The problem is that Carolina isn’t good enough at any one thing to be able to take the initiative on either side of the ball. A team with a great secondary but weaker defensive line might be able to compensate for its weakness by playing more man coverage. A weaker secondary can be masked by a solid defensive front that stops the run and gets after the passer. But a team that is just average in both areas can do neither.
On the offensive side of the ball, Carolina doesn’t have the quarterback to challenge teams down the field or the offensive line to have a dominating run game. The result is that a team like Virginia Tech can stack the line of scrimmage to take away the running game while having no fear of giving up the big play in the passing game.
Another way to put it is that UNC has an offense that absolutely cannot afford to be in third-and-long situations but (despite having quality backs) also doesn’t run the ball consistently enough to avoid third-and-long situations. Look at the third downs from Saturday:
3rd and Goal at VT 3
3rd and 12 at UNC 23
3rd and 5 at UNC 42
3rd and 5 at VT 34
3rd and 14 at UNC 26
3rd and 7 at VT 37
3rd and 12 at UNC 17
3rd and 3 at UNC 17 (success)
3rd and 10 at VT 32
3rd and 9 at VT 46
3rd and 17 at UNC 43
3rd and 2 at UNC 32 (success)
3rd and 3 at UNC 32
Only four out of 13 were 3rd and short (3 yards or less). Carolina succeeded on two of those four and went 0-9 on the other third-down opportunities. The UNC offense isn’t winning on first down and doesn’t have the passing offense to succeed once it falls behind schedule. The persistent procedure penalties and dropped passes (Jack Tabb’s two early drops really hurt) only exacerbated this problem on Saturday.
The result is an offense that has to labor for every difficult yard it gets—basically the opposite of how a spread offense like Carolina’s should look. And whenever I watch the Heels, I keep coming back to the need for improvement at the quarterback position. Great quarterback play can hide a multitude of flaws on offense, as elite quarterbacks avoid sacks, get rid of the football quickly, and throw receivers open. Teams with great quarterbacks can overcome penalties because they can make big plays downfield. But average quarterback play exacerbates the flaws an offense already has.
This is especially true against a quality defense like Virginia Tech. Ask Ohio State about trying to beat the Hokies without excellent quarterback play. You’re not just going to line up and run the football on Bud Foster’s defense if you can’t threaten it downfield.
I’m convinced this is why the coaching staff continues to give Mitch Trubisky every opportunity to earn more playing time. Whereas Marquise Williams’s limitations in the passing game are essentially established by this point, Trubisky has the potential to deliver a needed downfield threat to a stagnant offense. But Trubisky has in many respects been a microcosm of this team: enough talent to tantalize but too much inconsistency to win at this point.
As a result, the coaching staff, which is fully aware of the catch-22 on offense, is stuck between a quarterback (Williams) who can’t provide the downfield threat they believe they need and one (Trubisky) who hasn’t played well enough to replace him. As I suggested last week, I think at some point they’re going to have to make the decision either to go to Trubisky full time or to retool the offense around what Williams does well, basically becoming a shotgun Georgia Tech.
The schedule isn’t going to get friendlier over the next few weeks, so the only way anything changes is if this team actually takes a step forward. Below, we’ll look at two plays that illustrate how quarterback play has exacerbated the Carolina offense’s problems.
First Sack and Fumble: Climb the Pocket!
The very first play of this week’s game highlighted just how quarterback play has been exacerbating Carolina’s offensive weaknesses. UNC opens with a dropback pass, and each offensive tackle gets beaten to the outside by a speed rush from the Tech defensive end. The casual fan will naturally blame the offensive line for this turnover, but Williams is again at least as much to blame as his protection.
First, it’s important to understand an offensive tackle’s priorities in this kind of protection. The number one thing for every offensive lineman is never to allow inside penetration; if an offensive tackle gets beaten to the inside, that’s almost always on him. But if he gives up a sack on an outside rush, it’s not always so cut-and-dry.
