Our last post looked at the “5-2” defensive front employed by Clancy Pendergast. The defensive front concentrates on the number of players in the box, essentially there to stop the run. This post will concentrate on pass coverage and the secondary. We will start by looking at the secondary’s alignment, first with the cornerbacks and then the safeties. We will then look at some statistics into the success rate of various defensive calls by Pendergast.
Cornerback Alignment – Press vs Loose Coverage
A cornerback can vary their depth alignment against the offensive player that they are defending. [Note: they can also shade inside or outside to vary the strength against certain routes, but I didn’t think to track that so it will not be discussed statistically here]. Varying the depth allows for different coverage advantages as well as disadvantages.
Press coverage, which I defined as being within three yards of the opposing player, allows for tight coverage of the player, can take away short routes, and allows the defender to create contact at the start of the play to disrupt timing and reroute the opposing player. Jamming the receiver at the line can give more time for the pass rush to get to the quarterback and also for linebackers/safeties to get back into their zones if they misread on play action.
On the flip side, aligning so close to the receiver means that the defender must have quicker reactions to not get faked out by double moves, which also means that they must have good footwork and hip motions to keep up with receivers (although defenders in press coverage can get their hands on the receivers and attempt to simply mirror the hips). Playing press also potentially opens up the deeper routes as there isn’t as much cushion. Either safety support is given for the deeper routes or the cornerback uses inside leverage to try to utilize the sidelines as an “extra defender.”
Loose coverage, which I defined as being seven or more yards off from the opposing player, gives extra cushion to help defend the deep pass and also helps mitigate double moves or slower developing routes, since there is generally more time to react. Being off the line allows for the cornerback to do a “flat-foot read,” which you can read a good explanation of here. Please note from the article that loose coverage is the hardest thing for any defender to do properly.
A Look at the Press vs Loose Numbers
Let us take a look at some of the numbers that I have gathered for Clancy Pendergast. These numbers were gathered from the 2010, 2011, and 2012 USC vs Cal games as well as the 2013 USC Trojan Huddle Spring game. For comparison, I also gathered statistics from the first eight games from last season, so we can compare Pendergast’s style to Monte Kiffin.
First, let us look at press coverage. I chose three different categories for plays: at least one player in press, at least half players in press, and all players in press. Note that the groupings are subsets of each other (ex: a play with “all players in press” is also counted as “half or more in press”).
The chart below shows the percentage of total plays that utilized each category of coverage. Clancy Pendergast is shown in gold and Monte Kiffin is shown in Cardinal.
Pendergast played more press coverage overall, which isn’t too surprising. Also note the significant gap in the “half or more players in press” category.
Now let us look at loose coverage.
Pendergast also (surprisingly) played more loose coverage. Again, there is a significant gap in the “half or more players in loose coverage” category. The higher number of players in loose coverage by Pendergast may have to do with the aggressive responsibilities of the linebackers, which we will discuss more in the next post.
Let us break down Pendergast’s tendencies some more. The chart below is broken up by down. It shows the percentage of plays in which at least one receiver was covered in press (green), at least half in press (blue), and all in press (red).
What this shows is that Pendergast would rather play his receivers in press on early downs compared to later downs. Pendergast would often keep at least one player in press on later downs, but would not commit to having the majority of his players in press on those downs.
Now let us look at loose coverage.
Here, you can see that Pendergast would often have a good chunk of his players in loose coverage, especially on early downs. 4th down has a spike of players in loose coverage since you only have to defend the 1st down marker.
Safeties – How Many High Safeties?
The alignment of your safeties also has an impact on how you play your defense and it is also one of the first things that an opposing quarterback will read when they get to the line of scrimmage. The quarterback will be looking for how many “high safeties” there are. There are usually one or two high safeties in a typical alignment.
In a general sense, the number of high safeties is an indication towards the number of deep zones the defense will play. The number of high safeties also determines how much support these players can provide near the line of scrimmage. Having only one high safety means that the other safety can be brought down for run support, press coverage on a slot receiver, or any number of other things.
A Look at the High Safeties Numbers
Now let us look at some statistics into how Pendergast lines up his safeties.
Pendergast typically lined up with one high safety, but would utilize two high safeties very regularly. The instances with no high safeties were usually goal line or other short yardage situations.
Now let us look at the number of high safeties by down.
There is a decent gap in which Pendergast prefers a single high safety on first and second down. This gap narrows significantly for third down, most likely due to the fact that there is less run threat on long yardage 3rd down situations.
Now let us look at how successful Pendergast is when we look at his secondary alignment. I consider a play successful for the offense if they gain 50% of the remaining yards-to-go on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and convert on 3rd or 4th down. You can look further into that analysis in this post. I considered it a successful defensive play whenever the opposing offense’s play was not successful.
The chart below looks at the success rate for press coverage (gold) and loose coverage (cardinal). It shows the progression from no players in each particular coverage type, half the players in each particular coverage type, and all players in each particular coverage type.
As seen here, success rate goes up the more players that are in press and success rate goes down the more players are in loose. This seems to agree with the article linked earlier that stated that loose coverage is one of the hardest things a defender can do. It is worthwhile to note that this does not mean that you should be playing press coverage all the time and avoiding loose coverage. Each type of coverage has its time and place.
Now for safety alignment. The chart below looks at the success rate for two high safeties (blue), one high safety (red), and no high safeties (green).
As can be seen here, there isn’t much difference in terms of success rate between one or two high safeties. The low success rate of no high safeties is likely a side effect of these being short yardage situations in which the defense is at an extreme disadvantage inherently.
Pendergast appears to play more in the extremes than Monte in terms of cornerback alignment. He plays more press coverage, but he also plays more loose coverage. It is possible that his loose cornerback alignments are due to the more aggressive nature of his linebackers rather than soft zones that Monte Kiffin liked to play. It is notable that Pendergast doesn’t have quite the same spike in loose coverage on 3rd downs that Monte Kiffin did, which is something that should make USC fans happier.
Our next post (or two depending on how complex it becomes) takes a look at the actual play calling by Pendergast. We will look into how often Pendergast calls blitzes, man vs zone, and also take a look into specific coverages.