Paul Johnson said a very strange thing this week. The Georgia Tech coach compared Duke’s defense to the “old Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Duke’s defense, which couldn’t stop a leaky faucet last year? Duke’s defense, which gave up an average of 45 points over the final seven games, including 42 at Georgia Tech? Duke’s defense, which has been playing catch-up with Duke’s offense during David Cutcliffe’s entire tenure in Durham?
For most of that time, and for years prior, Duke’s defense bore as much resemblance to the Steelers’ famous “Steel Curtain” of Mean Joe Greene and Jack Lambert as it did to an actual window-covering fashioned from sheet metal. Yet based on the tape available to Johnson this season, it’s not hard to see where he’s going with this.
In two games – albeit against inferior competition, N.C. Central and Memphis – the Blue Devils have allowed only 14 points (seven coming on an interception return), 420 yards and 21 first downs, forcing two turnovers and making 12 tackles for loss. Most pertinent to Johnson, given the thrust of his offense, the Blue Devils are giving up a mere 85.0 rushing yards per game.
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Johnson may be engaging in the time-honored tradition of talking up an opponent, but the mere fact he chose Duke’s defensive front to emphasize acknowledges improvement in that department.
“I know David has said that this is the best defensive line that they’ve had since he’s been there,” Johnson said earlier this week. “With everything that we’ve seen so far, they look like the old Pittsburgh Steelers. I mean they’ve shut everybody down and nobody’s had much success. So that’s what we’ve got to get ready for.”
The six starters at defensive line and linebacker are all juniors or older, and all but one was red-shirted. The four starting defensive linemen have made a combined 86 starts. Three linebackers have started at least 10 games. (In the secondary, only veteran cornerback Ross Cockrell can say that.)
At the moment, it’s a predominantly healthy group, with linebacker C.J. France expected to play Saturday for the first time this season. Sixth-year defensive end Kenny Anunike is healthy. Junior linebacker Kelby Brown is healthy.
So if this group is ever going to be a strength for Duke, now is the time. There’s no better test than Georgia Tech’s flexbone option offense, which places a premium on attention to detail and patience, especially on the front lines – especially with a dual-threat quarterback like Vad Lee running it, the Hillside product coming home to Durham.
Duke is most inexperienced in the secondary, which isn’t the negative against the Yellow Jackets’ ground attack that it is against faster, pass-heavier teams. The strength of the Blue Devils’ defense is up front, and that’s where they’ll be tested Saturday. They have never been any more prepared than this.
“When you play Georgia Tech, maybe the most important factor is experience,” Cutcliffe said. “The reason I say that is they’re going to move the football and make first downs. I don’t see anybody, anybody stopping them. They’re going to get their rushing yards, but the game is about points per game.
“You have to be resilient, keep playing, and play to be opportunistic and optimistic. You can't let it beat you up, and more experienced players are more inclined to handle that.”
Duke has those now, and their time has come. There’s no margin for error this week in particular, with Anthony Boone out and Brandon Connette deputizing at quarterback. Duke has been relying on its offense for years. This week, against Johnson’s offense, it’s the defense’s turn to pick up the slack.