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Woody’s Roundup: Week 3 (Pitt)

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There’s still work to do, but the defense took a step forward

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Week 3 vs. Pitt: Defense by the Numbers

Stat Total
Stat Total
Opp. Possessions 12
Points Allowed 24
Points per Possession 2.0
Total Yards Allowed 335
Rush Yards Allowed 138
Opp. Yards per Carry 4.5
Pass Yards Allowed 197
Opp. Yards per Attempt 8.6
Opp. Yards per Play 6.2
Third Down Conversions 5/12
Fourth Down Conversions 0/0
Three-and-Outs Forced 2
Turnovers Forced 1
Havoc Rate 15.7%
Stuff Rate 11.8%

Some of these stats are excellent, and others are quite the opposite.

Most of the ugliness lies in the yards-per-play figures. Allowing 4.5 yards per carry is not a recipe for success against a team like Pitt that relies on the run game, though it’s worth noting that over a third of Pitt’s rushing yards came on two carries in the first quarter (an 18-yard gain on Qadre Ollison’s first carry and his 31-yard TD run on their second possession). The more concerning figure is Pitt’s 8.6 yards per pass attempt, well above the typical range of 6-7 yards per attempt. Pitt QB Kenny Pickett frequently had time to throw thanks to a heavy reliance on rollout pass plays, and he was frequently able to find holes in Tech’s zone coverage to pick up first downs.

But there were some positives, starting with the boosted havoc rate, up by five percent from a week ago. This was mainly thanks to the defensive backs—in fact, all but one of the havoc plays (tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defensed) came from the secondary. They gave up some preventable conversions, but they made up for it by making plays behind the line and downfield. Flea flicker aside, the secondary’s performance on Saturday was reflective of the brand of defense that Nate Woody wants to bring to bear... and it’s now on the front seven to match that level of performance.

That said, it’s worth noting that the defense as a whole took a big step forward in the second half. After allowing 240 total yards in the first half and letting Pitt pick up 8.0 yards per play, those figures dropped to 105 total yards and 4.2 yards per play in the latter half thanks to a combination of better tackling and tighter coverage. The early struggles weren’t pretty, but when Tech began mounting a late comeback effort, the defense did their part to keep the Jackets in the game.

Position Reviews

Defensive Line

Anree Saint-Amour had the biggest impact of any player in the front seven on Saturday, recording a tackle for loss in the first quarter and registering a pair of QB hurries later in the game. Through three games, he seems to have adapted better to the new scheme than just about anyone in the front seven. The issue up front is simply that none of the other linemen were able to make a major impact. Nose tackle Brandon Adams was regularly able to occupy double teams when he entered the game, so that was a plus, but in general the linemen had trouble getting leverage when Pitt ran the ball.

The good news is that the personnel situation was much less chaotic this week. After coordinator Nate Woody threw out some bizarre line combinations late in the USF game, he leaned more heavily on the standard two-deep in this one.

Inside Linebackers

It was... not a great showing from this unit. Brant Mitchell, Bruce Jordan-Swilling, and David Curry combined for 10 tackles and, more importantly, zero havoc plays. They seem to be struggling on a few fronts, with run fits (being in the right place even when in the correct gap—so essentially a step beyond gap assignments) being the foremost concern. It’s almost as if the ILBs are falling back on the read-and-react tendencies that they adopted under Ted Roof; it’s understandable to a degree given that Woody’s scheme is still new, but it’s slowing them down and preventing them from properly attacking the backfield and closing lanes.

While he didn’t play much against Pitt, true freshman Quez Jackson has emerged as an intriguing player. His lone tackle on Saturday came at a key moment, ending Pitt’s opening drive as he stuffed an outside run for a short gain on third and 6. Jackson seems to have taken to Woody’s scheme well; the veterans ahead of him should improve with time, but Jackson seems to be making a strong case for more playing time.

Outside Linebackers

Speaking of units with zero havoc plays, the outside linebackers were virtually invisible on Saturday. Victor Alexander, Jaquan Henderson, and Jordan Domineck split time fairly evenly at the Jack position; the true freshman Domineck seems to be performing the best out of the bunch, but none of them had any success in generating meaningful pressure. The scheme relies on the Jack linebacker to be the main pass rusher and disrupt plays in the backfield, so Tech needs improved play at this position in order to have long-term success on defense.

