Sept. 21, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
Metaphorically speaking, Saturday’s deluge was quite the match – at least for a while – for Georgia Tech defenses of recent vintage, which is to say full of leaks.
At season’s start, the old gold and white faithful brandished widespread and anxious hope that a new year and a new defensive coordinator would trigger not just improvement on that side of the ball, but the sea changes. The first two games offered reasons to believe.
Then, the first four possessions happened Saturday against North Carolina. As the sea seemed to keep falling from the sky, leaks kept popping up in the stats sheet while Tech fell behind 20-7. The Tar Heels scored touchdowns on three of those four thrusts, and you were fidgeting in a puddle of some sort as it rained, rained, rained.
To that point, the Tar Heels went for 227 yards in 27 plays that chewed up 8:49, and you found yourself again hoping, anxiously, for the defense to change something, anything.
And . . . Ted Roof did. The Jackets’ coordinator did some serious re-coordinating, and the Jackets dried up the mess, turning off the spigots in dramatic fashion.
In the Heels’ last six possessions, they did not score, ran 26 plays, gained 98 yards and held the rock for a modest 10:22.
“Our defensive staff, I thought, made some good adjustments,” Johnson said sharply.
First, though, anxiety.
Early returns were so poor that when facing fourth-and-goal from the two, Johnson eschewed almost automatic points via field goal. David Sims scored – barely – to pull the Jackets within 13-7, and the head coach’s logic behind going for it spoke: “The way that game was looking at that time, field goals weren’t going to do any good.”
Indeed, as UNC went to that 20-7 lead, Tony Gonzalez appeared masquerading as UNC tight end Eric Ebron and quarterback Bryn Renner looked like Matt Ryan a few years ago.
Questions arose: Was Ebron wearing a cloak? Why weren’t the Jackets covering him? Where’s the pass rush? Has Tech gone back in time?
The first two times UNC ran into third down, with 7 and 10 yards to go, Renner-Ebron was good for 19 and 13 yards. The Tar Heels didn’t face a third down on their second scoring possession. Ebron showed up again, though. He caught a 19-yard touchdown pass with one hand to give the SportsCenter folks some fodder.
“He’s a big dude with good hands and good routes,” Tech cornerback Louis Young later would say.
Yes, it was clear to all witnesses, and in fact Johnson in his Tuesday press conference went out of his way to suggest that the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Ebron is NFL caliber.
So how did he sneak his way into the clear often enough to catch five first-half passes for 95 yards and a score?
Turns out it was partly by scheme.
The Heels run a lot of plays quickly, and in the first two games many of them were wide.
Saturday, UNC had early success running between the tackles (and outside) and passing straight downfield between the hashes rather than swing the ball left and right. The Jackets weren’t looking for the vertical approach.
“They’re a big perimeter team, usually getting out there running around,” Tech defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu said in summary. “Their game plan, I think they tried to counter that knowing that we know that from film. They ran less screens. They were trying to pound the ball more, and go downfield off play-action.”
Roof and the defensive staff noticed. Here’s some of what they decided to do:
# Cheat forward the safeties – chiefly reserves Demond Smith and Domonique Noble as starters Jamal Golden and Chris Milton were lost early to injury, as was middle linebacker Quayshawn Nealy. And remember, long-time starter Isaiah Johnson (knee) remains on the sideline.
# Move up the Tech cornerbacks, have them play more bump coverage, and leave them more frequently in man-to-man coverage.
# Blitz more with linebackers, and perhaps occasionally DBs.
# Pay more attention to the big guy.
Noble and Smith deserve huge props, and so does true freshman linebacker Paul Davis, who subbed for Nealy.
“We just made up our mind that we were going to gameplan No. 85 [Ebron] since he was obviously getting the ball more on the inside,” Noble said. “The safeties were playing down more on him so he couldn’t get the easy seam passes.”
With frequent double teams, bracket coverages of various varieties, more bumps off the line, Ebron found tougher sledding in the second half. He caught one pass.
On another occasion, he nearly pulled in a second one-hander but Noble crushed him before he could secure it. On yet another, cornerback Jemea Thomas tipped away a pass to Ebron that Young intercepted.
The Jackets were paying much more attention to No. 85 in the second half.
And they played better.
North Carolina converted two of its first three third downs, but just 1-of-7 after that.
“Our coaches just challenged us,” senior defensive tackle Euclid Cummings said of what happened in the gray area of a game played under gray. “They said we were not getting after the passer. [Defensive line] coach [Mike] Pelton, coach Roof and even coach Johnson said we’re not getting enough third-down stops.
“I thank the coaches for challenging us.”
A holding call on UNC right tackle Jon Heck wiped out an 82-yard touchdown pass in the second half so Tech caught at least one big break (UNC fans would suggest that the replay on Sims’ first TD was specious).
More than anything, the Jackets made their breaks by playing smarter and harder. They took an offensive approach to defense.
“I think we just got a lot more aggressive instead of waiting to get a punch to them,” said Young, who added two pass breakups to his pick and suggested that the Tech reserve safeties quick jump into the mix inspired others.
“Once you get the juices flowing, you get comfortable and the energy just flowed through the whole defense. It was contagious, really.”
Roof was not available for comment after the game, but even with the Jackets’ sudden stiffening on Saturday, everybody wants to know if the defensive improvement is real.
“Hopefully, we’re better,” Paul Johnson said. “Clearly, I think we’re ahead of where we were a year ago at this time.”
Now, leftover comments from defensive players that should make Tech fans warmer:
Cummings: “This one felt good because for a long time guys have said, ‘If you’re up two touchdowns on Tech, you’re going to win.’ I’m just proud of us and how we came back. That says a lot about our football team.”
Noble: “You can look at the first four possessions and say we weren’t ready, but to me that showed how good we are as a defense to come together and man up and just pound them even after the first four possessions were not successful.”
Johnson on backup safeties Noble, Smith [and, indirectly, Davis at linebacker]: “They stepped up and played big. They played pretty much the whole game, and we lost Quayshawn early in the first series so we had a true freshman [Davis] out there bangin.’ And the moment wasn’t too big for them. They stepped up and played. That’s why we recruit.”
What about Noble and Smith at the safety spots? You think Noble felt good after that game, after breaking up that second-half pass to Ebron – a former teammate in a North Carolina-South Carolina high school All-Star game?
Here’s what he said: “Honestly, I haven’t had this feeling of accomplishment since high school. Just being able to go out there and contribute when we have big players going down is a great feeling. Being able to go out there and help my team get a big victory . . . awesome.”
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