When Cal slowed down Oregon in their nailbiting defeat last November, HydroTech of the California Golden Blogs did an excellent job detailing the coverage schemes of Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast against Oregon offensive mastermind Chip Kelly. Pendergast deployed a straight Cover Zero man-to-man scheme, where each defender on the field took a particular Oregon offensive player. It worked in shutting down Oregon's offense for most of the game, but unfortunately Cal's offense was not up to the task of putting points on the board to support their defense's efforts. Nevertheless, the Cover Zero proved to be an effective deterrent in keeping the Ducks from exploding touchdowns all game long.
So how well does Stanford Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck perform against the Cover Zero? Quite well, and that's a drastic understatement. Yes, it's not just Luck, but his offensive line affording him great pass protection and his wide receivers running proper routes. But without the decision-making, arm strength and intelligence of Luck, it's unlikely that these plays are as uber-successful as they were. Making good decisions against man coverage isn't always easy to do, but Luck's patience and reading of the field makes it look easy.
Let's highlight a few examples, starting with The Run.
3rd and 5, 5:03 1st Q, Stan 21
Stanford's offense is set up in a shotgun four receiver set (three left) with a RB. Cal is again in cover zero defense, rushes five on the play (both outside LBs along with the front three).
Two WRs run down the opposite sidelines to draw the cornerbacks. Two of the lined out slot receivers are actually tight ends; one runs an inside route toward the right sideline, the other runs an out route toward the left sideline. That forces the nickelback and linebacker Mike Mohamed to cover one of each of their men.
Blitz picked up. Both outside LBs overrush the play and are caught behind Luck. The RB leaks out and draws the inside linebacker D.J. Holt as he runs to the left flat. Luck steps up into the pocket to survey further options. He sees everyone tightly single covered, but more importantly wide open space in front of him (and I mean WIDE open space). When he’s stepped up enough and everyone in front of him has spaced the field enough, he decides to go. The result is mayhem.
What turns this run into such a devastating success is that Chris Conte (the only remaining free defender not covering a man) decides to go with the tight end on the crossing route along with Mohamed. That leaves no one with responsibility on Luck, who now has a wide avenue down the field.
Although Luck gets all the glory on this one, his decision became fairly routine when he stepped up in the pocket and saw no one open. A lot of the credit also goes to the offensive coaching staff for being able to stretch the field, the receivers for running their routes properly and eventually blocking downfield for Luck, and especially the offensive line for picking up the five man blitz and giving Luck more than enough of a pocket to go downfield. (Yes, there’s the ugly stiffer on Sean Cattouse, but to be fair that’s a really difficult angle for Cattouse to take based on where he’s running from. Still, Cattouse would have been better served wrapping Luck up at the legs rather than trying to knock him down with the shoulder tackle; Luck’s too built for those shenanigans to bother him.)
2nd and 7, 4:00 1st Q, Cal 18 (video of the play here)
Stanford is in aces, 4 WR with one in motion; final formation has trips right.
Another audible, another pre-snap shift signaled by Luck. Tight end moves from left to right.
Near WR #82 runs a go route to draw the ILB Mike Mohamed. Outside WR runs a short out route than cuts back inside to draw the outside CB Steve Williams. Then the middle WR #8 runs a corner route on the nickel back #15 Nnabuife.
Luck first looks off Conte and freezes him on the middle receiver #82 , then lofts it high to try and get #8 isolated in the end zone on one-on-one coverage. Nnabuife is left trailing, and is forced to hold to prevent an easy TD throw.
2nd and 10, 13:18 2nd Q, Stanford 26 (video of the play here)
Stanford is in Standard I-formation, 3 WR set
WR runs deep route, CB #15 Nnabuife trips up, but Luck misses what would’ve been a wide open touchdown.
This is great timing by Luck because the coverage isn’t bad by Sean Cattouse--he’s draped all over #8. But Luck steps in and releases the ball as #8 makes his turn, so it’s almost impossible for Cattouse to make a play because he’s still turning and adjusting to the throw. Luck also is able to release the ball high, putting it on a nice arc above the stretched hands of defenders who are very close on the inside.
2nd and 12, 5:51 2nd Q, Stan 25 (video of the play here)
Stanford in I-formation weak.
Left WR runs a deep seam route. Right WR runs what looks like a post.
Play-action with pulling guard left as if to signal run play, but also pass protection leans toward the left as if to indicate a throw to the now vacant right side. Max protect with 8 blockers, only two receivers go out on the play.
Luck at first does look to the right side, but it’s a feint to draw the safeties #17 Chris Conte and #11 Sean Cattouse away from his second read, #89 Doug Baldwin. Luck comes back toward the other side and delivers a high-arcing ball that gives Baldwin time to adjust, go up in the air and fight away the recovering Sean Cattouse and make the completion.
Luck shows off almost everything here, utilizing his great arm for what amounts to 40+ yard throw. He’s able to progress through multiple reads and survey the entire field to find a good option. He does underthrow the ball just a tad, but his receiver can adjust and still make a catch without there being much of a risk of an interception. Somehow with only two receivers against five defensive backs, Luck’s abilities give Stanford one of their biggest offensive plays of the game.
You can see Luck possesses a natural acuity that almost all college signal-callers lack well into their junior/senior years (and Luck was only a sophomore when he made those plays). He recognizes coverage before the play, so he's able to identify weaknesses and make the best decision on where to go with the football before the snap. Even when facing a numerical disadvantage, he's able to throw the ball into the proper place where only his receiver can make the proper decision to catch the ball in the right place. He progresses through his reads before making a decision on where to go. And he just has a general sense of everything that's happening on the field, helping him make better decisions.
Andrew Luck is good at football.