The Blitz is a Lie

“We need to blitz more.”

This is something I hear a lot, especially after a USC loss.  Doubly so after a loss that can be attributed back to a poor defensive performance like the one we saw against Stanford on Sept. 19th.  However, in my experience, this is often a false statement.  Many fans cannot accurately diagnose a blitz in real time but instead rely on after-the-fact analysis (ex: the QB got sacked and in watching the replay it is easily recognized as a blitz which caused the pressure).  However, when a team blitzes a lot but is still unable to put consistent pressure, this often leads to many fans incorrectly clamoring for “more blitzes.”

First, let us look at some defensive numbers regarding the blitz during the USC vs Stanford game then we’ll take a look at some further analysis that may shine a better light on what happened on that long Saturday night.

The Blitz

A blitz is a high risk-high reward play.  Typically, it is defined as any play that you send one or more more non-defensive linemen in to pressure on the offense’s side of the line of scrimmage.  In the terms of a 3-4 defense (which USC employs), rushing the three defensive linemen and a single linebacker is often called a “Dog” scheme and is not considered a blitz.  Here, we’ll simplify the definition of the blitz and count it as any time USC sent five or more defenders in as rushers (many other pressure concepts such as the zone blitz, twists, and stunts are ignored here for simplicity).

I rewatched the game and tracked 72 Stanford offensive plays (I didn’t count things like spiking the ball or kneels as plays).  First, I want you to formulate a guess on how many of those plays USC sent in a blitz.  Really think about the game and your game plan observations.  Have a number ready?  Initially, my gut feeling was about 20% blitzes, so 14 or 15 plays with a blitz.

In fact, the real number that I tracked was 43 blitz plays, or 59.7% of defensive plays sending five or more defenders in for the rush.  Surprisingly high, I thought.  Let’s take a closer look.

Of the 72 Stanford offensive plays, I noted 31 passes and 41 runs (note that I counted QB scrambles, sacks, and screen plays as passing plays whereas most official stats often track these as runs for college).  Let’s look at some passing numbers first.

Blitzing the Pass

On the 31 passing plays, 12 were blitzes (38.7%).  Against the blitz, Stanford gained 10.0 yards per pass against the blitz and 9.8 yards per pass against a non-blitz.  Completion percentage wise, we’re looking at a 66.7% completion rate against the blitz (77.8% if you count the pass that hit the tight end in the hands as a “should have been completed”) versus an 85.7% completion rate against a non-blitz.  Lower completion rate against the blitz but slightly higher yards, signifying they are making more yards when completing passes against the blitz.

Now let’s look at pressure against the pass.  USC got three sacks but only one sack came from a blitz (9% of blitzing plays against the pass) and two from a non-blitz (11.8% of non-blitzing plays).  Sacks aren’t the only end goal of the pass rush though.  54.5% of blitz plays resulted in the QB being pressured versus 35.3% of non-blitz plays.  You can see this reflected in the completion percentages.  Interestingly enough, “big blitzes” (sending six or more rushers in) resulted in no plays with pressure and no sacks.

Blitzing the Run

Now let’s look at the run.  Against 41 running plays, 31 of those plays were blitzes (75.6%).  Tracking blitzes on the run is trickier since upon reading a “run”, defenders go into their run fits and start filling gaps.  Who is filling a gap and who was blitzing?  I keyed in on the first step and initial attack movements of the defender to count the blitzes.  There will be some inconsistencies with this method, namely delayed blitzes and zone blitzes may be miscounted for one reason or another, but we’ll just go with best guesses.

Against the blitz, Stanford gained 4.2 yards per carry versus 4.1 against a non-blitz.  Sending the pressure did not result in less yards by Stanford.  My initial thoughts are that USC’s linebackers were not able to penetrate the bigger Stanford offensive front on the run, regardless if they had forward momentum of the blitz or not.  More on this later though.

Successful Plays

A play is considered “successful” for the defense if they hold the offense under 50% of the yards-to-go on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd or 4th downs.  I tracked whether a defensive play was successful or not in relation to the blitz.

