For a group that has been surprisingly stingy overall, Big Orange defenders have been surprisingly generous once the opponent reaches the Vol 20-yard line. The first six foes combined to go 12 for 12 on red-zone opportunities. Worse, nine of the scores were touchdowns; only three were field goals.
The obvious question: Why are opponents thriving in the red zone?
“The quarterback running game,” defensive coordinator John Jancek told InsideTennessee. “A couple of times they’ve run the quarterback and scored on us.”
Actually, mobile quarterbacks have burned the Vols a bunch of times this season. Check it out:
In Game 6 versus Chattanooga quarterback Jacob Huesman kept for 8 yards on third-and-four at the Vol 20, and the Mocs kicked a field goal four plays later. Backup quarterback Alejandro Bennefield subsequently kept for a 5-yard gain on first-and-10 at the Vol 19, and the Mocs scored their lone touchdown on the very next play.
Like Jancek, Vol defensive line coach Steve Stripling believes mobile quarterbacks create an extra challenge in the red zone.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Not just in that area, but in every area. When the opponent has an athletic quarterback – which is the norm, something we face almost every week – that just puts more pressure on you. It limits what you can do defensively, requires you to keep your points, especially in the red zone.”
Although Tennessee has faced mobile quarterbacks in virtually every game this fall, they are inflicting most of their damage in the red zone. So, why is a defense that is working so well on the rest of the field struggling to protect those final 20 yards?
Simply put, it’s not the same defense once the opponent enters the red zone.
“Your defense is totally different down there,” Jancek said. “There’s different coverages that you’re playing and different pressures that you bring.”
Whatever those coverages and pressures are, they haven’t been working to date. Still, the Vols’ head coach says the coverages and pressures are fine. The problem lies elsewhere.
“It’s just making a play,” Butch Jones said. “It’s playing the ball in the air, communication and all of that.”
Except for a “sudden change” brought about by a long kick return or a turnover, offenses typically march into the red zone, building some momentum and confidence along the way.
“The key in that area is just to be ready every play,” Vol defensive tackle Jordan Williams said. “They (offensive players) got a little tempo going, so we just have to be prepared.”
Safety LaDarrell McNeil thinks playing assignment football is especially critical when a defense is backed up near its own goal line.
“We just have to make sure we get our calls down and make plays in the red zone,” he said. “That’s the way to get stops.”
Stripling says red-zone calls vary from week to week because they are tailored to the opponent.
“Obviously, you have a red-zone plan but each offense is a little different in the red zone,” he said. “You have certain things you try to get accomplished but we just haven’t been as effective as we need to be in the red zone.”
That’s apparent from the fact opposing offenses are 12 for 12 with nine touchdowns thus far.
“We’ve just got to get more work down there,” Jancek said. “We’ll keep plugging away at it.”
John Jancek video interview