Mike Strange: Tennessee's defense: a reflection of 'ifs' and 'maybes'

Mike Strange
Associated Press
Georgia running back Keith Marshall gets past Tennessee defensive back LaDarrell McNeil as he runs for a touchdown during a game on Sept. 29 in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 51-44.

Photo by John Bazemore, AP2012

Associated Press Georgia running back Keith Marshall gets past Tennessee defensive back LaDarrell McNeil as he runs for a touchdown during a game on Sept. 29 in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 51-44.

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Tennessee is a handful of defensive gaffes from being undefeated and celebrated as the numero uno surprise in college football.

Well, at least that's one way of looking at it.

A skewed perspective? Probably. I've been a handful of numbers short on any Powerball ticket I ever bought. I don't have a dime to show for it.

But play along.

If the Vols don't get gashed for multiple long touchdowns by both Florida and Georgia, imagine the possibilities.

Would the Gators, back on Sept. 20 at Neyland Stadium, have overturned Tennessee's 20-13 lead in the third quarter without breaking out a track meet of long-distance sprints to the end zone?

Would Georgia have prevailed in a 51-44 shootout two weeks ago if the freshmen backs hadn't channeled Herschel Walker and peeled off touchdown runs of 75, 72 and 51 yards?

"You can't get 'em back,'' UT coach Derek Dooley said Monday. "That's how it is.''

No, the Vols can't get 'em back. They have to live with the fact that several mammoth defensive breakdowns have cost them any chance to notch two season-changing wins over SEC East rivals.

"It's bad, obviously,'' safety Byron Moore said. "We've tried to move on from that now.

"We know what we did wrong. It's correctable stuff. We're looking forward to not letting it happen any more.''

That was the focus last week during the open date — closing the express lanes to the end zone before an imposing October grind begins Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 9 p.m.) at Mississippi State.

"There are some trends you see,'' said Dooley. "There are some trends schematically and there are some trends personnel-wise.

"Most of those plays start with a little bit of an alignment error. Then it's not playing the blocks very well from just a toughness standpoint. And then the ball breaks and not being able to get the guy down in space.''

To some degree, the errors are fallout from the switch to a 3-4 defensive front this season. Compounding the issue is a lack of pursuit speed.

Thus, worst-case scenario: a potential 15- or 20-yard gain instead strikes up the band and the extra-point unit is on the field.

Any defense is going to give up a few chunk plays. Even Alabama's. The difference is damage control.

In the N.C. State game, the Wolfpack hit a 49-yard pass. But the Vols eventually made the tackle. The drive ended in a missed field goal.

A 31-yard pass hurt but it wasn't a touchdown. A UT interception ended that drive. A 14-yard run that didn't turn into a 79-yard touchdown was erased by another Tennessee interception.

If the Vols had tackled Trey Burton after a 35-yard gain, maybe Florida would have eventually scored. Maybe not.

If somebody managed to get Georgia's Keith Marshall on the ground 30 yards into either one of his 70-plus yard touchdown runs, maybe the Bulldogs finish the drive. Maybe they turn it over.

If the Vols have found solutions during the open date, a way to limit the damage when bad plays happen, they will at least give themselves a chance, Saturday and beyond.

"We certainly don't have a defense that is three-and-out, stone you all the time,'' Dooley said, "and we didn't expect that right away.

"But it's not like they're just grinding on (UT) for four straight quarters. A lot of times when we play it right and do it right we perform well.''

It's those other times, a handful of them, that have made the season what it is, rather than what it might have been.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 23

jobrando#216494 writes:

If this defense steps up Tyler takes care of business

mocsandvolsfan writes:

agreed. Tyler's "the man"! He's working on it.

Golly why does everything I type sound sarcastic! It's not. I meant that Tyler.

OrangePride writes:

Yes....well, this is all potentially true. But any team on any loss can usually point to a few plays and say, "if only." But therein lies the difference between the really good teams and the ones who sit home at bowl season. We can fix alignment and tackle better..those are possible improvements. But we can't coach or improve speed and THATS been a HUGE problem in this secondary. Whether its closing speed, coverage speed, or read speed....it ain't been there on way too many occasions. About all you can do on that is change personnel, or put them in different positions where they won't be so exposed, or scheme it to minimize the weakness. We will see if the changes and coaching will survive Saturday's test. Make no mistake, MSU will be fighting and scratching all day. We will need our very best effort to prevail....but the good news? We have the talent to do just that and win this game. So go do it. GO VOLS!!

Classof72 writes:

"If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas”

-"Dandy" Don Meredith

CrankE writes:

PROGRESS!!

