Last Saturday I found myself in a strange — if not frustrating — position, defending Syracuse’s defensive performance while concurrently attacking it. At the half, Syracuse lead Wake Forest by two touchdowns and the defense seemed to have been hitting their stride, allowing just a field goal in the second quarter.
That same defense went on to allow 40 second-half points and over 700 yards of total offense by way of missed coverage assignments, poor tackling and limited execution. This now the third time in two seasons Syracuse has given up 60 points in one game and it’s exhausting.
Since Syracuse’s October upset over second-ranked Clemson, the defense has trended on a linear path downward, allowing nearly 500 yards of offense to Miami, three 50+ yard plays to what would normally be a scout-team FSU offense and now 64 points to Wake Forest.
So begs the question, what the hell happened to this team?
Stephen Bailey of the Post-Standard offered an interesting observation earlier this week, suggesting that maybe Syracuse’s step forward this season defensively is by having not faced the caliber of quarterbacks they did last year.
John Wolford is arguably the best quarterback Syracuse has played all season and every competent quarterback the Orange has seen in 2017 has put up numbers on this defense. Brent Stockstill, Malik Rosier and Ryan Finley all had solid games against the Orange and played large rolls in each of those SU losses.
So what happened last weekend and why was Wolford so successful?
Check out this touchdown:
The defensive end on the left side of line crashes down leaving Wolford one-on-one with Zaire Franklin, a matchup most Orange fans would take 10/10 times. The play sets up well. Wolford is four yards away from the line of scrimmage and five yards from the first down marker. Franklin flows with the play and reacts to the quarterback, but doesn’t get there. He steps under himself and Wolford gets an advantage laterally. In this situation you want your linebacker to win here. That doesn’t happen. Luckily football is a team game and there’s always what’s called “secondary contain” built in if the first wave of defense is defeated. No one is there to contain the play and Wolford finds the end zone.
Plays like this one beat the Orange all day on the ground. Whether it’s your defensive end or your linebacker you have to ask them for good eyes, discipline and technique. If the Orange want to give themselves a chance next Saturday this will need to be an emphasis for improvement.
The Tampa-2 defense isn’t necessarily cover 2 every play. Schematically it’s just an umbrella term and flexible. It’s designed to allow things underneath. One of the cool things about the tampa-2 is that it allows you play with your backend coverages bring exotic linebacker blitzes or play with different stunts with your defensive line.
It’s success however is reliant on discipline. Zone coverage requires good eyes, patience and at an advanced level play recognition.
Check out this play here:
Here’s a situation where there’s no fix. MTSU ran this same play with Richie James couple months ago and scored. This is the second most popular coverage gap in the Tampa-2 coverage (behind the soft area between the safety and corner) that’s been exploited for years and part of the reason the Tampa-2 has declined in use. There’s no answer for this sort of seam route and good QBs and OCs will continue to take advantage of it in the ACC.
So to evaluate:
Is It the System?
Earlier in the season, LSU’s coaching staff called Syracuse’s “one of the hardest defenses to prepare for” alongside Boston College. That’s high praise and in the first half of the season I agreed. The way the defensive line had improved allowing Brain Ward to get into his bag defensively and some the coverage and blitz packages he and the defensive staff had put together were incredible.
Against inferior or mediocre quarterbacks, the scheme got the better of most offenses. LSU lost faith in their starter, Pitt quarterback, Max Bowne was rattled and in nearly every SU victory the defense seemed to define themselves as an aggressive capable unit — it was certainly encouraging.
But plays like the two shown above and performances like last weekend are legitimate causes for concern.
An Anomaly or a Trend?
At this point it’s hard to say. This season, the defense has looked like a much better unit and in some cases carried this football team. But the caliber of quarterback they’ve faced may have contributed to the improvement more so than actual development.
Make no mistake, the defensive line and the secondary have made strides and are certainly more talented than a year ago. Chris Slayton was my midseason MVP, Alton Robsinson has been Newcomer of the Year, and you all know how much I love Christopher Fredrick’s game.
But the fact that we’ve seen breakdowns like the one last Saturday makes me skeptical. Saturday’s matchup with Louisville will be a true indicator of who this defense really is.
So What’s Next?
Secondary coach Nick Monroe recruited me out of high school and he’s my favorite coach I’ve never played for. The way he interacts with guys, develops and prepares them is second to none. He’s an example of the great coaches on staff here at Syracuse. The players love this staff and having interacting with them myself on the practice field they’re the best thing to happen to Syracuse in a long time.
The scheme isn’t going anywhere and based on their past as coaches it will continue to improve as better talent makes its way up to the hill, I think performances like this one will begin to cease sooner rather than later because we’ve seen what kind of unit this team can be when everything clicks. When the gameplan and the players mesh we’ve seen the results. The hot takes and outrage are understandable, but program development takes time. Maybe Clemson was just glimpse into the future rather than an indication of the present.
Following last season’s historical loss to Pitt, members of the defense said it was an opportunity to “look themselves in the mirror.”
Maybe this game is, too.