BSD Film Room: Syracuse

BSD Film Room takes a look at upcoming opponent Syracuse.

You should already know Scott Shafer, Syracuse's first-time head football coach. You probably remember him, fondly, as Rich Rod's first defensive coordinator at Michigan. Scott spent only one year in Ann Arbor, as he and Rich could not agree on the best way to practice or scheme defense. And as poorly as that first year played out, it was actually far better than the two subsequent "Gerg" Robinson years - the same "Gerg", coincidentally, who had been fired as Syracuse's head coach.

Scott, to his credit, largely kept his mouth shut while leaving the Wolverines, refusing to cast aspersions. He did that despite the fact that his wife had been diagnosed with cancer during the season, and was receiving care at Michigan's outstanding facility - care that would have to be interrupted. So good for you, Scott. It would have been easy to be pissed, and react angrily. My compliments - I'm not sure I could have done the same.

You likely also already know that Scott transitioned from Syracuse defensive coordinator into Syracuse head coach this offseason, when Syracuse alumnus Doug Marrone left to take the lead job for the Buffalo Bills. But it was not as simple of a transition as that normally sounds. Only two coaches - WR Coach Rob Moore, and D-Line Coach Tim Daoust - remain from Marrone's last staff. That's seven new coaches, out of nine, for Scott's first staff, including both Offensive and Defensive Coordinators. It makes advance scouting a little more challenging.

On Offense

Hey - your guess is as good as mine. New Offensive Coordinator George McDonald spent the last two years with Al Golden, at Miami, coaching wide receivers. George has always been a wide receivers coach - and "always" isn't all that long. He entered the coaching ranks as a Grad Assistant at Ball State in 2000. His only coordinator experience was 2005 - 2006, at Western Michigan.

But, the rumor coming out of the NY State hinterlands is that redshirt sophomore QB Terrel Hunt is your likely starter, as he's been taking the bulk of the first-team snaps at practice. Given that clue, and the fact that Marrone ran a ton of "11" (one back, one tight end) shotgun spread last year, and that McDonald's only OC experience came at Western Michigan - let's go out on a limb and figure more of the same from the Orange this year, though we could expect Hunt to run more often than did last year's QB, Ryan Nassib.

On Defense

Chuck Bullough takes the Defensive Coordinator reins, and if that last name sounds familiar, that's because it should. Bullough is the uncle of current Sparty standout linebacker Max (and, he's a former 2x 1st Team Big Ten LB himself, also for Sparty). Chuck spent the last two seasons coaching linebackers for the Cleveland Clowns of the NFL, and before that, was the DC for UCLA under Carl Dorrell (woo! Linebacker U, baby).

Scott, though, is unlikely to abandon his approach to defense simply because he's in the big boy chair now. And Scott Shafer had a very distinctive style of calling defenses. Characterize that style in one word? Chaos.

Kill The Lights

"Multiply Aggressive" - on steriods. Shafer ran a base 43 Stack last season, but in his case, "base" is a relative term. Consider the table below, which represents the first half of Syracuse defensive calls from last year's Minnesota game (which, Syracuse lost, by the way, 17-10):

Defense Plays Blitzed Blitz %
43 Stack, Zone (Cover 1, 2, or 3) 10 7 70%
43 Stack, Man (Cover 1 or 2) 6 6 100%
43 Over 4 2 50%
43 Under 3 2 67%
60 Front, Cover 1 3 3 100%
Overload Blitz, Zone 2 2 100%
Overload Blitz, Man-Zone Hybrid 2 2 100%
34 Stack/Under/Over 3 1 33%
42 Nickle, Zone 1 1 100%
50 Front, Cover 1 1 1 100%
35 27 77%

That's 10 basic defensive formations/calls out of 35 total defensive snaps. So, you get a lot of variety. And Shafer called blitz** roughly 77% of the time, which is a freaking ton. It's an obscene amount of blitzing**.

