Explosive plays torpedo Duke's defense

lkeeley@newsobserver.comSeptember 25, 2013 

— Duke coach David Cutcliffe is a glass-half-full guy by nature, and he found positives for his defense to build on from last week’s 58-55 loss to Pittsburgh.

After reviewing the film, Cutcliffe broke the results of Pitt’s 79 offensive snaps into two categories: explosives and not explosives. For 62 plays, the Panthers averaged 2.8 yards per play. On the other 17, though, Pitt gained 423 yards – an average of 25 yards per play.

“You focus on how you prevent, not what to do, but how you prevent explosive plays,” Cutcliffe said. “How do you keep the ball in front of you, how do you tackle better, how do you leverage the ball and set the edge. Those are the things we’re working on and have to continue working better at.”

The answers to how have eluded Duke for years. Last year, Duke gave up 370 plays of at least 10 yards and 180 plays that went for at least 20 yards, according to the website cfbstats.com. Duke also led both categories in 2011, the first year of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’s 4-2-5 scheme.

Through four games this year, Duke had given up a league-worst 87 plays of at least 10 yards and 30 plays of at least 20 yards, which is fourth-worst in the ACC. Pitt, which gave up 55 points to Duke last week, leads the ACC with 36 such plays, and Clemson (35) and Syracuse (32) fall in between the two schools (for the more traditional stat-inclined, Duke ranks 10th in the ACC in total defense and 11th if results against FCS schools are removed).

Cutcliffe traces Duke’s big-play problem to failures of execution.

“The schemes are fine,” he said. “There are a million schemes that are, quote, sound. It’s how you execute the scheme on your end.

“It’s not rocket science. It’s just a matter of thinking on your feet, and therein lies the secret. It’s fast-twitch thinkers and functional ability to use the system.”

The most egregious errors Saturday came from the secondary, as Pitt quarterback Tom Savage tied an ACC-record with six touchdowns and finished 23-of-33 (70 percent) for 424 yards. In the zone coverages Duke uses, the deep safeties have one primary responsibility: keep receivers in front of them. Sophomore Dwayne Norman, for example, failed at this on back-to-back plays, and Savage exploited those lapses for two completions of more than 65 yards and 14 points.

“We just have to understand the game plan,” senior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “When we’re playing deep zone, play deep zone. When we’re playing man-to-man, play man-to-man. It’s that simple. And don’t get caught up trying to do more than your job,” he said, likely in reference to defensive backs creeping up to help stop the run and subsequently getting burned on a deep pass.

Duke’s veteran defensive line was guilty of not using any functional knowledge of the system early in the game. The Panthers’ offensive line did a great job of blocking for their freshman running back, James Conner, who exploited holes on simple off-tackle plays for major gains. He finished with 173 yards on 26 carries.

“We’re just so gap-oriented, we’re just trying to get in our gaps and maintain gap responsibility, that we would stay blocked a little too long instead of shedding those blocks and making the play,” defensive end Kenny Anunike said.

Despite the ugly numbers – 58 points and 598 total yards for the Panthers – Cutcliffe is optimistic the defense can play better. There were the 62 snaps the Blue Devils held Pitt in check. And in the fourth quarter, when Duke scored 20 points, the Panthers were held to minus-12 total yards (their score came on an interception return for a touchdown – one of four quarterback Brandon Connette threw).

There were personnel changes, too. Norman left the game shortly after his back-to-back touchdown gaffs early in the second quarter with a hamstring injury, and true freshman Deondre Singleton took over, playing 59 snaps. True freshman corners Bryon Fields (37 snaps) and Breon Borders (27) also saw more playing time than in previous games.

“You’re going to see more and more of those guys,” Cutcliffe said of the freshmen. “We’re going to try to elevate the athleticism of this team, and those guys can help us do that.”

There have been signs of defensive progress in ACC play before – holding Virginia to two second-half rushing yards and 17 total points in 2012 comes to mind. But the Blue Devils have given up at least 30 points in eight of their past nine conference games, a trend that puts a large burden on the offense.

Last week, lighting up the Panthers defense for seven touchdowns (and an eighth via a punt return) wasn’t enough.

“That’s a lot of points,” receiver Jamison Crowder said of Duke’s 55. “Especially to get a loss, that’s tough.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

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