Vols lacking in sacking

In a perfect world, a football team's pass defense would consist of 50 percent rush and 50 percent coverage. For the 2006 Tennessee Vols it was more like 10 percent pass rush and 90 percent coverage.

The Big Orange pass rush was missing in action in '06. The Vols recorded just 17 sacks, barely half the number (33) they posted in both 2004 and 2005. That could be a problem in Monday's Outback Bowl against a Penn State team that averaged 200 passing yards per game in 2006.

Certainly, sack totals aren't the only way to measure the effectiveness of a team's pass rush. For instance, if a defender fails to get the sack but forces a hurried throw that results in an incompletion, intentional grounding or an interception, that's still a big play.

"Actually, it's better than a sack if you pressure him into throwing an interception because we get the ball," Vol defensive end Robert Ayers notes. "I'll take that any day."

He has a point. Tennessee increased its interception total from 9 in 2005 to 16 in 2006. Some of those interceptions probably were caused by pressured passers.

"Overall, we had a lot of pressure on the quarterbacks," Ayers says. "We just couldn't quite get to ‘em. The numbers can fool you."

That is true sometimes but probably not in this case. The Vols' sack total wasn't all that dropped from 2005 to '06. The Big Orange recorded just 56 quarterback hurries, down from 80 in 2004 and 63 (playing one less game) in 2005. So, in addition to not sacking the QB as much, UT wasn't hurrying him as much in '06, either.

Junior defensive end Xavier Mitchell concedes that Tennessee's pass rush took a step backward in 2006. Still, he believes members of the front four improved in that area as the season wore on.

"We kind of learned to play the game within the game," he says. "That's the key to pass rushing. When the ball's snapped and the quarterback drops back to pass, you've got to remember how he set up last and things like that. With more experience, we learned how to be smarter on our pass rush."

The Vols may have grown smarter on their pass rush as the season progressed but they didn't grow any more effective. Tennessee registered just three sacks in its last five regular-season games, after recording 14 in the first seven games.

Still, Ayers thinks the 2006 pass rush did all right.

"We felt like if we lined up right, played with effort and played our assignments that was what mattered," he says. "Numbers don't show everything."

In this case, though, maybe they do.

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