We're back to 2005 when UT was just a few plays away from having a great season!

And that is the truth with no sarcasm. UT has had so many problems in recent years that simply breaking .500 and being a play or two away is progress in itself.

That this team has a few, well defined, discrete issues that need to be solved is encouraging. A good coaching staff can fix these within the context of a season.

That some of those issues have been nagging UT for the last 3 years (kicking issues, Bray's maturity and decision making) is discouraging. A good coaching staff would not have let these linger over multiple seasons.

Something occurred to me today, with MSU being called yet another "crucial game" for UT (i.e. Dooley's job at UT), how many "crucial games" has Dooley faced in the last couple of years?

Again, an ascending coach will face a crucial game, eventually get the win, and move on. A declining coach will face a crucial game over and over as the losses mount. (I like ascending and descending better. For example, Fulmer at one time was an ascending coach. At another, a descending coach.)

How many "crucial games" does anybody really get before a decision gets made? At some point, as the number of losses in "crucial games" piles up, it stops reflecting on the coach, but on the university.

10seVol85_Part_Deux writes:

in response to OrangePride:

Yes....well, this is all potentially true. But any team on any loss can usually point to a few plays and say, "if only." But therein lies the difference between the really good teams and the ones who sit home at bowl season. We can fix alignment and tackle better..those are possible improvements. But we can't coach or improve speed and THATS been a HUGE problem in this secondary. Whether its closing speed, coverage speed, or read speed....it ain't been there on way too many occasions. About all you can do on that is change personnel, or put them in different positions where they won't be so exposed, or scheme it to minimize the weakness. We will see if the changes and coaching will survive Saturday's test. Make no mistake, MSU will be fighting and scratching all day. We will need our very best effort to prevail....but the good news? We have the talent to do just that and win this game. So go do it. GO VOLS!!

You're right. You can't coach speed, but the speed issue has generally only been an issue after a missed assignment, bad alignment or bad angle. Those are things that you can coach and fix, and I think those are the things they've been working on the bye week and see encouraging signs. Maybe some light bulbs are coming on?

crappieking writes:

Sal's defense is terrible. He was a bargin bin hire. Time for a change.

tvol71 writes:

in response to OrangePride:

Yes....well, this is all potentially true. But any team on any loss can usually point to a few plays and say, "if only." But therein lies the difference between the really good teams and the ones who sit home at bowl season. We can fix alignment and tackle better..those are possible improvements. But we can't coach or improve speed and THATS been a HUGE problem in this secondary. Whether its closing speed, coverage speed, or read speed....it ain't been there on way too many occasions. About all you can do on that is change personnel, or put them in different positions where they won't be so exposed, or scheme it to minimize the weakness. We will see if the changes and coaching will survive Saturday's test. Make no mistake, MSU will be fighting and scratching all day. We will need our very best effort to prevail....but the good news? We have the talent to do just that and win this game. So go do it. GO VOLS!!

Interesting. Didn't we have nearly the same secondary (and same speed) last season, but I don't remember us giving up nearly as many long plays. While it is true the secondary has in some cases not caught someone, it seems to me it all starts with the linebackers being out of position.

10seVol85_Part_Deux writes:

in response to tvol71:

Interesting. Didn't we have nearly the same secondary (and same speed) last season, but I don't remember us giving up nearly as many long plays. While it is true the secondary has in some cases not caught someone, it seems to me it all starts with the linebackers being out of position.

Very good observation, and it's a not-entirely-unexpected result of the growing pains of a new scheme. It's also exactly the kind of thing the coaches have been focusing on in the bye week and the kind of thing that they can fix. Let's hope sooner than later.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to Classof72:

"If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas”

-"Dandy" Don Meredith

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

JayTee writes:

I see the same players continue to make the same mistakes. So why do you continue playing the same players?

Isn't that Einstein's definition of insanity? Keep doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

Make a change.

Sir_Spanky writes:

"It's those other times, a handful of them, that have made the season what it is, rather than what it might have been".

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas.

Blame whatever and/or whomever you want - FIVE STRAIGHT YEARS of BAD football at a university with facilities second to none.

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

in response to 10seVol85_Part_Deux:

You're right. You can't coach speed, but the speed issue has generally only been an issue after a missed assignment, bad alignment or bad angle. Those are things that you can coach and fix, and I think those are the things they've been working on the bye week and see encouraging signs. Maybe some light bulbs are coming on?

I agree..Speed is good but not the only ingredient..Good tackling, especially in the open field is a must..Can't say that enough!! I keep hearing " It's Correctable" ..Sal's had 2 weeks of correctable..Get ur dun!