Over the 72 plays, USC was successful in defending 33 of them (45.8%).  When blitzing, USC was successful on 48.8% of defensive plays compared to 41.4% of non-blitzing plays.  Not a huge difference between the two margins (about a 2 play difference).  The interesting thing is how unsuccessful big blitzes were.  Big blitzes only had a success rate of 15.8%.

So What Did Happen Against Stanford?

So USC blitzed on over half of their plays.  Why were we so unsuccessful overall in stopping Stanford?  My thoughts after re-watching the game are three-fold.

First, Stanford expected us to blitz.  USC blitzed heavily in the week prior against Idaho and Stanford expected us to do the same against them.  They utilized a number of techniques to combat the blitz, most notable being the QB rollout and screen passes.  Additionally, Stanford would often times keep extra blockers (RBs and TEs) in for protection.  On average, Stanford had 5.7 blockers in on each play, keeping at least the running back for protection on 66.7% of their plays.  They kept two additional blockers in on 22.2% of their plays.  On average, Stanford had 1.3 more pass blockers than we had pass rushers.  On only 4 plays did USC have equal numbers of rushers to blockers.  Additionally, the only time we had more rushers to blockers were screen plays, which is exactly what Stanford wanted.  Against these screen plays, our rushers did not adjust properly towards the screen and we gave up big yards on key plays (10 yards on a 2nd and 15 as well as 19 yards on a 3rd and 7, both which lead to 2nd half Stanford scores).  However, keeping extra blockers in means you have less passing options as you only have three or four guys out on routes.  Which leads me to my second observation.

Stanford utilized size mismatches effectively.  I noted at least two game-pivotal plays which size mismatches played a large role in our defensive breakdown on a blitzing play.  The first on a 3rd and 9 on the USC 16 early in the 4th quarter.  Here, Stanford expected our blitz (we sent in six) and kept the RB in for protection.  They easily found the size mismatch they wanted with Safety Marvel Tell III (6′ 2″, 190 lbs) attempting to cover TE Austin Hooper (6′ 4″ 248 lbs).  Hooper just used his body to easily box out Tell.  In another notable play, USC sent in a big blitz of seven rushers, leaving one-on-one coverage.  Stanford again predicted our blitz and negated this by calling a QB rollout, causing none of our rushers to pose any sort of threat to Hogan.  Safety Chris Hawkins (5′ 11″, 190 lbs) attempted to cover Devon Cajuste (6′ 4″, 227 lbs) in the endzone.  In this case, the wingspan and size advantage got us.  By utilizing size mismatches, Stanford was able to mitigate some of the effects of having fewer receivers out on routes.

Finally, an observation defending the run.  USC’s defense was often times in the correct position and gap responsibilities for the play, but would fall short on leverage and execution.  What this means is that the USC defenders were getting to the right spots but losing their one-on-one battles consistently.  We can quantify this by looking at yards after contact.  Stanford gained an average of 4.1 yards per carry.  Not great numbers, but it was four yards like clockwork.  When you have that type of consistent four yards every rush, it leads to first downs and extended drives.  It gets more interesting when you look at yards after contact.  Stanford’s rusher made first contact with a defender at 1.6 yards on average.  That means that after contact, Stanford would gain an additional 2.5 yards per carry.  Much of this was simply the runner always falling forward.  Often times, our defenders did not have the size, the leverage, or have their blockers beat enough to stop the runner in his tracks or drive him back and could essentially only trip the rusher.  In my opinion, this was the greatest shortcoming of the defense.


Joe Paterno often said: “You’re never as good as you think you are when you win; and you’re never as bad as you feel when you lose.”  I think those words ring true here.  I’ve rewatched and analyzed a fair share of USC losses over the past few seasons.  This one hurt a lot live but on film study it definitely wasn’t one of our worst.  The issues I saw seemed fixable.

