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Clemson vs. Syracuse: Defensive Scouting Report

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse is an improving team under Dino Babers, and it isn’t due just to the meteoric rise of his offense with Eric Dungey at the helm. Brian Ward was brought in to complement the Orange fast-paced aerial attack implemented by Babers, and the results are better this year than they were in 2016 despite a talent drop. Long gone are the high-risk, high-reward, frenetic cover 0 jailbreak blitzes featured by Scott Shafer; Syracuse became a far more conservative defense since Ward’s hiring — incorporating mostly cover 2 derivatives in both man and zone — and has actually improved from disastrous to middling here in 2017.

While conservative in defensive philosophy, don’t let the label fool you into thinking Syracuse isn’t diverse; they run far more different coverages than Clemson usually faces, with plenty of different calls all from the same 4-3 stack (they almost never employ nickel or dime personnel) with a 2 deep safety look. Despite this, Syracuse fields one of the least creative defenses I’ve ever watched. There are next to no disguises (merely half-hearted attempts which opponents easily check) or exotic looks, which would benefit them when facing such a talent gap.

They’ll still run a handful of man blitzes — usually a man cover 1 Sam fire or Mike bullet — but I expect far fewer against Kelly Bryant and Clemson this week than usual; Given Bryant’s relative struggles against zone, their propensity to maintain a 7 man box, and desire to keep two safeties deep, I expect Syracuse will show mostly cover 2 Friday night unless Clemson is truly gashing them in the run as they should.

Most interesting to me is the prevalence of Tampa 2 zone in the Syracuse wheelhouse; it’s not a coverage Clemson often sees. Though I personally am not a fan of Tampa 2 for it being the ultimate in bend-but-don’t-break defense, when played properly it can be effective at making an offense work methodically down the field, which inconveniently for Syracuse, is exactly what Clemson has done most successfully on offense this year.

Tampa 2 is a derivative of cover 2, which is so named because the two safeties split responsibility for the deep halves of the field. 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:

While technically considered cover 2 because of two deep safeties, Tampa 2 is effectively cover 3 because the Mike has deep middle responsibility. Because of this reliance on a freakishly smart and talented middle linebacker, Tampa 2 is extremely vulnerable against play-action behind the Mike and between the safeties. Syracuse Mike linebacker Zaire Franklin is one of their best players and more than capable of playing Tampa 2 effectively, but there are still simple ways Clemson can attack him through the air when Clemson so chooses.

The linebackers seem the strength of the Syracuse defense, but Clemson should have plenty of opportunities against the safeties when play-action victimizes the linebackers. When looking at deep shots, Clemson should align Milan Richard on the boundary side to run a seam, attacking the same side on which Deon Cain runs a go. This will lead to deep openings against cover 2 and cover 4 (which defenses have often switched to when Bryant is humming) respectively: in cover 2, the free safety must choose between defending Cain on the go route (assuming he can even get outside in time) or Richard on the seam; against cover 4, the safety can’t double cover Cain outside because Richard will be in his zone.

Even in man cover 2, Syracuse struggles to provide outside help.

Ultimately, the Syracuse defensive line is deficient and the Orange don’t generate pressure even when blitzing. This is a recipe for disaster against a Clemson offense adept at taking what is given; meaning Clemson should find 5 yards on the ground consistently — without having to run Bryant — and have the matchup advantages through the air should Clemson feel inclined to tune its downfield passing game (they will). I don’t see Syracuse limiting Clemson offensively unless Bryant is significantly hampered or out of the game for significant stretches. This should be both an efficient and explosive performance for the Clemson offense.

Clemson 45, Syracuse 20