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

50% of some of those plays, especially against FLA was just down right good blocking and good execution..Gators proved that to be true against LSU..The other 50% you can pick your poison,too many mistakes to mention..Not playing so short armed and getting off blocks would help big time..That's a technique learned in HS and it baffles me that players are so bad at this..It would be easy to blame that and bad tackling on coaching but Iam certain our coaches are harping on the same stuff their HS coaches were harping on...No doubt they get an earful after watching the game film!! Our players are either stupid or not talented enough.. You tell me?

VOLFLIAM writes:

in response to crappieking:

Sal's defense is terrible. He was a bargin bin hire. Time for a change.

You are such a fool... Do you live in the USA ??

HopeisNotaCourseofAction writes:

We'll continue to lose to the ufs, ugas, lsus, and alabubbas as long as they are in the top 5-10 recruiting and we are well behind them. "Hoping" we win this week, if not, may be looking at 0-15 vs ranked teams over the past several years. Should msu be ranked based on their competition this year? Who cares, just beat them so we'll be 1-12! Lose this one, and we'll looking at another year of beating cupcakes with the possible exception of 1 unranked but quality team, ncst this year, cin last year.

When the best teams' defenses have all 4-5* players, and we have mostly 3 and a few 4* players, and our coaches are what they are, we will not close this gap. Point to a game we played in the past 2 years where this is not true. "Came close" is only good for grenades and horseshoes, and it is really getting old with all the what ifs, shouldas, couldas.

How are we supposed to beat the teams who have better players? Yes yes, Boise State or some other lesser conference team wins 1 game a year vs a ranked team, but if they had to line up week in and week out vs ranked teams in the SEC they would get pummelled, like we do.

So start with closing the talent gap on the field which includes speed, and at least have the same level of players to give us a chance. Finishing 15-20 in recruiting gets us ahead of uk and a few others but we'll not beat the top tier SEC teams until we have the players to compete with them.

Of course, easy to say - get better players, but will they come if nothing changes - or if there is change in our coaching ranks? Guess we'll find out in the next 3 1/2 months.

Win Saturday, and we could be 8-4 if no surprises at mo or commodes. Lose, and we're likely 7-5 or 6-6 with the same ole same ole, beat the cupcakes, lost all 'big' games. And watch out AD Fart, that Sani-Flush Toilet Bowl bid will be in the mailbox in late November.

10seVol85_Part_Deux writes:

in response to JayTee:

I see the same players continue to make the same mistakes. So why do you continue playing the same players?

Isn't that Einstein's definition of insanity? Keep doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

Make a change.

Doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results is alos known as "practice," and there's a saying that "practice makes perfect." You may have heard that one.

BolivrBob writes:

If it's "correctable", correct it. Quit talking about it and do it. We're past the point of this being ridiculous.

UTVolWarrior98 writes:

Thank you BolivrBob, tell them like it is bro!! Quit talking about it and just faahqin do it for crying out loud. If we look like clowns again on the D side of ball Sat, then I think its time to maybe look at some personnel changes. Somebody said it perfectly. Are we just stupid or are we just not talented enough?? Would this exact same defense shine at ND, USC, OSU, LSU, AL, etc...that is the 64,000 dollar question!

TrouserCough writes:

in response to mocsandvolsfan:

agreed. Tyler's "the man"! He's working on it.

Golly why does everything I type sound sarcastic! It's not. I meant that Tyler.

You should have been sarcastic

oldster writes:

UT's defense is an excellent example of the Peter Principle at work. Sal Sunseri was an excellent linebacker's coach, but is way over his head as a defensive coordinator. His schemes are too complicated for the athletic players that UT recruits to learn within a reasonable amount of time. Even he admits that each of the long TD's against them were a result of the team not even lining up properly. He simply needs to dumb it down. Remember the simplistic defenses of the U of Miami back when they were at their best? They just lined up the same way every time and let their athleticism make up for any alignment shortcomings.

oldster writes:

in response to jobrando#216494:

If this defense steps up Tyler takes care of business

Bray is a million dollar arm, connected to a $10 body, and an IOU brain. As long as all he has to do is throw, UT's offense is golden. But if he needs to move or think, it is screwed.

oldster writes:

I have watched UT football since 1957. Traditionally, they cannot stop a slant pass or a running quarterback, they consistently lose contain on counters and reverses, and they give up more first downs on third and more than 10 than any team I can remember watching. These things have been consistently present even with the best UT teams,even more with the bad one, and most of all with this horrible defense (I am sure UT has had a worse one in the 55 years I followed them, but I cannot remember it).

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