These are yardage numbers a defense doesn’t want to see given up: 80, 80, 75, 41, 30, 28 and 28.
That would be a lot of big plays for a defense to give up over any two-game span, but the fact that all of them were scoring plays makes it even harder to swallow for a defense that was playing at an extremely high level earlier in the season.
With a bye week under their belt and three offenses remaining on the schedule that all don’t rank as high as either South Carolina or Alabama, Tennessee’s last two opponents, the Vols are looking to get back on track defensively.
“For us, it starts with eliminating the big plays,” said head coach Butch Jones. “We have given up way too many big plays over the course of a couple weeks. We need to get back to playing our style of defense. Third downs, as you all know, we have done very well, and then the last couple weeks we have struggled in that area. So we have to do again, a good job.”
Ranked among the nation’s leaders in third-down defense earlier this season, the Vols have indeed slipped on getting opposing offenses off the field on the most critical down. The Vols are down to fourth in the conference in third-down defense, now allowing opponents to convert 34.8% of their attempts.
Still not a bad total, but far from the numbers the Vols were putting up earlier in 2014. Jones points out that what the Vols have, or haven’t, been doing on first and second down is one of the huge factors in the struggles on third down.
“We haven’t been ahead of the sticks,” he said. “It is just tackling and maintaining our points of pressure on the quarterback. Two weeks ago they were able to get, I believe, a third-and-16. It was just defensive tackle coming around, didn’t maintain his leverage point on the quarterback, and there you go. Impactful play and they get a first down.
“So it is really getting back to the fine details of playing winning football.”
One of those details is communication – something that has been lacking over the past few weeks as the Vols have lost track of key opposing players regularly. The Vols get their defensive calls in through the linebackers and safety Brian Randolph and it’s primarily up to them to get the defense called and set up on the field. And while a home-field advantage helps the defense by making it difficult for the opposing offense to communicate and hear the snap count, Neyland Stadium, which is expected to be sold out again on Saturday, also provides a challenge for UT defenders trying to get their calls in and adjustments made.
“When you go on the road, the crowd noise obviously affects your offense and when you play at home, the crowd noise impacts your defense,” Jones said. “And so again, it is our defense understanding how to communicate when we play home games. So we have really, really stressed that.”
“Everyone has been on the same page out there,” added linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. “We have had some communication breakdowns here and there. Everybody just executing their assignment, playing in the scheme of the defense.”
Depth, or lack there of, has been another issue for the Vols. Jones said the bye week came at the right time for the Vols after many of the defensive starters had played 80+ snaps in six consecutive weeks without a bye. A week off won’t fix every bump, bruise and health issue, but it did give players like A.J. Johnson, who only practiced one time over the bye, a chance to take a few days off.
It also gave younger players such as Rashaan Gaulden, Todd Kelly Jr., Kendal Vickers, Malik Foreman, Jakob Johnson, Dewayne Hendrix, Cortez McDowell and others a chance to potentially develop to the point where they can take some snaps away from the overused starters.
“Right now we have way to many health and depth concerns but you can’t fix depth overnight,” Jones said. “I know people want instant gratification, I know they want instant results but you fix your depth with recruiting. As we know, recruiting and building a program is a process. So again, we have challenged everyone to step up and impact this football team in one way shape, form or another.”