CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The “bend-but-don’t-break” defensive approach has long been scrutinized for being a conservative mentality in a violent and aggressive sport. Regardless of the criticism, the philosophy works. Look no further than Gene Chizik’s defensive statistics at North Carolina for evidence.
Through three games, UNC ranks 57th nationally in total defense (355.3 yards per game), T-89th in first downs defense (62) and 104th in rushing defense (212.0 ypg).
Those statistics are mediocre, at best. They are also not the statistics you should be focusing on, according to UNC defensive line coach Tray Scott.
“It’s all about the red zone defense,” Scott said after practice on Wednesday.
UNC is currently tied for seventh nationally in red zone defense (62.5 percent) and tied for 32nd in red zone touchdown percentage (4-of-8; 50 percent). As a result, the Tar Heels rank 19th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 15.0 points per game.
That’s quite the contrast from last season. UNC ranked 116th in scoring defense (39.0 ppg) due in large part to a red zone defense ranked 109th (88.9 percent). The Tar Heels were even worse in red zone touchdown percentage (125th) as opponents scored six points 72.2 percent of the time.
“If you can get down to the red zone and get stops - that means stop them or make them kick field goals, keep them from scoring touchdowns – then you can play good defense, no matter what happens in the first 80 yards,” Chizik said.
UNC’s first-year defensive coordinator stresses keeping opponents out of the end zone on a daily basis, according to senior middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer.
“He obviously wants us to dominate in the field, but he’s right in saying that if they don’t get into the end zone, it doesn’t matter how many yards you give up,” Schoettmer said. “The game is won or lost on points. We really do stress our red zone defense way more than we have in the past.”
Schoettmer noted how the defensive play calls change in the red zone, saying that certain calls require different run fits and coverage assignments due to the shortened field and increased likelihood of zone reads.
“With the way that the offenses stretch you these days, you have to really be flawless and so disciplined,” Scott said. “At the end of the day, sometimes the standard changes. We don’t want people to score points. People are going to get yards; we want to minimize that. We don’t want people to put points on the board, whether it’s a field goal or a touchdown.”
Making those statistics look even stouter is the fact that opponents have scored two of their four red zone touchdowns this season in garbage time with UNC leading by 40 points or more.
Thus far, the “bend-but-don’t-break” philosophy has served the Tar Heels well in 2015.
“I think what the general public might need to understand is that we want to win the games, no matter what,” Scott said. “Everybody wants the great stats, but we want to win games. We want guys to understand the culture of winning by any means necessary.”