and summer practice is high enthusiasm for this new approach).
Ugh. I hate this word. I hate even bringing it up because I’m not even sure what it means in terms of football strategy. It seems like more of something fans feel about their team when they’re getting wrecked.
Still, it feels like the right way to describe Gregory’s 2009 campaign...although not in the way you might think.
I’m not going to say the drop eight and rush three is a passive approach, because it’s not--when your linebackers lack the ability to pressure the quarterback, you have to do the next best thing and put guys into coverage to try and clamp the pass. No, it’s the passive way at which Gregory made his defense approach about things last season that really annoyed me and almost everyone else who cares about this team (and then their subsequent overreactions to their passivity). The defense was constantly stuck in reaction mode, not really covering areas as much as points, being caught behind the play when they should've been acting immediately at the snap.
Additionally, in a 3-4, if you’re not going to sustain a pass rush, you have to play aggressive elsewhere. Corners have to jam the recevers at the line of scrimmage and force them off their routes--there definitely wasn’t much of that last year. You have to bring linebackers or a safety up to make sure the running back doesn’t bust through the hole and have a clear lane to a huge gain--but often guys would overplay and run themselves out of the play, giving the running backs a clear lane to the end zone itself.
Finally, inexperienced players tend to think that sticking to a zone means staying in one place when really it requires more lateral motion and movement to cross up the quarterback and make him think twice about making the throw. Instead gaps between receiver and defender were wide in 2009, leading to routine catches over the middle on many a game.
Perhaps players weren’t as talented this season as we thought they were. But it still doesn’t excuse everyone taking bad angles and making bad form with them. Everyone was a little too rigid in Gregory’s schemes when they first started out and good OCs were able to exploit that.
Pendergast’s schemes claim aggression through multiple blitz looks (more on that later), giving plenty of players equal pass and rush responsibilities, and just promising more variety on the defensive side. There are definitely cons to this look--a quarterback with good protection can torch a defense that sends extra players. The run will definitely be more vulnerable, although it wasn’t as if Gregory’s defense didn’t overplay last season in letting runners go for more than a hundred yards. And more aggression doesn’t mean a better defense by default, although it should probably guarantee defenders are more passionate in their responsibilities.
But most importantly, it won’t be Bob Gregory’s defense, and for a lot of Golden Bears, that’s a good enough start.