Georgia Tech’s defense under siege

What was once a bend-but-don’t-break defense now just seems broken.

Georgia Tech’s defense has given up 83 points and almost 1,200 yards in its past two games, a stretch of futility not seen since Al Groh’s final days as defensive coordinator in 2012. That Tech actually went 1-1 in the two games, a victory over Duke at Bobby Dodd and a loss to North Carolina in Chapel Hill, may be the greatest testament to the efficiency of coach Paul Johnson’s offense.

But the defense has issues and Johnson knows the scrutiny isn’t going to stop.

“You’re going to get the questions until you play better, that’s the nature of the business,” he said.

Johnson has said he wants all of the coaches to coach better. He has asked for calls to be simplified. Whatever is at the root of the problems, they all likely won’t be solved in Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Coach Justin Fuente, in his first year in western Virginia, has the Hokies tied with the Tar Heels atop the Coastal Division. Behind quarterback Jerod Evans, Virginia Tech is averaging 34.9 points and 444.4 yards per game.

It would be easy to say that the demise of Tech’s defense could be seen before the season. The Yellow Jackets were replacing four starters in the secondary and featured a front seven that was going to play many of the same starters and back-ups that seldom generated pressure or impact plays during 2015’s 3-9 season.

But things started reasonably well. Through the win against Georgia Southern, which improved the Yellow Jackets to 4-3 and preceded the Duke game, Tech was allowing respectable averages of 21.9 points and 350.6 yards per game. Those averages have now increased to 26.2 points and 405.4 yards per game.

But there were worrying signs, and Johnson would point them out: Tech couldn’t get opponents off the field (opponents were converting 50 percent of third downs), and seldom were impact plays occurring (seven sacks and six turnovers).

Those problems were laid bare against the Blue Devils, which is still winless in the ACC, and the Tar Heels. They combined to convert 16 of 26 third downs, which is why Tech is still last among 128 FBS teams in that category with an opponent conversion rate of 52 percent. The Yellow Jackets had just one sack in the two games. Though helped by a quick passing scheme, North Carolina Mitch Trubisky was seldom pressured once by Tech’s defense. The Yellow Jackets are last in the ACC with eight sacks, four less than the next best team, Syracuse. There are four players in the ACC that have as many sacks as Tech has a team.

The lack of impact plays may be more worrisome. The website Footballoutsiders.com uses a stat called Havoc Rate, which is a team’s total tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays. For the season, Tech is second-to-last among 128 FBS teams with a Havoc Rate of 11 percent.

Johnson said there were a lot of missed assignments against North Carolina, a lot of players not beating blocks, some players not looking in the right places, and some guys just getting beat. He said those will happen in every game.

“We’re disappointed, embarrassed, but we are the ones that have to do something about it,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said.

So how can Tech stop the hemorrhaging enough to give itself a chance to reach its sixth win, which would likely secure a bowl invitation, with games against the Hokies, Virginia and Georgia remaining?

David Archer, who has done analysis of three Tech games this season for the ACC Network, said it’s not fair to put the problems exclusively on the coaching staff.

He said he has seen numerous instances of the players not executing basic principles. On Bug Howard’s 68-yard touchdown reception in last week’s game, safety A.J. Gray got caught watching the slot receiver cut inside. Trubisky read Gray and made the throw.

That lack of discipline by Gray gave Howard the space on the sideline for an easy catch, explosive play (of at least 20 yards) and touchdown.

“They have to limit the explosive plays and they are coming because they are blowing assignments,” Archer said.

The other problem is Tech’s defensive line is unable to generate pressure with four players, according to Archer and supported by stats. That has led to Roof trying to blitz, which means playing man-to-man coverage. The ACC is full of quality quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends who can take advantage of blitzes and man-to-man coverage. Duke’s tight ends combined to catch 12 passes for 173 yards. Again, Tech has one sack in its past two games. Johnson said Tech tried different combinations of fronts and coverages against North Carolina.

“Nothing Ted Roof or Paul Johnson can do about that,” Archer said. “They teach the core basics. It comes down to ‘do your job.’ ”

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