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Previewing Alabama vs. Tennessee: The Volunteer defense is suffering

Alabama will face an embattled Volunteer defense this Saturday coached by Bob Shoop, but they play an aggressive style that has given Alabama trouble in the past

Tennessee v Georgia
End Jonathan Kongbo and tackle Kahlil McKenzie are at the heart of the Tennessee defensive front.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Though things haven’t been right in Knoxville for several years, the shadows of Butch Jones’ tenure on Rocky Top have now grown longer as the Volunteer losses have mounted.

A coach who made his name upon a physical style of spread offense, Jones always skewed decidedly towards the offensive side of the ball. And though the offense has suffered during his tenure, it is the Tennessee defense that has seen the most regression, even after Jones elected to bring longtime defensive guru Bob Shoop to Tennessee to resurrect the once-proud unit.

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 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 it initially appeared progress was being made. Though the effectiveness of his offense has been diminished as the result of myriad factors since then, there’s no question that the buzzcut coach sparked some improvement in the Vol O.

The same, however, was not true regarding the defense, with multiple struggles leading to inconsistency 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 Shoop, a stalwart of a Big 10 coordinator in 2016. Shoop, known for his aggressive yet cerebral style and tricky, blitz-happy 4-2-5 defensive scheme, made instant improvements last season after inheriting a roster stocked with the perfect talent for his system. But in the year and a half since his introduction, the defensive improvements have ebbed like the outgoing tide due to injuries and a depletion of talent, leaving a unit that is a shell of its former self in 2017.

There’s just not a lot of positive to say about the Vol defense this season. They are, in fact, ranked second nationally in pass defense (allowing a mere 129.2 yards per game through the air). But that is likely a function of the willingness of opposing teams to simply run the ball down the Vols’ pumpkin-orange throats given their putrid run defense (ranked 122nd nationally, allowing 242.8 yards per game on the ground). After all, it’s easy to post great pass defense stats when no one is forced to throw the ball to beat you.

Unfortunately, Alabama will find itself a great beneficiary of Tennessee’s weak run defense this week, as the Tide has one of the top rushing attacks in the nation. The Tide is ranked seventh in rushing defense with 302.6 yards per game, and it has opened each of its last two SEC contests with rushing touchdowns from Damien Harris on the first offensive play from scrimmage. There’s no doubt what Bama will attempt to do, and there’s no doubt there will be little Tennessee can do to stop it.

The Third Saturday in October is truly the stuff of legend, but this game will pit a diminished Volunteer defense against an Alabama offense that may be the most explosive, most diverse unit of the Nick Saban era. Will the Vol defense be able to stem the tide of the Bama attack? Can the Vols rally behind Shoop’s scheme against a multi-threat Alabama offense that can legitimately beat a defense in any number of ways?

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

When one examines the Vol defensive roster, there aren’t many names that leap off the page as potential future NFL Draft picks. Where previous Vol teams under Jones were studded with some quality players (such as Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Cam Sutton), this year the star-power simply isn’t there.

Though the Vols have suffered substantial talent attrition across the breadth of the defensive roster, they still have a capable (if somewhat inexperienced) group that will take the field against Alabama this Saturday. The Volunteers under Shoop 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.

It’s not that the Vol front is totally devoid of talent, as the defense has the good fortune of players such as junior end Jonathan Kongbo (6-6, 264 pounds) and senior tackle Kendal Vickers (6-3, 295 pounds). Kongbo is athletic and rangy with great reach, and off the left side, has become a pass rushing force for the Vols. Though he is credited with a single sack among his 22 tackles, Kongbo is disruptive, and offenses are forced to key on him, leaving fellow end junior Kyle Phillips (6-4, 263 pounds) to wreak havoc on the other side. Phillips has 12 tackles on the season, but 2.5 of them were tackles for loss. He also has a quarterback hurry and two passes broken up to boot. Behind Kongbo is true freshman phenom Matthew Butler (6-4, 274 pounds), who out of necessity has become a fixture in the Vol defense and has accounted for two tackles with one for a loss. Phillips is spelled by another true freshman, Deandre Johnson (6-4, 250 pounds), and Johnson has been credited with three tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack.

Vickers, who is as solid as they come at the tackle position, is having an excellent year for Shoop and the Vols. He leads all D linemen with 28 tackles, including four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He is adept at the very thing that makes the Vol front work: soaking up tackles, crushing the pocket, and snarling running lanes inside. Vickers is backed by another excellent tackle in his own right, as junior Shy Tuttle (6-2, 308 pounds) has been a stalwart player in relief, with nine tackles and a tackle for loss to his credit. The Vols have great depth at the position, with junior third-stringer Quay Picout (6-1, 280 pounds) rounding out the rotation.

