About three minutes into Saturday’s ACC opener against Pitt, this appeared to be the state of the defense:
Yeah. It wasn’t good.
But they turned things around quickly, and for most of the rest of the game, the defense looked a bit more like this:
On a day when the Jackets put up 35 points in a conference win, it was the defense that enabled them to actually take control of the game. Ted Roof’s unit played aggressively (especially in the first half), got stops at critical moments, and nearly shut out the Pitt offense after their first score. It was their best performance of the young season and a very promising sign as the Jackets dive into the ACC slate.
Week 4 vs. Pitt: Defense by the Numbers
|Points per Possession||0.8|
|Points Off Turnovers Allowed||0|
|Total Yards Allowed||235|
|Rush Yards Allowed||37|
|Opp. Yards per Carry||1.9|
|Pass Yards Allowed||198|
|Opp. Yards per Attempt||5.7|
|Opp. Yards per Play||4.3|
Over their final 12 possessions, the Panthers had only eight first downs and scored zero offensive touchdowns. They managed a field goal, but even that was a 55-yarder just before halftime (because apparently Tech is destined to give up long field goals to Pitt kickers for all eternity).
Digging a little deeper, the Jackets did not only prevent Pitt from scoring after any of their four turnovers—they held Pitt without a first down on those possessions. Three of those saw Pitt get the ball with a relatively short field, including one that began in field goal range, so this was no small achievement for the Tech defense.
The yards per carry stat is worth dissecting. That figure includes Tech’s three sacks, which accounted for 23 yards lost for Pitt. Removing those leaves 17 carries for 60 yards, or about 3.5 yards per carry, which is low but not completely terrible. However, setting aside the outlier—Jordan Whitehead’s 30-yard run on the opening drive--leaves Pitt with 16 carries for just 30 yards. Tech almost completely silenced Pitt’s ground game, and that was the result of contributions from all three units.
A big reason for that was the fact that Tech was so aggressive, particularly in the first half, and it enabled them to overwhelm Pitt’s offensive line and disrupt their attack. The team’s havoc rate of 23.6%—referring to the percentage of plays that resulted in tackles for loss, passes defensed, or forced fumbles—was well above the current FBS-wide average of 16.7%.
Maybe the most promising stat of all is that Pitt converted just one of 13 third-down attempts. Considering how much trouble Tech had a year ago in stopping opponents on third down, doing that against an ACC opponent is a major sign of progress.
In what looked to be a tough matchup against a seasoned Pitt offensive line, Tech’s front four ended up having a field day—particularly the defensive ends. Antonio Simmons picked up a pair of sacks, one of which saw him chase down Pitt quarterback Ben DiNucci for a 15-yard loss on third down to end a pivotal third-quarter possession. Anree Saint-Amour did not have a sack, but he did have a tackle for loss and a fourth-quarter fumble recovery. KeShun Freeman had a strong day in run support and made a crucial play on Pitt’s first possession of the second half to stifle their momentum:
Down 21-17, Pitt had just forced a punt and had a chance to take the lead. Instead, on an off tackle run to the left, Freeman managed to shoot the gap and get past left guard Alex Officer, which left him a clear lane to the ballcarrier. The big loss on first down led to an eventual punt.
The defensive tackles didn’t light up the stat sheet, but they got great push all afternoon against a seasoned Pitt interior line. Brandon Adams contributed to a few plays of note, swatting down an early throw while bearing down on DiNucci and later closing off a running lane to free Saint-Amour to bring down the ballcarrier for a loss. Also, Desmond Branch continued to show an impressive knack for diagnosing screen passes and disengaging in response.
As good as they were, the final stat lines for the linemen could have been even better. On multiple occasions, the mobile DiNucci was able to slip away from an almost certain sack and either find a receiver or get rid of the ball. Still, there’s little to criticize here—the defensive line did their job against both the run and the pass, and they deserve as much credit as anyone for the overall defensive performance.
The strong play up front opened things up for the linebackers, who did a good job of containing the Panthers’ run game and limiting them to short gains most of the time. Terrell Lewis finished with a team-high five tackles, and Brant Mitchell blitzed often and was credited with a pair of QB hurries for his work. True freshman Bruce Jordan-Swilling saw action at linebacker in the fourth quarter and made a couple nice plays, deflecting a pass and making a quick tackle on Pitt running back Qadre Ollison after a reception.
