After unpacking reasons for optimism at the quarterback position yesterday, let’s turn our attention to the other side of the ball as we continue pursuing why 2021 will be different than the past two seasons.
In our offseason review, we highlighted some of the causes of the disappointing year that the Georgia Tech defense had in 2020. The defense wasn’t horrible, but it didn’t live up to its potential. The secondary in particular really struggled compared to some of the individual performances of 2019. Explosive passes killed GT last year. Lack of pressure, coverage busts, and missed tackles created an unfortunate cocktail of failure. Let’s take a peek at two examples of how things often went wrong:
Why will 2021 be different? Better Pass Defense
A really interesting nugget came out of the ACC Network Roadtrip show on Wednesday night. Coach Collins mentioned that last year, in order to maintain COVID protocols, the defensive ends were consistently apart from the defensive tackles, and the safeties were consistently apart from the cornerbacks. He attributed that as a primary cause of those units not having unity and consistency. Blown coverages and blown run fits could be chalked up to one group not knowing what the other was doing. That makes a lot of sense to me. This year, they’ve made a concerted effort for those units to work more as cohesive wholes.
Further, every single player of significance is back up front and in the secondary. The guys who chose to move on were looking at relatively little playing time this year. We covered just how deep and talented the cornerback room is, and the safeties showed in 2019 what kind of play they are capable of.
Last year, injuries on both the defensive line and in the secondary took a significant toll. By the end of the season, Jordan Domineck, Sylvain Yondjouen, and Antonneous Clayton were out, and 210 pound Charlie Thomas was playing defensive end. But that whole group is back, and the depth at Edge has been boosted with the arrivals of Kevin Harris, Keion White, Josh Robinson, and Noah Collins. On the backend, Tariq Carpenter and Tobias Oliver have revealed that they played significant portions of last season with injuries. The trio of Tre Swilling, Zamari Walton, and Myles Sims have flashed excellent play at corner, and they will only be bolstered by the likes of Kenyatta Watson, Oliver, and Miles Brooks. Both the edge and corner units have talented potential but also improved quality depth. The GT Pass defense will be better in 2021.
How will we know? Defensive EPA/Pass
There’s not a better metric at our disposal than Expected Points Added per pass play. Every time an opponent dropped back to pass, how did our pass defense affect the overall state of the game?
Let’s look again at the national landscape. One thing to note: defensive EPA/play typically denotes success if the value is negative because you’re taking away from the opponent’s expected points. I’ve flipped the signs in this data so that the better pass defenses appear up and to the right.
How did GT’s 2020 pass defense fare? The Jackets gave up 0.08 EPA/pass play last season, which lands in about the 40th percentile nationally. But we’re projecting improvement in this area this fall. How much?
We’re targeting a full standard deviation improvement, which would mean a pass defense of -0.06 EPA/play, about the 75th percentile. That’s an aggressive goal, but the talent upgrades up front and the continuity on the backend make the pass defense the unit poised for the greatest improvement on the team this year. That kind of improvement is what would get GT in position to be bowl eligible, even against this monstrous schedule.
In order to get there, let’s also touch base on two of our other favorite metrics that we’ll be tracking this year. Both defensive havoc and pressure have a strong correlation with improved pass defense. The GT defense, already struggling in this area, managed to take another step back in havoc rate last season, falling all the way to 15% and well below the national average of 21%. Similarly, the pressure rate on pass plays was a relatively anemic 23%, below the national average of 27%. The strength of the defensive end position, the increased athleticism at linebacker, the stability in the secondary, and the potential for some creative pressure packages give me reason to think that both of these numbers can jump up. What will we be looking for?
If GT’s pas defense is going to improve at the rate we’re hoping, my sense is that we will need to see a Havoc Rate >=21% and a Pressure Rate >=27%. Just getting to average in havoc and pressure rates would be a huge boon for the overall effectiveness against the pass. My hunch: GT fans will be pleased with the pass defense for the first time in years. We will see that through a pass defensive EPA of -0.06/play, a havoc rate of 21%, and a pass rush pressure rate of 27%.
2021 will be different because GT can defend the pass.