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Tennessee Defense: On Stopping the Big Play

The Vols' biggest area of improvement for the second half of the season, and a critical factor in trying to pull the upset in Tuscaloosa.

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In Tennessee's advanced statistical profile at Football Study Hall, two things clearly stand out in the five factors to victory.  In the positive, it's field position:  the Vols lead the nation in average opponent starting field position (23.4 yard line), and are 21st nationally in their own starting field position (32.7 yard line).  This is an incredible advantage that, as many have echoed, would almost certainly be part of something special happening in Tuscaloosa for Tennessee.

Tennessee is a Top 50 team in every other component except three.  Finishing drives isn't a strong suit defensively, where the Vols rank 79th nationally in points per trip inside the 40.  I would expect this to improve as Tennessee's schedule eases up in the second half of the season.

And then there's explosiveness.  The Vols are 104th nationally in offensive explosiveness.  However, I think much of this is a byproduct of the two things we've spent the most time talking about this year:  overly conservative play calling when playing with the lead, which is easily adjustable, and the overall risk management leanings of Tennessee's offensive philosophy.  We wrote about this at length after the Arkansas game, and while the outcome of the Georgia game may have called some of it into question, overall I think it's still who Tennessee wants to be.  The Vols got behind fumbling at the end of a productive drive and giving up a punt return for a touchdown, then came back running much of the same offense; their most aggressive moments were, as you'd expect, on fourth downs trailing 24-3.  The play calling was more aggressive on the final scoring drive, but it wasn't anything crazy.  I still think Tennessee came into the year believing it could win games by minimizing risk and maximizing the run game, and I still think they're not far from being right.  Even before Mike DeBord, Butch Jones and Mike Bajakian were implementing an up-tempo offense designed more to beat you with six or seven quick plays than one home run.

So yeah, the offense hasn't been explosive, but it can be efficient.  We've seen it.

But what we've also seen, and far too often, is Tennessee's defense allowing the other team to be explosive.  And I think here is where the greatest room for improvement lies.

It's hard to nail down a single culprit, though I would start with the loss of Curt Maggitt and the impact it's had on Tennessee's pass rush.  From there you're compounding things by your choice of walk-on or true freshman at middle linebacker and generally shoddy tackling from the secondary in space.  It all adds up to numbers that are worse than we may realize.

Tennessee has allowed 17 plays of 30+ yards in six games this season, 97th nationally and uncomfortably last in the SEC, where only Arkansas (14) and the Vols have given up more than a dozen 30+ yard plays so far this year.  That's 2.8 big plays allowed per game.  Last year the Vols gave up 29 30+ yard plays in 13 games (2.2 per game); in 2013 it was 2.1 per game.  This means to find something similar to what we've seen so far this year, we have to go back to (gulp) Sal Sunseri's unit, which allowed 36 30+ yard plays in 12 games, eight more than the next closest SEC team, an even three per game.

Now, here again Tennessee's second half schedule should ease some of this burden thanks to North Texas, Missouri, and Vanderbilt down the stretch.  But if I'm Alabama?  If I'm Lane Kiffin?  I see opportunity.  And if I'm Tennessee's defense - last seen actually making the game-winning stop pictured at the top of the page - I see critical room for improvement.

Here's every 30+ yard play the Vols have allowed this season:

Bowling Green 1 0-0 3rd & 4 Pass 45 FG
Bowling Green 2 21-10 1st & 10 Pass 38 TD
Bowling Green 2 21-10 1st & 10 Pass 31 TD (this play)
Bowling Green 3 35-20 1st & 10 Run 31 TD
Bowling Green 3 42-27 2nd & 10 Pass 45 TD
Bowling Green 4 49-30 3rd & 10 Pass 34 Fumble
Western Carolina 2 34-0 1st & 10 Run 44 FG
Western Carolina 4 55-3 2nd & 10 Run 64 TD (this play)
Florida 1 0-0 1st & 10 Run 47 TD
Florida 4 27-21 4th & 14 Pass 63 Fulmerized
Arkansas 1 14-0 1st & 10 Pass 52 TD
Arkansas 2 14-7 2nd & 2 Run 44 TD
Arkansas 2 14-7 2nd & 15 Pass 33 TD (this play)
Arkansas 3 17-24 3rd & 10 Pass 51 Blocked FG
Georgia 2 3-14 1st & 10 Pass 35 Missed FG
Georgia 2 3-14 2nd & 6 Run 66 FG
Georgia 4 31-24 1st & 10 Pass 48 TD (this play)

A couple of things stand out here.  You can take out the meaningless runs by Western Carolina, but you're still left with 15 plays in five games, all still in critical moments when these gains were allowed.  And really, it's 15 plays in four games:  the Vols didn't allow Oklahoma to hit a big play all night, dying instead by a thousand penalties and missed sacks.

When you hit a 30+ yard play on a drive, you're not punting.  So Tennessee has done a fair job not allowing all of these to result in touchdowns, keeping the opposition out of the end zone six times after they hit a big play.  And, contrary to how I thought this was going to look coming in, the Vols really haven't had their backs broken in third down situations.  Bowling Green landed a big 3rd and 10, but fumbled on the next play to really end their threat.  Arkansas did the same, but the Vols blocked the ensuing field goal attempt.  So from there you've just got the Florida play - which is still enough heartbreak for an entire year - but the Vols haven't been getting blown up trying to get off the field.

Instead, look how many of these came on 1st & 10 passes, and think about how many of those came off play action. Sure, the Vols got torched early by a Bowling Green team which is currently third in the country in 30+ yard plays.  But they also gave up four to an Arkansas team that has averaged just 1.8 30+ yard plays in their other games this season.

So this script will present itself again tomorrow, same as it did against Arkansas and Georgia:  Vols have to sell out to stop the run, quarterback who's not exactly setting the world on fire finds opportunity to beat the defense over the top.  It's a tough spot for John Jancek and the Vols to be in when the alternative is trying to stop Derrick Henry and Bama's offensive line with less help and no Shy Tuttle.  This is why much of our conversation on the most important Vol this week centered around linebackers having to make tackles and defensive backs having to do their part with little help.

The numbers should look better by the end of the year.  But in what should be our last crack at a really good team until (possibly) a bowl game, can the Vols show improvement coming off the bye week against an Alabama team that hasn't been the most explosive in the world (2.28 30+ yard plays per game, 7th in the SEC and actually behind Tennessee's 2.33)?  Perhaps Alabama is good enough to grind the Vols to death and win without it.  But the reason Arkansas was able to do that late is because they got off the deck by beating the Vols with big plays in the first half.

It will be on Derek Barnett and John Jancek to generate pressure.  It will be on Darrin Kirkland and whoever the Vols put on the field as a third linebacker when Alabama brings the I-form or two tight ends to join Jalen Reeves-Maybin in finishing tackles.  And it will be on everyone in the secondary to improve their play, from pass defense to tackling angles, to keep the Tide in check.  Big plays put a scare in us in Nashville, let Arkansas back in the game, and have made the season's most bitter memory one play in Gainesville.  For the Vols to make a new memory in Tuscaloosa, and to finish this season successfully down the stretch, they must stop giving up so many big plays and start making some of their own on the defensive side of the ball.