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Woody’s Roundup: Week 11 (Miami)

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Final score aside, this game was a defensive struggle, and Tech’s unit did enough to win

NCAA Football: Miami at Georgia Tech Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Tech is bowl-bound once more, and the last step in the process was finally taking down a Mark Richt-led team in Bobby Dodd. A team that started the season 2-4 will have a chance to finish the year with a winning record in ACC play.

Over that span, the defense has slowly but surely been finding its footing. Some of the same issues that have been around all season were present on Saturday night, and they caused frequent headaches for Tech and coordinator Nate Woody. But some of the strengths were on display as well, and this week’s Roundup will again take a film-heavy approach to dive into how those drove the outcome.

Week 11 vs. Miami: Defense by the Numbers

Stat Total
Stat Total
Points per Possession 2.6
Total Yards Allowed 299
Opp. Yards per Carry 4.5
Opp. Yards per Attempt 7.2
Opp. Yards per Play 5.6
Third Down Conversions 9/15
Three-and-Outs Forced 2
Turnovers Forced (Defense) 1
Havoc Rate 15.1%
Stuff Rate 23.3%
Success Rate 39.6%

If the points per possession figure seems high, that’s because... well, it is. Miami had only eight possessions in the game, and they scored touchdowns on three of them. Tech’s ability to defend against the Miami offense was very hot-and-cold. When Miami started moving the ball, they kept moving; two of their touchdown drives (their first and last drives of the game) went for 75 and 95 yards, and both featured multiple third-and-long conversions. But more often, Tech was able to stifle things quickly; Miami had only one non-scoring drive that went for more than 20 yards.

The yards-per-play stats were a bit high, but not catastrophic. The real problem was the third-down conversion rate. Tech is already near the bottom of the nation in defensive third-down conversion rate—49.6 percent, which is good for No. 126 in the nation—and they allowed an even worse conversion rate than usual on Saturday. Most of them were on Miami’s two long drives, which (as discussed in the last paragraph) is both good and bad.

The havoc rate was reasonable, if still lower than ideal. While the defense had a solid performance from that perspective, they only forced one of Miami’s three turnovers (with the other two coming on special teams), and even that one was technically an unforced error—a botched snap that Tech jumped on to recover. Meanwhile, Miami’s success rate of just 39.6 percent was a point in Tech’s favor; while it’s only a little below the national average for the season, it was the lowest success rate that Tech has allowed to an FBS opponent this season.

Improved Linebacker Tackling

There were some ugly moments in tackling. The first that comes to mind was a third-and-6 play on Miami’s opening drive where multiple players missed tackles, enabling Miami to convert en route to an eventual touchdown. But on the flip side, there were also a number of plays where Tech players—particularly the linebackers—made tackles where they might once have fallen short.

The poster child for this was Stinger linebacker Jalen Johnson, who had by far his best game of the season. Johnson tied for the team lead with eight tackles, including two tackles for loss and one run stopped for no gain. His best tackle, perhaps, was on a third-and-3 run in the third quarter, where he shed a block at the line and met the ballcarrier a moment later:

Inside linebacker Brant Mitchell has similarly struggled to make plays over the course of the season, but he made some key stops in this one. Mitchell tied with Johnson for the team lead with eight tackles, and his lone tackle for loss helped to make a dire Miami situation even worse:

Mitchell also had useful contributions when he wasn’t the one making the tackle. On one play late in the first half, he lined up on the edge and rushed; at first glance it looked like he severely overran the play, but by drawing the attention of Miami’s right tackle, Mitchell cleared a lane for Jack linebacker Charlie Thomas to run free and bring down the ballcarrier at the line of scrimmage:

None of them were perfect, of course. Thomas had a missed tackle on a third-and-6 play on Miami’s opening drive that set them up to score. Miami’s touchdown just before halftime came on a run play where David Curry inadvertently drifted out of his rush lane and left a clear path for the running back. And just one play after Johnson narrowly missed getting a sack in the fourth quarter, Mitchell did the same:

So there’s still work to do. But overall, there has been clear improvement since the early part of the season, and that’s heartening to see.

Zone Coverage Woes

Woody leans heavily on a Cover 3 scheme that has three players each covering a third of the field deep, with the rest playing medium zones underneath. The problem is that one of Tech’s most persistent issues this year has been the linebackers and secondary struggling with zone coverage.

In this game, Miami had a lot of success going to the sidelines, which is... nothing new. The sidelines tend to be vulnerable for most zone coverage schemes, but even so, Tech has been burned frequently on passes to the sidelines—often on key third downs.

The clearest examples come from a couple plays where the starting corners were out of position. First up is a third-and-12 conversion on Miami’s opening drive that moved them deep into Tech territory:

The receivers on the right side of the formation are running routes designed to mess with defenders in zones on that side—in this case, outside linebacker Charlie Thomas at medium depth and cornerback Lamont Simmons over the top. The receiver on the outside starts inward and ultimately runs a post, and slot receiver Jeff Thomas goes outside him and up the sideline. Simmons ends up drifting out of his zone to cover the outside receiver on the post, which takes him into Tariq Carpenter’s zone and leaves Jeff Thomas wide open where Simmons should have been.

While this was a case of a defensive back drifting too far out of his zone, the opposite problem has been even more common:

It should be noted that this isn’t a true Cover 3 play; instead, Tech is running an “inverted Tampa 2” coverage, in which the safeties stay at medium depth while both corners drop back with an inside linebacker covering deep over the middle. It’s a bit more complicated than a standard Cover 3 package, and the corners have more ground to cover, so this play isn’t entirely on Tre Swilling. Nevertheless, the fact that he’s slow to turn his hips and doesn’t even see Jeff Thomas running up the sideline until it’s too late is emblematic of the larger problem.

Pass Breakups Continue

While coverage discipline is a work in progress, one major bright spot for the defense has been defensive back disruption, as Tech is No. 29 in the nation in defensive back havoc rate (compared to No. 65 for the defensive line and No. 129 for the linebackers). Swilling led the charge with a pair of timely pass breakups, the first of which was on a third-down play early in the second quarter:

This breakup happened on a play where the opposite corner, Ajani Kerr, was sent on a corner blitz. Typically it’s been Swilling who gets sent on corner blitzes, so it’s interesting that he found himself on the other end this time but still managed to make a play.

Scheme

In terms of scheme, the only notable change was the addition of the inverted Tampa 2 package alongside the usual Cover 3 plays. It’s an interesting wrinkle that maintains three deep zones, but it relies on the corners keeping tabs on the deep ILB and shifting their zones accordingly. Tech got burned on it when the latter part did not happen, and it’s a bit of a risk in general, leaving the sidelines more vulnerable if the ILB stays underneath—which just stacks risk on top of an existing weakness. Expect to see similar plays sprinkled in during the games ahead, but they’ll more likely serve as a change of pace rather than a major part of the defensive gameplan.

Bonus: Boop

It technically wasn’t a defensive play, but it was fun (and technically featured a defensive player), so... here is Juanyeh Thomas politely asking Miami’s Jeff Thomas to move on and find a new slant: