By several tangible and other methods, the Tennessee defense has exceeded modest preseason expectations through eight games of the 2021 season. Outside of the second quarter against Pittsburgh, the second half at Florida, the first half against Ole Miss and the final 25 minutes in Alabama, the Vols have surpassed the sum of their games defensively, either keeping their opponents in check or playing well enough to keep Tennessee in the games. If there is one area where Tennessee has failed, it’s third-place efficiency, and the Vols have vowed to fight frustration to improve it.
Tennessee enter Saturday night’s SEC East clash at 18th in Kentucky, 13th in the SEC and 117th nationally in third-place defense, allowing opponents to convert 45.65% (63 of 138) of time in these situations. The gaps are even worse for the Vols in their five SEC games (56.32%) and four losses (57.33%). Ole Miss and Alabama converted 26 of 41 combined third tries, beating Tennessee in their last two games.
Flights under the first year defensive coordinator Tim banks did a great job of getting the opponent into those third down situations. The 138 third defensive downs are by far the biggest in the SEC (next highest is 120) and fourth in the FBS, and Tennessee has six of their eight opponents in at least 16 third downs. Getting off the pitch, however, has been a whole different story for a team that have been competitive every game this season thanks to their defense.
“Yeah, that was really frustrating, man,” the senior starting cornerback Alontae taylor said after practice Tuesday morning. “You’re over there and it’s third and 12, and you’re like, okay, just put it on the ground and we come out of the field and give the ball offensively. But sometimes you face adversity and that’s something we’ve faced a lot in our third defense and we’ve been working on it the last few days with our week off and we’ve focused a lot on that.
“I feel like at the end of the day, man, you just got executed.” You just need to keep playing fast, and you need to have a clear and crisp mindset at the end of the day. Like you said, we’re struggling a little bit, but we’re working on it and we’ll definitely move to the other side of that, so we can get off the field. And the more we return the ball (to our attack) the more times they’ll score because you see the numbers they’re showing.
Some of the problems with Tennessee’s third-down defense can be attributed to opponents, as the Vols faced three of the country’s best quarterbacks in Pittsburgh. Kenny pickett, Alabama Bryce Young and Matt Corral and Ole Miss. On top of those losses, Tennessee also did a poor job on the first and second downs in the loss to Florida, who used their running game to stay ahead of the chains and find themselves in manageable third down situations. . But even the third and long was a sore point for this defense.
Situational football, and the third downs in particular, was a priority for the Tennessee defense on its opening date, but the challenge for Banks, his staff and his players is that it’s not just only one root cause of the problem. The Vols have struggled to put pressure on quarters, whether relying on three- or four-man precipitation or providing extra or creative pressure. Coverage, especially when Tennessee is playing in the zone, has been too loose at times, and scrambling quarterbacks have also been troublesome.
Sometimes the other team just makes a game.
” Yes it’s important. These are obviously some of the things we look at from week to week, ”Banks said. “There are several things. Again, obviously continuing to put pressure on the quarterback. Covering obviously better. It all goes hand in hand. I think it’s too much of a global problem that we need to make sure we deal with. I don’t think we can identify a particular group or a particular pattern.
“I just think we have to do a better job of obviously figuring out how many yards they need and not letting them get it. It’s that simple, but we’re certainly working in that direction to try to make it happen. “
Young on the third down was 8 of 12 passes for 175 yards and eight first downs and also had four scrums for the opening downs, including two touchdowns, as Alabama converted seven of 11 third and 7-plus situations. Corral was directly responsible for nine of her team’s 11 third-down conversions, four via pass and five on scrum or designed quarterback runs while Ole Miss was 3 of 6 on third and long (9 yards and more). Pickett’s assists were five of Pittsburgh’s eight third-down conversions, including two on third and 10.
When Florida started 7 of 11 on third down, the Gators only faced two times longer than third and 5 and quarterback Emory jones ran or scrambled for two and threw passes to the backers for two more.
Tennessee’s third-down defense will get a test against Kentucky, which ranks fourth in the SEC and 18th nationally for third-down effectiveness, although the slow-paced Wildcats faced the fewest third downs (91 ) of the SEC this season. Even in losses to Georgia and Mississippi State in its last two games, Kentucky was better than 50% (15 of 29) on the third down. The Wildcats have an athletic quarterback in Will Levis, the transfer Banks is familiar with since they were both at Penn State for the past three seasons.
Levis has 184 rushing yards this season and totaled 75 yards with two rushing touchdowns in the win over LSU, and although Banks said Kentucky hadn’t run him much, he expects that. changes after what the Corral coasts and Young did against the Thefts.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Banks said. “Typically, if you’re having trouble with anything on the tape, the following week’s offense finds a way to fit it into their plan. We are aware of this. Like I said, I know he can perform it. They didn’t run him a ton all year round, but he fell out and missed guys and guys fell off him. Our guys are very aware of his strength and ability to run.
“We’ve been working really hard on the week off and this week to try to consolidate some things, but obviously we have to do that in the game.”