Since Dino Babers was hired, we've done a lot of work looking into the spread offense he'll bring to the Syracuse Orange. But what we've failed to spend much time on is what happens on the defensive side of the ball. Part of that may be because new defensive coordinator Brian Ward is not coming aboard until Bowling Green wraps up its bowl game. And the other might just be Babers's offensive focus.
But we SHOULD really talk about the defense a little. So why not today?
Dan and I got the ball rolling on the podcast this morning, so maybe start there. But going beyond that, let's get to talking about the Tampa-2.
What's the Tampa-2?
A defensive scheme originated by the Tony Dungy-coached Buccaneers and Monte Kiffin (but also based on principles from Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" days back in the 1970s). SB Nation's Bucs site, Bucs Nation, does a great job of explaining it, so I'd head over there for the most thorough analysis.
The key elements of the scheme, though, from the Football Times in 2006:
"The Tampa 2 scheme relies heavily on extremely speedy defensive players and a hard hitting secondary that loves to gang tackle. Further, the Tampa 2 expects everyone to tackle in the run game; the safeties, the cornerbacks, and everyone in between. The Tampa 2 is run out of the usual 4-3 defense, but every player is responsible for his own gap up on the line and drops a middle linebacker into deeper coverage."
And more, just to show the differences between the "Tampa-2" and the 4-3:
"In a standard 43 defense, the middle LB stays underneath the safeties and covers short underneath routes and helps in run defense. In the Tampa 2, the middle LB is expected to drop into deep coverage in the middle essentially converting a Cover 2 into a Cover 3. This protects against the deep pass very well and changes the assignments. Every player is now responsible for less field, and the deep routes are covered better. Only the other two LBs and the two CBs have to cover slightly more ground."
Here's an illustration from Mile High Report (SB Nation's Broncos Blog)...
How do we know that's the scheme?
New ATH commit Carl Jones said as much, and as Stephen Bailey points out at Syracuse.com, Ward's defense was a 4-3 with Tampa-2 tendencies back at Bowling Green. Ward's 2015 group has been able to play well with respect to all of the Tampa-2's benefits. They were 36th in the country in sacks (29 total) and ninth in forced turnovers (27). They were respectable against the run (57th overall), and while pass defense looks bad (bottom-third in the country), they had one of the better yards-per-attempt figures in the country at just 6.6
So how does that change what Syracuse does?
In a lot of ways, to be honest. While Syracuse's defense under Scott Shafer was driven by big plays -- some of those causing turnovers -- the Tampa-2 is based on sound coverage and turnovers. Smart turnovers from good coverage mean less risk, and a whole lot less breaking (vs. bending) for the secondary.
While previous linebackers may have been smaller guys whose speed could be utilized to enhance the pass rush, these linebackers under Babers will be experts in coverage and bigger overall. Same goes for the secondary, who should see an increase in size as they're tasked with covering a bit more field (and also, actually covering opposing receivers).
Blitzing can and does happen (see BGSU's sack stats), but not at the same rate we saw from Shafer's staff. In many cases, the Falcons were causing coverage sacks, as a big defensive line continued pressing while the opposition struggled to locate blanketed receivers. The lack of emphasis on the blitz can also make them less susceptible to big runs -- something Syracuse fell victim to a ton in 2015.
The current roster was actually in flux on the defensive side anyway, so that can help a quick transition here. The big lift will be whether or not they can improve coverage in a meaningful way very quickly. That goes a long way toward early success and the staying power of the current players in the secondary.
But it won't be Syracuse's goal to put the defense on the field
With a defensive focus under Shafer, putting the defense out there to win the game was usually the end goal. We saw this work at times (this year's Wake Forest game was successful there). And we saw it backfire a bunch too (many contests in the second half of the year) as the unit got increasingly exhausted.
Babers, being an offensive-minded coach is going to work to put the offense back out there as quickly as possible, and position them to win games. Right off the bat, that should take at least some of the onus off a young, over-worked defensive unit, especially as they transition to the new scheme. Obviously the offense can't ALWAYS win the game for the team either. But having them as a more reliable entity than they've been these last few years will give you a fresher, more formidable defense to help out later in games.
The above breakdown's far from an expert analysis of the Tampa-2, so again, would highly recommend you check out some of the links included here. No, Syracuse isn't going to turn into the Bucs' glory days defenses, or a bunch of Hall-of-Famers overnight. But at least we're starting to see a pathway to fix what's ailed that side of the ball over the last season or two.