The linebackers did everything they needed to do today, but if there’s one big question mark hanging over the defense after Saturday’s effort, it’s whether or not this group can start to generate more big plays. Through three games, the three main linebackers—Mitchell, Lewis, and Victor Alexander—have combined for zero tackles for loss. As mentioned last week, part of the reason for that is the zone-heavy scheme keeping the linebackers from attacking the backfield at times, but it’s still somewhat concerning. The defensive line did plenty of work on Saturday in ending plays in the backfield, but if they can clear lanes for the linebackers to attack gaps, that’ll make the defense that much more dangerous.
Status: Stable, but with signs of leakage
The star of the day in the defensive backfield—and perhaps the entire defense—was free safety A.J. Gray. The junior spent much of the first half playing up in the box as a de facto extra linebacker, and he was effective in both coverage and run support. His best play of the day came late in the first quarter on a Pitt read option play:
Gray initially starts moving toward the running back, but he realizes mid-stride that DiNucci didn’t hand off. Instead of trying to cut to change direction, which would have put Qadre Ollison in the perfect spot to block him, Gray simply accelerates and runs around Ollison, giving him a clear lane to the quarterback. He nearly misses DiNucci, but Gray manages to trip him up for a four-yard loss (which actually went into the books as a sack for the safety).
It was a mostly quiet day for the rest of the secondary, and in this case, no news is good news. Boundary corner Step Durham had a few nice plays, including a textbook form tackle on a crucial third-down play in the third quarter and a pass breakup in the fourth. With Gray up in the box often, strong safety Corey Griffin spent much of the day playing deep in center field, but he still recorded three tackles.
One interesting note was that Jalen Johnson took over for Lawrence Austin at nickel back for the entire second half. Pitt had been using offensive sets with two receivers and two tight ends for much of the game, so this was likely an adjustment for that—with the nickel back primarily tasked with covering one of the tight ends, the 6-foot-3 Johnson was better suited for the task than the 5-foot-9 Austin.
Aside from that first drive, the first half was a very pleasant surprise from a scheme perspective. With Pitt handing the reins to Ben DiNucci, a mobile but relatively inexperienced quarterback, Ted Roof decided to challenge the sophomore early with aggressive alignments and a couple new looks on defense. The biggest change was moving Gray up into the box for almost the entire first half and letting him essentially act as a safety/linebacker hybrid—essentially a second nickel back alongside Lawrence Austin. The corners had to give a little cushion and Griffin had to play a bit deeper as a result, but it worked out well for the defense.
In addition to the alignment changes, Roof mixed in a handful of zone blitzes, which he has not deployed much to date. One of them led to a crucial early third-down stop:
Strongside end Antonio Simmons steps forward as if he’s pass rushing, and then he steps back and drops into a short zone. The other three linemen rush as usual, and the linebacker Mitchell and nickel back Austin also rush starting from a few yards back. A couple things then happen: Austin and defensive tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson realize that a screen pass is developing and break off from rushing to mark the running back, while Mitchell and Saint-Amour close in on the quarterback DiNucci. With the rush bearing down and his running back covered, DiNucci throws it into the ground, bringing up fourth down and a punt.
Both the alignment and new plays faded in the second half as Roof reverted to his more traditional 4-2-5 scheme for the entire half as Tech sought to protect its lead. While it was a less aggressive approach, the front four was getting enough pressure on its own and the linebackers and secondary were making quick tackles whenever Pitt completed a pass. Roof’s traditionally conservative scheme is never that exciting, but it can be effective if the defense gets good, constant pressure up front, and that was the case on Saturday. Mixing up the two approaches would be ideal going forward, but we’ll soon find out if Roof’s aggressive first-half approach was a sign of things to come or simply an approach tailored to this particular opponent.
Status: Raised, but leakage possible
Other than that opening drive, the defense couldn’t really have asked for a better performance in their ACC opener. Ted Roof schemed aggressively early on to challenge a young opposing quarterback, and the defensive ends and safety A.J. Gray carried the unit to one of its best recent performances against a conference opponent. This was a huge confidence booster for the unit as a whole, and a similar performance against UNC—which has gashed Tech’s defense in each of the past three seasons—could very well enable the team to start 2-0 in conference play heading into October.