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Scouting Report: Syracuse Defense

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Virginia Tech v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Dino Babers is very likely the best of the new coaching talent wave which flooded the ACC this past offseason, and has drawn rave reviews from every corner of college football for his personality, character, and fast-paced spread offense. Lost in the newfound buzz around the Syracuse program is the complete shift in defensive philosophy, which as always, I want to highlight before the contest.

Syracuse could not look any more different defensively now than they did a year ago. Known for aggressive cover 0 and cover 1 man blitzes under Scott Shafer, Syracuse now employs a defense on the opposite end of the spectrum with almost exclusively zone coverage, particularly the ultimate in bend-but-don’t-break philosophy: Cover 2 and Tampa 2 zone coverage.

The term cover 2 derives from the safeties splitting responsibility for the deep halves of the field while the corners and linebackers cover underneath zones, always watching the quarterback. Tampa 2 takes this a step further, dropping the Mike linebacker even farther back, 10+ yards deep in order to try and eliminate the soft spaces between zone layers:

Tampa 2 coverage from a 4-3 base defense.

While technically considered cover 2 because of two high safeties, it is effectively a cover 3 because the Mike’s zone is so deep. Because of this reliance on a freakishly smart and talented middle linebacker, Tampa 2 is extremely vulnerable against play-action passes across the middle if the Mike lacks either of the two qualities in spades. If I’m Jordan Leggett, this is my dream coverage.

Although this is cover 3, it still illustrates the success to be found when play-action victimizes the Mike. It will be even more damaging against Tampa 2.

In addition to cover 2, Syracuse will also run plenty of cover 3 — which is usually the coverage behind its blitzes — and cover 4, which also happens to be Clemson’s base defense. I want to highlight the Syracuse defense against Virginia Tech, against whom Syracuse faced a schematically similar offense to Clemson, but also largely stymied in an upset win.

Syracuse is operating at a significant talent deficiency against Clemson, so we will of course see an abundance of disguised coverages to mitigate Clemson’s advantage out wide. Deshaun Watson has struggled with interceptions and misreads this season, and it is not unreasonable to expect another interception or two against a defense which will show a different call before the snap more often than not:

This looks like cover 4 at the snap, but watch the strong safety drop to the flat while the free safety shifts to the deep middle third, revealing cover 3.

Clemson’s advantage out wide is so great that Syracuse likely will guard against the deep ball in cover 2 and cover 4; avoiding the riskier cover 3 unless Clemson forces Syracuse to commit a safety underneath, as shown above. So what should Clemson do?

Establish Wayne Gallman, which at the very least will bring in the linebackers when Clemson calls play-action, and could eventually will force Syracuse to run more cover 3 and bring a safety down to defend the run, which will isolate Mike Williams and Deon Cain downfield. The poor run game and deep ball failures have held back an otherwise great offense all season, and Syracuse provides a good opportunity for Clemson to fix these issues before they might bite Clemson in the postseason.

In short, Syracuse is overmatched defensively and hopes its conservatism will force further seemingly inevitable Clemson mistakes. They will force the issue by disguising coverages, but that’s about all they have to offer in terms of complexity. Play cleanly, and the Clemson offense should pick up where it left off after the strong finish in Tallahassee.

Clemson 49, Syracuse 27