How Syracuse’s Defense Forced INT’s without Andre Cisco
By Cameron Macaulay
Andre Cisco has made an All-American college career off his ability to protect the back of the ‘Cuse defense. The versatile star safety picked off 5 passes in 2019, while the rest of SU’s defenders combined for 8. In 2018, he had 7 picks compared to the 11 the rest of the defensive unit mustered. He’s the most important player on Syracuse’s defense, which is why his absence against Georgia Tech was supposed to leave a massive void.
Except, it didn’t. Syracuse managed 5 takeaways against the Yellow Jackets, including 4 interceptions. To understand how, we need to look at the tape.
The first Orange takeaway came on Georgia Tech’s second drive of the game. GT is running some form of a run-pass option; notice how the offensive lineman are pushing into SU’s defensive line even though it’s a passing play. This is a dead giveaway of an RPO.
Syracuse, meanwhile, is throwing two extra blitzers up the middle. With the tight end motioning to the left side to block, this should create a straight up 6-on-6. McKinley Williams and Kinglsey Jonathan do a great job to break through and pressure the QB, but the key to this play is Josh Black’s behavior on the weak side.
The GT line is blocking to the left and leaving Black unblocked, a common practice in the option game. In theory, this should be a free invitation to rush into the backfield, but instead Black stops where he is. Why? He’s protecting against the QB keeping the ball and running to his side. If he chases the running back, quarterback Jeff Sims has a wide open lane to run through, so instead he sits on it, and this is what leads him to the perfect position to catch the batted ball.
The second interception for Syracuse is mainly a product of bad offensive line play from Georgia Tech. ‘Cuse is lined up in its base set here, but Mikel Jones shows blitz late on the right side, and neither Sims nor the right tackle slide the protection scheme to account for it. The result is two guys blocking Cody Roscoe, and no one blocking Jones, who gets a free shot on Sims. Trill Williams capitalizes, and a GT red-zone trip ends in a takeaway.
‘Cuse’s third pick of the day came off an overthrow by Sims that sailed right to Rob Hanna, who replaced Cisco in the starting lineup. However, the pressure that led to the pick was created by smart play design up front.
This is another 5-man blitz, but in order to generate quick pressure, Tony White has dialed up a stunt from linebacker Stefon Thompson, who’s on the far side of the screen. Notice how Thompson takes a few steps towards the right guard before cutting horizontally across the middle of the field. In the meantime, Williams is driving into the space between the Center and Right guard, and when Thompson cuts, he effectively uses Williams as a screen to generate space from his man. No one can pass off to Thompson, who gets another free run at Sims that creates the INT.
To summarize, while the secondary will get the credit for the interceptions, much of the dirty work was done in the trenches, where smart play design and mistakes from the GT offensive line put pressure on Sims all day long. The term “coverage sack” gets thrown around a lot, but 3 of the 5 takeaways the Orange forced on Saturday were pressure interceptions, and if the front 7 can keep it up, SU’s defense will reap the benefits regardless of who’s starting in the secondary.
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