Furthermore, I think our defense is much more suited towards stopping speed rather than size.  Most of the Pac-12 has gone speed, so we won’t need another “size” gameplan of this scale this season unless we have a rematch with Stanford again in the conference championship game, something that I think is completely achievable.  There’s a reason why both ESPN’s Football Power Index and the S&P+ Rankings both still have USC in the top 10 and highest rated in the Pac-12.  Let’s move forward and prove them right.

And remember, we didn’t need to blitz more…

An Analysis of Coach Sarkisian’s Comparative Statistics at UW

I always like to look at “comparative statistics” to get a better gauge at how a team is doing.  This post will look at Coach Steve Sarkisian’s comparative stats over his years at Washington.  First, we will define what a comparative stat is.  Then, we will look at both offensive and defensive stat categories from year to year, starting in 2008 up until this season.

What is a Comparative Stat?

A lot of basic statistic comparison done in football is the pure numbers.  For instance, USC averaged 392.3 yards per game of total offense, or #79 in the nation.  It is a good basic measure of offensive capability.  However, it doesn’t take into account things such as strength of schedule.  Playing a bunch of bad teams will inherently boost your numbers, making your team look better than it actually is.  On defense, you can also run into a similar issue where playing a couple teams that primarily run the ball causes your pass defense numbers to look better than they actually are (since you are not “allowing” as many passing yards).

A comparative stat takes it a little bit further to normalize these types of situations.  When looking at comparative stats, you will look at how your team did compared to what the opponent typically allows.  For instance, USC gained 192 yards rushing against Hawaii.  Seems reasonable enough on the surface.  However, Hawaii’s rushing defense allows an average of 213.6 rushing yards per game.  This means that in comparative stats, USC had a -21.6 yard margin in rushing offense.  Put another way, USC did below average against Hawaii rushing the ball.  You can then average these numbers over a season and you start to get a better picture on how “good” or “bad” a team is in each category, normalized based on strength of schedule and other factors.

How we’ll look at Sark

What I wanted to do was look at the comparative stats for Washington over all of Coach Sarkisian’s tenure.  Much has been written and dissected about his win-loss record over this time period, but I wanted to see if he generally improved his numbers throughout the years or if they stayed stagnant (similar to his win-loss record).

In the sections below, we will look at a line chart which will depict the comparative stats margin for each category from the 2008 to 2013 seasons.  The reason I included 2008 was to show improvement in the transition from Willingham to Sarkisian. Each chart will have a trend line which shows the overall trend from 2008 to 2013.  I also color code each chart based on Offensive and Defensive Coordinators, so you can tell when notable coaching changes were made.


Coach Sark is an offensive coach, which is why I was most interested in his offensive comparative stats.  Before we jump in, I want to describe the color code for the offensive charts.  In all offensive charts,  the red segment shows the switch from Willingham at HC and Tim Lappano at OC in 2008 to Sark at HC and Doug Nussmeier at OC.  The blue segment from 2009 to 2011 is Doug Nussmeier’s time at OC before he started coaching at Alabama.  The green segment from 2012 to 2013 is the time period with Eric Kiesau as OC.  It is worthwhile to note the OC during Sark’s tenure, but remember that Sark was calling the plays as the head coach and ultimately had final say in the offensive gameplan.  It is also important to note that Sark completely revamped the UW offense in 2013 to feature a no-huddle spread offense, so keep an eye on how that changes their comparative stat margins.

First, let’s look at rushing offense.  The first chart we’ll look at is rushing offense.

Sark_Comp_Rushing_OffenseAs can be seen here, Sark took a rushing attack that was averaging nearly 32 yards below average and brought it to about average in his first year.  The trend continued improving into 2010.  The rushing attack started to decline over the next two years and fell below average again in 2012.  However, after revamping the offense, UW’s rushing attack gains almost 60 yards more per game than the opposing defense typically allows.

Now let’s look at yards per carry.

Sark_Comp_Rushing_YPCYards per play is an important statistic to look at when looking at no-huddle offenses.  This is because these teams typically get more offensive snaps than average, which leads to inflated yards.  The yards per carry numbers matches up pretty well with curve we saw in the rushing offense chart.