At the other tackle position, junior Reginald Kahlil McKenzie, Jr. (6-3, 320 pounds) is a gargantuan run-stopper who is still growing into his role in the Volunteer defense. McKenzie is having himself quite a year in the early going, however, as he has accounted for 20 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two quarterback hurries. Behind McKenzie is junior Alexis Johnson (6-4, 300 pounds), who has been active in relief with five tackles on the season.

The Tennessee linebacking corps is somewhat underwhelming despite the presence of some decent talent across the board. Though the defense is technically a 4-2-5 base alignment, the Vols still list a Sam, Will, and Mike linebacker. The Sam, sophomore Daniel Bituli (6-3, 235 pounds) has been a nice addition to the starting line-up for the Volunteers in 2017. The physical, cerebral ‘backer has burst onto the scene to lead the Vols in tackles so far, with 48 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble to his credit. Bituli is spelled by junior Dillon Bates (6-3, 224 pounds), who has three tackles in ’17.

At the Mike linebacker position, junior Colton Jumper (6-2, 229 pounds) has been steady, if not spectacular. Jumper has 35 tackles to go along with seven tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and a quarterback hurry. Jumper is a gritty player who has made the transition to starter last season, and in Shoop’s system, his versatile skill set is hand-cut for the responsibilities he accepts as the Mike. Behind Jumper is true freshman Will Ignont (6-1, 228 pounds), who hasn’t seen much playing time this season but does have two tackles and a tackle for loss to his credit.

The Will ‘backer is redshirt sophomore Quarte Sapp (6-2, 222 pounds), a versatile, athletic player who can do a little of everything within the confines of Shoop’s defense. Sapp can drop into coverage, fill against the run, and rush the passer. He has 34 tackles, three tackles for loss, and two passes broken up this season. Behind Sapp is veteran senior Elliott Berry (5-11, 206 pounds), a linebacker in the body of a safety who can offer the Vol defense a little more versatility in coverage but who can also be a liability against running teams. Berry has six tackles, one tackle for loss, and a pass broken up this season.

It’s not that the Vol corners are awful, but seniors Justin Martin (6-1, 196 pounds) and Emmanuel Moseley (5-11, 184 pounds) both offer a step back from the talent Tennessee has boasted at the position in recent memory. Both players are workable, and have mastery of Shoop’s expectations for the position. The overall results are good, as the Vol pass defense is giving up a little over 100 yards per game through the air (despite the aforementioned caveat). Martin has 19 tackles, an interception, a pass broken up, and a forced fumble on the season, while Moseley has 20 tackles, a tackle for loss, and five passes broken up. Martin is spelled by a true freshman in Shawn Shamburger (6-0, 191 pounds), while Moseley has steady senior Shaq Wiggins (5-10, 169 pounds) to back him up. Shamburger has a single tackle on the season, while Wiggins has seven to his credit.

At nickel, the Vols have two capable, solid performers in junior Rashaan Gaulden (6-1, 193 pounds) and sophomore Baylen Buchanan (5-11, 185 pounds). Gaulden gets the bulk of the playing time, and has recorded 40 tackles, three tackles for loss, an interception, a pass broken up, and a forced fumble. Buchanan, who the Vols plugged in as a starter at corner last season after a rash of injuries, has seen little playing time behind Gaulden, as he hasn’t accrued any stats to date.

At the strong safety position, sophomore Nigel Warrior (6-0, 194 pounds) is second on the team in tackles with 45, in addition to two passes broken up and two forced fumbles. The aptly-named Warrior has the skill set to do anything that Shoop asks him to do, as he can adequately play in coverage and run support. Behind Warrior is another true freshman, Theo Jackson (6-1, 178 pounds), who has only recorded three tackles in scant minutes in 2017. The Vols have a third option at strong safety in senior Evan Berry (5-11, 205 pounds), though he hasn’t seen much time as a defensive back this season.

At free, junior Micah Abernathy (6-0, 203 pounds) has also been a solid contributor with 34 tackles, two passes broken up, a quarterback hurry, and a fumble recovery. Abernathy has good size and hitting ability, and his coverage skills are a little above average. In a familiar theme across the Vol secondary, there is little experienced depth, as Abernathy’s understudy is a true freshman, Cheyenne Labruzza (6-0, 188 pounds). Labruzza hasn’t recorded any stats in 2017.

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 4-2-5 scheme, Shoop’s defensive philosophy 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 have expanded, unconventional responsibilities 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 generally represent 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. In fact, if one was to design a prototype end for Shoop’s scheme, it would be Kongbo. He’s aggressive as a pass rusher, has great length, and is 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 for much of this season with a somewhat undersized secondary. Tennessee started Shoop’s tenure with a formidable run defense, but so far this season, they are ranked 122nd, giving up 242.8 yards per game on the ground.

