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Defensive breakdown: Syracuse vs. Central Michigan

The defense continues its impressive start to the season.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

On a second down play during the second quarter of Saturday’s game, the Central Michigan Chippewas lined up with three receivers to the wide side of the field and one to the short side. To Shane Morris’s right was his running back. No tight-end.

The ball is snapped and the play begins. The Syracuse Orange D-Line explodes off the ball and Morris hands the ball to his back. Parris Bennett rushes the outside gap as a blitzer. Chris Slayton takes on a double team within the interior and the play flows to the boundary side of the field. The running back has no room inside, bouncing off the back of his own lineman and tries to escape to the outside. Zaire Franklin flashes from the backside of the play and drags him down. 4-yard loss.

The play is great defense and it’s what we’ve seen from this unit for 3 weeks now. Defensive coordinator Brian Ward has had his unit ready to play and the players are putting themselves in good situations.

This defense is playing well, but where are they? Individuals are producing at high levels, and as a unit, Syracuse’s defense has been incredibly efficient—stopping opponents at a rate of 21% on third down conversions over the first three games. But how much do statistics matter when, on paper, each opponent talent-wise is inferior?

It doesn’t seem that we have a gauge yet for where exactly this defense is, or what kind of potential it has. Last week’s gameplan against Central Michigan seemed similar to the one against Middle Tennessee State—this time it was just more effective at creating turnovers and keeping chunk plays to a minimum in the second half.

In the off-season, head coach Dino Babers emphasized a priority on defense getting after the quarterback. That doesn’t always mean sacks, but it does include moving quarterbacks off of their spot and forcing them into mistakes. Through three games, the Orange are second in the ACC in turnovers, intercepting three passes and recovering four fumbles.

At this point, we’re seeing defense that’s much more aggressive than a year ago. The D-Line has improved physically, looking much thicker and more explosive as a defensive front. They have a much better understanding of gap control and leverage, and the added emphasis on pass rush this season has allowed Zaire Franklin and his linebacker crew to have much more involvement in the backfield.

On the back-end, Christopher Fredrick and Rodney Williams have stepped up to replace what was lost in Antwan Cordy, and the secondary is doing a much better job playing top down, taking out receivers at the point of the catch on completed passes. They still struggle adjusting to combination routes like switch concepts—where two receivers cross at the beginning of the route (think post-wheel)—but they showed dramatic improvement between Week 2 and 3. This is a sign that they’ve learned from the mistakes of weeks past.

I don’t expect LSU Tigers to be much of a threat through the air, but if the Orange want to give themselves a chance this week, the front seven and the secondary are going to have to elevate their play once again. Otherwise, they may be in for a long one.