Four days later, the loss to Miami is still deflating. Let’s just dive in.
Week 7 vs. Miami: Defense by the Numbers
|Points per Possession||1.9|
|Points Off Turnovers Allowed||0|
|Total Yards Allowed||481|
|Rush Yards Allowed||184|
|Opp. Yards per Carry||5.1|
|Pass Yards Allowed||297|
|Opp. Yards per Attempt||7.8|
|Opp. Yards per Play||6.5|
Twenty-five points isn’t a lot, but six scoring drives definitely is. The unit deserves credit for holding Miami to field goals on four of those drives—and especially for keeping the Hurricanes out of the end zone on a third-quarter drive where they reached first and goal at Tech’s three-yard line. But they still allowed Miami to rack up nearly 500 total yards and get into scoring range on six separate occasions. That’s especially problematic given that Miami was without their two biggest big-play threats, running back Mark Walton and receiver Ahmmon Richards.
The havoc rate was low, as the national average across all FBS teams is 16.3%. The defensive line has been pulling its weight in this realm—they now rank No. 26 in the nation in defensive line havoc rate and No. 12 in sack rate on passing downs. The linebackers and defensive backs, meanwhile, have work to do.
One additional stat that’s worth noting: Miami converted just two of 12 third downs. Tech has improved tremendously in that respect this season, and they deserve credit for making progress in what was previously a major problem area. Unfortunately, Miami still racked up 24 first downs in the game—they just picked them up on first and second down.
The front four did reasonably well in the pass rush, especially considering it was often just the four of them rushing. They finished with three sacks; two came on crucial third-down plays in the second half, and defensive end Antonio Simmons was in on both of them. Simmons and defensive tackle Desmond Branch were also each credited with a QB hurry, and the linemen were able to force Miami quarterback Malik Rosier out of the pocket a few other times. True freshman defensive tackle Antwan Owens also made an impact (when he wasn’t being dragged to the ground on a play that somehow wasn’t flagged).
The big concerns were in stopping the run. Backup running back Travis Homer had 20 carries for 170 yards for Miami. This wasn’t entirely the line’s fault—many of Homer’s big gains were on read option runs or were a result of nobody being there to meet him once he reached the second level. And they had occasional success in containing Homer, particularly when Brandon Adams was on the field. That said, allowing the opposing team to pick up 5.1 yards per carry (and an alarming 8.5 YPC for the primary ballcarrier) over an entire game is a sign of trouble.
For once, the team seems to have depth at defensive tackle, and the end rotation features three capable veterans. Simmons and Branch have emerged as capable pass rushers, so the question is how well all of them can get leverage against opposing linemen and close down running lanes in the weeks ahead. They did well in that arena against Pitt, but Miami’s performance on the ground—particularly after UNC ran the ball with some success two weeks ago—is cause for concern.
Status: Stable with signs of leakage
My past few assessments of the linebackers have been hard on them, largely due to the lack of impact plays behind the line of scrimmage. That said, while there haven’t been many tackles for loss, the linebackers—particularly junior Brant Mitchell, the veteran leader of the unit—have routinely been in position to make tackles and hold ballcarriers to reasonably short gains. But after Mitchell was sidelined with an injury early in Saturday’s contest, the remainder of the game provided a look at how the linebackers would fare without the junior anchoring the unit. The result was... concerning.
Victor Alexander played most of the game and was sent on blitzes more often than usual; he finished with five tackles, but he spent much of his time chasing down opposing players on the perimeter instead of attacking. Terrell Lewis spelled him and played much of the fourth quarter, but during Miami’s bubble screen barrage he was often too far away from the play to make a quick tackle on the receiver. Aside from the veterans, true freshman Bruce Jordan-Swilling saw plenty of action and tied for the team lead in tackles (seven); the raw talent is definitely there, but it was clear that he’s still learning how to play the position and diagnose plays. Sophomore Tre Jackson took over for Jordan-Swilling late in the game and made a few nice plays in run support. Like Lewis, he had trouble sweeping to the outside to make tackles on those bubble screens, but overall he acquitted himself well and may be working his way up the depth chart.
The younger guys have shown promise, but the fact remains that Tech just gave up 8.5 yards per carry to an opposing running back and struggled to deter short passes. Getting Mitchell back will help in both areas, assuming he’s able to return this week, but the same concerns about stopping the run mentioned in the previous section also apply here. Too often the linebackers, veterans and rookies alike, get lost in traffic and are out of position to make a tackle as the running back reaches the second level. That needs to improve.
For health reasons, this article will not include a gif or image of that play. But for what it’s worth, Lamont Simmons did everything he could. He got a hand on the ball to swat it out of Darrell Langham’s hands and got turned around a little in the process. In the brief moment it took him to turn back around, the ball had bounced off Langham’s helmet and was about to land in the receiver’s hands. There was little that the Tech corner could do at that point. There was little any Tech fan could do at that point except weep.
Overall, the secondary had some good moments. Simmons only played significant snaps in the fourth quarter after he was tasked with covering the 6-foot-5 Langham, but he held his own. Field corner Lance Austin broke up passes on back-to-back plays in the first quarter, helping to limit Miami to a field goal during a red zone trip, and when he and boundary corner Step Durham were tasked with man coverage, they stuck with their receivers down the field. Free safety A.J. Gray and nickel corner Lawrence Austin each made a few nice tackles.
