We’ve all acknowledged over the course of this season that there’s a bit of an issue with the Syracuse Orange’s offensive line. While the play has improved for the past three weeks on a largely inexperienced line, with three new starters in place at present, I figured I’d take a look at an actual breakdown of what is happening up front.
From the start of this game, Syracuse was up against Brent Venables, who is one of, if not the the best defensive coordinator in the country. He’s a coach who can game plan well and also adjust on the fly to what he’s seeing on the field. In this case, Venables trotted out a 3-3 Stack or modified 3-4 defense that was lining up the outside linebackers extremely wide. Both the Sam and Will linebackers were fluid; Either out in pass coverage, or coming hard on the blitz. Over the course of the game, I think Venables brought a good number of twists and stunts, possibly more than he usually would, to take advantage of a group of linemen still learning to work with each other.
Early in the game there was repeated pressure over the center of the line, clogging the inside gaps and running over the center and guards. Bringing the extra pressure here causes overloads that are usually picked up in pass blocking by players holding their position, with their head on a swivel, working with the rest of the line as a team, depending on where pressure is coming. Later on, the Tigers shuffled things around and stared varying where the blitzes were coming from, often the outside linebackers or even the safeties at various points. In doing so, it keeps the pass blocking off balance, and for a group who doesn’t have a ton of time together, spelled a bit of disaster.
Bringing pressure over the middle exposed a bit of an issue with the Syracuse line. In the situation they were placed in, Dakota Davis, the right guard, didn’t exactly shine. At numerous points in the game, he missed pickups, was confused by twists, or just didn’t pick up people heading past him. His chemistry with center Airon Servais also wasn’t particularly on display. There were a good few points that the pressure being brought up the middle exposed Davis and Servais, but in the full speed of the game, looked to be the fault of the tackles.
When the pass protection is exposed up the middle and Tommy DeVito isn’t able to step up, it forces him out past the tackles, or deep in the pocket to where the tackles are trying to ride their pass rushing defensive ends. Every safety blitz was brought to Davis’ side, rather than to the more experienced Evan Adams, and most times, that safety ran free through the line, flushing DeVito or sacking him.
When you end up with blitzers running free, you often think of leaving in a running back or keeping a tight end in to add another blocker to the scheme and create even numbers between the defensive rush and the offensive blockers. Unfortunately that only works if you’re able to account for where that pressure is coming from. If the line is collapsing, there’s little that can be done to add to the blocking scheme that will help. Traditionally the running back will work from the inside out, on the weak side to pick up whoever if coming free, but your linemen need to commit to their blocks so that the running back can spot where he needs to be.
In one case, on the third series of the game, Carlos Vettorello, the left tackle, didn’t commit inside to the block, and both the defensive tackle, as well as the linebacker blitzing outside came free. As part of the scheme, he likely was supposed to account for the down lineman and allow the linebacker to come free as a hot read, or have a running back pick him up. While this was a single play sort of mistake, it looked over the course to be a minor recurring theme for Vettorello, as there were a few times he had trouble protecting his down gap, either on run or pass plays. He was very solid on riding out an outside rush, but the inside he was beat at least three distinct times, including those noted above. A lot of that seems to be decisiveness, which can come with time and familiarity of the playbook. I
Over the course of the game there were also issues with the run blocking. Moving forward, we sure won’t be playing Brent Venables, but there will be competent coordinators throughout the conference looking to shut the Syracuse offense down. To do so, you can hedge on the pass, since the run blocking against both Clemson and Maryland has been so suspect.
In order to open up the playbook and take some pressure off of Tommy DeVito, the line will need to move some bodies for the called runs. Both Moe Neal and Abdul Adams have made something out of effectively nothing on the ground this year. Most counters and pull blocks were blown up against Clemson before they started. That’s a combination of Clemson’s talent and a lack of decisiveness in the pull by Davis and Adams. The backside dig blocks that cover for the pulling guards can also use some work, but that’s a different story. Not working against an odd front should fix a few of the back blocking issues, but the pulls still need to either seal or kick the end that’s being trapped. Otherwise the entire hole is blocked by your own lineman and there’s not a single inch to run in. Neal slipped through these holes a few times, but overall, he was pretty hung out to dry on true running plays.
The line itself has some talent, albeit raw, and it seems that there’s a culmination of a few things here. The talent of Clemson, odd front and non-repetitive stunting all lead to the game not looking pretty on the offensive front, but the Orange did have some solid play from many of their positions. Not facing that level of talent for a few weeks will allow what is still a very green line to get their legs under them and learn to work more as a unit.
Babers mentioned in his press conference that Sam Heckel is still a likely scratch against the Western Michigan Broncos. As such, we’re going to see that same unit we got a feel for these last two weeks. Here’s to hoping that Clemson was a learning experience and that they’re up for the challenge of the next nine games.
— For the record, if any of you actually want to see my drive breakdown, I put it together on a Google spreadsheet.