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Syracuse is Still a Bend and Break Defense

Wait did something happen this week?

NCAA Football: Florida State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse week is a special week here at STS, not because it’s normally a particularly buzz-worthy game but because the Clemson-Syracuse matchup became the most unexpected, hate-filled “rivalry” in the new look ACC. Most of the buzz this year though has centered around a certain quarterback development and I for one am happy to have a game which requires my focus here at the end of a stressful, dramatic week.

The Clemson-Syrcause hate has flowed since their ACC arrival in 2013, exploding on our end after Scott Shafer’s sideline hissy fit that year, and of course after last year’s result. Or is all the hate simply a meme in our comments section which won’t die, since Dino Babers is universally loved here? Regardless, revenge makes it more personal this year like it was against Shafer, our affection for Dino notwithstanding.

Babers wasn’t the biggest name in the wave of renowned new hires the ACC touted a couple of years ago, but he is by far the most dynamic and respected personality; widely believed to be a rising star in the coaching ranks. He brought to Upstate New York a tempo-based air raid, one which I fully expect to stress the Clemson defense Saturday, but his defense under coordinator Brian Ward saw just as dramatic a philosophical shift from the Shafer regime as did the Syracuse offense.

Ward has been with Babers since the latter’s days at Bowling Green, and employs a Tampa 2 or cover 2 based system. Whenever an opponent leans heavily on a specific philosophy or particular coverage, I like to take the rare opportunity to focus more on the scheme than any personnel mismatches (given Clemson’s talent advantage vs the rest of the conference, highlighting personnel mismatches gets redundant/arrogant). Considered one of the most conservative coverages, Tampa 2 is the ultimate in “bend but don’t break” and I am thus not a fan of the coverage personally, unless you have a 1st rounder at middle linebacker who excels in deep coverage:

While technically considered cover 2 because of two safeties splitting the deep halves, 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, it’s not as common outside the NFL and is extremely vulnerable behind the Mike and between the safeties.

On one hand, Ward is in his 3rd year recruiting players to his system; on the other, Zaire Franklin no longer mans the middle of the defense. Fittingly, the returns four games into 2018 have been mixed, surrendering over 600 yards to Western Michigan in the opener but overwhelming the Florida State offensive line in a 30-7 victory.

The biggest difference from 2017 is this year’s shift to a 4-2-5 nickel base from a 4-3, due in part to attrition at linebacker but also in an effort to shore up a perpetually shaky secondary. The drawback there, of course, is less than ideal run defense, particularly with linebackers missing run fits.

However, this isn’t to say Syracuse never deviates from its professed zone (unlike their basketball team). Ward will bring a safety down and play cover 3 frequently, particularly against 2x2 wide receiver sets or when he wants to pressure. Most blitzes are in front of cover 3 and involve bullets up the middle, usually leaving plenty of room across the middle underneath. Attacking these voids in the face of pressure up the middle is the next step in Trevor Lawrence’s maturation, one he failed to take in College Station against Texas A&M when the Aggies threw bodies into the A-gaps.

Breaking in new linebackers seems the obvious weakness on this defense, and with only two on the field Clemson would probably be wise to GIVE TRAVIS ETIENNE MORE THAN 10 CARRIES PER GAME as has been the usual, and then let Trevor Lawrence find the holes in the zone when Etienne is keeping the linebackers from dropping back too quickly.

The strength of the unit is undoubtedly the defensive line, and of course the line was able to abuse the FSU front and vindicate much of its preseason optimism. Syracuse has monster defensive tackles in 3-tech headliner Chris Slayton and nose tackle McKinley Williams, but Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman are capable ends who will be tasked with keeping Ward from needing to blitz.

It’s been a week in Clemson; not exactly the ideal time for what very well could be the toughest remaining game on the schedule (we’ll probably adjust that title weekly since the ACC is so WTF this year). It’s the Syracuse offense which gives us concern, but the defensive line is good enough to allow for some bend in the Syracuse back end. The problem is that they will almost certainly break.

With the ACC in a serious free-fall, it is not outlandish to suggest the Clemson staff knows a 1-loss ACC champion is not a sure thing for the playoff like the past two seasons. The move to Lawrence was likely inevitable as he gained experience, and it’s a highly convenient coincidence that Clemson felt compelled to move to its high-ceiling QB before facing such an adept offense, the very week of the redshirt cutoff. And in studying the Syracuse defense, the timing for Lawrence couldn’t be better; the middle of the field will be ripe for the taking if the run game is as strong as it was at Georgia Tech.

In its Tampa 2, Syracuse has been in a pick your poison dilemma in the back 7: drop into coverage and bust a run fit, or crash the run and watch a pass completed right over your head. There is no better week to actually establish Etienne and let Lawrence feed off the linebacker indecision. If the Syracuse defensive line can’t contain the run or pressure Lawrence on their own, Ward will then try to force the issue with blitzes, leaving himself vulnerable to vertical routes against cover 3 and man to man. Keep Lawrence upright (get used to reading that phrase) and Clemson should pull away in a game which will challenge the Clemson defense. We’ll find out a lot about Lawrence and the Clemson secondary Saturday, but I already have more confidence in the former than the latter.

Clemson 55, Syracuse 28