Next week in Miami, Georgia Tech wants to show improved defense

Georgia Tech’s defense has reason to feel good about itself after four games.

The Yellow Jackets played one forgettable half (and two overtime periods) against Tennessee in the season-opening loss to Tennessee. But since, the Tech defense has been an effective entity, amassing three-and-outs and limiting big plays. But the Jackets will have their biggest test thus far next week when they face No. 13 Miami on Saturday afternoon after having their open date this week.

“We’ve played much better the last three games on defense,” coach Paul Johnson said. “It’s been good. The talent level is going to increase immensely here on the next one on offense for us. This’ll be the best offense that we’ve played against.”

With field-stretching wide receivers and elusive running backs, Miami has shredded Tech in recent years. In defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s four matchups with the Hurricanes, Miami has averaged 8.3 yards per play in the four meetings, in which Tech is 1-3, including losses in the past two. The Jackets’ average against all FBS opponents over that span is 6.0 yards per play.

In 2013, Roof’s first season back at Tech, Miami strafed the Jackets by averaging 10.4 yards per play, setting an ACC record for a conference game. As such, overconfidence shouldn’t be a problem for Tech against Miami, which plays Florida State at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

“I see a great offense,” said safety A.J. Gray, the reigning ACC defensive back of the week.

Entering Saturday’s games, Miami was ranked second nationally in yards per play at 8.2 after wins over Bethune-Cookman, Toledo and Duke. Quarterback Malik Rosier has completed 65.6 percent of his passes and is averaging 9.1 yards per attempt. Wide receivers Braxton Berrios and Ahmmon Richards are dangerous downfield threats. Running back Mark Walton runs with speed, power, vision and quickness. He has 13 runs of 10 yards or more in just 44 attempts this season.

But in Tech, Miami should find a more capable adversary than it has previously. The Jackets have carried their strong play from their final four games of last season and appear to have improved on it. Tech is giving up 4.6 yards per play (in the top 25 nationally), even better than the 5.1 that it permitted in the final four games of 2016.

Having eight starters back has helped develop trust with each other and Roof.

“Everybody trusts in each other to do their job, and it’s working,” Gray said.

Roof has kept game plans simple, linebacker Victor Alexander said. That emphasis was credited with the turnaround in the final four games of last season, wins over Virginia Tech, Virginia, Georgia and Kentucky. Roof limited the number of play calls that he used in games, which enabled the defense to know the calls more thoroughly and play them with more confidence and speed.

“As linebackers, he made it very simple,” Alexander said. “He calls a couple plays, we go do it. It’s not as intense as it had been in the past. This year, I feel like it’s flat-out, you just go out there and you play ball.”

In the past, Alexander said, there might have been as many as 20 play calls in a game, and it now might be two or three.

“That’s what you’ve been seeing,” safety Corey Griffin said. “Playing fast, the reads are much easier, clean, so that definitely carried over.”

Tech has also adopted a more aggressive style, with Roof calling for blitzes and line stunts more frequently, to put more pressure on opponents. It takes advantage of Tech’s quickness and speed while minimizing the size disadvantage the Jackets often bring into games.

Defensive ends Antonio Simmons and Anree Saint-Amour have improved as pass rushers. Open-field tackling has improved. The secondary continues to show its playmaking knack.

Next Saturday in Miami Gardens, Fla., that will all get put to the test.

“I feel like there’s an eagerness every week, any team we go against, especially Miami,” Saint-Amour said. “They beat us the last two years. You want to get back at them. You want to win the game. We’re trying to keep this winning streak going and eager to win the game.”

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