One of the most talked about matchups of this Saturday's game is the Cal passing game against a young, talented secondary of Tennessee. A lot of fans have asked how UT plans on covering Jackson. I'll tell you this right now - Tennessee will do just fine covering DeSean Jackson, but I'm worried about Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan, who will have far more favorable matchups than Jackson.
So how does Tennessee attempt to slow it down? Here's a diagram I created, with a good bit of explanation after.
This is Cal's base passing personnel against Tennessee's base 4-3. I actually believe we'll see Tennessee play more Nickel than normal, but still, our bread and butter is the 4-3, with athletic linebackers who can blitz or drop into coverage.
First, let me break down the personnel for each team.
On the field for Cal is DeSean Jackson at the X, Lavelle Hawkins (705 yards) at the Y, and Robert Jordan (571 yards) at the Z, or slot. Nate Longshore (QB) in the shotgun with RB, Justin Forsett. Craig Stevens, who, regardless of his KO last season on the opening kickoff, is a good receiving tight end, on the same side as Jackson.
For Tennessee, I have Berry in, not Gaines, but I believe Berry takes the main snaps. Marsalous Johnson will be the RCB, who draws the X in Jackson. You know the rest of the guys out there.
In this diagram, the main thing to notice is the defense is in a Cover 2, but not a true Cover 2. I fully expect Johnson to take a short zone, with safety Jarrod Parrish take a high zone, which creates what's called a bracket coverage on DeSean Jackson. This attempts to keep Jackson, and the play, in front of them. These 2 will be responsible for everything DeSean Jackson does.
On the other side of the field, you have a more true Cover 2 aspect. Berry or Gaines will be the LCB, drawing, usually, both the Y and Z receivers. Over the top, Hefney is playing a zone coverage, deep. SLB Ryan Karl should drop into coverage, as well as MLB Jerod Mayo. They'll be responsible for Robert Jordan and/or Craig Stevens and/or Justin Forsett. WLB Rico McCoy could also drop into coverage, but I believe John Chavis will elect to send at least 1 LB, if not more. In this example, McCoy blitzes off the egde, which brings a 5 man rush.
This is where Craig Stevens must take advantage. However, against a team like Tennessee, where the linebackers are very fast for their position, Stevens may not have an advantage. So, Tennessee might blitz Mayo instead, and zoning Stevens' area with McCoy.
What are the weaknesses for this type of coverage? The main thing is dedicating two players to cover one. This creates mismatches at other places. I imagine Cal might notice the bracket coverage on Jackson, and send Stevens on a route to the outside. If Marsalous Johnson jumps it, then you have Jackson versus Parrish or Nevin McKenzie.
Another problem arises, too. Cal's three wide receivers know the job for each position, and can be moved around freely. Jackson could line up in the slot, where he becomes a receiver running a route in Ryan Karl's area or Jon Hefney's area. One thing is for sure - John Chavis has had great success in the past in shutting down a star receiver. Minus Marcus Monk, there haven't been many star receivers who have killed Tennessee. Peter Warrick in 1998 is a perfect example.
Lastly, the most important key to this coverage is that Johnson, Berry, and Gaines need to jam the receivers at the line to immediately corrupt the timing of Nate Longshore and his triumvirate of receivers. Is this something the Tennessee corners can do? Absolutely. Look at the size of the Cal receivers and the UT CBs.
WR DeSean Jackson - 6'0", 166
WR Robert Jordan - 5'11", 165
WR Lavelle Hawkins - 6'2", 181
CB Marsalous Johnson - 5'9", 180
CB Antonio Gaines - 5'9", 180
CB Eric Berry - 6'0", 200
CB DeAngelo Willingham - 6'0", 195
So, while Johnson and Gaines give up a couple of inches, they have 15 pounds on Jackson and Jordan. All 4 of UT's listed CBs above run a 4.4 or better. While Cal has the advantage on paper, I think the combination of athleticism at the position and a Chavis gameplan can slow down the Cal passing game.
We'll find out in ohhhhhhh 44 hours.
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