Jason: Postgame Chalkboard from UNC-Pitt

Inside Carolina Xs and Os expert Jason Staples reports from the film room with his takeaways from UNC's win over Pittsburgh.

First things first: I want to give my unqualified support to UNC head coach Larry Fedora’s decision to go up-tempo when the Tar Heels got the football inside the five yard line on their last drive. I understand the sentiment that it would have been better to run more clock in that context, but ensuring the touchdown was obviously a much higher priority.

As Fedora explained after the game, Pittsburgh was in a disadvantageous personnel grouping for a goal line situation, and allowing them to get more beef on the field would have made it more difficult to score in that situation.

The only thing I found odd is that Fedora’s comments confirmed that the Carolina coaching staff does recognize the importance of substituting extra size for goal line defensive packages, something I had begun to wonder about last week.

We did see some attempt to put more size on the field in Carolina’s defensive packages with five defensive linemen in the game on the goal line, but the Heels still put four defensive backs on the field against a 23 personnel set (2 backs, 3 tight ends). A 5-2 defense is still not an effective short yardage set against 23 personnel. In fairness, Travis Hughes’ suspension did leave the defense short on linebackers, but I’d still rather see something along the lines of a 6-3-2 personnel set against a power run team like Pittsburgh on the goal line.

Either way, the results were again predictable, as Pittsburgh’s big, physical offensive line mashed Carolina front, with James Conner pounding the football into the end zone.

The Relationship between Tempo and Intensity

Despite the win, the Carolina defense continued to get physically mauled at the point of attack, as Conner ran for 220 yards on 30 carries, averaging a healthy 7.3 yards per run. At this point, I’m at a loss about the lack of physical play on the defensive side of the football; you simply cannot win consistently when allowing those kinds of rushing numbers and over 13 yards per passing attempt. Looking at those numbers, I’m amazed they managed to win this game.

I’ve previously stated my concerns that Carolina’s focus on tempo and speed in practice may have had a negative effect on attention to detail, wondering whether going so fast all the time has meant reinforcement of bad habits rather than consistently correcting those habits on the spot.

I’ve also begun to wonder whether this team has become a distance runner rather than a sprinter. That is, I wonder whether the effort to reduce the time between plays and keep a high tempo has had the unintended consequence of players giving less than 100 percent effort during each play.

My reasoning is this: The general rule of thumb for training track athletes is “the shorter the race, the longer the rest intervals vs. work.” Put another way, a marathoner’s ratio of rest to work is much lower than that of a 100m sprinter, since the sprinter will take longer rest periods and run for much shorter periods.

This is because longer rest periods are necessary for the body to adequately recover to run at the high intensity demanded on short sprints, while the lower-intensity work of distance running demands less time to recover enough to keep going at that intensity. Eventually the body adapts to the intensity/rest ratio at which it is trained, optimizing its ability to do what it is regularly asked to do.

I’ve begun to wonder whether the Carolina defense—accustomed to a high pace and more plays per practice and game despite reduced depth due to sanctions—has simply adapted to a lower intensity during each play as a function of so constantly going fast between plays.

I can’t prove it, and there may be other explanations for the lack of intensity and physical play on the defensive side of the ball, but I think this hypothesis is reasonable. Perhaps the defense has simply adapted to the middle-distance intensity necessary to survive so many plays at such a high pace. Getting accustomed to playing so fast between plays (rest periods) may be directly related to lower intensity and physicality during each play.

Getting Bludgeoned

I’m going to look at two plays this week, each one a running play on which the offense whipped the defensive front. The first is Conner’s 22-yard score in the fourth quarter.

This is a basic Power-O play from 21 personnel. The left tackle and tight end will combo-block the defensive end, Dajaun Drennon, with the tackle (white line) moving to the second level as soon as the tight end (blue line) has Drennon neutralized. The fullback and pulling right guard will lead through the hole, each picking up a second-level player.

By putting two lead blockers through the same gap, the Power-O is designed to take advantage of one-gap defenses in which each player is responsible for one gap, requiring the linebackers and defensive line to read the pulling guard and adjust their gap responsibility accordingly—in this case, the backside linebacker must now take that extra front side gap, while the play side defensive tackle and defensive end either get penetration or occupy a double team, preventing their blockers from getting to the linebackers.

Carolina is in an eight-man front in the attempt to load the box against the run, meaning they should have the edge here. But watch what happens to Carolina’s right defensive end.

Drennon absolutely cannot let the tight end get inside him here. He needs to occupy the double team and give up as little ground as possible, but the left tackle only needs to give him an initial push before the tight end has total control, freeing the tackle to eliminate the linebacker responsible for that gap. A few frames later, Drennon is on skates four yards downfield and inside as Conner runs through that gap, with each linebacker getting handled by the lead blockers. The front side defensive tackle has also been moved by the double team, meaning Conner has a gaping hole to the secondary.

A poor tackling effort from the safety gives Conner a clear route to the end zone on a play where Carolina loaded up with eight and had a ninth ready in run support and still couldn’t stop the run. This has to be incredibly frustrating film to watch for the coaching staff, as this is just getting whipped at the point of attack.

Brunson for the Score

That said, I’m not going to leave this column on an entirely negative note. After all, UNC did win the game. The Carolina offensive line did just as good a job blocking the zone play for Charles Brunson’s fourth-quarter score as what we saw from Pitt above. You can also see the impact the threat of Marquise Williams’s running ability has on the two backside linebackers, neither of whom flows to the playside quickly enough to make a difference.

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