Over the course of the season, I'm going to run a series of defensive film studies highlighting plays that illustrate what went right or wrong with each particular game. Suffice it to say that little went right defensively against Texas A&M, as you can see in the following highlights video for the game:
We all know that Carolina's pass rush struggled in this game. We were told it might be the team's weak link before the season, and that concern came home to roost in spades against the Aggies.
Given that this problem is so well-documented, I want to highlight a couple of other problems, illustrated by two particular plays. The first is Kenny Hill's option pitch to Tra Carson for a touchdown at the end of the first half, which you can see at the 35-second mark. The second is Hill's first-down completion to Boone Niederhofer during the final drive of the game, which you can see at the 1:12 mark.
The first play is a great play call by the A&M offensive staff, and something I'm afraid can easily be reduplicated against us by other teams with receivers who can block. A&M lines up with four wide, three on the field side (bottom of the screen), one on the boundary (top of the screen). Carolina defends from the 4-2-5. Al Harris is covering the receiver at the top of the screen, who has a substantial size advantage over Harris. The play call is a simple speed option to the boundary. A&M allows weak-side end Darius English to come into the backfield unblocked, with the idea being that Hill will pitch to tailback Tra Carson if English pursues Hill (this is what usually happens on this play), whereas Hill can keep the ball if English covers Carson. It's essential for the play to work that linebacker Skai Moore not be allowed to affect the play and especially that the corner be blocked out of the play, as the corner is really the guy who has to make this tackle if, as expected, Hill pitches to Carson. What makes the play work is that A&M's big receiver is able to make the much smaller Harris a complete nonfactor. Carson is able to walk into the end zone untouched because Harris is unable to shed his block and get into the play.
I highlight this play because, given his small stature, I would expect our opponents to frequently eye Harris as a matchup target on both running and passing plays. Harris is easily blocked, and heck, even if he had shed the block and taken a good angle on Carson, he would have struggled to keep Carson out of the end zone. This is a play that reminds you that while corners are judged primarily on cover skills, they also need to be able to defend the run in many situations. Carolina has been blessed in recent years by having players such as Stephon Gilmore and Vic Hampton at corner who could hold their own in run support. Harris may be able to do so in time, but he needs significant work in the S&C program first. Having to rely on him so early is a product of poor roster management at corner. Don't be surprised when UGA runs Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb in Harris's direction a few times in a couple of weeks.
On the second play (completion to Niederhofer), you see something else I found concerning: confusion among the linebackers. Carolina is in its 3-4 package on this play. Carolina is in zone coverage. What makes this play work is that Carolina leaves the middle of the field wide open, allowing the receiver to sit in the soft spot of the zone, make the catch, and then pick up first-down yardage after the catch. Why is the middle of the field so open here? Inside linebacker T.J. Holloman darts upfield at the beginning of the play, presumably to cover part of the zone vacated by a safety who is helping on the edge. However, neither Skai Moore nor Jordan Diggs cover the part of the field vacated by Holloman, which is where the receiver makes the catch. Given the kind of offense A&M runs and the fact that they have two receivers in the slot on the field side, it's not clear why this part of the field isn't covered, and wasn't so many times over the course of the contest. It has to either be miscommunication among the linebackers or poor planning by the coaches when they installed these zone coverages. Moore and Diggs also take bad angles in making the tackle, and it's in fact BAW running upfield after rushing the passer from the Bob position who finally brings down the receiver.
This play was indicative of something we saw all too often from our linebackers in this game: confusion and poor tackling fundamentals. I was hoping that given our experience and talent at linebacker, A&M wouldn't be able to pick us apart with plays like this, but it indeed did so all evening. Although it lacks the talent possessed by A&M, East Carolina will also seek to make its living in the short passing game, which will again put pressure on our linebackers' ability to play well in pass coverage and to limit yards after the catch. Some of this team's problems--undersized defensive ends, true freshmen forced into playing time at corner--aren't going to be fixed overnight, but linebacker play is something that was supposed to be much better than what we saw against A&M, and it needs to be fixed this week.
There's been a lot of chatter about the role of the 3-4 in our defensive struggles in this game, but I'm convinced that to whatever extent our defensive problems were schematic rather than simply not being able to match talent with the Aggies, the problem wasn't the 3-4 but rather that our zone coverage left too many spots in the field wide open. Where A&M really killed us was in consistently converting 5-15 yard passes like this one. Regardless of whether we were in the 4-2-5 or 3-4, Kenny Hill was consistently able to find open spots in the zone. Having a second defensive tackle on the field instead of BAW didn't make a difference in that regard, and BAW ideally should have been able to generate more of a pass rush than a tackle would have, not that anything we were doing in that regard helped in this game. What should we do to solve this problem going forward? I don't necessarily think we should have used more man coverage; we tried that a little in the second half, and A&M was able to create matchup problems and have just as much success on offense. What I do think is that it would make sense to simplify the zone coverages and put a heavy emphasis on fundamental assignment responsibility. There were too many plays like this one where we had linebackers running upfield to cover areas in the third level, other linebackers not filling the vacated spots, safeties getting caught out of position on exchanges, etc. If these guys don't understand their responsibilities on complex zone coverages, simplify the responsibilities so the players understand exactly what they're supposed to do at all times, with all of the field well covered. Complex doesn't always mean better. A&M's offense is successful because it's simple and the players have practiced the base plays so much that everything is second nature. Combine this reflexive understanding of the plays with the confusion created by the hurry-up and you've got a lethal combination. Carolina could have lessened the effect of that confusion by simplifying things itself.