Thanks to a trio of interceptions and a very inaccurate UNC quarterback, the defense had one of its better performances of the season. Still, some of the concerns that have persisted all season were present on Saturday. This week’s edition of Woody’s Roundup will be a bit more film-heavy and will focus on some of those issues and what they stem from—as well as some things the defense did well and how those are emblematic of their strengths.
Week 10 vs. UNC: Defense by the Numbers
|Points per Possession||1.8|
|Total Yards Allowed||374|
|Opp. Yards per Carry||4.6|
|Opp. Yards per Attempt||6.7|
|Opp. Yards per Play||5.6|
|Third Down Conversions||8/14|
One thing to note off the bat is that one of UNC’s scores was a defensive touchdown in the first quarter; they had four offensive possessions that ended in points (two TDs and two field goals). The yards-per-attempt figure was in much more reasonable territory than it has been in recent weeks—thanks in large part to UNC quarterback Nathan Elliott’s inaccuracy, as the Tar Heels did break off a couple 30+ yard plays through the air and had numerous completions in the 10-20 yard range.
The rate stats were improved from the previous game. Of particular note was UNC’s low success rate; it’s been rare for Tech to hold anyone below 50 percent in that stat, much less that far below 50 percent. Much of this stemmed from limiting UNC to few yards on first and often second down, though the Tar Heels did convert third downs with relative ease.
Defensive Line Disruption
It wasn’t a bad day for Desmond Branch and Brandon Adams, who both found their way into the backfield a decent amount and combined for what seemed like a crucial tackle-for-loss at the time:
UNC ended up reaching the end zone, but not until third down (after another Branch TFL on the following play). It was at least heartening to see a couple solid plays up front in the red zone, even if the production crew couldn’t figure out where the red zone was (more on that at the end of this article).
But the anchor of this team all year has been Anree Saint-Amour, who forced yet another turnover on Saturday:
This isn’t just included here because it’s a Piesman Trophy moment—it appears to be a really smart veteran play. Saint-Amour is rushing the QB as usual, but after the running back chips him on the way out of the backfield, he realizes nobody is covering underneath and takes a step back... putting him right between an open-looking slot receiver and a very unaware QB. This now leaves Saint-Amour tied for the team lead in interceptions along with being the leader in tackles for loss and sacks.
Disruption aside, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for the line. They get pushed around quite a bit in the run game; a good example of this is the first gif in the next section, which focuses on the linebackers but also involves the entire DL getting shoved backward. Also, a frustrating issue has emerged when Tech plays teams that run hurry-up no-huddle offenses: not being set at the snap.
This happened on several occasions on Saturday. This particular one wasn’t disastrous—UNC ran up the middle for a few yards—but it’s a problematic trend.
Hesitant Inside Linebacker Play
The inside linebackers have had a consistent and bizarre tendency all season to drift toward traffic and just... hover there, waiting for the play to come to them. A good example comes from the third quarter, as UNC began its comeback:
It doesn’t help that the defensive line gets pushed around on this play. but... the ILBs aren’t in position to do anything. On this particular play, Brant Mitchell (the near ILB from this angle) should be patrolling the area where running back Jordon Brown ultimately goes, as Stinger linebacker Jalen Johnson is rushing the QB. It’s blocked well enough that Brown probably gets the first down no matter what, but Mitchell could limit him to four or five yards. Instead, Mitchell drifts several yards off to his left, ostensibly following the blocks... but several defenders are already in the area, and he takes himself out of position to stop the cutback, allowing Brown to run free for 13 yards.
David Curry has had similar issues at his ILB spot, simply showing too much hesitation and giving opposing blockers time to reach him instead of attacking the play head-on. The hesitant tendency is just strange, because it’s very much at odds with the philosophy that coordinator Nate Woody has preached since he arrived in Atlanta.