On the opposite side, it was a similarly quiet day for Stinger linebackers Jalen Johnson and Christian Campbell, who combined for five tackles. Johnson did avert a couple long runs by making last-second tackles. It would be heartening to see more production out of the position, but given that they have more coverage responsibilities than the Jack linebackers, the play at Stinger so far has not been quite as concerning.

Cornerbacks

It wasn’t the worst day for the corners, but it wasn’t exactly a banner day for the unit either. Boundary corner Tre Swilling has so far looked like a viable option at the position, but he’ll need to work on turning his hips more fluidly; he got beaten for a third-down conversion on an out route where he couldn’t quite get turned around in time. Redshirt senior Lamont Simmons had a rough day, getting beaten on a flea flicker play for a 60-yard gain and giving up some decent gains on passes to the sideline. That said, he mostly did better when in man coverage (his main strength) instead of zone, and it wouldn’t be fair to rag on Simmons too much for the flea flicker anyway.

The biggest bright spot came from Ajani Kerr, whose deflection on a deep pass in the fourth quarter bounced right to safety Malik Rivera for an interception. Kerr has seen plenty of action through the first three games as a reserve corner, and that is bound to continue.

Safeties

This might have been Tech’s strongest position group on Saturday, with the three top safeties all making crucial plays over the course of the game.

Strong safety Tariq Carpenter, back in action after missing most of the USF game due to an early targeting call, made two key plays in the fourth quarter with Pitt up 21-6 to prevent the Panthers from scoring a fourth touchdown. The first was a breakup on a deep strike to Rafael Araujo-Lopes, on which Carpenter was beaten but managed to stick his left hand out to swat the pass away:

Later on that drive, Carpenter shoved Araujo-Lopes out of bounds on a third-down jet sweep in the red zone, thereby forcing Pitt to settle for a field goal.

His backup, redshirt freshman Kaleb Oliver, was back in top form. Early in the second quarter, Oliver forced what could have been a game-changing fumble:

Just when it looked like the running back had juked him out, Oliver stretched his hand out, swiped at the ball, and knocked it free. If the ball had bounced in any direction other than where it did, Tech likely would have recovered and taken over inside the Pitt 15-yard line.

Free safety Malik Rivera, meanwhile, recorded Tech’s lone turnover of the day. When Kerr broke up the deep pass on the double reverse, the ball bounced right to Rivera, who corralled it and ran it back almost all the way to midfield. It was the biggest play of the day for a unit that generally played a solid game. The only major mark against the defensive backs was Pitt’s first touchdown run, in which every single member of the secondary (except Oliver, who wasn’t on the field) managed to miss a tackle on the same play.

Scheme Review

A few consistent oddities have emerged through Tech’s three games. The first falls back on a major headache from the Roof era: having the cornerbacks line up at least 6-7 yards off the ball and then backpedal at the snap. Woody has shown a heavy reliance on Cover 3 zone, which typically has the outermost corners dropping into deep zones with the linebackers and one safety taking up medium zones underneath. In that sense, having the corners play up on the receivers could be problematic if they ultimately have to take on deep zones... but it also leaves them vulnerable to short completions, with their only recourse being to hit the receiver right after the catch.

That also leads to the second point: the bizarrely heavy use of Cover 3 with underneath zones. Both USF and Pitt have worked the sideline effectively over the last couple weeks, taking advantage of the fact that Cover 3 (and Cover 2) schemes typically have blind spots at medium depth along both sidelines. Additionally, Tech’s corners seem to be stronger in man coverage than in zone; at the very least, that much is true for Kerr and Simmons, the reserve corners. Allowing them to play man coverage more frequently would play to their strengths and would show faith in the pass rush... which, in fairness, has not been very potent so far.

Conclusion

The first ACC test for Nate Woody’s unit could have gone better, but it could also have gone much worse. The Jackets rebounded from an ugly first half to hold Pitt’s offense to three points and just over 100 yards in the second half. Tech leaned on strong play from the safeties and from Saint-Amour at defensive end, but in order to succeed in the long run, the linebackers need to play more aggressively and be more disruptive—particularly the Jack linebacker, given the pass rush demands from that position. Tech’s defense has had respectable efforts against upcoming foe Clemson over the last couple years, but regardless, Week 4 will be one of the biggest tests of the season for Woody’s young unit.