Being a defensive coordinator is not easy. The job gets harder when defending an efficient and talented offense coordinated by a coach who has true mastery over his system (not always a given). Such a coach intuitively knows the best responses within that system to whatever the defense sends his way. Such is the challenge with defending UCLA and coordinator Noel Mazzone.
The building blocks for any sustained offensive success are routine plays that are executed consistently. These plays may not make the highlight reels, but the ability to control the ball and move the chains is what gives those offenses the opportunities to make big plays. It doesn't matter if it is split back veer or the Bear Raid; consistency is what counts.
Mazzone's snag concept is one of the best in the game at achieving such consistency. The concept is simple, hard to defend, and easy for the quarterback to read.
Essentially, the snag puts the outside linebacker in conflict (as spread offenses so often do), forcing him to either defend the snag route (a route run at a 45 degree towards the middle of the field by the outside receiver, who stops at five yards and looks for the ball) or the swing route by the running back. The number two receiver (second man from the outside) runs a vertical route (usually a corner), which is difficult for the safety to defend if the cornerback gets involved on either the snag or the swing route. The middle linebacker, who (in many defenses) opens towards the number three receiver (the running back), has a long way to run to get involved with the play, especially if it is run to the wide side of the field. The play is not only effective because the quarterback is given easy passing targets, but because forcing the linebackers to vacate the box so often helps the Bruins to establish their prolific run game.
The play is also great to call against a blitz, thus discouraging defensive coordinators from bringing pressure, as blitzes will often only serve to remove defensive pursuit once the ball is caught (as is the case on the play at hand). Fans love to see blitzes, but, unfortunately for defensive coordinators, a master offensive coordinator such as Mazzone loves to see them just as much. There is a reason why Mazzone and head coach Jim Mora are 29-11 since taking over a program that had enjoyed only one winning season out of the previous five before their arrival.
In the screenshots and captions below, see the ease with which UCLA gains nine yards on first down against Cal in last year's game.
What could Cal have done better on this play? Let us start by acknowledging that this play shows why college offenses (again, taking advantage of the wide hashes) are so difficult to defend. The goal should not be to "stop" such a play by preventing the pass from being completed; preventing a swing pass from being completed necessitates aggressiveness that will lead to other openings for the offense. The goal should be to play consistent, fundamentally sound defense.
On this play, it would have helped if Cal was not blitzing. In a base defense (at least in many variations), the middle linebacker would have opened to the number three receiver (the running back). Opening in this direction would set him on the path to defending the "new" number three receiver (the snag, which becomes the third receiver as the inside route runners break to the outside). The middle linebacker is ready to cover this route. This is a tough play and requires speed, but the middle linebacker is at least in position to make a play on the ball once it is in the air or to make a tackle for a moderate gain if it is completed.
The outside linebacker (again, generalizing defenses) should attempt to impact the number two receiver (who runs the corner route), before seeing if anything takes him to the flat. In this case, the number three receiver (the running back) does take him to the flat. The outside linebacker would position himself to defend this flat pattern. Not necessarily to stop the pass from being completed, but to be able to react to the ball, as well as being able to react back to a pass thrown to the snag route.
There are two reasonable victories for Cal against such a play. Number one is that Hundley chooses the snag route, and the middle linebacker and outside linebacker either converge to break up the play, or at least make the tackle immediately (not ideal as it is still a nice first down gain, but also better than nine yards). Number two is that Hundley throws to his swing route, the outside linebacker squeezes the play inside, and the middle linebacker meets him in pursuit. The two players converge for a tackle and a zero to two yard gain. This was possible on the above play, if the middle linebacker hadn't been blitzing. Being in such position also allows the defense to capitalize on any off target throws or other mistakes, which even the best quarterbacks will make from time to time.
Cover two or pressed corner alignments would be superior to defending the underneath routes. Of course, using such defenses means fewer defenders against vertical patterns (the corner route on this particular play), and Mazzone has answers for such defenses. Every defense has a weakness; a defensive coordinator must pick his poison, especially against a coordinator like Mazzone.
Giving up zero to two yards should be considered a major victory on the play. Three to five yards is not bad. Second and five is not ideal, but the defense then tries to accomplish the same goal on the next play. With fundamentals, over the course of a drive, maybe you win on second down. Now it is third and five and you have a decent chance to get off the field. Over the course of a game, putting yourself in position to win these plays and limiting the number of plays that go for more than five yards (and, of course, true explosive plays) will give the team a chance to win the game. Not necessarily for the defense to have a great statistical game or to only give up a touchdown or two. But enough to get a few key stops and give Cal's offense a chance to win. This approach is not "old school bravado," but it is the reality of facing such efficiency...and it allows players to play fast and confident, which can, in fact, lead to great statistical games.
The attitude going into a game against an efficient, explosive spread offense should be to make them earn everything they get. The attitude is to beat blocks, win one on one battles, out hustle and out hit the offense, and make tackles in space. If the offense makes a mistake, the defense needs to be in position to pounce on it. As those of us who watched the game last year remember, Cal did a good job of capitalizing on mistakes, and it put them in position to win the game.
The good news for Cal is that a second year in the same defensive system can do wonders for the players' ability to "play without thinking," which leads to faster defense and better fundamentals. Of course, major question marks and depth issues abound in Cal's defensive backfield, and improvement cannot be projected until those issues are proven to be resolved. UCLA's quarterback will not have the game experience that Hundley had, but UCLA is loaded with skill players, and Mazzone's mastery of his system enhances a new quarterback's ability to perform well early.
Keegan Dresow is the head coach of the Avedøre Monarchs of the Danish American Football Federation, the author of Offensive Football Systems, and the operator of totalamericanfootball.com.