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Film Room, Week 6: Linebackers

One of the brighter spots on a long, long day for the defense

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a little difficult to point to a lot of positives on a day when the Tech defense gave up 38 points and nearly 600 yards, but at the same time, it’s hard to be too hard on them when they were on the field for just under 100 plays. Focusing specifically on the linebackers, there were quite a few positives to take away even from this performance.

New defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker is coaching the linebackers himself, and his preferred playing style for them—which is far more aggressive than that of his predecessors at Tech—seems to be showing results at last. Raw numbers aside, this game provided plenty of reasons to be encouraged by a unit that’s been a weakness for Tech in recent years.

Run Fits

Very loosely, the concept of run fits boils down to: where should each defender be on a given run play to close off all of the running lanes? Sound run fits are the fundamental basis for any team to be able to contain their opponent on the ground. This is an area where Tech struggled mightily under both Ted Roof and Nate Woody, in large part due to the linebackers’ collective tendency (presumably one that was coached) to be passive in run support and wait for the play to develop instead of attacking their assigned gaps.

Turning that around will be a process, but there have already been signs of progress under the new regime. The very first play from scrimmage was a good example:

David Curry is rushing across from UNC’s right tackle (#74) as the Tar Heels hand it off to running back Michael Carter. Curry is able to block off the running lane up the middle, and as a result, Carter decides to try to bounce it outside. In some cases that could be a dangerous development, but two things play in Tech’s favor: safety Christian Campbell is blitzing on that side and is right there to trip up Carter, and even if the running back were to get past Campbell, linebacker Charlie Thomas is marking him the whole way to stop him at the line of scrimmage.

Another example of good linebacker run fits happened later on the same drive:

Curry and Thomas start at normal depth on this one. Curry steps up with the goal of setting the edge, which he does by engaging the pulling right guard (#73) and then quickly disengaging, leaving him in position to take out the ballcarrier if he bounces outside. The running back, Carter, instead cuts back inside... and runs straight into Thomas, who remained directly in front of him the whole time while avoiding UNC’s blockers. Both linebackers were exactly where they needed to be to prevent a big gain on the ground.

It wasn’t all good news, though. All of the linebackers still have work to do in learning run fits, and there were a few plays when UNC took advantage. One example came in the fourth quarter, when neither linebacker closed off the middle and the running back picked up a first down easily:

Curry gets blocked several yards behind the line, and Thomas runs into a wide-open gap before realizing the running back is headed for a different one. The result is a gain of eight and a first down. It’s nothing egregiously terrible, but it’s a good encapsulation of what still needs to improve.

Blitz Effectiveness

The opening drive showcases one of Thacker’s favorite tactics: disguising his blitzers. Such a call led to base defensive end Antwan Owens’ drive-ending interception in UNC territory.

This play is enabled in part by defensive tackle T.K. Chimedza, who crosses over to rush where the quarterback Howell expects Owens to come from. That helps to disguise the fact that Owens has dropped back into a short zone. It’s possible that, given an extra second or two, Howell might see Owens camped out there and look to his next receiver. However, Thomas executes a perfect blitz to avoid the center’s attention and give him a clear path to the quarterback; if Howell were to wait half a second longer, he would have been sacked.

The Tech DC also is a big fan of run blitzes and will frequently send one of his linebackers. These calls have proven to be useful in a year when Tech simply does not have the personnel in its 4-2-5 front to hold up well against the run.

On the flip side, occasionally they backfire badly:

In this first-quarter play, Quez Jackson goes on a blitz toward the left side of the formation as the running back takes a handoff to the right. A safety steps up to fill the void, but he gets blocked and Thomas overruns the play as he comes across the field, leaving the middle of the field open for a huge gain.

Pass Coverage

There were good moments in coverage, even when passes weren’t thrown to the actual zones that the linebackers were covering. Thomas did a good job to contain a catch on a quick slant in the second quarter, converging to the ball immediately when it was thrown and bringing down the receiver:

There simply weren’t a ton of plays where the linebackers were tested in coverage over the middle. For the most part, Howell attacked the secondary deep and on the sidelines and often relied on dump-off passes in the backfield.

Result of the play aside, it’s hard to point the finger completely at Curry for this one. He did step the wrong way, but it was also a perfectly executed route by the UNC receiver.

And then there was the sad moment, when true freshman Demetrius Knight jumped a route but could not hold on to what would have been his first career interception:

With the way he’s played so far as a true freshman at a new position, it’s safe to say that Knight will have plenty more opportunities to force turnovers in his Tech career.

David Curry, Playmaker

Over the past year-plus, Curry has struggled with run fits and coverage (in fairness, he’s not alone in either category), and he doesn’t have the athleticism to make up for mistakes as easily as some of Tech’s other primary linebackers. All that said, this Saturday may have been the breakthrough game that he needed. The veteran linebacker finished the game with 16 tackles, and while officially he didn’t have any tackles for loss, his play helped to enable several TFLs by Thomas and others (as chronicled in prior sections). Put simply, it was one of the best games by an individual Tech linebacker in a while.

Curry did it all. Here he is snuffing out a screen pass for no gain in the fourth quarter:

Curry is tracking the running back, and as soon as he diagnoses the play and sees the ball leave Howell’s hands, he locks on and heads straight for the recipient to stop him for no gain. After years of screen pass-related misery for the Tech defense, plays like this are a breath of fresh air.

And here he is dragging down the running back for a short gain in the red zone:

As the play develops, Curry tracks the running back horizontally across the field, and when the back cuts upfield, the Tech linebacker is there to drag him down. It’s another heads-up play by a guy who’s reaping the benefits of playing more aggressively.

Speaking of playing aggressively, one of Curry’s best plays of the day came just before the half (and in retrospect this one should have gone in the books as a TFL for him, if only barely):

There’s a moment’s pause as Curry and Jordan-Swilling size up the situation, but then the former sees a clear path to the running back and doesn’t hesitate any longer. He knifes in, reaching around the bodies of Kelton Dawson and the UNC tight end who just cut blocked Dawson to the ground (wait, that’s illegal), and gets enough of the running back to drag him down for no gain.

Ability has never been in question for Curry or the other linebackers. The issue has always been coaching—more specifically, the lack of continuity among coordinators and position coaches, plus the strange insistence on playing passively. Thacker’s emphasis on aggressive play seems to be taking root, and if they get some coaching continuity through the offseason, that bodes very well for a position group that is set to return all five key contributors in 2020.