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Defensive breakdown: Syracuse vs. Middle Tennessee

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Even in the loss, there was significant progress made on this side of the football.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

You know what’s dope about football? On a week-to-week basis, there’s an opportunity to watch a football team grow up and develop. In 2016, we saw a defense struggle throughout the season. They lacked an identity, had no bite up front and chemistry on the back end seemed absent.

After the Syracuse Orange’s first two games this season, if I’m defensive coordinator Brian Ward, I’m proud of my unit. The defense ranks in the top 25 (22) allowing just 265 yards per game and fifth in the country in third down efficiency. The line is much improved from a year ago and this defense is managing to get pressure and hit the quarterback.

While rankings and stats don’t mean too much right now due to level of opponents and the small sample size, I do think it’s a good indicator that the Orange have improved in several facets of their game.

We’ll break this week down by position once again:

Rhode Island v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Defensive Line

I can’t praise the defensive line enough. Excellent job by them last week. Is this group actually talented or producing against weak opposition? I don’t know. But they’ve done everything they’re supposed to do by dominating the line of scrimmage, stopping the run and getting after the quarterback.

Brandon Berry is a player. The Georgia native ranked third in solo tackles last week, and I loved his ability to get out and run from his defensive end position, shutting down outside runs to his side and become a backside playmaker sliding across the line of scrimmage and making plays ran away from him at the snap of the ball.

If Chris Slayton continues to play the way he has over the last couple of games, he may become an All-ACC performer. The kid is an absolute beast up front. He had a few great plays but let’s talk about one play in particular that really stood out to me:

Near the end of the first quarter with about 2:45 left to play, Middle Tennessee QB Brent Stockstill dropped back to pass. Chris Slayton rushed up the field, in what looked like a contain assignment, recognized the wide receiver screen, reacted to the pass and batted it down — forcing a fumble. The play showed excellent acceleration, athleticism and awareness by him. Great job by Berry getting on the recovery, too. When this unit gets really good, they’ll pick that ball up and take it to the house themselves. Why wait on the offense if you can do it? Great game, D-Line.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Linebackers

Syracuse has one of the best linebacker cores in the ACC, and they showed it last week. Run defense, pass coverage, QB pressure. They were all over it. Every young linebacker at home needs to watch Zaire Franklin play football. His ability to read, react and trigger to the ball has to make coaches proud. The strip by him in the first half was textbook. When a ball carrier is falling to the ground he extends one or sometimes both arms to cushion his fall. It’s a natural human reaction to falling. Excellent job by Zaire securing the tackle, getting a hand on the nose of the ball and pulling it out as the ball carrier went down.

Parris Bennett and Jonathan Thomas shined as well, particularly in coverage. Both had situations where they ran with Richie James on wheel routes and got the pass breakup. On the interception by JT, Syracuse ran what looked like 4 underneath coverage, a variation of cover-2 and cover-4, where JT replaced the corner in the flat. He pushes to his zone and the ball was right there.

Excellent call and great play by Thomas. This may be what Babers was alluding to when he said he wants to get pressure on the ball and force quarterbacks into bad throws. Hopefully we’ll see more of this in ACC play in the coming weeks.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Secondary

Let’s use this space to appreciate Devin M. Butler for a moment. I like what he’s doing in SU’s nickel package. Patient feet, good eyes and has a quick trigger when the ball is in front of him. His two plays against James, shutting down the tunnel screens MTSU likes to run, were excellent reads by him. Aggressive playmaker.

The secondary played a solid game in the first half but had some breakdowns in second, particularly at corner on Chris Frederick’s side of the field. In one instance, Frederick missed a cover-2 jam that’s supposed to happen around four or five yards out. The receiver gave him a shake and caught him off the balance. The lack of a reroute would have made it tough for safety to get over top. His safety was pulled away by a second vertical from the slot receiver anyway so there was no one to help.

Easy throw by the quarterback. Not Chris’s best work. Expect Coach Nick Monroe to have him ready against CMU because they run similar patterns with better receivers. His length and athletic ability should make that play routine for him.

On the touchdown to James at the end of the 3rd, the MTSU wideout ran a seam route with a wrinkle that lets him settle just behind the linebackers and in front of the safety. In cover-2, the safety reads two to one (Slot to Outside Receiver) On that play, the outside receiver ran a stop route so his only responsibility was that slot receiver. Unfortunately, Foster had what looked like too much depth and the throw was easy to make.

Overall, I think the defense gave a solid performance that fell short in the second half. Technical errors and schematic adjustments by Middle Tennessee were the difference. I like what this front seven is doing right now and the secondary has flashed potential.

I’m not a fan of this, “the defense got tired” idea anymore. The more I used it, the lazier of an excuse it sounded. MTSU played 20 more snaps on defense and they looked great. If the Orange want to give themselves a chance this season they need to play four quarters of football — adjusting accordingly. The loss of Antwan Cordy certainly hurts but the game of football is all about the next man up. CMU offers a similar offense with better pass0catchers and a much more talented quarterback in Shane Morris. Hopefully this defense will be ready to play.