And then there were moments like this:
That shot is from Miami’s touchdown drive late in the first half. Leaving a guy unmarked is one of the risks that comes with zone coverage, but note how far the safeties are behind the marker on second and 15. They’re playing prevent in a very favorable down-and-distance situation where Tech could have worked toward a defensive stop. Instead, Langham found a massive hole in the zone, then weaved through the defenders for what became a 32-yard reception, helping to set up the eventual score.
So yeah, it wasn’t all pretty for the defensive backs. Strong safety Corey Griffin tied for the team lead with seven tackles, but he also got burned badly on Miami’s longest play of the day, a 70-yard pass from Rosier to Jeff Thomas that included a long run after the catch. One of the early passes that Lance Austin broke up could easily have been a drive-ending interception instead. There were a few missed tackles, though that was true for every level of the defense.
The sky isn’t falling in terms of how well these guys are playing. They weren’t perfect, but the Tech secondary is a veteran unit that has largely proven they can be trusted with man coverage and aggressive assignments. They aren’t the ones who chose to line up in prevent coverage on the end-of-half drives that ultimately cost Tech the game. But speaking of that...
Status: Stable with signs of leakage
This will be long. Let’s just get right to the most frustrating part.
There were six bubble screens on that final drive, all of which were completed for a total of 55 yards. On each of the six, the defensive backs were playing 7-8 yards off the ball, aside from a couple where Lamont Simmons was about five yards off instead. The first could be forgiven. Playing the rest the same exact way was akin to conceding yards. It’s inexcusable.
There was also a seventh that had both slot receivers going out on bubble screens on opposite sides. For the first time in that sequence, coordinator Ted Roof moved the boundary-side defensive backs up. The problem is that the field-side defenders remained off the ball, so the resultant alignment looked like this:
Care to guess which way Rosier went with the ball? He didn’t even bother to look left toward the boundary at the snap, slinging it straight to Braxton Berrios for a six-yard gain. This play was negated by a Miami penalty for an illegal block below the waist, so officially the Hurricanes only ran six bubble screens on that drive. But let the record show that they did the same thing a seventh time and Roof’s adjustment did nothing to stop it.
The other difference from the other six was that Roof sent a linebacker on a blitz. It was one of two occasions on that final drive (which ran 15 plays plus this non-play) where Roof actually sent pressure. On the rest, the defensive backs played back and the linebackers hung around in their usual spots, which kept them too far away from the slot receivers to assist quickly on the bubble screens.
(Note: after the game, Miami coach Mark Richt clarified that all of those bubble screens were run-pass options for quarterback Malik Rosier. So had the linebackers been pulled away to either side, it’s possible Miami could have run the ball to devastating effect. But that’s merely a theory. In practice, Roof schemed explicitly to prevent a big play, and Miami punished him for it.)
To his credit, Roof threw blitzes at the quarterback often enough in the first 28 minutes of each half. He wasn’t quite as creative with stunts and zone blitzes as he was against UNC and Pitt, but he did continue to mix up the pressure, bringing Gray on safety blitzes often and sending a boundary corner blitz early on. The problem is that all of that vanished in those final minutes of each half. Twice Miami got the ball with just enough time to move down the field for a score. Each time, Tech’s defensive coordinator had his veteran unit drop into soft zones to prevent the big play, relying almost entirely on a three or four-man rush for pressure. Each time, Miami took advantage by racking up easy yardage underneath. Each time, Miami ended up getting points.
The first-half drive may have been even worse than the game-winning push at the end. Miami started with 1:59 on the clock and managed the clock fairly badly, wasting more than a minute moving 13 yards (including two run plays) before picking up the pace. The killer for Miami was the 32-yard completion to Langham described in the Secondary section; while that one was on the defensive backs for leaving him so wide open, they’re not the ones who schemed to have the safeties playing 20+ yards off the ball.
The coaching staff let these guys down. That’s on Roof, and ultimately it falls on Johnson. The head coach said on Tuesday that the late collapse was a mix of bad calls and poor execution, which is true but also minimizes the role of the former. This game lined up with the frustrating tendency that Roof had shown in Tech’s first two ACC games: a willingness to get creative with blitz packages and coverages for most of the game, only to revert back to his old and wildly conservative tendencies in the final minutes of each half. It ended up not mattering in home games against Pitt and UNC, two teams that will likely finish the year near the bottom of the division. But the signs were there, and they proved catastrophic in a road contest against a much better opponent.
Honestly, it’s practically a broken record at this point. We’ve seen progress from the defensive staff, but it simply isn’t enough.
Status: Leaking with signs of caving in
For the record, the goal of the Roof Inspection Report isn’t to pin this loss—or any future loss or general bad performance--solely on the defense. That was never the point. The goal here is the same as it’s been from the beginning: to review the defense’s performance to see what’s going well (or not so well), what is evolving from week to week, and what needs to improve.
The loss to Miami was in no way solely the fault of the defense. The offense recorded just three points in the second half and went completely silent over the last 20 minutes of the game, recording 28 total yards in that span. That falls mainly on Paul Johnson. Yes, the rainstorm hindered the offense by preventing guys from changing direction rapidly and accelerating. No, it isn’t an excuse for being as conservative as he was with his offensive playcalls over the home stretch.
But the Miami game exposed depth concerns at a couple positions on defense, issues with stopping the run, and some serious playcalling flaws on that side of the ball. The defense has definitely taken a step forward from a year ago; it’s a much more experienced group, and the improved pass rush has benefited the secondary in a big way. But they still have issues that need to be corrected, and those largely hinge on how personnel are deployed and what plays are called.
Ideally, this game will be a wake-up call for the staff and for a unit that has the potential to be Tech’s best defense in years.