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Syracuse vs. Virginia Tech: Breaking down the Orange defense

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SU’s great effort on Saturday helped deliver a big win.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Opportunities like this don’t come very often and I’m very excited about being part of the team here at TNIAAM. Player contributions can be valuable because they come from unique perspective (on the field) and sometimes provide a better understanding of the game.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be giving you my own insights and thoughts on the Syracuse defense and hopefully you’ll come away feeling a bit closer to the team. That being said, welcome to my first post here covering Syracuse Orange football.

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This past weekend was an incredible performance and hopefully we’ll continue to see this kind of effort for the rest of the season. This week, I thought it’d be fitting to consider a few positives, while also addressing some things this group can build (negatives) on as they fight for bowl eligibility.

Outlook

Since Coach Brian Ward took over as defensive coordinator for the Orange, the unit has transitioned into a Tampa-2 scheme that utilizes several zone looks. The goal of this kind of defense is to eat space, protect against the big play and confuse the quarterback into a turnover.

At this point, this defense hasn’t necessarily established an identity yet. But after Saturday’s performance, I think they’re well on their way to becoming a force.

Positives

1. Third Down Efficiency

Other than preventing points, a defense’s priority is getting off the field on third down. Against Virginia Tech, the Orange forced a fourth down nearly 70 percent of the time when faced with a third down situation. This is an excellent stat for a defense and definitely apart of the winning formula this group strives for on a week-to-week basis. To be competitive in the ACC, this kind of effort is essential.

2. Ball Disruption

Turnover margin is a great indicator of team success. This weekend. the Orange finished plus-one in that statistic, giving them a 66-percent win probability. While turnover margin is both an offensive and defensive stat, the key is that the defense was able to create multiple turnovers. Defenses with the ability to force fumbles and intercept the ball consistently will always give their team a better opportunity to win.

Secondary nugget: It’s worth noting Rodney Williams’s development and improvement on a weekly basis this season. In the past, he’s always had a knack for keying the QB and being around the ball. Now, as he gets more comfortable within the defense, look for him to create more big plays this season.

3. Team Speed & Pursuit

A defense that swarms to the ball is intimidating. Pursuit is the definition of team defense and on Saturday, we regularly saw safeties making plays in the backfield and linebackers tackling on perimeter plays near the sideline. When defenses can move laterally and swarm to the ball, it’s hard to move the ball and offensive players become tentative. Hopefully, this remains a standard within the Syracuse defense because when they’re on, it’s a beautiful brand of football.

Player Spotlight

Zaire Franklin put together an All-ACC performance and is one the greatest natural born leaders I’ve ever come across. Saturday marked his third double-digit tackle game in the last four games. Look for him to continue to dominate from the middle linebacker position.

Negatives

Even after an extraordinary win, great teams go back and clean up the small mistakes, work on their weaknesses and make that extra effort to continue to improve as a unit. Some negatives from Saturday:

1. Consistency

Syracuse dominated the first half of the game defensively, allowing only three points. But on the first drive of the third quarter, the defense came out flat and gave up a touchdown. An inability to bury teams while they’re down has plagued Syracuse for a number of years and ultimately the defense gave up two scoring drives before the offense finally came back to life. This type of swing can turn the momentum against a team. When this defense really gets going, it’ll be refreshing to see this group shut opponents down early on and then take control for an entire game.

2. Chunk Plays

Virginia Tech did amass over 400 yards of total offense, and following the first half, chunk plays became all too common for Tech. Run and pass plays of 8-12 yards were scattered throughout the second half. There’s no doubt teams left on the schedule will gameplan around those weaknesses and holes in the defense. These types of plays allow for momentum to build up and the offense to get into a rhythm. Against upcoming opponents (like Clemson or Florida State) chunk plays can become long touchdowns. Better to address those details early and prepare to see some of those plays again.

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Overall, this defense played a great game recording several key third down stops and never letting Virginia Tech take control of the game. I’m very proud of this group and I think the best is yet to come. They have all the makings of a great unit and if they can build upon some of these keys I think we can expect a lot more exciting football from the Orange going forward.

Anything else you noticed with the defense on Saturday?