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UNC Football: How Syracuse kept Dyami Brown from going deep

Phil Longo’s offense benefits greatly from Sam Howell’s accurate long passes to Brown. How did Syracuse keep the big play receiver from stretching the field?

Syracuse v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Dyami Brown led all UNC receivers with six catches for 94 yards against Syracuse. His longest catch was late in the fourth quarter for 38 yards, and came after he ran ten yards and dragged across the field left-to-right after Sam Howell stepped up into the pocket to escape pressure. This is not how Phil Longo usually gets chunk plays from Dyami and Sam Howell. When Dyami caught the ball, there were two Syracuse defenders between him and the endzone. He wasn’t able to get vertical all game long.

Syracuse’s 3-3-5 defense was ideally suited to stopping this explosive element of Carolina’s offense. If you look at their formation pre-snap, it often resembles a mushroom. What made Sam Howell and UNC’s offense so dangerous last season was the explosive play potential with Howell’s accuracy on 30+ yard passes, especially in the first quarter.

Last season, teams that left Brown alone on the left side in single coverage, usually got to see Dyami stare at the ground to get his defender to bite on a short dig route, watch Dyami burn past the committed defender and stick two fingers in the air when he crossed into the endzone. Syracuse had a plan to stop that, and it worked very well.

Syracuse defensive coordinator Tony White has certainly watched film of Sam Howell zipping 30+ yard passes off to Dyami Brown in one-on-one coverage on the left side from last season in preparation for the unexpected matchup with UNC. Syracuse decided that if they were going to die, they were going to die from the run, and not the deep ball. It took until the fourth quarter, but they eventually got their wish. In fact, this is what Coach White looked like when he was watching film of Sam Howell connecting with Dyami Brown:

Dyami was covered all game long by redshirt junior Ifeatu Melifonwu (#2). Melifonwu usually gave Brown at least seven yards cushion, and would have at least one safety behind him at all times, more if Carolina motioned any players to the left side. After Javonte Williams started breaking some runs in the third quarter, there was usually a linebacker sitting in the space where Dyami could get some underneath routes.

If you have the game saved on DVR or want to pull it up on the ESPN app, I’ve highlighted several plays that illustrate how effective Syracuse was at keeping Dyami Brown in check.

  • 1st Quarter, 13:50, 3rd & 10: On the first drive of the game, the Heels were in third and long thanks to a bad sack on Howell. Pre-snap, Melifonwu was giving Dyami seven yards of cushion with safety Eric Coley (#34) about 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage, lined up on the left tackle’s outside foot. After the snap, linebacker Mikel Jones (#13, and a 3rd team freshman All-American last season) drops into the space to cover a quick slant. Melifonwu doesn’t backpeddle and tries to jam Dyami, but he easily cruises by and catches a 17-yard pass, gets a few yards-after-catch before being met by Coley on the initial stop, and Jones helped clean up from behind. While all of this going on, preseason All-American Andre Cisco (#7) was about five yards behind the play. There was no way Sam Howell was going to be able to give Dyami time to get a longer grab. He’d learn that lesson the hard way in the third quarter when Cisco did pick him cleanly.
  • 1st Quarter, 11:06, 3rd & 4: UNC shows twins right with the tight end and running back on Howell’s right, leaving Dyami all alone on the left side. To cope with the right side overload, Syracuse only has Melifonwu in man-to-man with Dyami, giving a seven-yard cushion, and a safety on the right edge of the defensive end. Toe Groves leaves the twins formation, and begins pre-snap motion behind the running back, dragging the secondary towards the left side of the field. On the snap, Melifonwu stayed with Dyami while the safety covered Groves. Howell tried to find Dyami in the left corner of the endzone but juuuust overthrew him. If this was game three of the season, that’s six points. Extra Note: Groves had a TON of space in the flat on this play. Syracuse would cover this space with a linebacker in the second half when Carolina showed this formation.
  • 3rd Quarter, 13:20, 2nd & 7: Ugh. Same formation as the previous note. This time, Melifonwu is in bump and run coverage, but has a safety closer, about nine yards behind the line of scrimmage, lined up with UNC’s left tackle. On the snap, Dyami cooks Melifonwu pretty quickly with a stutter step, but drags towards the inside of the field on his release, instead of the outside, where there is precious space. Howell launches, and Melifonwu is already preparing to grab and hold Dyami from behind to prevent a score, but Andre Cisco drifted from the middle of the field to cleanly pick off the pass, eyeing the ball all the way into his hands. If Dyami had it all over to do, he would want to release to the outside, and if Howell had another chance, he wouldn’t have thrown that pass. That’s how the 3-3-5 kills a vertical passing game.

Dyami Brown didn’t have a bad game by any stretch. Syracuse did succeed in taking away a critical element of UNC’s passing attack that makes Sam Howell and the offense so dangerous. Syracuse’s 3-3-5 isn’t prevalent in college football, so we shouldn’t see it that often, but if we do, expect to see a lot of underneath throws to avoid interceptions by safeties with a lot of time to judge the flight of the ball. You can also expect to see a steady helping of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter gaining yards on the ground to try and force a safety into the box, opening up space over the top for Dyami Brown.