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, 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. Abernathy is asked to fly all over the field and be disruptive as a ball-hawk, while Warrior is a boundary safety who alternates between deep zones and loading the box versus the run. Warrior and Abernathy are solid, but the Vols are one injury away from playing freshmen at either safety position.

It's a great system when it works. It’s 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 limited personnel options.

Though the Vol defense just missed ranking as a top-50 defense (they are 52nd in total defense, giving up 372 yards per game), the picture is actually far worse for those in orange. The second-ranked pass defense looks good on paper, but it is largely a product of the absolutely awful rushing defense Tennessee puts on the field. Again, there are only 129 teams ranked, and the Vols are 122nd against the run. And run is what Alabama does best, so the Tide’s strength will be leveraged against the Vols’ greatest weakness. Passing numbers will likely be an afterthought as Jalen Hurts and the Tide backs gallop all over the UT defense and further drive those rushing defense numbers deeper into the cellar.

The Result

The very real situation for the Vols is that they will be facing their most hated, most formidable foe of the season with a largely toothless defense. It doesn’t matter what scheme one runs when the talent disparity is as great as it will be when the Volunteers take the field against Bama this Saturday, and the match-up pits Bama’s strength against the Vols’ greatest weakness. This is a mismatch if there ever was one.

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. As previously mentioned, the Vols are giving up 242.8 yards a game on the ground. Alabama, conversely, has the seventh-best rushing offense in the nation, averaging 302.6 yards per game. Alabama has an alarmingly 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 line developed cohesiveness and the backfield rotation 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 the Tide used, 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, Najee Harris, and Josh Jacobs. Scarbrough hasn’t even had his best game yet. With a suspect interior defensive line, Alabama can leverage Power and Counter (with occasional Zone) plays to isolate the weak links in the Vol front and attack them repeatedly in physical fashion.

Brian Daboll will continue to tinker with formations and personnel to create space and take advantage of mismatches, and the threat of Jalen Hurts running will help create wiggle room as well. There are so many legitimate offensive threats that a depleted Tennessee defense must read, with Hurts a legitimate running option, the explosive running backs, and the potential of the star-studded 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 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 could affect 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 give Tennessee a chance to potentially hang around despite being wholly outgunned.

Expect Alabama to wear out the Vols by working the edges and leaning on the interior line, knowing full well that depth will be an issue. It’s a strategy they used against Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss, and it worked. The effect will be amplified by the Volunteers’ thin roster. Once the Tide loosens the interior, the Vols will get their wish and Alabama will hit the middle hard. Alabama shouldn’t have any problem dominating the soft underbelly of the Tennessee run defense.

Against the pass, Tennessee is much more effective statistically speaking, allowing 129.2 yards per game, good for second nationally. In fact, pass defense is the only major statistical category in which the Vol defense outranks the Tide (Alabama’s pass defense is ranked 25th with 187.6 yards allowed per game. That said, the Tide fares better in the more telling “team passing efficiency defense” metric, as Alabama is ranked seventh, while the Vols come in at 47th.

Two factors could come into play for the Vol defense against Alabama, however, as the men in orange are neither adept at generating turnovers (they are ranked 103rd in turnover margin with only six on the season to Alabama’s 14), and despite the various blitz calls, they are not great at making plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Vols rank 54th in sacks with only 13 on the season (for comparison, Alabama ranks 24th with 19 sacks), and Tennessee is 63rd in tackles for loss with 37 total, or 6.2 per game (Alabama has 45 tfl’s on the season).

The only way the Vols can stay in the game with Alabama is to make explosive plays on defense, and they aren’t particularly great in those metrics. If Alabama can continue to take care of the ball and stall the pass rushing threat up front, the there’s little chance the Volunteers will be able to muster even passing resistance. They’ll need turnovers and sacks to kill drives, and if they don’t get those, they won’t have a chance.

For all the change the Alabama offense has undergone in the last few seasons, 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.

One other thing to note: Despite the fact that Shoop’s defense is predicated on winning third-downs, the Vols have been terrible at it this season. They are ranked 101st in third-down defense, allowing conversions on 43 percent of attempts. That can’t continue if UT is to have a chance against Alabama. This will be a 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, and Alabama’s offense ground them into submission with relative ease with long drives and a perfect run-pass balance. If the Vols can keep Alabama from putting together long, draining drives which will kill what little depth they have left, they will fare better. But if Alabama can run its standard offense and convert on third down and in the red zone, the Vols will be gassed and strung out by the third 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 (53-38-7), but it may be the current streak of Tide wins that stings the 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. Conversely, Alabama has been explosive in the first half, rushing out to early leads and then grinding on opponents with quality depth for the remainder of the game.

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 less-than-embarrassing performance go up.

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 still could be a solid 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.