Now let’s look at passing offense.

Sark_Comp_Passing_OffenseIn passing offense, a large gain was made in the first year under Sark.  The second year showed a regression, but this regression was overshadowed by the gains made in the 3rd year.  However, 2012 showed a dramatic drop in passing production as the OC coaching spot was changed.  This drop was mitigated by the change up in offense in 2013.

Now let’s look at yards per attempt, yards per completion, and completion percentage.

Sark_Comp_Passing_YPASark_Comp_Passing_YPCSark_Comp_Passing_CompPercAll these charts are interlinked.  The yards per completion chart is a compilation between the yards per attempt and the completion percentage charts.  One interesting thing to note is 2010, when the completion percentage dropped quite a bit and a corresponding drop in yards per attempt, but yards per completion rose.  This could mean that UW was more aggressive in their passing attack that year, attempting deeper throws and therefore completing fewer of them.

Now let us look at total offense.


Total offense shows a very large jump in Sark’s first year where it generally stayed static before regressing in 2012 under new OC Kiesau.  However, 2013 showed a dramatic boost in offensive production with the installation of the new spread offense.

Time for yards per play on offense.

Sark_Comp_Offense_YPPYards per play shows a similar chart.  However, it is worthwhile to note here that the yards per play between 2011 and 2013 are similar, yet 2013 had many more yards per game (from the last chart).  This illustrates how a no-huddle offense will skew the numbers.

Finally, let’s look at scoring offense.

Sark_Comp_Scoring_OffenseScoring offense follows a similar peaks and valleys as the other charts.  UW’s offense was at its best in 2013, scoring almost 8 more points than the opponent typically allowed.


Now it is time to look at the defensive side of the ball.  In the defensive charts, the red segment shows the switch from Wililngham at HC and Ed Donatell at DC to Sark at HC and Nick Holt as DC.  The blue segment from 2009 to 2011 is the era with Nick Holt as DC.  Nick Holt was fired as DC after the 2011 season and Sark brought in Justin Wilcox, who is represented by the green segment in the 2012 to 2013 seasons.  It is important to note that for defensive comparative stats, more negative is better (meaning you are allowing less yards than your opponent is typically gaining).

First, we’ll look at rushing defense.


Rushing defense improved dramatically in Sark’s first year.  Still, that improvement brought UW only to about average, with only 1.6 fewer yards allowed on the ground than average.  The rushing defense progressively got worse under DC Nick Holt, and again improved once Justin Wilcox was brought in (again, only to average).  It stayed as an average rushing defense in Wilcox’s two years.

Let’s look at yards per carry defense.

Sark_Comp_Rushing_YPC_DefenseAgain, it is important to look at yards per play for 2013 with the installation of the no-huddle offense.  When you have a no-huddle offense, it means that the defense is on the field a lot longer which can inflate the yards allowed.  When looking at yards per carry defense, It has been pretty static since Sark has taken over.  UW hovered at around the same spot despite the DC change and despite the switch to the no-huddle offense.

Now let us look at passing defense.

Sark_Comp_Passing_DefenseSurprisingly, UW got worse on passing defense after their winless 2008 season.  All of the years under Nick Holt had worse passing defense than under Willingham.  However, passing defense dramatically improved under DC Justin Wilcox and continued to improve from year 1 to year 2.

Now let’s look at yards per attempt, yards per completion, and completion percentage.

Sark_Comp_Passing_YPA_DefenseSark_Comp_Passing_YPC_DefenseSark_Comp_Passing_CompPerc_DefenseAll of these charts show a steady improvement from below average to above average.  There was spike in 2012 in yards per completion, which is notable.  This may be due to the change in style with DC Justin Wilcox.  It is notable that even though yards per completion rose in 2012, completion percentage dropped dramatically.

Now let’s look at total defense.

