The run defense for the Syracuse Orange has dominated the headlines for the past couple of games now, and for good reason. ‘Cuse ranks dead last in rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed, and average rushing yards allowed in the ACC. With those stats, it would make sense that most teams would focus on developing the run game against the Orange.
The last thing that Syracuse is for a hole in their pass defense to be revealed. Unfortunately, the Orange must contend with the Heisman front-runner and the favorite for the No.1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft in Trevor Lawrence. A talented quarterback like him is going to notice any flaws that might appear in Syracuse’s pass coverage, and he could target another issue that has popped up sometimes in Syracuse’s 3-3-5 defense.
Keep in mind that the Orange pass defense hasn’t been tested the past few games for a couple of reasons. The primary and obvious one is that opposing offenses found so much success on the ground that it made sense to keep pounding the rock with any running back they desired to use. The other sneaky reason is that the quarterbacks that Syracuse have faced in the past few games aren’t necessarily the best throwers of the ball. None of the recent opposing QBs showed the ability to greatly damage the Orange through the air with their arms.
The only quarterback who found a lot of success in the passing game this year so far against Syracuse is Kenny Pickett. In fact, the Pittsburgh quarterback’s number should probably be better than what was recorded in the box score due to the high amount of passes that the Panthers dropped. In that game against the Orange, Pickett routinely found openings in zone coverage and was very accurate with his ball placement in order to gain 10 or more yards on average per completion.
Why is this important? Almost everyone in the college football world would agree that Lawrence is a better quarterback than Pickett. With that being said, it would be foolish to think that the Clemson quarterback hasn’t looked at the film from that game and noticed the weakness of SU’s zone coverage. Even Jeff Sims, who is more known for his legs than his arm, found openings in Syracuse’s zone coverage to gain significant yards through the air.
The main reason why the Orange zone coverage hasn’t been too impressive this year probably comes down to youth. Not only are there more young players in the secondary due to injuries to Andre Cisco and Eric Coley, there are young players in the linebacker corps as well. Pickett routinely found gaps over the middle and just floated balls over the linebackers’ heads.
The 3-3-5 demands the linebackers to be versatile, which means Tony White has regularly called for the linebackers to drop back into zone coverage often. It doesn’t seem like that the linebackers are as comfortable in coverage as they are in the pass rush. Unfortunately for them, the linebackers still need to play an important role in assisting the secondary in the zone coverage that Syracuse often employs in the middle of the field.
That brings us back to the main point: Lawrence. With the talent that he has at his disposal, most people can probably make a fair assumption that he’ll easily identify those gaps in the middle of the field that are created by Syracuse’s coverage. That doesn’t mean that Lawrence won’t look to target the receivers covered by Ifeatu Melifonwu and Garrett Williams, but those two have shown that it is tough for any quarterback to find consistent success when they are thrown to.
Let’s also be clear: Syracuse doesn’t face another quarterback with the same talent that Lawrence has this year, with perhaps the best signal caller remaining on the Orange schedule being Notre Dame’s Ian Book. However, the last thing that Syracuse needs is another gap in their defense to be exposed. Lawrence can easily do that, and if he successfully bullies Syracuse’s zone coverage, that means SU’s future opponents have more ammo at their disposal to attack the unique look of the 3-3-5 defense.