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Defensive Breakdown: Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh

The defensive effort made the difference, especially on third downs last week.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

In football, sometimes effort is the difference between a win and a loss. Precise focus leads to methodical execution and those with the mettle to carry out an assignment with urgency while maintaining strict attention to detail typically come out on top. A game of inches tends to lend itself to those willing to go the extra yard.

Effort seemed to be the key to a Syracuse Orange victory last weekend and the defense showed a lot of promise. Facing a struggling Pittsburgh Panthers offense, the Orange took advantage of inconsistent quarterback play and a poor Panther offensive line. The SU defense limited Max Browne to just 161 yards passing registering two total sacks, four TFLs and three QB hurries while doing an excellent job of mixing up coverages behind pressure. Heading into their matchup with the Clemson Tigers, it’d be advantageous to build on their performance from last week.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports


1. Alton Robinson

Alton Robinson had himself a game off the edge, with five tackles, one sack/fumble, one TFL, and one quarterback knocked out of the game. His acceleration off the ball looked motivated this week and the production followed. Robinson’s ability to get after quarterback and stay in opposing teams backfield is encouraging. He will continue to elevate his play on an up-and-down defensive line unit. When they play well, this defense is one of the best in the ACC.

2. Linebacker Vision

Remember playing against Wing-T offenses in high school? The gimmick motions and deceptive movements with and without the ball were hard to defend because they cause so much confusion. Most college offenses to don’t run Wing-T, but they take elements from it like formation shifts and motions. Against teams that do that, linebackers are tasked with resetting the defense, setting the defensive front and making sure everyone is on the same page at every level. Having competent, smart leaders like Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett at the position makes this adjustment so much easier and we saw a Syracuse defense react well to Pitt’s scheme. Clemson does a lot of the same so hopefully the experience aids them this Friday.

3. Secondary Play

Save for a drive or two, the secondary played well. Tackling will be addressed, but in coverage, the unit played well. As mentioned earlier, Pitt quarterback Max Browne only managed 161 passing on 22 attempts. His backup, Ben DiNucci passed for another 55 after situational football scaled back Syracuse’s coverage aggression. The two pass breakups from Jordan Martin and Scoop Bradshaw were impressive. Bradshaw’s game is cold. Defensive backs coaches should encourage their player to watch his feet. When he trusts his vision, he steps are very deliberate.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports


1. Perimeter Run Defense

Perimeter run defense was a problem against NC State and we saw those mistakes again this week. On the second quarter touchdown for Pitt, the Panthers ran the ball into the boundary outside of the tackle. The corner set a pretty solid edge and the primary run defenders should have made the play (either the LB or S). On this play a missed tackle by the safety and the inability to shed a block by the LB sprung a 35-yard touchdown.

2. Tackling

Good defenses do this well. SU’s linebackers are some of the best in the ACC at it. But if this defense wants to take the next step they have to do it more consistently. Too many times this season we’ve seen a ball carrier slip a one-on-one tackling situation and gain a few extra yards or even score. Syracuse has the hitters. Sure this area up and it’s amazing how many defensive deficiencies can be alleviated.


Overall, this was a solid performance. Heading into next week, the Orange can expect a lot of eye-candy football similar to the Wing-T tendencies mentioned before. Clemson loves mixing run and pass in a manner that causes confusion for the back-7 on defense. Vision, clarity and assignment football will be a must on Friday if the Orange hope to give themselves a chance.