Defensive coordinator Mike Archer has led the charge on a much-improved Wolfpack defense through the first three games of the 2010 campaign. The defensive coordinator came to NC State with coach Tom O'Brien prior to the 2007 season, but is just recently being able to institute a 3-4 defense, like he is used to. Although the Pack is far from exclusively using a three-man front, Archer is enjoys having flexibility in which system he uses for the first time in Raleigh.
"I have actually been coaching that defense longer than any other defense," he said. "When I was at Miami [from 1976-83], we ran it. When I was at LSU [from 1985-90], I ran it. When I went to [the] Pittsburgh [Steelers], with Dick LeBeau and Bill [Cowher], the fire zone concept was a thing that they created. Coach LeBeau and Bill, when I got there, that was what they were known for. The things that I was able to learn there, we didn't do when I was in college, obviously. My background has been in the 3-4 since I started coaching."
When Archer first got to Raleigh, the Pack was loaded with defensive linemen and not as stocked with linebackers, the key to a successful 3-4. Based on the personnel available, the coaching staff felt that their best chance to be successful was utilizing a 4-3 defense, taking advantage of the big men on the roster the staff inherited.
"To play the 3-4, you better have two outside linebackers that are horses," Archer said. "People have to respect that you can rush, and you have to have good, good linebackers. We didn't have them at the time and we felt like we had linemen that could [run the 4-3]."
The Pack is currently using multiple defensive fronts this season, taking advantage of the versatility that fifth-year senior defensive ends David Akinniyi and Audi Augustin possess. Archer feels both can perform in either defense. Akinniyi had experience standing up and playing as an outside linebacker while at Northeastern, while the 6-foot-2 and 260-pound Augustin is athletic enough to do both.
"It's something that we're doing, mixing it in, trying to utilize our players' abilities," Archer said. "If we don't utilize what he does best, we're not very smart coaches.
"[Their ability to do both] is very important because people don't know if we're going to be in a three-down or four-down [defense]. They're trying to [figure out] their protection because they have to change their protection from when we're in a four-down to an odd, or three-down, look. It creates a little bit of a decision [for the offense]."
This year's defense, with Archer's tweaks and additions, has greatly improved, but, most noticeably, in two departments: causing turnovers and stopping opponents on third down. The Pack currently boasts the ACC's top turnover margin, +5, and also leads the conference in opponent's third-down success rate, 23.7 percent. Archer calls the defensive improvement on third down one of the biggest changes from last year.
"Number one, I think our guys understand the importance of third down," Archer said. "We were not good last year on third down and in our ability to get off the field. Obviously, we're pressuring more, we are going with more blitzes, we are doing a much better job of getting off the field.
"It's a combination of being able to get pressure, but we've also done a good job on the back end of matching routes. At times last year, we had pressure but we didn't do a good job of matching routes, and there were times when we had the coverage but weren't getting the pressure. It's got to be all 11 guys doing it, and, right now, that's the biggest key."
While Archer commends his defense for the effort they have put forth so far, he warns that the season is only three games old. He has been unhappy with his defense's inability to close down games and keep opponents off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter. It nearly allowed Central Florida to get back into the game two weeks ago.
"We still have a long ways to go," Archer said. "The last two weeks, in the fourth quarter, have not been good. I don't care who is in the game, it's unacceptable for us to have a 30-7 lead and then give up two easy scores in the last seven minutes."
In previous seasons under O'Brien, the Pack has had respectable defensive numbers during the beginning of the non-conference slate, but number plummeted once ACC competition kicked off. Archer and his defense have a chance to turn that around this Saturday when the Pack travels to Georgia Tech. The defense will be charged with the tall task of trying to contain the dangerous option offense employed by the Yellow Jackets.
"You got to be mentally tough because they wear on you, it's assignment football," he said. "They're going to make some plays, they are good. Obviously, they are the returning ACC Champions and they run the football well. They don't do a lot but, what they do, they do well. You have got to be mentally tough and just keep grinding away. They are going to make some plays, then you got to make some plays."
Archer said the key on defense will be forcing Georgia Tech into long third down situations, opposed to the normal two or three yards they normally find themselves needing for a first down. The defensive line, led by J.R. Sweezy, who tipped two passes at the line of scrimmage, recovered a fumble and totaled four tackles against Cincinnati, will be crucial if the Pack is going to have a chance in Atlanta.
"Right now, we are trying to work eight [defensive linemen in the rotation]," he said. "We'll probably do the same thing this week because it is going to be a very physical game. Those guys have to be responsible for the dive, and there are times where they will have to be responsible for the quarterback. They are going to be hitting somebody on every single play."
Although the Pack has found success, to some extent, in bottling up mobile quarterbacks during the past two contests, Archer said Georgia Tech quarterback Joshua Nesbitt presents a much different challenge compared to UCF's Jeffrey Godfrey or Cincinnati's Zach Collaros.
"They are the same athletically, they are very talented, but different," he said. "Collaros can hurt you in a lot of different ways, they are more pass to run, whereas the team we are about to play, with Nesbitt, is more run to pass. You can't go to sleep and just play run, run, run because, all of the sudden, they will throw it over your head. That is their big play capability. Last week, they threw four passes against North Carolina and had close to 100 yards because they are big plays. You have to eliminate the explosive plays to have any chance."
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