Look: things were not great for the Syracuse Orange football team in 2020. The team finished in the bottom of the ACC, struggling to keep any opponent off the scoreboard and couldn’t get themselves on it much, either. However, the new 3-3-5 defense installed by Tony White opened some eyes from behind despairing hands, and found a way to evolve a Syracuse defense that has consistently pressured the quarterback at a nation topping rate.
Most quarterback hits generated over the last three seasons:— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 8, 2021
1. Clemson - 178
2. Syracuse - 171
3. Alabama - 165
FBS average - 98 pic.twitter.com/yTyHsaIxMh
For those who are probably wondering, what does that year by year breakdown look like? Well here you go, straight from PFF themselves:
Syracuse’s Pass Rush (Last 3 Years)
These numbers look solid, even with 2020’s dip that was still above the national average for QB hits. The dip can be attested to two main factors: a new system was implemented in a COVID restricted offseason, and injuries forced starters off the field. How did the Orange’s pressure progress as the season went along? (Also from PFF)
2020 Syracuse Defensive Pressure
Defensive Pressure Improved as the Season Went Along
In what may be a surprise, the Orange were actually much better at generating pressure later in the season, after many starters went down for the season with injuries. The more surprising part? The Orange’s back 6 was actually more challenging according to PFF (65.65 average pass block grade) than the opening 5 (60 average pass block grade).
Keep This Pace And Cuse Will Be Fine
The Clemson game felt like a slight revival for ‘Cuse in the putrid 2020 season, as the defense once again kept Clemson off the board just enough for the offense to make Dabo sweat it out. From that game on, the Orange averaged 19 pressures per game, and if you extrapolate that pace out over a full 12 game season, you roughly get:
- 228 Total Pressures
- 144 Hurries
- 50 Hits
- 34 Sacks
Those numbers are right between 2018 and 2019’s Top 25 type numbers.
How can the Orange maintain these numbers? Having all three defensive lineman return is a big start. Returning Mikel Jones and Geoff Cantin-Arku (two top pressuring LBs) is another big step. The final key? Solidifying the Rover position. Rob Hanna finished the year as the depth chart’s top rover, with Ja’Had Carter also schematically appearing there. Neither were able to replicate the early season success of Andre Cisco (for reasons starting with the latter being NFL ready), which clearly didn’t impact QB pressures. However, for this defense to truly level up, that position needs to be able to provide adequate run support and force QB’s into holding on to the ball out of fear of a break-up or more.
This Doesn’t Fix Everything, But It’s Big
Defense isn’t just about making the QB hit the turf. As the Orange showed often in the last two seasons, if a team can run up the middle successfully, they will until you stop them, and will win doing so. However, in a 3-3-5 defensive system based around misdirection and matchups, getting to the QB effectively becomes the foundation of causing turnovers and preventing too many trips into the red zone. The young reserves proved they could do so against the middle class of the ACC; Doing so over an entire 12 game season is next step for White’s unit.