As most of our readers know Tennessee uses a multiple 4-3 defense that changes looks depending on down and distance, formation and an opponent's tendencies. UT wants to stop the run first and will always commit more players to that task than the opponent can match. In order to assure they have superior numbers against the run, Tennessee will almost always use some type of man coverage in its secondary. (The equation works because you can't consider the quarterback or the ball carrier as blockers which leaves nine offensive players to block 11 defenders.)
These press coverages are designed to challenge all receivers and throws. The Vols want to take away the short throws and force the quarterback to make perfect passes while under heavy pressure. This approach concedes the occasional big play with the idea in mind that an offense can't sustain consistent drives, wear down the defense, control the clock or maintain optimum field position. In essence, Tennessee is looking to force a lot of three-and-out series to give its offense better field position and more scoring opportunities.
The Vols want to be their best in the most critical situations and consequently devote a lot of their practice sessions to defeating the offense on third down, in the red zone and on the goal line. On third down and short the Vols aim to turn back the opposing offense 60 percent of the time and shoot for an 85 percent success rate on third and long.
Though UT bases out of the 4-3, it often lines up in something else depending on the opponents strengths and tendencies. For instance: against a team with a strong rushing attack that uses an I-formation with a blocking fullback the Vols might reduce their line and walk the Sam linebacker up to the line of scrimmage. This helps to neutralize the blocking angles on their linebackers, establishes a stronger front at the point of attack and reduces the inside seams. The corners will normally be in press coverage and the secondary in a two-deep shell in which they float the safeties according to down and distance. As an example: the strong safety may align in run support in third-and-short while remaining deeper on third-and-long.
If an opponent breaks the I and brings the fullback to near- or far-back sets (creating a single-back alignment) Tennessee will often attempt to exploit the scheme by shifting †to an eight-man front which poses a greater blitz threat. The most elementary means of effecting this change is bringing the strong safety into an outside linebacker slot to form a 4-4 look.
As incongruous as it may seem, the key to playing an aggressive attacking style of defense is uncompromising discipline in terms of the front maintaining proper run fits across the line of scrimmage. Getting blocked is one thing, but creating a hole up front by failing to carry out an assignment creates a breakdown of the entire defense and is therefore unacceptable.
When an offense chooses to spread out in an attempt to create more running room in the interior, the Vols will normally keep its front seven intact and rely on its man free coverage and pressure on the passer to compensate for the horizontally extended line of scrimmage. Ideally, the Vols will never leave an back in man coverage for an unreasonable amount of time, but teams have had success in the past against UT by cutting down on their line splits up front and opting for max protection. This provides the time the quarterback needs to find his receiver and make a catchable pass free of undue pressure. The chance of success increases considerably if the receiver has a height advantage over the DB. That's why a tall cornerback like Julian Battle is of great value to counter an opponent's primary receiving threat.
A lot of Tennessee fans want to know why the Vols don't force more interceptions? But that's not really the aim of press coverage. In fact the more intense the coverage the less likely it is a defender will have a shot at an interception. What it does instead is place the onus on the defender to blanket the receiver and disrupt the timing of the quarterback. In press coverage the defensive back is almost always going to have his back to the pass and his focus on the receiver, as opposed to zone coverage in which everything happens in front of the defensive back who has time to see the ball and react to it. However the zone also has natural seams an offense can exploit and short passing zones are more vulnerable.
Now back to the defending the run with the personnel on hand for the Vols this season. The loss of the entire defensive line to the NFL would be reason for concern with any club, but it's not likely to have a huge impact on the Vols rush defense. Last season Tennessee gave up 2.7 yards per carry and eight rushing touchdowns with John †Henderson and Albert Haynesworth in the middle. Those are impressive numbers for sure but no so more than 1996 when Bill Duff and Ron Green manned the middle of UT's D-line and held opponents to 2.7 yards per rush and only four touchdowns. Or 1998 when Darwin Walker and Jeff Coleman teamed up in the middle to hold opponents to 2.7 yards per carry and five rushing TDs. Or 2000 when Henderson and Edward Kendrick held down the tackles posts and held opponents to 2.8 yards per carry and seven scores on the ground.
In truth, as undeniably talented as both Henderson and Haynesworth are neither matches the ideal physical requirements for NFL tackles which is 6-4, 310, with 4.9 speed in the 40. Henderson is three inches taller than the NFL optimum for the position and Haynesworth is two inches taller. Each of these stalwart D-linemen had to work hard to overcome the natural loss of leverage that occurs with taller tackles. Conversely Rashad Moore, 6-4, 310, is the ideal size for a defensive tackle and Demetrin Veal, 6-3, 285 is not far off those standards. Edward Kendrick is another 6-4 tackle with starting experience and Aubrayo Franklin looks like an effective run stopper at 6-2, 295.
There's also reason to believe that red shirt junior Terriea Smalls, 6-3, 310, and true freshman LaRon Harris, 6-3, 300, can provide quality depth up front for the Vols. Andre Taylor 6-3, 285, is another UT lineman who showed signs of life this spring. Besides, Henderson missed much of last season after suffering an ankle injury in the season opener and never played at 100 percent. Overall he wasn't the player who won the Outland Trophy in 2000.
The same is true at defensive end where Will Overstreet battled a knee injury for much of the season and missed critical playing time. Constantine Ritzmann filled in ably at DE and Moore earned in the starting nod inside for Henderson. Along with Kendrick, that gives UT three players up front with starting experience and significant playing time.
Where the loss of Henderson and Haynesworth will be most felt is in passing situations as the Vols won't have the same type of pressure up the middle they have generated the last two seasons. As a result, Tennessee might have to rely on the blitz more often than in the past which shifts more of the defensive load to the linebackers and secondary.
The good news is that the linebacking corps is deeper and more talented than any at UT in recent memory and the secondary has more experience, flexibility and talent than in the past two seasons.
Although most UT fans found this year's spring game to be boring for its lack of offensive fireworks, I was greatly encouraged by the way the defense swarmed the football and tackled. This year's defense is a typical Tennessee speed team that is capable of wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. The quality of depth should also be improved while the internal competition for playing time will assure the Vols are always running on a high octane emotional fuel.
And remember it all starts with stopping the run.