Sark_Comp_Total_DefenseTotal defense had a general downward trend as well.  2011 had a large spike, which was the year that DC Nick Holt was fired.  This spike was completely negated by Justin Wilcox coming in and further improving UW’s defensive performance.  It is somewhat surprising to see a total defense improvement in 2013 after the no-huddle offense was implemented.  Typically the total defensive yards suffer under no-huddle since the opposing offense just has more time with the ball which leads to more yards.

Now let’s look at yards per play defense.

Sark_Comp_Offense_YPP_DefenseAgain, UW continued to progress throughout the years, other than 2011.  The defense continued to improve under Justin Wilcox, with UW allowing 1 yard per play less than the opposing offense typically gained in 2013.

Finally, we look at scoring defense.

Sark_Comp_Scoring_DefenseScoring defense improved in Sark’s first year, but then steadily regressed under Nick Holt.  After Nick Holt was replaced with Justin Wilcox, the defense improved vastly and continued to improve from year 1 to year 2.


Coach Sarkisian had a five year run at UW.  During that time, he went through two OCs and two DCs.  Also in those five years, it seemed as if Sark had hit a bit of a ceiling on his season win total.  However, looking at each statistical category, there is a general improvement in the trendline for every single category.  The main areas that UW did not improve very much after Sark was brought in was yards per rush and rushing defense.  It will definitely be interesting to see how much of these stats carry over to Sark’s tenure at USC.

USC vs Stanford ’13 – A Look at Some Statistics

This post will look at some key statistics from the USC vs Stanford game.  We’ll look at the run vs pass play calling from both teams in a variety of angles.  Then we will look at some other interesting statistics for 3rd down conversions, rushing histograms, and yards per drive.

Play Calling

USC came into this game with a very strong running game and a good but somewhat inconsistent passing game.  Overall, USC called running plays 25 times (39%) and passing plays 39 times (61%) [Please note that I consider sack plays as passes, unlike the NCAA which considers it a run].  In the five games prior to Stanford that Coach Helton has been calling the plays, there were 169 runs (53%) and 148 passes (47%).  We passed the ball a lot more against Stanford than we typically have done.

First, let’s break down the play calling by USC based on down.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_RunVsPass_DownUSC ran the ball on 59% of their first downs.  This is a slight tick down from Helton’s previous games where he ran the ball on 70% of first downs.  From there, USC became very pass heavy.  Second down had nearly twice as many passes and runs and third down was almost exclusively passing plays.  In fact, our only “running” play on 3rd down was on the 3rd and 19 just before our game winning field goal.  This  was a designed Cody Kessler run which was called primary to center the ball.  For all intents and purposes, USC passed the ball exclusively on 3rd down.  This included passing on a 3rd and 1 and a 3rd and 3 (both incomplete).

For comparison’s sake, Helton has been exactly 50/50 on runs and passes on 2nd down prior to this game.  On third down, he has run the ball 22% of the time and passed 78% of the time.  For any third down that has been longer than a single yard, Helton has come out typically throwing (generally 70% or more passing plays).  This means that overall, Helton threw the ball more on every down compared to his usual tendencies.

Now let’s look at USC’s play calling by field position.  Please note that in the chart below, all “Goal to Go” plays are also counted in “Red Zone.”

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_RunVsPass_FieldPosUSC had the greatest discrepancy between runs and passes behind the 50 yard line.  With lots of room to work with and early in drives, USC would have more than double the amount of passes compared to runs.  Once we crossed midfield, USC began to run the ball more.  This is actually a bit opposite from what was typical of Helton.  Typically, Helton has a slight edge towards running behind midfield (56% running, 44% passing) and opens up the passing between midfield and the redzone (44% running, 56% passing).  The redzone and goal to go categories lined up generally with Helton’s tendencies with around 71% running in the redzone and 78% with goal to go.

Finally, let us look at the play calling based on quarter.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_RunVsPass_QuarterAs can be seen here, USC started and ended the game with a pretty good amount of balance.  Even the second quarter was pretty balanced as well.  The third quarter was when USC started flinging the ball around with nearly three times as many passes as runs.  For comparison’s sake, Helton has typically been very balanced in every quarter except with a lean towards the run in the 4th (likely to close out a game that we are winning).


