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Film Preview: Georgia Tech Defense

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Georgia Tech’s defense is off to a fantastic start, but should be overmatched and outmanned against Clemson’s balance

Vanderbilt v Georgia Tech Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Film study is back! I hope you’ll forgive us for the lack of film-related content over these last two weeks, and no we didn’t simply slack off while Brian is on vacation, dreaming up STS Cookin’ recipes. Between real-world schedules and the loss of Tigerray on YouTube, it has been a dark and difficult time for those of us who try to scout/grade both Clemson and its opponents.

Luckily, there is still plenty of content online yet to be taken down by the ACC, so all is not yet lost; Dbbm and I are back to tell you what you need to know in Clemson’s matchup vs the tricky Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech.

It seems I’ll have the easier job this week — Georgia Tech sorely lacks talent on both sides of the ball even by ACC standards, and there is not a defensive scheme to make up for a lack of skill like the Jackets have on offense. Take pity on Dbbm who not only is a Bears fan but also spent too much time this week watching the living nightmare otherwise known as the triple option.

Defensively, Tech is off to a great start albeit against expectedly horrible offenses in Boston College and Vanderbilt. It is not a stretch to say that FCS Mercer is far and away the best offense they’ve faced. Because of this, I remain unimpressed by the 3-0 start. The defensive stats did catch my eye regardless of competition and I wanted to take a closer look at a defense which has been undeniably stingy in allowing just over 10 points and 300 yards per game.

Clemson’s offense took two games to show any sort of competence, but when the dam burst it was against such a poor opponent in SC State that we can’t be sure the offense has truly arrived and will buzz through the Jackets. Can Tech keep up its success on defense against what should be the best offense in the country and undeniably the best offense they will face? Do they have enough talent in spots to give their offense a chance? As always, I focused on the scheme and defensive front in formulating an opinion.

Scheme

Ted Roof returned to Georgia Tech to lead its defense in 2013 and operates from a 4-3 hybrid base defense; the hybrid of course being the Sam/nickel position where Tech lists #52 Terrell Lewis and #32 David Curry as co-starters. More often than not, Tech wants to play zone coverage to keep everything in front of it. They seem to play primarily cover 3 and cover 4, which are great calls to help the front 7 in run support, but any deficiency in the pass rush can lead to naught but frustration.

The problems I found in Tech’s zones are also the defense’s greatest weaknesses: the defensive line generates very little pass rush or penetration, and Mike linebacker Brant Mitchell (#52) consistently looks both slow and uncomfortable in space. While points and yards have not flowed against it, Tech has given up a fairly high completion percentage due to underneath throws vs soft zone:

Boston College and Vanderbilt each run sub-standard pro-style attacks, and Tech was able to sit in 4-3 alignments the majority of each contest:

Tech’s base 4-3. More often than not, they shade the line to the weak side (under) but will flip to strength (over) in nickel or passing downs.

Don’t expect quite as much 4-3 tonight, however. Against Mercer’s spread and even against a multiple but hapless Vanderbilt attack, I saw Tech bring in nickel corner (back-up SS) #20 Lawrence Austin more often, even on standard downs to counter 3 and 4 wide receiver sets.

Tech’s nickel formation, Austin replaces Lewis/Curry to better defend a slot receiver.

Clemson has the flexibility to run countless formations from its base 11 personnel. Meaning, Clemson won’t need to substitute or allow Tech to do so, and Tech will be at an almost constant personnel disadvantage. In the 4-3, Lewis or Curry will be hard pressed to cover Leggett or McCloud. Let’s say if Clemson converts a third down in 11 shotgun vs nickel, Clemson can then go up-tempo and run over the undersized Austin (5’9” 185) with Gallman without substituting. This is a problem for every defense, not to mention one at a talent deficit.

This is where Clemson’s balance and flexibility are so deadly. With a hybrid Sam and frequent nickel usage, Tech is actually better equipped schematically to stop Clemson than you would think; the issues will derive from a lack of talent not simply across the roster, but at the crucial Sam position.

Lewis and Curry were both low 3 stars; barely inside the top 100 at their positions. Making matters worse, Tech likes to run 4-3 Under when they expect a run play, but Lewis and Curry both lack the size of an Under Sam.

And although Tech won’t need to substitute to match Clemson schematically on standard downs with these hybrid Sams, I don’t expect either to hold up against against Clemson’s balanced and multi-faceted attack. Scheme can’t overcome a lack of athleticism against quality opponents.

Neither Size Nor Speed Up Front

I cannot envision a defense stopping Clemson (unless it continuously fails to execute obviously) without outstanding defensive line play like we saw at Auburn. The first thing I noticed when I looked at Tech’s depth chart was an undersized defensive line. They run a 1 gap 4-3, so immovable size isn’t as valuable as athletic quickness, but it didn’t look like a quality P5 line last year even with Adam Gotsis manning the nose. You know, this monster:

This was Tech’s only playmaker on defense, at a position which always gives Clemson trouble. He now plays for the Denver Broncos.

Gotsis has moved on to the NFL, leaving behind only one lineman over 280 pounds in the entire two deep. This light line could very well be a defensive front which offers the salve to an ailing Clemson offensive line, but it is quick penetration which stops the Clemson zone run game, not necessarily girth or strength. Does Tech have any quickness up front though? Based on what I’ve seen, no. There is next to no pass rush or penetration in the run game:

This is abysmal line play; heavy, plodding feet and no hand usage to generate separation. Penetration is a pipe dream unless there are missed assignments like we saw against Troy.
Tech struggles to generate a pass rush without the stunts and blitzes seen here.
Here, Tech had the perfect matchup with a DE against a TE, but the rush lacked the athleticism to finish and protect the cover 0 behind it.

The strength (in terms of upside) of Tech’s defense seems to be the rebuilt secondary, comprised of 4 new starters. More often than not, they are left out to dry by a weak pass rush in soft zone coverage, or given the unfair task of cover 0 behind a blitz that can’t reach the quarterback. This makes an athletic, promising unit seem underwhelming, and unless the defensive backfield can force Watson into mistakes (or simply benefit from Clemson’s usual multitude of unforced errors) Tech will have to hope it can play keep-away from the Clemson offense.

Bottom Line

I don’t mean to convey fanboy-level overconfidence in Clemson or utter disdain for Tech; I have three 1st cousins who are alumni, one of which played under Paul Johnson so I am not a snobby internet Tech-hater. I try to point out areas Clemson should find success or where the opponent will give Clemson trouble. Clearly, I struggled with the latter.

I entered this week with an uneasy feeling Tech would pull the upset not because of irrelevant past Clemson failures in the venue, but from watching the Clemson offense struggle so mightily in the first two games. I worried Clemson’s offense would continue to struggle under the weight of expectations while Johnson victimized Clemson’s thin defensive end unit to a frustrating, slow-paced victory. Then I watched Tech’s defense give up only 10 points and 300 yards per game in its start, yet somehow it all changed.

There’s no way to sugarcoat the lack of talent on this defense; that the most promising unit is a brand new secondary should tell you all you need to know. The defensive line is undersized and lead-footed, there is a startling athletic deficiency at Mike linebacker, and the relatively promising defensive backs find their efforts undone thanks to soft zone coverage and a weak pass rush. The stellar conventional statistics do not match the eye test, and in analyzing this defense I actually changed my mind and will no longer pick the upset despite my shaken confidence in Clemson’s offense. Simply put, if Clemson avoids unforced errors the worst case scenario is a shootout.

Clemson 41, Tech 30