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Previewing Alabama vs. Tennessee: The Volunteer defense

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Alabama will face a new and improved Tennessee defense this Saturday coached by Bob Shoop, and they play an aggressive style that has given Alabama trouble in the past

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Texas A&M
Derek Barnett is a monster.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

For several years, the Vols just haven’t been themselves. With a historical identity forged from the kilns of both a traditionally-strong offense and a run-stuffing, quarterback-harassing defense, the Tennessee product of the last few seasons has shown mere glimmers of what it once was.

When Butch Jones came on board following the debacle that was the Derek Dooley Era, the improvements to the offense were nearly immediate. Jones installed his style of “smashmouth spread” and while accumulating talent, the offense in orange has begun to evolve into the vision Jones had imagined for it.

The same, however, was not true regarding the defense, with multiple struggles leading to inconsistency (despite quality talent) that resulted in a poor overall showing. After several years of a defense wandering the football equivalent of the Sinai during the early Jones tenure, the Volunteers hired a new general in longtime Big 10 coordinator Bob Shoop. Shoop, known for his aggressive yet cerebral style and tricky, blitz-happy 4-2-5 defensive scheme, has made instant improvements after inheriting a roster stocked with the perfect talent for his system.

While injuries have decimated what was once a formidable group of personnel coming into the season, the Vol depth continues to overachieve under Shoop. Tennessee has a rough-and-tumble pass rush that though inconsistent gets explosive plays from it’s defensive ends. The run defense is vicious even if it’s prone to getting gashed from time to time. Even without future NFL’er Cam Sutton in the line-up due to injury, the Tennessee secondary has managed to hold the door and field a top-50 unit. In brief, Tennessee still poses a treat defensively despite the substantial attrition to personnel.

Alabama, on the other hand, had probably its most impressive offensive performance last week against Arkansas, as quarterback Jalen Hurts displayed his arm while the offensive line gave him ridiculous time in the pocket. The running game has once again become a weapon for the Tide, with wave after wave of backs assaulting defenses behind a gelled offensive line. ArDarius Stewart is back in the line-up, making it difficult for defenses to choose between placing priority on him or Calvin Ridley.

The Third Saturday in October is truly the stuff of legend, and this game will pit a very good Volunteer defense against an Alabama offense that may be the most explosive of the Nick Saban era. Will the Vol defense be able to stem the tide of the Bama attack? Will the considerable number of injuries to key defenders set the stage for yet another Alabama victory? Can the Vols rally behind Shoop’s scheme in front of the home crowd in what will be the biggest (and probably rowdiest) crowd Hurts has played before in his life?

The keys to those rhetorical locks remain on the other side of Saturday night. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

Tennessee came into the season with an impressive cadre of defensive playmakers. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, corner Cameron Sutton, safety Darrin Kirkland…these were all players the Vols felt could help them crest the top of the mountain they’ve been attempting to climb for so long.

But the hand of Fate is fickle, and the injury bug swept through the UT locker room like the bubonic plague did Europe. The Vols are counting on players who started the season as third-stringers at some key positions, and though the outcome hasn’t been as dire in recent games as one would imagine, when facing a team that is loaded with five-star talent like Alabama, that disparity between the haves and have-nots will most definitely come into play.

Though the Vols have suffered unprecedented injury bad luck through 2016, they still have a capable roster that will take the field against Alabama this Saturday. The Volunteers under Shoop this season have evolved into a 4-2-5 base scheme, and as is the case with many such Nickel-based alignments, much of the success of the defense starts up front.

Fortunately for the Vols, they have future NFL players at the end positions, beginning with junior right defensive end Derek Barnett (6-3, 265 pounds). Barnett has been a nightmare for opposing tackles and quarterbacks this season in Shoop’s system, as he is called upon to use his tremendous quickness as a pass rush specialist play in and play out. Barnett leads the team with 9.5 tackles for loss and five sacks among his 29 tackles. He is fast, instinctual, and technically sound, and he will be one of the best pass rushers the Tide line has faced this season. Behind Barnett is another junior, Jonathan Kongbo (6-6, 270 pounds), who has recorded four tackles in sparse action this season.

