Clancy Pendergast – The “5-2” Defensive Front

It has definitely been a long offseason, and a lot has been going on.  I think that the biggest developments during the offseason are the ongoing quarterback battle and the coaching changes.  The most notable coaching change is the passing of the torch from Monte Kiffin to Clancy Pendergast at Defensive Coordinator.

This post will be the first in a three or four part series analyzing the differences we can expect from Clancy Pendergast.  We will take a high level look at what Pendergast’s “5-2” defensive front encompasses, some overall differences that you will see between the “Monte” defense and the “Pendergast” defense, and the frequency that Pendergast is in this defensive front.  In the next few posts, we will look at the secondary alignment and the defensive calls made by Pendergast.

The “5-2” Defensive Front

The buzz word around the media and campus is the “5-2” defense that Pendergast is bringing to USC.  So what is the “5-2” defensive front?

A defensive front is the combination of defensive linemen and linebackers that a defense utilizes as well as their alignment.  Typically, when they name a defensive front, the first number refers to the number of linemen and the second refers to the number of linebackers (ex: “4-3” means four defensive linemen and three linebackers).  On the surface, a football fan may think that the “5-2” defense means five defensive linemen and two linebackers.  However, this is not quite correct in terms of what we will see with USC this season.  The defense does share similarities to the older “5-2 Oklahoma” defense played back in the day, which is why I suspect they like to call it the “5-2.”  However, in modern terms, Clancy Pendergast’s “5-2” defense actually shows much more resemblance to what is known as a “3-4 Under.”  Three defensive linemen with four linebackers.

This is not to be confused with a standard “3-4” defense, which is why I suspect Pendergast decided to call this defense a “5-2.”  Despite its name similarity, the “3-4” is inherently different in a number of ways from the “3-4 Under.”

A standard “3-4” defense has the defenders aligned head to head against a corresponding offensive linemen.  The nose tackle is matched up against the center, the defensive ends against the tackles, and the inside linebackers against the guards.

A typical 3-4 defense.

This means the players use “two-gap” coverage, where defenders are responsible for two gaps and will read what the offense does and react to fill the required gap, either to the left or to the right.  The defensive linemen in this system are typically bigger and can command double team blocks, opening up the linebackers to make the tackles.

Gap responsibilities in a 3-4 defense.

On the flip side, the “3-4 Under” defense has the defensive linemen offset so that they are no longer heads up against an offensive linemean.  Instead, they are shaded so that they are in a gap.  The outside linebackers, “Sam” and “Jack,” are also brought down onto the line of scrimmage to protect the perimeter.

A typical 3-4 Under defense.

Aligning the defensive linemen in the gaps allows for “single gap” coverage, meaning each defender is responsible to control only one gap.  This means that the players are free to play a little more aggressively right at the snap of the ball since they are not reading and reacting to the offense.

Gap responsibilities in a 3-4 Under defense.

Here is a look at the “5-2” defense you can expect to see from both the side angle and the front angle.  You can get a better perspective on how each player is aligned and their respective gaps.

A view from the side and back of USC's defense on the same play at the 2013 Trojan Huddle

A view from the side and front of USC’s defense on the same play during the 2013 Trojan Huddle. Click on the picture for a larger image.

Differences with Monte’s Defensive Front

Monte Kiffin preferred the “4-3 Under” defense.  It is very similar to the “3-4 Under” in terms of responsibilities.  Like the “3-4 Under,” linemen are shaded in the gaps between their offensive counterparts and utilize single gap responsibility.  Since they are both “Under” fronts, the defensives are shaded towards the strong side.

A typical 4-3 Under with gap responsibilities.

Compared to to the “4-3 Under,” USC will give up some size on the weak side in the switch to the “5-2.”  This lack of size will be made up for in speed.  This is because the “4-3 Under” has a two defensive linemen and a linebacker on the weak side while the “3-4 Under” has one defensive linemen and two linebackers.  Overall, this might be a good tradeoff based on how many spread offenses are now within the Pac-12.

[Update: As suggested to me via forum poster WhoAteOurMonkey, trading size for speed on the weak side may not be completely correct based on how the starting personnel turns out.  Monte Kiffin liked larger defensive tackles with smaller defensive ends backed by smaller but quicker linebackers.  This year seems to be shaping up by adding another large body up front and moving the pass rushers like Morgan Breslin to the outside edge spot and shifting the rangier linebackers to the defensive secondary.  This is something I hadn’t considered at the time of writing.  Food for thought and something to consider.  As always, I value any feedback and discussion.]

The “5-2” also gives a little bit more flexibility to stretch your linebackers to either perimeter when facing four or five receiver sets since there are linebackers on the outside edge of both sides.  In addition, the “5-2” has a little bit more potential for misdirection as you can switch around which linebacker will pass rush without losing much in terms of pass coverage ability.

Frequency of Calls

I went ahead and rewatched the 2010, 2011, and 2012 USC vs Cal games as well as this past Trojan Huddle Spring game to gather some numbers on how often Pendergast lines up in his “5-2” defensive front.  Keep in mind that these statistics that I gathered may be skewed from what we will see in the upcoming season because all these games are against USC’s pro-style offense.

So what do we find?

I noted that Clancy Pendergast was in the “5-2” in 185 plays out of the 275 defensive plays that I tracked.  This comes to 67% of plays being in this defensive front.  The remainder of the defensive front calls were mostly filled with Nickel (28% of plays) followed by Dime (1.5% of plays), 4-3 (0.7% of plays), and other (2% of plays).

The distribution of play calls with each type of defensive front

The distribution of play calls with each type of defensive front.

It is notable that the Nickel defensive calls are a bit different than what Monte Kiffin did in previous seasons.  When Monte goes into Nickel defense, he typically removes a linebacker and replaces him with a nickelback (aka, a third cornerback).  This creates something like a “4-2” defensive front.  However, Pendergast would either trade out one of the linebackers for a nickelback, creating more of a “3-3” look, or he would trade out a defensive linemen, creating a “2-4” look.  From the games I watched, Pendergast traded out a linebacker 19% of the time when in Nickel and traded out a defensive linemen 81% of the time.  Since the Nickel is typically used for passing situations, you don’t necessarily need your big linemen as anchors to stop the run, and instead can rely on speedy linebackers to get to the Quarterback.

The “other” front I noted which were used by Pendergast was the “Psycho” front.  The “Psycho” front is a defense which is predicated in confusing the opposing offense.  The defense may have two, one, or no down linemen.

Pendergast calls a Psycho front against USC in 2012.

Pendergast calls a Psycho front against USC in 2012.

The “Psycho” front gives the offense no indication if there will be a heavy blitz or soft coverage, and can utilize a lot of motion pre-snap to confuse the offense.  Read more about the “Psycho” on Smart Football.


In and of itself, the switch from the “4-3 Under” to the “5-2” is not a huge change.  Size is traded for speed on the weak side, can stretch to the perimeter a little easier, and has some additional potential for misdirection in terms of pass pressure.  We’ll go more into coverage types and play calling in the final post in this series.

Our next post will take a look at the secondary alignment such as press vs. loose coverage.  It will also include a deeper statistical look at how successful Pendergast’s calls were while in various secondary configurations.


One response to “Clancy Pendergast – The “5-2” Defensive Front

  1. Pingback: Clancy Pendergast – Secondary Alignment | Trojan Football Statistics

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