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Defensive breakdown: Syracuse vs. Miami

Things were better than they may have appeared in the box score.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

A look at the stat sheet would suggest the Syracuse Orange defense struggled, allowing nearly 500 yards of total offense to the Miami Hurricanes. But despite the offensive output, the tape shows that this Syracuse defense may be the strength of the team.

Positives

3rd Down

A trend all season, the Orange had another dominant performance on third down. Last weekend, the Orange held Miami to just a 23% efficiency rate allowing just 13 points at the half. So what’s making them so good?

Improvement up front. It has been well documented how well this defensive line is playing. Several different linemen have stepped up and had big games and head coach Dino Babers has already called Chris Slayton an NFL-caliber athlete. Their improvement has had a top-down effect on the defense allowing defensive coordinator Brian Ward more flexibility schematically.

In football, flexibility translates into creativity. This season we’ve a seen a few 3-man pass rush defenses dropping 8 men in coverage. The emphasis is clearly on coverage rather than pressure and usually called on obvious passing downs. In these scenarios the quarterback should have all day but against Syracuse that’s rarely the case.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Example: In the second quarter, Miami entered a 3rd and 10 with about 5 minutes remaining in the half. Up 13-3 near Syracuse’s 40-yard line a four to five yard gain wouldn’t have gained the first down but it would put them in field goal range. Syracuse countered the Hurricanes 5-wide look with a dime formation featuring 6 defensive backs, two linebackers, and three defensive linemen. The ball is snapped and Rosier looks down field for all of 2. 8 seconds until he feels pressure. He pulls the ball down and attempts to scramble up field but Brandon Berry tracks him down and brings him to the ground for no gain on the play.

That shouldn’t happen. 3-man pressures rarely get to the quarterback, but when they do, they’re usually referred to as coverage sacks. In this case, SU’s D-Line got pressure on their own and forced the quarterback into a premature decision. Instances like this one is what makes this defense so good. They can bring different looks and confuse quarterbacks yet still get after the quarterback without having to blitz.

Fringe Area Defense

In football the fringe area is typically 15-20 yards beyond the red zone. So from about the 35-yard line and in, offenses and defenses begin to change their play-calling to deal with the shorter field.

This week the Hurricanes had five possessions that reached the fringe area but resulted in either a field goal, a punt or a turnover on downs.

The ability to force field goals rather than give up touchdowns keeps offensive advantages like yards gained from translating into points and the score made the game seem much closer than it actually was.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Negatives

Blown Coverages & Press Technique

If Ahmmon Richards brought his hands to the game, Syracuse losses this game by a much larger margin. Drops bailed the Orange defense out on several occasions and overall coverage was shaky. Miami, might have some of the quickest receivers in the ACC and in press coverage, SU corners struggled. Ahmmon Richards had guys on skates and the 48-yard touchdown pass to freshman Jeff Thomas was just poor effort from the nickel corner. In that position you have to be patient, have eye-discipline on your man’s hip and slow but reactive with your feet.

Blown coverages happen. They’re the result of miscommunication and a lack of awareness by a defender. This week, it seemed Syracuse’s secondary had just a couple on the back-end. Cleaning those up over the bye week will be crucial to their success November 4th at Florida State. Facing a young quarterback, you don’t want to give up any easy throws due to blown coverages.

***

There was a lot to like after this week’s performance and more importantly, it seems winning has become an expectation for the Orange no matter the opponent. At 4-4, Syracuse is right where they want to be, earning its reputation as the ACC’s most dangerous football team.