At the other defensive end position, the Vols have another potential draft pick in senior Corey Vereen (6-2, 249 pounds). Vereen is extremely quick and has a knack for shaking blockers. Vereen has also been called upon to show his athleticism in pass defense since Shoop came to town, as the defensive coordinator is known to drop ends into coverage in order to implement some of his more exotic blitz packages. Vereen, who may seem light for an end, is tailor-made for the role, as he is fast and limber. Spelling Vereen this year is sophomore Kyle Phillips (6-4, 259 pounds), who has only made two tackles in limited action.

The interior of the line will be a question mark headed into the Saturday game with Alabama, as injuries lingering from the Texas A&M game may rear their heads. First, excellent senior tackle Danny O’Brien was knocked out of last week’s game with an injury and has subsequently been removed from the team. (It’s not known if these two factors are in any way related, as no reason was given for O’Brien’s departure as of the time this article was put to bed.) O’Brien had been a steady, 300+ pound force in the interior for the Vols, who now turn to sophomore Khalil McKenzie (6-3, 325 pounds) to hold down the fort. McKenzie certainly has the size for the position, and in modest playing time this season, he accounted for 11 tackles. O’Brien’s departure strikes a blow at a terrible time for the Tennessee defense, however, and his presence will be sorely missed.

The Vols may experience additional attrition at the other tackle position as well, as junior starter Kendal Vickers (6-3, 295 pounds) was injured versus the Aggies. Vickers returned to practice earlier this week after an undisclosed injury, and the Volunteers would love to have him on the field in some capacity. Vickers has accounted for 19 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble so far, and his veteran leadership will be needed to steady the younger players against Alabama’s tremendous offensive front. It appears Vickers is back t0 full-speed, but if Vickers cannot go or is limited, expect to see talented sophomore Shy Tuttle (6-2, 311 pounds), another athletic behemoth who is a block-sopper at the heart of the Vol run defense. Tuttle has only recorded six tackles this season, but even if Vickers starts, expect Tuttle to have a greater presence in the Tennessee game plan this week.

The injuries extend to the back side of the Volunteer front six, as easily the best linebacker on the Vol roster, senior Jalen Reeves-Maybin is facing shoulder surgery and will likely miss the remainder of the season. Junior Cortez McDowell (6-0, 235 pounds) has stepped up into the gap left by Reeves-Maybin and has been workmanlike with 32 tackles and two tackles for loss, but he too was injured last weekend against Texas A&M. If McDowell can’t go, the Vols will be dangerously thin at Will, relying on Elliot Berry (5-11, 222 pounds), who has accounted for eight tackles and a TFL this season.

At the Mike linebacker position, junior Colton Jumper (6-2, 224 pounds) has been steady if not spectacular. Jumper leads the team in tackles with 39 to go along with 2.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. Jumper is a gritty player who has made the transition to starter this season, and in Shoop’s system, his versatile skill set is hand-cut for the responsibilities he accepts as the Mike. Behind Jumper is sophomore Gavin Bryant (6-0, 238 pounds), who hasn’t seen much playing time so far this season.

There are reports that injured linebacker Darrin Kirkland has returned to practice this week, and he may be able to contribute in some capacity or another. Kirkland’s return will certainly provide the Tennessee linebacking corps with a boost if he can go. Kirkland has been dealing with the dreaded high-ankle sprain, so even if he returns he may be limited.

The Vol secondary likewise has been ravaged by injury, as corner Cam Sutton and safety Evan Berry have all been hampered by injury in 2016. Arguably, the most critical injury took the Vols’ best cover corner, Sutton, off of the field. As a result, Tennessee will be counting on a true freshman at left corner, with Baylen Buchanan (5-11, 190 pounds) likely getting the start. Buchanan has been workable in the starting role, recording nine tackles and a pass defended. Spelling Buchanan is journeyman junior defensive back Justin Martin (6-1, 183 pounds), and Martin basically represents the Vol depth at the position as both the back-up for Buchanan and his counterpart on the right side, junior Emmanuel Moseley (5-11, 180 pounds). Moseley, who has accounted for 29 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, and four passes defended, is the most solid coverage defender the Vols have on the roster due to injuries, and they’ll be counting on him to do his part against Alabama’s elite receivers. However, Moseley was dinged up against the Aggies, and even if he gets the start on Saturday, he may be somewhat limited.