USC had a 3rd down conversion rate of 29%.    Remove the 3rd down dive that Kesser took to center the ball for the game winning FG and we’re looking at 31%.  This is slightly under, but statistically in line with, Stanford’s average 3rd down defense this season which is 33%.

This becomes more interesting when we break up the 3rd downs based on distance.  USC was 0 for 2 on 3rd and short (three yards or less) and also 0 for 2 on 3rd and medium (four to six yards).  All of USC’s 3rd down conversions came on plays with seven or more yards to go.  In this category, USC was 4 for 10.  Remember that USC exclusively threw the ball on 3rd downs.  This hurt the ability to convert the short yardage situations consistently.  I don’t blame Helton for making this call as USC averaged only 0.9 yards per carry  in this game (remove the sacks and it increases to 1.6 yards per carry, which still isn’t great).  It is also worthwhile to note that 40% of USC’s runs were stopped for either no yards gained or negative yards.

On the flip side, Stanford had a 33% 3rd down conversion rate.  This included converting only 1 out of 3 on 3rd and short situations.  You would expect that Stanford, with their power run game, would dominate the 3rd and short conversions.  This is a testament to the strength of our defensive front as well as the aggressive pressure that DC Pendergast put (USC was often loading the line of scrimmage with up to six guys who were backed up by two or three linebackers.  This left single coverage on the receivers and only a single high safety up top).  More on this later.

Stanford was the most successful on 3rd and medium, with 2 out of 3 successful conversions.  This can be a funny distance to defend as there is the threat of both the run and the pass.  However, when USC was able to back Stanford up to 3rd and long, Stanford was 1 for 6 (17%).  USC was easily able to defend the clear passing situations by Stanford.

Other Notes

First let’s look at USC’s average distance to go versus average gain based on down.  [For this chart, I only included the 4th down attempt for 4th downs.  If you consider all 4th downs, the average distance to go was 7.78 yards.]

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_SCAvgDistVsGainThe interesting thing to note here is how much lower 2nd down is in terms of average gain.  I don’t really know why this is the case, but it was interesting to see.

For comparison, here is Stanford’s chart.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_StanAvgDistVsGainStanford had a great 2nd down push, but had a poor 3rd down push.  In fact, Stanford converted more 2nd downs (35%) than they did 3rd downs (33%).  If I were to guess, this is likely due to how USC played on defense.  So much emphasis was put on bottling up the power run game that runs would either be stopped for very little gain or would break through to the second level and gain chunks of yards (enough to convert).  In the former case, the stop would potentially leave Stanford in a 3rd and long situation that USC would excel at defending.  To illustrate this, let us look at Stanford’s rushing histogram.


As you can see here, Stanford had a lot of runs clumped in the 0-4 yards gained range.  However, there is a definite dip  in the 5-8 yard range before another grouping between 9-12 yards.  Finally, there were five runs which broke for 15+ yards.  I believe USC’s gameplan was built around a front line defense which would limit Stanford’s runs to around three yards with not much second line to help until they gained quite a bit.

There was one final statistic that I found quite interesting when breaking down this game.  7 out of 12 (58%) drives for Stanford failed to gain a single first down. (6 out of 11, or 55%, if you don’t count the final desperation play of the game).  This includes 5 out of 7 (71%) of their 2nd half drives (67% if you don’t count the last play drive).  Other than the initial TD drive to start the 2nd half, Pendergast adjusted well to the Stanford attack.  Here is a line chart showing the yards gained on each Stanford drive.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_StanfordDrivesNotice the downward trend line as the game progressed.  It is also worthwhile to mention that drive #9, the final spike for Stanford’s offense, ended in the interception by Bailey.


