Welcome to the second Roof Inspection report, which arrives... much later than originally planned. As Tech gets ready for the ACC opener against Pitt, let's review their last performance against Jacksonville State, in which the game largely went well for the defense but certain concerns from the Tennessee game persisted.
Week 2 vs. Jacksonville State: Defense by the Numbers
|Points per Possession
|Total Yards Allowed
|Rush Yards Allowed
|Opp. Yards per Carry
|Pass Yards Allowed
|Opp. Yards per Attempt
|Opp. Yards per Play
On paper, this was a fantastic performance by the defense given that they were on four days' rest against a sneakily talented team with former five-star recruit Roc Thomas at running back. Tech allowed JSU to score on just two of 11 possessions and held them to 3.6 yards per play. The havoc rate improved greatly from the Tennessee game, in which the defense recorded a rate of just 6.8% and did not force a turnover.
The stat sheet on its own looks good, and the defense deserves plenty of credit for a good bounce-back effort. But those numbers don't tell the full story, so here is a deeper dive into the state of the defense.
A week after struggling to contain the run and failing to record a sack against Tennessee, the defensive line had a much stronger performance against JSU. They recorded six tackles for loss and three sacks in the game. Junior end Anree Saint-Amour led the way, finishing with two sacks and an additional tackle for loss. Tackle Desmond Branch had a quieter game after making his presence felt against Tennessee, but he nearly shut down a second-quarter screen pass in the backfield. While JSU's Thomas finished with 86 rush yards and 4.7 yards per carry, the front four had some success in closing off running lanes, partly thanks to tackle Brandon Adams getting more playing time. A third tackle, freshman Antwan Owens, saw action late and picked up his first career sack.
JSU posed less of a challenge up front than Tennessee, so it’s hard to draw any sweeping conclusions about the line's performance. All the same, it’s a positive sign for a unit that needs to be disruptive for Tech’s defense to succeed.
The good news is that the linebackers continued to rack up tackles. Brant Mitchell had a team-high eight tackles, and he, Victor Alexander, and Terrell Lewis combined for 20 tackles on the day. Whenever Horn or Thomas made it through the line on a carry, these three did a good job of ensuring that the ballcarrier did not turn it into a huge gain. Thomas's longest carry went for just 12 yards, and given the speed and athleticism that he showed, that has to go down as a win for the linebackers. The reserves saw some action late in the game, and true freshman T.D. Roof made a splash in his first action at linebacker, delivering a pair of sacks on JSU's final drive to force a three-and-out.
The bad news is a familiar issue: there was a clear lack of big plays by the linebackers (outside of the late-game series when the game was all but decided). They had occasional success in the pass rush—Alexander and Lewis were each credited with one QB hurry, and Mitchell would have had one if Tech had not been flagged for pass interference on the play in question. However, none of the three recorded a sack or a tackle for loss in the game. Through two games, the linebackers have a collective havoc rate of just 2.7% (including Roof's two sacks in garbage time), good for 80th in the nation as of last week.
One reason for that could be the scheme. Since the linebackers are so frequently tasked with playing short zones rather than marking players in man coverage, they can’t act quite as decisively when a run seems to be developing (what if it ends up being a play-action pass?). But there is still plenty of room to improve in how quickly the linebackers diagnose and react to opposing playcalls.
After a handful of near-misses in the opener, the secondary succeeded in turning JSU mistakes into turnovers, which enabled Tech to run off several touchdowns in a row and put the game away. The first was the biggest. With two minutes left in the opening half and JSU driving at midfield while up 7-3, nickel back Lawrence Austin jumped a route, picked off Horn's throw, and ran it back deep into JSU territory.
Nothing too crazy here—just a smart veteran play. Austin sees the QB Horn eyeing the receiver on a short hitch route, and as the slot receiver runs by him (to be picked up by the deep safety), Austin commits as soon as Horn begins throwing and is perfectly positioned to pick it off. The interception led to the go-ahead score for Tech and was another solid play for Austin, who added five tackles and has had a strong pair of games to open the season.
After a rough opener, boundary corner Step Durham rebounded nicely by recording his first career interception, a diving snag that gave Tech the ball again just two plays after going up 17-7. Free safety A.J. Gray made an alert fumble recovery on a play when JSU's Horn simply lost control of the ball. Lance Austin and Corey Griffin each had a quiet day, finishing with one tackle apiece.
A major concern for this unit in Week 1 was tackling, and they performed better in that regard against JSU. But as Tech moves ahead to take on a Pitt squad that features the dynamic Quadree Henderson on offense, this will be an area to watch on Saturday. The other major concern is overly soft coverages, but that's just as much a coaching issue and will be addressed in the next section.
For pretty much the entire first half, coordinator Ted Roof stuck with a very conservative gameplan. During their long touchdown drive late in the second quarter, JSU faced third and 10 and elected to run a screen pass. Tech countered with a play that 1) dropped eight men into coverage and 2) was very emblematic of Roof's defensive approach:
...yikes. Let's break this down.
Tech is in a 3-2-6 alignment, with backup nickel back Jalen Johnson replacing one of the defensive tackles and acting as a dime back. It’s a very soft alignment that Roof has leaned on this season in third-and-long situations. The only rushers are the three down linemen, who get to the passer... but JSU is running a screen pass, so they weren’t attempting to block the linemen.
The real head-scratchers are the safeties. They start out about 17 yards behind the line of scrimmage... and they backpedal at the snap. At the time the pass is thrown, Gray and Griffin are 22-25 yards away from the line of scrimmage. Roof is relying on his safeties to cover any vertical or deep post routes... but he's positioned them too far away to even help out with anything shorter. All of the corners and linebackers are playing short zones at the marker, which leaves nobody underneath except the three linemen. Branch detects that it's a screen pass—he's shown a knack for that through two games—but the defensive tackle is too far from Thomas to bring the runner down. That leaves a chasm in the middle of the field, and when the handful of defenders nearby are blocked, Thomas has no trouble picking up the first down and more.
Granted, it's not entirely fair to complain about a screen pass doing damage against zone coverage—running back screens are designed to do exactly that. And if JSU had chosen to throw deep, Tech woud have been ready for it. But this isn't the first time Ted Roof's unit has been gashed by a screen pass on third and long... and it probably won't be the last.
To his credit, Roof turned up the heat in the second half and sent more pressure, and it paid off. JSU recorded just 60 total yards in the final two quarters, and all but one of their second-half drives ended in a three-and-out or a quick turnover. Amusingly, he seemed to be even more aggressive when his son T.D. was on the field, and that enabled T.D. to pick up a pair of late sacks.
That leaves the obvious question: since being more aggressive seems to generate better results, why don't we see that more often?
There are clear concerns through two weeks, but the fact remains that the defense did more than enough to get the win on Saturday. They forced a pair of interceptions to swing the momentum back in Tech's favor, prevented Roc Thomas from breaking off any really long runs, and got pressure on the QB on several occasions. The last one in particular will be out to the test on Saturday against a capable Pitt offensive line. If the front four can continue to generate pressure, and if Roof stays aggressive with his blitz packages, then Tech could capitalize on Pitt's shaky QB situation and force a turnover or three.