At nickel, the Vols have two capable, solid performers in sophomore Rashaan Gaulden (6-1, 185 pounds) and senior Malik Foreman (5-10, 190 pounds). Gaulden gets the bulk of the playing time, and has recorded 27 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss and two passes defended. Foreman has seen a fair amount of playing time behind Gaulden as well as at the traditional corner positions in a reserve role, but he too may be limited due to an injury sustained last weekend. Foreman has been responsible for 12 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, one interception, two passes defended, and a forced fumble.

At the strong safety position, junior Todd Kelly (5-11, 180 pounds) is tied for the lead in tackles with 39, in addition to a tackle for loss, two interceptions, a pass defended, and a forced fumble. Kelly has the skill set to do anything that Shoop asks him to do, as he can adequately play in coverage and run support. Behind Kelly is sophomore Stephen Griffin (6-2, 205 pounds), who has only recorded two tackles in scant minutes in 2016.

At free, sophomore Micah Abernathy (6-0, 195 pounds) has also been a solid contributor with 30 tackles, one tackle for loss, two passes defended and three fumbles recovered. Like so many of his teammates, Abernathy is battling injury as well, and is not guaranteed to start against Alabama. If he can’t go, the Vols will have to go with freshman Nigel Warrior (6-0, 186 pounds).

How the Tennessee defense will attack the Alabama offense

When Shoop arrived in Knoxville, he already had most of the talent on board that he needed to run his preferred style of defensive play. Rooted in the 4-3-5 scheme, Shoop’s defensive philosophy is one that requires the unit to be ruthlessly efficient, relying heavily on forcing offenses into negative plays on first downs. Shoop does this using primary a four-man Over front with a Cover-6 base, schematically speaking. He likes to find unconventional ways to load the box against the run, and if opponents are going to throw, he wants to force them to throw to the edges on slow-developing, low-gain plays. Unlike some 4-2-5 offenses, Shoop likes to use his nickel back and a corner to set the edges against the run while the safeties roll back into safe coverages down field. The corner and nickel set the edges against the run, in other words. With this strategy, the defense can quickly read run and collapse the corner and nickel into the box, getting eight men up front in run defense in a split-second.

When opposing offenses test the Vols with the passing game, corners lock up the edge receivers in a number of different underneath coverages, while the safeties roll over the top to assist the corners. If an offense lines up three receivers, the safeties roll over the top to provide help on the two receivers nearest the quarterback, leaving only the furthest receiver from the quarterback one-on-one. The idea is that though the Z receiver will be single-covered, the quarterback will face the biggest challenge in getting the ball to that distant receiver regularly on standard downs (1st-and-10, 2nd-and-5, 3rd-and-2). And when those passes are complete, they are so slow-developing that they allow defenders to read and react, thus limiting the gains allowed.

On top of this strategy, Shoop will use blitzes extensively to make the quarterback’s read job that much harder. He likes to mix in man-free blitzes to create explosive plays for the defense in hopes of putting the offense behind the chains and forcing them into passing downs. When an offense has a negative play on first down, the chance of a run on second down is lower, making the defense’s job of diagnosing that much easier. It effectively stacks the deck in favor of the defense.

Shoop also loves to run fire zone blitz coverages in which he brings unconventional blitzers from a number of vectors. In those instances, he’ll couple one of three blitz angles with a multi-level zone approach (three deep zone defenders and three underneath zone defenders). The blitzes are generally one of three types of attack: 1) a “field scrape” blitz which sees the nickel blitz around the tackle/ tight end; 2) a “bench scrape” blitz in which the boundary corner attacks the passer; and 3) a double linebacker blitz in which the Mike and Will cross and attack the A gaps on either side of the center. In the latter blitz look, the center can’t contain both A-gaps, so one backer is guaranteed to break through most of the time. Shoop compensates for the two blitzers by shoring up coverage with an athletic end who drops into coverage versus the tight end or H-back.