Here, you can again see that Williams has hit the top of his drop and has a nice pocket in front of him, while the pressure is coming quickly from the outside. But neither offensive tackle has completely whiffed. Each still has a hand on the defensive end and is guiding his man outside and behind the designed pocket. This is the way an offensive tackle is taught to recover if he is initially beaten to the outside—just run him outside and behind the quarterback, who can step up and away from pressure.
Take a look at two frames of the Colts’ Andrew Luck in a similar situation:
Note the way Luck “climbs the pocket,” stepping forward and away from pressure, simultaneously opening a passing lane and helping his offensive line. Luck’s quality pocket presence takes what would otherwise have looked like a poor play from his offensive tackles into a big play with great protection.
Williams, on the other hand, never feels the pressure, never climbs the pocket, and gets hit from both sides, fumbling the football.
This turnover is on Williams, not the offensive tackles, each of whom had recovered enough to run their man to a spot behind where Williams should have been by this point in the play. This is an example of why Trubisky continues to get opportunities.
Trubisky’s Pick Six
Trubisky, on the other hand, didn’t exactly distinguish himself either. On his first drive, Trubisky badly overthrew a wide-open Jack Tabb over the middle on third down and was fortunate the throw wasn’t intercepted by the deep safety. It was a similar overthrow to the one Williams had early against ECU, and if Trubisky is going to earn time by being the better passer, he absolutely cannot miss here, let alone high over the middle.
Then in his second appearance, Trubisky threw to the flat against cover-2 for a pick-six, exactly the sort of mistake the Hokies have feasted on for years.
The pre-snap read shows two deep safeties, with the field safety outside the hash and moving further over top the corner. This means that although he’s lined up off the ball, that corner has no deep responsibility and is covering the flat, ready to pounce on anything short.
Normally, Cover-2 means the corner is going to take the outside release away, but because of the width of the outside receiver’s split, Fuller is not threatened by any outward breaking routes and takes inside leverage right from the start. Trubisky needs to recognize this on the pre-snap read.
After the snap, it’s clear that Virginia Tech is in a match coverage scenario here, with the underneath coverage reading the releases of the receivers and jumping standard route combinations.
Fuller sees the inside stem on the slot receiver’s route and jumps the double slant from inside leverage. This is textbook cornerback play. As Larry Fedora pointed out in the postgame press conference, the receiver also bears blame here, as he is responsible to get inside the corner at all costs on this play and instead gave up on the route as soon as he recognized Fuller’s inside leverage, cutting the slant short.
That magnifies the problem as Fuller can simply run through the football. If the receiver continues hard through the route here, it’s possible he breaks up the interception or at least keeps this from being a pick six. Nevertheless, if I were coaching quarterbacks, I’d want Trubisky to recognize this as a bad look at the snap and throw the football into the stands as soon as he sees Fuller with inside leverage and feet squarely planted.
One final thing here: I’m not typically one to criticize playcalling, but I do think this was a bad call into this defense. Virginia Tech lined up with two safeties playing 20 yards deep on 1st and 10, basically daring Carolina to run the football. In my view, this should be an immediate run check (with a bubble option to the boundary), as the secondary has the numbers advantage and pressure underneath routes from this look.
In my view, this call sets the quarterback up for failure. I do not want my quarterback throwing across the field into a hard corner with deep support like this, especially against Virginia Tech, which has a reputation for giving its corners the green light to jump inside on shorter routes.
It is worth noting that this is a significantly different defensive look than what Williams typically got at QB. The first play from scrimmage, for example, featured 10 Hokies lined up within five yards of the line of scrimmage. If the Carolina staff continues to give Trubisky every third series, it may actually be in their interest to run the football more if teams are going to give him this kind of respect on first down.
It’s counterintuitive, but sometimes it’s better to run on first down when the better passer is in and vice-versa. Either way, I don’t think they can afford to ask either quarterback to make this kind of throw.