I believe there is a misunderstanding by the casual fan when it comes to defensive play calling. For instance, when Monte Kiffin was the Defensive Coordinator, he was associated with his “Tampa 2” defense. A lot of people seem to think that this means that this was the defense that USC played all the time (or at least a good portion of the time). In the 590 defensive plays I tracked in the first eight games last season, I only counted 33 instances of the Tampa 2. This means that Monte Kiffin only called the Tampa 2 around 5.6% of the time.
Defensive coordinators definitely have their styles and tendencies. However, the general rule of thumb is that a defense must be unpredictable and confusing to be successful. If the offense knows what is coming (or likely to come), they can exploit it and blow your defense apart.
What are Clancy Pendergast’s tendencies? How do they differ with Monte Kiffin? We will explore Pendergast’s play calling in this post by looking at how often Pendergast calls blitzes, man versus zone, and specific coverages that were called.
Send in the Blitz
The blitz is about as exciting as it gets for defensive play calling. Many fans constantly want their defensive coordinators to call more blitzes. Blitzes can be very effective in disrupting the timing of a play, stopping the run, sacking the quarterback, or applying pressure to force a bad pass. However, blitzes leave you vulnerable wherever the extra pressure originates from and you can easily be burned deep if the blitz is picked up properly. Done too much and the offense can punish your aggressiveness with plays such as screens or draws.
I suspect USC fans will be happy to see Pendergast’s “get at the quarterback” philosophy, which includes plenty of blitzes. This is in stark contrast to how Monte Kiffin played last season. Last season had Monte Kiffin blitzing on 22% of plays. In contrast, Pendergast blitzed 40% of the time, which is nearly twice as often. Definitely a “get at the quarterback” mentality.
Time for a caveat and important note. Pendergast’s philosphy prioritizes stopping the run. Doing so helps force the opponent into long situations which can make them one dimensional. It is a philosophy that many defensive coordinators have. However, Pendergast is particularly aggressive about it. When the linebackers read a run, Pendergast will have his interior linebackers attacking the line of scrimmage. On play action, the linebackers then retreat back into their pass coverage. I saw this much more when watching Pendergast’s defense than I did when watching Monte Kiffin’s defense.
The benefits of this is that your linebackers are attacking the running lanes hard on running plays. It also makes it harder to read true blitzes. The downside is that it leaves you very vulnerable to play action where your linebackers will be out of position. The interior of the defense will be vulnerable for attack.
The reason I point this out is that it likely skews the “blitz” numbers I gathered. On a true running play, it might be indistinguishable to an outside viewer to know whether a blitz was actually called or if the linebackers would have dropped into pass coverage on play action. While it doesn’t detract from Pendergast’s aggressiveness, keep this concept in mind and take the blitz numbers presented with a grain of salt.
Here are some links to video from the last Trojan Huddle spring game which show this concept on play action plays. You just need to watch the first play in each video. I unfortunately did not have time to recapture these individual plays and compile them into a single video.
Anyways, let’s break the blitz down some more based on the number of additional pass rushers that are sent. I had three different categories for blitzes: +1 (five players rushing), +2 (six players rushing), and 3+ (seven or more rushers). The chart below shows a breakdown based on these categories. The percentage of total plays for each call is shown in cardinal and the percentage between only blitz plays is shown in gold.
Pendergast very much prefers his +1 blitz, with him sending the extra pass rusher about one every four plays. The +2 blitz came about one every 10 plays and the 3+ blitz came one every 20 plays (usually reserved for short yardage situations).
Not only does Pendergast call more blitzes than Monte Kiffin, but he also calls more aggressive blitzes. When a blitz was called last season, it was a +1 blitz 77% of the time compared to 65% of the time for Pendergast.
Now let us look at blitz calls by down.
As can be seen here, Pendergast is more likely to blitz on first down. There is a decent drop in blitzes going into second and third downs. Fourth downs show heavy blitzes, likely due to short yardage situations.
Man vs Zone
Now let us take a look at how often Pendergast calls man versus zone. Both man and zone have their inherent strengths and weaknesses. Man is schematically simpler to execute as each player has assigned responsibilities and sticks to them. However, it can leave your players with their backs to the play, making it harder for them to react to running plays or make a play on the ball. Zone allows the defense to dictate where the strong and weak spots are on the field and allow your players to read the quarterback for cues. However, opposing receivers can find and sit in the empty areas of your zone. Zones can also be overloaded, leaving defenders outnumbered.
Let us take a look at how the man vs zone breaks down between Clancy Pendergast and Monte Kiffin.
As you can see here, Pendergast plays a decent amount more man coverage than Kiffin did last season.
Now let us take a look at how Pendergast calls man or zone based on down.
Taking a look at this view, Pendergast is more likely to play man coverage on early downs. There is a significant drop going into second and third down. This generally follows the trend shown when we look at blitzing based on down.
Now let us look at specific coverage calls. Each kind of coverage has different strengths and weaknesses, which we will take a brief look at. First, let us look at the overall breakdown.
The coverage type which was called the most was Cover 1 Man, which has a single high safety with man coverage on all other receivers. Additional defenders can be utilized to blitz, double team, or play a shallow zone. Cover 2 Man was the next most frequently called defensive play. This play has two high safeties and man coverage on the other players. This is a pretty standard defensive call as it allows for the receivers to be double teamed by a corner/safety pair if they go deep. This additional help over the top opens up for more opportunity to jam the receivers on the line.
For zone plays, Cover 3 and Cover 2 are the most often called. In Cover 3, your cornerbacks retreat and join a safety to cover deep thirds of the field. Cover 3 gives good run/pass balance and is better utilized if your defensive front is strong enough to handle the run without additional support. However, it can be vulnerable to the short passing game and four verticals.
Cover 2 has two deep zones covered by the safeties and all other players defending short zones. It allows for your cornerbacks to jam their receivers and also has good run support. However, Cover 2 is vulnerable to the deep zones being overloaded and also has an inherent weakness on the perimeter as you pass from the cornerback’s zone into the safety’s deep zone. It also places a lot of pressure on your safeties to cover a lot of field.
Cover 4 has your cornerbacks and safeties all defending a deep quarter of the field. This leaves the linebackers to defend the short zones. This defensive call is strong against the deep pass, particularly four verticals, but leaves the short zones and running game vulnerable. This play is typically called on later downs in long yardage situations.
Here is a very good and in depth article from SmartFootball which looks at a lot of these coverage types (plus more that I didn’t track). There is good analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each coverage.
Pendergast definitely plays a lot more aggressively than Monte Kiffin. Expect more blitzes, more man coverage, and more press. Expect our defense to attack the run and pressure the quarterback. Done correctly, this can help force the opposing offense to become one dimensional, force passes, and hopefully lead to turnovers. Pendergast’s schemes should be simplified compared to the NFL schemes of Monte Kiffin, which should our allow our players to simply play. We’ll have to see how well our defensive players can execute, but I have high hopes for our defense this season.