Overall, the Tennessee defense is a very active, aggressive, containment-style defense that sprinkles the exotic blitzes in liberally. As previously stated, the overarching goal is to stall opposing offenses and disrupt offensive flow by creating numerous second-and-longs and third-and-longs which lead opponents to shave away from run calls on those downs in favor of passes. When the defense can accurately anticipate the pass, then Shoop’s coverage concepts make for difficult treading, as the defensive backfield is littered with defensive backs and athletic linebackers who can force quarterbacks into complex decisions that are made even more difficult by the constant, unexpected pressures of the Tennessee blitzes. Even though Tennessee gains few sacks as a defense, pressures are common and are still effective in disrupting the passer.

When the Vols get what they want on first down, they’ll move into something like a traditional Tampa-2 look on the latter downs, coupled with even more blitzes. The blitzes can come from almost anywhere: safety, linebacker, corners on the edge…it’s very hard for a quarterback to diagnose, and the Vols make it more so by varying the calls they make in given situations to hide tendencies.

To run this kind of scheme, the defense must be stocked with fast players across the front with speedy, athletic ends like Vereen and Barnett. In fact, if one was to design a prototype end for Shoop’s scheme, it would be Barnett. He’s aggressive as a pass rusher, and light and fast enough to be a workable coverage option on drops.

For the scheme to work, the defense also must have physical corners who can execute in run defense and effectively seal the edges. Without such players, the run defense suffers, as has been the case as injury has taken its toll on the Vol secondary. Tennessee started out with a formidable run defense, but they have sense dropped to 86th nationally, giving up 186 yards per game on the ground. This, in large part, is because the third-string corners either play slower due to unfamiliarity, or they aren’t physically able to handle the task of setting the edge against big SEC backs.

The defense must have linebackers who are excellent pass rushers, since given the frequency of the blitzes that utilize the linebackers, their success is critical to the overarching philosophy of disrupting offenses with explosiveness. Things may get better with the return of Kirkland, but as of late, the UT linebacker play has left something to be desired, and that dynamic has had a ripple effect throughout the defense.

Finally, the defense must have safeties who can do everything: support the run, drop into coverage, and read developing plays to provide clean-up when needed. Gaulden is asked to fly all over the field and be disruptive as a ball-hawk, while Kelly is a boundary safety who alternates between deep zones and loading the box versus the run. Kelly and Gaulden are solid, but the Vols are one injury away from playing a freshman and a green sophomore.

It's a great system when it works. It’s pretty complex to teach, with a lot of heavy-lifting on the front end. However, once players become versed in the reads and responsibilities, it is a strategy that is very difficult for a quarterback to read. That said, the Tennessee defense is not operating at as high a level as possible at the moment because of the injuries. The UT defense is a case study in “depth matters.” They’ve run through the two-deep in some positions, and as a result, they don’t have the same “best 11” on the field that they had heading into the season.

The Result

Despite all of the bluster from Tennessee fans and sports writers before the season, the very real situation for the Vols is that they will be facing their most hated, most formidable foe of the season with less than a full complement of defenders. It doesn’t matter what scheme one runs when the talent disparity is as great as it may be when the Volunteers take the field against Bama this Saturday.

If one considers statistics (and one should always consider statistics), it looks like the Third Saturday game could be a blowout for Alabama. While anticipating such based on easily-skewed stats is not an iron-clad method of forecast, there are a few keys numbers that indicate the UT defense will struggle against an Alabama offense that is breaking open the arsenal doors and bringing to bear the weapons it has in its possession.

First is the UT run defense. They were salty to start the season, but due to the injuries, they are a shell of their former selves. As previously mentioned, the Vols are giving up 186 yards a game on the ground (86th nationally). Alabama, conversely, has the 20th best rushing offense in the nation, averaging 237 yards per game. Alabama has an alarming high win rate when the Tide gains a mere 140 yards on the ground, so if the Vols cede their usual total, a Bama win is in the forecast.