This game was definitely an interesting one to look at statistically.  You could see how OC Helton adjusted his gameplan to try to mitigate Stanford’s defensive strengths by going to the air (Stanford is ranked #3 in rushing defense, but #98 in passing defense).  You can also see how USC’s aggressive gameplan to stop the run at the line caused a decent amount of disruption, leading to 3rd and longs.  Both of these gameplans paid off in the end as they helped limit Stanford and ultimately win the game.

A Look Back at Hawaii

The first game (and win) is in the books for the 2013 USC football season.  It sure wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t ugly either.  The team was plagued with inconsistencies, but they didn’t leave too many big negatives and had a couple big positives.  Overall, there’s a lot to improve on, but this team definitely has potential.

This post will look at a few aspects of the game.  First, we will look at the offensive side of the ball.  We will start with the unfortunate safety which occurred early in the 2nd quarter then we will take a brief look at the running game.  Then we will switch over to the defensive side of the ball by looking at the blitzing numbers and the sacks.

The Safety

Early in the 2nd quarter, Hawaii punted the ball and it rolled to the 1 yard line.  Kiffin dialed up a passing play for the first play of the drive, figuring Hawaii would send heavy run pressure up the middle (they did with six rushers and a spy).  Note that by this point in the game, USC hadn’t gotten almost any running game going.  Hawaii was winning in the trenches and getting a strong push up front, leading to USC only having 24 yards on 10 runs (2.4 yards per carry).  Not exactly conducive to a high success rate running the ball with your back to the endzone, so I can understand why Kiffin chose to go with a pass.  On the flip side, the pass wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders either.  At this point in the game, Kessler was 4/8 for 39 yards (4.9 yards per pass attempt).

View the play here

So let’s take a closer look at the play and how it was designed.

The play design

The play design

As you can see here, the play is pretty simple.  Agholor is on the left (bottom of the screen) and is running a slant route.  The slot receiver (who I believe is actually a TE spread out wide) is also running a slant, although at a greater depth than Agholor.  Marquise Lee is running a go route down the sidelines and appears to be a decoy.  The TE on the left quick blocks the outside linebacker and then transitions into the flats as the checkdown.

The primary receiver in this play is Agholor.  His slant route should be a 3-step drop and get rid of the ball.  Here we are at three steps.

The play after the 3-step drop.

The play after the 3-step drop

Kessler is looking at his primary read, Agholor, who has just broken into his slant pattern.  Kessler would first notice the depth at which the corner is playing off from Agholor, which is a perfect for the slant.  However, Kessler also sees the linebacker spy, who is moving to defend the checkdown TE in the flats.  This linebacker poses a problem as he is moving into the passing lane and could easily pick off the slant route.  First positive here is that Kessler doesn’t force the throw after he identifies that his primary read is not safe.  First mistake, rather than moving through his progression, Kessler hesitates.  His hesitation wasn’t long in real time for how much processing must be happening in his head during his first game ever (and on the road).  I timed it at just under a second too long.  However, a full second is an eternity for a quarterback in football.

After a split second, Kessler moves on to his second read

After a second, Kessler moves on to his second read

Kessler waits for that second, possibly waiting for Agholor to get past the linebacker or just thinking too much about what comes next.  Finally, Kessler turns to his second read.  The second read is the slot receiver, also on a slant.  With the assumption that the defense will be playing the run, you can expect the middle of the field to vacate as the linebackers blitz in to plug the running lanes.  This usually means that one of the two slant routes should be open.  In this case, the slot receiver is defended in press coverage, but was one-on-one with pretty good body position on the defender.  This is probably a safe enough throw if you throw directly at the receiver’s numbers or even slightly behind him (throw ahead of him and the defender might be able to get a handle on it).  With the amount of contact being made, you might even get a pass interference call.

However, none of this matters.  With that second of hesitation before moving to his second progression, the pressure was already in his face.  Hawaii got a great push up front right at the snap of the ball and Kessler hesitated just a hair too long, which combined creates a sack for a safety.