**I'm using blitz as a general term here. Meaning, if Shafer sent a strong safety after the quarterback, instead of a 43 defensive end (a zone blitz concept), then, although he still only sent 4 pass rushers, I considered it a blitz. Of course, if he sent 5 or 6 or 7 rushers - one or more than usually, depending upon the base front - then I also considered that a blitz. Finally, if Shafer sent one or more of his linebackers smashing into a gap off the snap of the ball - which he did very, very often - whether the play ended up as a pass or run, I considered that a blitz as well.

Shafer borrowed zone blitz, and specifically, "overload" concepts from Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau. Take a look at the shot below, 2nd and 10 from the Syracuse 20. Here, Shafer positions three of his defensive linemen in a typical alignment from Goldy's left side perspective (#'s 1, 2, and 3). And he has his fourth defensive lineman, plus a linebacker, and a strong safety, all on Goldy's tight end's outside shoulder - Goldy's right guard and right tackle are, effectively, uncovered. That's 8 "in the box", with it looking like Shafer could be sending six pass rushers, right?

Syr_zoneblitz1_medium

Shafer doesn't send six, though he does send five (or, actually, four). The right defensive end, labeled #1, fakes a rush before dropping off to cover the flat to his side. #'s 2 and 3 come on a nice, regular pass rush, as you'd expect. The left defensive end, labeled #4, loops toward Goldy's center, to draw the tackle and guard with him (which he accomplishes - in fact both #'s 2 and 3 are doubled, leaving everyone else 1-on-1). #5 appears to have screwed himself. My guess is that #5's responsible for Goldy's tight end in coverage. If the tight end stays in to block, then #5 gets to pass rush. If the tight end releases, #5 needs to run with him. Here, #5 fools himself, falls down, and is grabbing the TE as the TE runs into the flat, wide open (Goldy backup QB Max Shortell misses him). #6 is the strong safety, actual jersey #21, who was a freaking stud. But he graduated. #6 is coming.

Syr_zoneblitz2_medium

So - Hackenburg or Fergusen will need to decipher who is coming, and with new center Ty Howle's help, he'll need to set the correct protection. It won't be an easy task, as Shafer purposefully designed it to be difficult. Shafer will show 6 or 7 or 8, and bring just 4 or 5, while playing zone or a hybrid zone-man behind it.

Shafer also enjoys giving the quarterback one look pre-snap, before changing into a different look. He does this not just for pass coverage purposes, but also in the run game, for gap coverage. In the shot below, pre-snap, Shafer gives a nice, simple, 4-3 Stack, man-under 2-deep look.

Syr_presnap1_medium

One tick of the clock later and that 43 Stack, where both defensive ends have C/D gap responsibility, has changed into a (sort of) 43 Under look, with the right defensive end and the right OLB changing run gap responsibilities. Given the alignment of the other two linebackers, you might more accurately call it a 52 than a 43 Under. Whatever.

Syr_presnap2_medium

And in true Shafer style, that OLB is blitzing. In the shot below, you can see the OLB read run, and come crashing down the line of scrimmage from the backside (he's the one almost ready to take the handoff), unaccounted for by Goldy's blocking scheme, and make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

Syr_presnap3_medium

Hit The Lights

If Shafer's new defensive coordinator Bullough holds half of the "multiply aggressive" play calling of Shafer himself - and why wouldn't he? - then BOB and the boys need to be preparing for chaos pre-snap and post-snap. That's not the ideal situation you'd like to have, usually ever, but particularly with a quarterback who has zero Division 1 snaps under his belt.

On the other hand, that "chaos" works both ways, too. Defensive chaos can create blown assignments for the offense, AND for the defense. Read: someone can get a big play by taking advantage of a mistake - and that someone isn't always the defense.

All of that blitzing can leave a defense susceptible to big plays from broken tackles, as well. In the first quarter vs. Goldy, Shafer dialed up a 43 Stack, press man, single high safety, strong safety blitz - and got toasted, as Goldy's little white wide receiver caught a 5-yard slant, broke one diving ankle tackle, and went for 57 yards before getting wrestled out of bounds.

Also, all of that run gap blitzing can screw a defense as easily as it yields a run stuff. Those linebackers are assigned to a specific gap, and charge into it off the snap of the ball. If they get picked up, even if they just get shoved sideways a bit while still penetrating, if the defender in the next gap gets cut off, there is zero coverage for that linebacker's original gap - a huge hole in the run defense, which is what we all remember from Michigan, circa 2008 - 2010.