If this isn’t enough to convince you, look at the mechanics of the match-up up front. Alabama’s running game started out with struggles between the tackles as the offensive lined found cohesiveness and the back pecking order was sorted out. Last week, against an Arkansas team that had the run defense to slow Alabama down at the very least, the Tide rumbled all over them. And it wasn’t the sneaky zone read-type of running that gave the Tide success earlier in the year, but rather good old-fashioned power, between-the-tackles running that won the day.

Keep in mind that the Vols want to force the run inside…and Alabama is perfectly fine with that. Alabama’s offensive line is returning to its usual dominating form, and where once Bo Scarbrough was considered the lone heir apparent to Derrick Henry, the Tide has seen break-out performances from Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs. Scarbrough hasn’t even had his best game yet. With a beat-up interior defensive line, Alabama can leverage inside- and outside- zone plays to isolate the weak links in the Vol front and attack them repeatedly in physical fashion.

Lane Kiffin will continue to tinker with spread formations to create space, and the threat of Jalen Hurts running the zone read will help create wiggle room as well. There are so many legitimate offensive threats that a depleted Tennessee defense has to read, with Hurts a legitimate running option, the explosive running backs, and the RPO-driven passing game. It’s a true pick-your-poison scenario for the Vols, and even when they were at full strength, they’d have had their hands full with the Alabama hydra of an offense.

The Vols will most definitely try to rattle Hurts in front of the biggest crowd he’s faced to date by blitzing him from all kinds of unconventional angles. Pressure will come from the corners, from the nickel, from the safety spots, from twisting linebackers charging the middle. If there’s one thing that the Tide can expect, it’s that Shoop will throw the house at the Tide offensive line in hopes of knocking Hurts out of rhythm and generating the pressure that has, at least in the first half of the season, affected his throws when properly applied. It will be critical that the Alabama pass blockers, especially the backs who stay in on pass pro, are solid in blocking. When a team blitzes, they take a calculated risk. Bringing that extra pass rusher comes at a cost, and that cost is paid in coverage. If Bama can pick up the blitzers and Hurts can find the weak link, then Alabama has the skill talent at receiver (and tight end) to take advantage of Tennessee’s aggressiveness to grand effect.

If, however, the Tide struggles to find the blitzing defenders and Hurts gets forced out of the pocket, the passing game will suffer. All won’t be lost, as the Alabama running game (with Hurts and the backs) is enough to keep the ball moving against the Vols in many cases. But if the threat of the pass is limited by constant, effective blitz pressure, then the Tide will be forced to fight with one hand behind its back, something that will somewhat level the playing field for the injury-riddled Tennessee defense.

Expect Alabama to wear out the Vols by working the edges with short passes, knowing full well that depth will be an issue. It’s a strategy they used against Arkansas and Ole Miss, and it worked. The effect will be amplified by the Volunteers’ thin roster. Once the Tide loosens the interiors, the Vols will get their wish and Alabama will hit the middle hard. With O’Brien out of the line-up and Vickers potentially limited as well, Alabama shouldn’t have any problem dominating the soft middle of the Tennessee run defense. As always, RPOs will factor heavily into this strategy, as Hurts will simply read the linebackers and decide whether to keep, hand off, or drop a pass to a Ridley or Stewart and let them use their athleticism to extort a tax from the Volunteer D.

Against the pass, Tennessee is much more effective statistically speaking, allowing 216.3 yards per game, good for 49th nationally. In fact, pass defense is the only major statistical category in which the Vols outrank the Tide (Alabama’s pass defense ranking plummeted to 61st with 223.3 yards allowed per game after a poor second-half showing against Austin Allen and the Razorbacks last week).

So, advantage Vols, right? Not so fast. Hurts has been incredibly efficient as a passer when defenses fail to generate meaningful pressure. Last week versus Arkansas, he completed 12-of-13 unpressured passes, and looked like a seasoned signal-caller running through his reads when the offensive line held. While the myth may be that Hurts is better when flushed from the pocket (even though he looks perfectly comfortable throwing on the move), the numbers indicate he is more accurate and distributes the ball to a greater variety of targets when he has time to stand in the pocket. That dynamic will develop further as Hurts learns the intricacies of the position, i.e. not staring down receivers, winding an internal pressure clock before darting out of the pocket, becoming more comfortable with the timing of his receivers. Remember, as good as Hurts has been, he is still only a freshman a few games removed from his first start.