Running Lanes

USC’s run game was bottled up early in the game, but started to open up in the second half.  Personally, I think the run game opened up as the Hawaii defense got tired.  I believe that it was one of those games where the underdog team in week one is amped up when they are going stride for stride, but fails to pace themselves properly.

Another major impact on our running game (and run game play calling) was the fact that all our right guards were banged up, and thus playing injured.  This leads the coaching staff to attempt to run away from this position, which makes our running game a bit more predictable.  Let’s take a look at the histogram for what gaps we ran the ball to.

The number of times we called running plays to each gap

The number of times we called running plays to each gap

As you can see here, 24 runs to the left side and 18 runs to the right, or 33% more left runs than right.  Overall, both sides produced nearly equally.  The left side of the line averaged 4.9 yards per carry while the right side averaged 5.6 yards per carry.  Let’s break it down further.

There were more runs to the left side going to the interior (to the A or B gaps).  14 runs went to the left interior gaps compared to 9 on the right.  The left interior runs also averaged 5.4 yards per carry compared to only 1.7 yards per carry on the right.  Looking at only the A gaps, there were 12 runs to the left A gap for 3.75 yards per carry compared to 7 runs to the right A gap for 0.9 yards per carry.  This seems to suggest that the right guards playing thru injury had a decent impact on our interior running game and play calling.  Expect this to improve as our right guards heal up.

The number of perimeter runs (to the C or D gaps) was about equal between the left and right sides.  However, the perimeter runs to the right side were more effective, averaging 9.4 yards per carry on the right compared to 3.5 yards per carry on the left.  Chalk that up to having a Senior in Kevin Graf manning the right tackle spot compared to Redshirt Freshman Chad Wheeler on the left.

Defensive Blitzing

Overall the defense played really well.  We held Hawaii to 231 total yards and only 23 rushing yards, which is 0.7 yards per carry  (although if you remove sacks from rushing, you’re looking at 2.2 yards per carry).  On the passing game side, you’re looking at seven sacks and four interceptions.  Wow.  The defensive front dominated the game.  The secondary had some weak spots and were out of position on a couple plays.  Luckily, Hawaii was not able to capitalize.

Anyways, let’s take a look at some numbers.  Pendergast was his normal aggressive self.  I tracked that Pendergast blitzed at least one extra rusher on 61% of plays.  Typically, Pendergast would send in five rushers for a +1 blitz.


It generally worked as well.  When not blitzing, USC’s defense allowed an average of 4.1 yards per play.  When USC blitzed, that dropped down to 2.4 yards allowed per play.  Hawaii’s offense definitely could not handle the extra pressure.

The blitzes came from different directions as well, adding to the confusion.


Pendergast would typically blitz the linebackers.  However, he wasn’t against sending in the cornerbacks or safeties on blitzes as well.

One interesting thing to note is that all of our sacks came on plays with a blitz.  I have done quick diagrams of all the sack plays and the blitz pressure that we brought here.  The yellow arrows indicated that the players that broke free from blocks and played a key role in getting the sack.

Sack 1
Sack 2
Sack 3
Sack 4
Sack 5
Sack 6
Sack 7

Most of the sacks were +1 blitzes with the additional rushers coming from the linebacker spots.

One interesting note is that three of the four interceptions came on plays in which USC did not blitz.  I would have expected the interceptions to come off the pressure of a blitz, but this was not the case.


On the offensive side of the ball, I expect our run game to improve a good amount when we get healthy.  This includes getting Silas Redd back as well as healing up at the right guard spot.  Once the run game picks up, I expect the passing game to improve (like it did in the second half against Hawaii).

On the defensive side of the ball, expect us to continue to play aggressively and to have aggressive play calling.  I don’t expect quite as much blitzing in our upcoming game against Washington State due to their offensive play style,  but I am hoping for a number of interceptions.

Clancy Pendergast – Defensive Play Calling

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.
Example 1
Example 2
Example 3
Example 4
Example 5

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.

Distribution of Blitzes

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.

Clancy Pendergast – Secondary Alignment

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.

Success Rates

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.

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.