Solving the Pressure Equation

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Vic Koenning called home following North Carolina's loss last weekend and was promptly asked by his father why Duke quarterback Sean Renfree had so much time on the 4th-and-2 play that resulted in a game-winning touchdown pass.

Football coaches are not immune to criticism, even from their own family members.

Koenning's response, however, illustrated the challenge UNC's defensive staff has encountered throughout the course of the season.

"Well, actually, I rushed four," Koenning told his father. "But we didn't get any pressure and gave him more time than what he should have had to throw it in that situation. Yet, we should have been able to cover, too."

Criticism first arose following the loss at Wake Forest on Sept. 8. Wide receiver Michael Campanaro made a living over the middle of the field, posting a career highs in receptions (13) and yards (164).

Football coaches are often copycats, so there was no surprise when other teams attacked UNC's defense in similar fashion.

Head coach Larry Fedora discussed the issue on his radio show on Tuesday evening, highlighting the susceptibility of the middle of the field due to UNC's need to work out of a two-deep zone.

"When we play a two-deep shell, the extra guy that gets in the box is going to be our boundary corner the majority of the time," Fedora said. "We understand what we're giving up. That puts a little bit more pressure on the linebacker that's got to carry the vertical through the middle of the field, so that's where you're going to be attacked."

In a perfect world, North Carolina's front four could get adequate pressure on the quarterback, thus allowing the back seven to prevent any coverage gaps. Since the line has been inconsistent with its penetration, however, Koenning and defensive coordinator Dan Disch have had to manufacture pressure with motion and blitzes.

"You can't let a quarterback sit back there all day," Koenning said.

Koenning told on Wednesday that the Tar Heels would likely use less stunting and blitzing once they had four guys on the line that could consistently put pressure on the quarterback.

There's evidence to back up that claim – look no further than the base schemes that Koenning used at Clemson in 2008 with nose guard Dorell Scott and defensive end Ricky Sapp up front.

The only other way to offset the holes in the zone while blitzing is to play man coverage, which, according to Koenning, has been "a fiasco" for the Tar Heel secondary.

Therein lies the problem for North Carolina on Saturday. N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon (162-of-278 passing, 1,988 yards, 14 TD, 7 INT) has shown an ability to be incredibly accurate when given time to work against zone coverage.

Glennon has struggled when either his pocket has collapsed or he's encountered man schemes, neither of which are strengths of North Carolina's pass defense.

Koenning indicated that Wolfpack offensive coordinator Dana Bible utilizes a NFL approach that requires extra defenders to adequately cover.

"You can have three-on-two and they can still execute," Koenning said. "If they've got two guys, you've got to have three or four around them, because they're going to in-and-out and back-and-forth and then that leaves someone else in a one-on-one."

The key to overcoming those challenges is increased film study, according to UNC linebacker Tommy Heffernan.

"It's assignment football," Heffernan said. "You've got to know where you have to be on the field to play fast. You watch film and you pick up on little tendencies receivers like to do. That helps. Film, I feel, in this game is your best friend. You can pick up things that people might not ever notice."

For now, Koenning is resigned to covering gaps and mixing coverages and blitzes to give his players opportunities to make plays.

"You don't want to put guys in positions where they can't be successful," Koenning said. "Right now, we're spending an extreme amount of time trying to give guys something so that they can gain an advantage schematically."

That approach has worked with varying degrees of success. After all, North Carolina ranks 36th nationally in total defense (349.9 ypg) and 25th in scoring defense (19.3 ppg).

Locking down Glennon and N.C. State's offense on Saturday, however, may require UNC's best defensive effort of the season.

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