What does this mean for this week? Despite the disruptiveness of Barnett, the Vols are 104th nationally in sacks, averaging a mere 1.5 per game. Barnett is dynamic as a pass rusher with five sacks this season already, but the next nearest player, Vereen, has only two sacks. No other Vol defender outside of the two mentioned has multiple sacks. Despite all of the emphasis on blitzing, Tennessee has a pressure problem which was on full display last week against Trevor Knight and the Aggies.

Alabama offers a similar challenge this week, and with a new rash of injuries and the dismissal of the best Vol tackle in O’Brien, there’s no reason to believe Tennessee will have improved in this metric over the course of seven days. If the Vols can’t get to Hurts more than one-and-a-half times per game, then expect the freshman to have a pretty solid day throwing the ball. And in symbiosis, when Hurts has success throwing the ball, the Tide running game becomes unstoppable.

For all the change the Alabama offense has undergone this season, there is one constant. The Tide offense still feeds off of ball control, putting together long, grinding drives with good run-pass balance. These drives shorten the game for Alabama, and lull opponents into a rut, something which sets the stage for the explosive plays that pepper the Tide drive charts. These long drives depend on good gains on first-down and third-down conversions. Tennessee’s defense is built to cause long yardage situations on second and third downs, which may be easier said than done against Alabama. But in a drive that depends on positive yardage on nearly every first down play, even one negative play to start a series could doom that drive early on. The Vols have to find a way to cause Alabama to stutter on first-downs…it’s that simple. It is an absolute must.

Also, for all of their foibles this season, Tennessee remains one of the better teams in the nation in regard to third-down defense. Shoop’s defense is designed to result on that metric, as UT is 35th nationally in third-down defense, allowing a conversion only 33.7 percent of the time. This will be an absolutely key battle for both teams. If the Vols can routinely come up big on third downs and stall Bama drives, they’ll have a chance of staying in the game and frustrating the Tide offense. For all the bluster and hype, there are few reasons to believe that the Vols are a substantially better overall football team than Arkansas at this point in the season (injuries included), and Alabama’s offense was able to grind them into submission with relative ease with long drives and a perfect run-pass balance. The wild card will be the Vols’ third-down defense. If they can keep Alabama from putting together long, draining drives which will kill what little depth they have left. They have a chance. If Alabama can run its standard offense, the Vols will be gassed and strung out by the fourth quarter.

The Third Saturday in October is legendary for a reason. The game pits two historic powers against one another in a venomous border war that has raged on for damn near 100 seasons. Alabama still leads the series by a considerable margin (52-38-7), but it may be the current streak of Tide wins that stings the Vols the most.

Expect Tennessee, despite the considerable attrition, to give Alabama their best game of the season. The defense will play a large part in that, as energy alone may buoy them to a strong first half performance. However, in this season, the Vols have struggled in the early going as evidenced by the multiple fourth quarter comebacks they have had to orchestrate to pull out victories through the first half of this campaign.

If the Vol defense is staggered early by the Tide offensive attack, this game could get ugly. Tennessee’s best hope of keeping this game competitive and within reach of its explosive offense will be to contest the Tide on first downs to set up long yardage on latter downs. If they can do that, their chances of a win go up. Given the thin roster the Vols are currently fielding, they would do best to continue their trend of fine third-down defense to get the Tide offense off of the field, thus saving the legs of the Tennessee defenders for what could very well be a four quarter slugfest.

While on paper it appears to be a mismatch, there are some things the Tennessee defense can still do to make life difficult for the Alabama offense. They’ll need turnover help, and they’ll need their offense to take advantage of any stalled drives the defense can muster. Despite the depleted roster, this is still a very dangerous Vol defense, and if Alabama has a lackluster performance in the first half, the game could be a lot closer than the stats indicate at first glance.