A dropped shotgun snap had just helped Georgia Tech create its first sack of the game, late in the third quarter against North Carolina. The Tar Heels now faced third-and-16.
The score was 17-7 in North Carolina’s favor, but with a stop and a punt from inside the Tar Heels’ 20-yard line, perhaps the Yellow Jackets could add another score and close to within one possession. The Tech faithful rose to their feet inside Bobby Dodd Stadium, exhorting the Jackets.
UNC quarterback Sam Howell took the shotgun snap, initiating a three-man rush by Tech. With the Tar Heels protecting with six players – five linemen and a back – each Tech lineman faced a double team. Nose tackle JaQuon Griffin beat center Brian Anderson only to encounter left guard Joshua Ezeudu.
Howell slid forward once, then twice and then dropped in a pass to wide receiver Beau Corrales, who had found a hole in the Tech zone at the 34-yard line.
It was another bubble-bursting third-down conversion on a Saturday full of them. After the Jackets’ 38-22 defeat, coach Geoff Collins couldn’t get North Carolina’s third-down success – 11-for-19, nine of the successes on third-and-6 or longer – out of his mind.
“I thought coach (Andrew) Thacker and the defensive staff dialed up some really nice things, but it comes down to third down,” Collins said in one of several references he made to third-down play in his post-game news conference. “I wish I could get that tic out of my head right now on the third down part of it.”
Saturday’s sample of third-down plays revealed that what has long ailed the Jackets has continued into Collins’ first season. The Jackets have significant trouble getting to the quarterback. Out of 15 third-down pass attempts by Howell, the times when Tech linemen or linebackers actually bothered him were rare.
A well-coordinated zone blitz enabled linebacker Charlie Thomas to get a free run at Howell on the opening drive of the game. Failing to see defensive end Antwan Owens dropped into pass coverage, Howell threw it right at him for Tech’s only takeaway of the game.
On a third-and-25 early in the second quarter, Griffin overpowered Anderson, setting Howell on a scramble that ended with him escaping two sack attempts and nearly converting with an across-the-body pass. Freshman defensive end Sylvain Yondjouen twice exploited offensive tackles expecting him to loop around the edge, shooting the tackle-guard gap.
On most other plays, though, Howell threw from a secure pocket, with his five lineman and one running back – UNC almost always used a six-man protection – keeping Tech’s linemen and blitzing linebackers at bay. When Tech blitzed – Thacker sent five men seven times and six men twice – the Carolina line typically adroitly handled the attacks, passing off one defender to another blocker in order to pick up the blitz.
It didn’t help that Howell consistently released the ball quickly, typically in two seconds or less, further foiling the Jackets’ efforts to pressure him. On the plays when Yondjouen won his one-on-one, for instance, it wasn’t in time to actually pressure Howell. Further, Howell threw with accuracy, completing passes even against tight coverage.
While Howell threw 51 times, Tech finished with but one sack – after Howell had dropped the snap, throwing off the play. It was not the most surprising result. The Jackets have a total of seven sacks after five games, and their rate of 1.4 sacks per game is tied for 107th in FBS.
It continues a pattern Jackets fans know well. Tech has finished outside the top 100 in sacks per game since 2014, following Jeremiah Attaochu’s All-America season in 2013, when the Jackets ranked 25th.
Without the capacity to consistently pressure the passer, Tech is tied for 112th in defensive third-down conversion rate at 46.15 percent. The Jackets were 129th last season at 50.68 percent.
The perplexing matter from Saturday is how well the Jackets played on the other downs. The Tar Heels averaged 6.9 yards per play on third down and 5.9 on first, second and fourth downs. Linemen such as Brentavious Glanton, Kelton Dawson and Chris Martin made plays on other downs, helping the Jackets create seven tackles for loss. Only one was on a third down.
As the Jackets go forward, the burden will be upon position coaches Marco Coleman (defensive ends/outside linebackers), Larry Knight (defensive line) and Thacker (linebackers) to continue to develop their players, and upon Thacker to find other ways to bring effective pressure.
That could be more zone blitzes, dropping linemen into pass coverage while bringing blitzes from linebackers or defensive backs. It could be dialing up blitzes for defensive backs. In large part on Saturday, extra pressure came from the linebackers. It could be loading up blitzes with more players.
More aggressive tactics, of course, have to be weighed against the risk of further burdening an offense that is having its own issues. When a team is 1-4, the choices typically aren’t inviting.
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