Last, given these strengths/weaknesses, BOB has four tools in his offensive bag of tricks that could severely damage a Shaffer-stylized, "multiply aggressive" defense. Let's look for how he uses all four of these on Saturday:

1) "NASCAR" - Can BOB run an up-tempo offense, despite having two fresh faces at QB? I'm betting he can, and does. That fast tempo prevents substitution, and discourages pre-snap formation shifts from the defense, making it just a little bit easier for Hack/Sue to see what is coming.

2) Lots 'O Tight Ends - BOB can run up-tempo while using tons of formations himself, because he'll put tight ends everywhere on the field, from split wide, to lined up as a fullback or split back in the shotgun. BOB, quite literally, can transition from "Power O" to "Shotgun Spread" with zero substitution. That's a big advantage, and will particularly help a young quarterback identify what in the heck he's looking at.

3) Play Action - Shafer's defenders are pre-programmed, it seems, to attack the line of scrimmage. His linebackers and safeties were particularly susceptible to play action vs. Minnesota (and mis-direction), driving hard towards the LOS at the snap of the ball. And BOB loves - loves - play action. End arounds? Not as much as we used to see.

4) Drag Routes - when you're screwing around with who blitzes, who drops, overload this, etc., one of the things that usually gets lost in the shuffle is this: who the hell covers the shallow crossers, and how are the LBs/Safeties communicating that with each other? BOB loves his play action most. But second most, BOB might love shallow crossing routes from slot receivers. And if the Syracuse defenders aren't on the same page - and sometimes, even if they are, given the odd overload zone blitzes - BOB could get some chunk plays out of the simple shallow crossing routes, and even simpler hook patterns.

Three Totally Random, Probably Useless Thoughts

1. I only watched the first half of Syracuse at Minnesota. And though SS #21, my favorite, is gone, FS #28 was my second favorite defender. He's back for his senior season. I also liked two linebackers, both of whom return, in order: #11, and a little less so, #35.

2. While I'm at it, I liked the Orange's center, #59. He went heads up with Goldy's #99, who was no slouch, and did a very solid job. But I didn't witness any OMG FAST guys from the offensive skill positions. And let's all pray #6 is back there returning punts again. Out of 3 first half boots from Goldy, he muffed two (though, he lost zero). Kicking could be winning, if #6 is back there.

3. Syracuse's four down defensive linemen didn't have much to brag about from the first half. After 35 plays, they had a combined 3 tackles according to my notes. Shafer's D is exclusively a 1-gap, penetration D. And though all four had the requisite size, none of them really distinguished himself in the tape I watched. No one was Jordan Hill quick, and they all tended to play a little too high, losing leverage. Maybe Goldy had a better than advertised O-line last year? Yeah...probably not.

Bonus Useless / Stupid Thoughts, Because It's Finally Football Season

Bonus Stupid Thought, 4) Give me plain Jane over this Shafer chaos theory, especially at the college level, and especially when we're talking zone blitz. Fat, college defensive tackles can't pass drop to save their lives. They have no idea what in the heck a hook zone is, or how to play it. And they generally couldn't get to a spot even if they did. Here's hoping Shafer/Bullough drop their DTs several times, and come with their typical off-the-edge pressure instead. Nearly all of their 27 first half blitzes came from the edge, with very little DL stunting in the middle, and absolutely zero "A" gap blitzes. Something I'm sure BOB and the gang was certain to notice.

Bonus Stupid Thought, 5) the Orange were penalized 10 times in the Goldy game. Ten. Times. And half of those were on defense, for defensive PI, defensive Holding, and stupid off sides. Please keep doing that, Orange. Goldy, for their part, were flagged "just" 8 times. Eight. Times. And, Goldy did everything they could to sabotage themselves, having a beautiful Shortell TD pass called back for offensive holding, and missing a 28 yard field goal, both in the first half. Thankfully, I don't have to watch another Orange-Goldy matchup anytime soon. It really tests your patience.

Bonus Stupid Thought, 6) we're talking football. Finally. Football talk. Football, you guys. We're talking football.

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