It’s hard to say whether it’s coming from inside linebackers coach Andy McCollum or from Woody himself, or it’s just leftover tendencies from the three years that each player was in Ted Roof’s read-and-react scheme, but... something just seems to be holding the ILBs back from turning loose. No stat better reflects this than the linebacker havoc rate of 1.3 percent, which is good for No. 128 in the country (out of 130 FBS teams). It’s frustrating because when they attack, good things tend to happen; witness the option play where Swilling blew it up in the backfield and Mitchell, who rushed free up the middle, was there to take down the running back.
Of course, that havoc stat includes the outside linebackers too. The OLBs and ILBs are about even in terms of havoc created this season, though if QB hurries were accounted for, freshman Charlie Thomas would put the OLBs over the top all on his own. Tech simply needs more production out of this unit.
Cornerback Ups and Downs
Lamont Simmons and Tre Swilling have more or less settled in as the starting corners at this point, and for at least the first half on Saturday, Swilling seemed to be at the center of everything. Let’s start with the bad:
In a lot of instances, Swilling struggles to get his hips turned quickly, and it comes back to bite him. On this play, covering the receiver at the top of the screen, he’s slow to adjust to the receiver stopping on his curl route and allows him to pick up a few yards after the catch. Of course, Swilling is still a young player, and with enough reps and good coaching, he can rectify the issue with time.
The good news is that he’s shown some really promising tendencies in other respects. A couple plays after that pass play, Swilling delivered one of the best plays of the afternoon:
Swilling is playing a short zone, and he instantly identifies the speed option and acts on it, flying past the receiver’s would-be block and drilling the running back just as the pitch arrives. It’s a little too late to knock the ball out and he can’t quite finish the tackle, but he does knock the RB backward, enabling Brant Mitchell to arrive and finish the job. It’s a great bit of play recognition by a redshirt freshman who’s been very effective when he’s turned loose to attack the backfield. (He also had an interception in one-on-one coverage on a jump ball late in the first quarter, showing both a good ability to track the ball and a Richard Sherman-esque ability to get away with a little bit of contact.)
Simmons, meanwhile, is generally solid in coverage when he has his head turned toward the ball. When he’s facing the ball, he’s good at playing it and can usually find some way to disrupt the pass. The problem is that far too often, he ends up chasing the receiver and loses track of when the ball is about to arrive, and as a result he often never gets turned around.
Here’s a familiar tale. It’s third and 7. So let’s line up with everyone right at the marker and then have most of them drift back as the receivers approach:
But it’s okay, because they’re in zones, and there’s no way that the zones would allow for someone to get wide open past the marker on a comeback route or—
...ah. So much for that. Woody seems committed to heavy zone coverage, so Roofian moments like this seem unlikely to go away.
That said, Woody and the players deserve some credit for what happened next. Just three plays later, UNC targeted a receiver running a very similar comeback route on the opposite side of the field, and Tech was ready for it:
Credit, of course, goes to Carpenter for making an aggressive play on the ball. He’s quickly emerged as a solid run defender who tracks the ball well when in zone coverage—pretty much ideal for a strong safety in this system. His man coverage skills need to improve, but for a true sophomore, he’s been an asset overall. (Aside: notice how much of a cushion Swilling is giving to the receiver at the top of the screen. It seems like an adjustment the corners have made to avoid getting burned over the top.)
As for new schematic changes, there weren’t too many new wrinkles on Saturday, but one new stunt did make an appearance early on:
Most of the stunts in the pass rush to date have involved one of the defensive ends rushing to the outside to draw off two linemen while the OLB breaks inside. Here, one of the ILBs—in this case Curry—goes to the outside, while the defensive end Branch stunts inside after he goes by. It’s designed to give the end a lane to rush, but the left guard steps back to help the running back block him, which in turn creates an opening for Curry after he shoves the left tackle back. Curry closes in, and the QB has to throw the ball away, ending the UNC possession.
Bonus: The Raycom Experience
The defense has things to fix. But they are far from alone in this regard:
At least you tried, dearest Raycom. At least you tried.