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100 Days to Kickoff: Preview: Defense

The unit improved at the end of 2016, is that improvement here to stay?

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Bowl-Kentucky vs Georgia Tech Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

I like Twitter. Not only does it deliver all my sports news to one convenient page, but it also captures the snapshots of emotion that sports elicit from us all. It is impossible to talk about the 2016 edition of the Georgia Tech Defense without addressing the emotions(mostly frustration) experienced by the fan base over the course of the season. While the profanity-laced rants are gone to the wind, the tweets remain. The defense and the fanbase hit rock bottom on Nov. 5, with an embarrassment in Chapel Hill. Twitter Remembers:

With a 6-6 finish looking likely, there wasn’t much optimism going into the next game against VPISU, as Twitter remembers again:

But the above turned out to be unwarranted, Tech wouldn’t lose again. The defense played well down the stretch, with a few hiccups, and the offense carried the team to victory. With the majority of the starters returning and some exciting freshmen coming in, there may be cause for new emotion this offseason: hope........ Maybe.

2016 In Review

Looking at the year as a whole, the Tech defense was mediocre to bad, according to S&P+. A short explanation of S&P+ for defense can be found here, along with the full stats for all of FBS. It’s important to remember that S&P+ is adjusted for the quality of opponent and for garbage time. Georgia Tech’s adjusted statistical rankings are as follows:

Adjusted Def Stats 2016.csv

Category 2016 Rank
Category 2016 Rank
Def S&P+ 57
Rushing S&P+ 100
Passing S&P+ 75
Success Rate+ 112
IsoPPP+ 67

The ranking of 57th out of 128 FBS teams is mediocre to bad for a Power 5 team. What is surprising, is how badly this team performed against the run last year. Much of the bellyaching from the Tech fan base last year was in regards to the soft pass defense employed by Ted Roof and the lack of a pass rush.

The Success Rate+ ranking of 112th is particularly telling. In short, Success Rate evaluates how efficiently offenses are able to operate against the Tech Defense, and IsoPPP+ measures how the explosiveness of opposing offenses. I promise I’ll explain this better in the un-adjusted stats section.

The take away from these rankings is this: Even though the big plays were limited, Offenses were able to operate at will against Tech’s defense too often.

Raw Statistics

Here’s where things get quite telling. These are the raw stats, before the adjustments seen above:

Raw 2016 Def Stats.csv

Category Raw Stats 2016 Rank
Category Raw Stats 2016 Rank
Success Rate 46.1% 109
IsoPPP 1.13 8
Havoc Rate 11.9% 123
Front 7 Havoc 6.5% 120
DB Havoc 5.3% 101

Ok, so now what is Success Rate and IsoPPP, really? Success Rate is defined as the percentage of plays that count as a “success”? So what is a success? A success is defined as a play that gets at least 50% of the required yardage(for a first down) on first down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third and 4th down. Tech allowed this to happen on 46.1% of its defensive snaps, good for DEAD LAST in the ACC.

IsoPPP(Isolated Points Per Play), measures the explosiveness of those plays. It is calculated by taking the number of opponent offensive points and dividing that number by the number of successes, not total plays. Due to the sheer number of successful plays allowed, this number doesn’t mean as much for Tech. Teams still scored at will for much of the year.

So Tech was good at preventing the big play, but allowed offenses to be too efficient to be an effective stop unit. That makes intuitive sense based on what was observed over the course of the year. Soft coverage, struggles with screen passes, and soft run defense led to long marches down the field. Tech couldn’t ever get its offense the ball.

Then there’s Havoc Rate, which is the percentage of plays that end in a sack, TFL, pass defensed, fumble, or interception. This Tech defense was ABYSMAL at causing havoc. 123rd out of 128 FBS teams. For reference, Michigan was best in the land with a 23.9% havoc rate, more than double Tech’s number. Was the problem scheme? Talent? Youth? It was most likely a bit of all of the above.

Will the Real Tech Defense Please Stand Up?

There was one big problem I had with Bill Connelly’s preview he published this week. He claimed that the 2016 Tech defense faded down the stretch buy looking at the last 6 games, when in reality he should have looked at the last 4.

After hitting rock bottom against UNC, something clicked for the Tech defense, it seemed to become a bit more aggressive, and the results dramatically improved. However, the Jackets didn’t face an offense with an offensive S&P+ higher than 51 during that stretch. Did the defense get better, or did the competition get worse? The numbers:

Defensive Splits 2016.csv

Category Before UNC After UNC
Category Before UNC After UNC
Yards/Play 6.5 5.1
Yards/Drive 40 34
Points/Drive 2.63 1.78
Turnovers/Gm 1.13 2.5
Avg Opp Off S&P+ Rank 57.5 71.5

So which defense will show up in 2017? The one that allowed teams to march up and down the field, or the one that limited opponent drives and caused turnovers?

What to Expect

This unit won’t likely make a huge jump in 2017, but there should be some improvement at all 3 levels. Age and experience will help, and the true Tech defense probably lies somewhere between the one that showed up against UNC and the one that showed up against VPISU and Kentucky. With offenses in the Coastal set to regress slightly this year, that may lead to some better results.

I’m not terribly concerned about the departures. Pat Gamble was a leader and havoc creator, but he was one of only 3 starters departing. The young defenders on this team have loads of upside, and could surpass those who they will replace given time.

The improvement of the defense will hinge on the development of a few key players. Will Brandon Adams become the force he showed he could be? Will Antonio Simmons put it all together his senior year? He almost did last year. How will Desmond Branch transition to the Interior? Will Anree Saint-Amour finally be given the snaps he deserves? Will AJ Gray play like the all time great CPJ said he could be?

I’ve long been a Ted Roof critic, but if he can get his squad playing like they did down the stretch last year, I’ll shut my mouth with a smile.