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UNC Football Midseason Review: Where do the Heels need the most improvement?

If the Heels want to get off the field, they have to get to the quarterback. UNC is sack starved, can they get full by Thanksgiving?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Appalachian State Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve beaten up the Tar Heel defense plenty on this website, with good cause. They have been pretty poor from a national standpoint. UNC had the misfortune of slipping one spot in the FBS total defense rankings to #126 during a bye week. That really takes some doing.

Gene Chizik’s “bend don’t break” philosophy has watched teams march up and down the field, piling up yardage, but not as many points as you’d expect. The defense has been surprisingly strong in goal-line stands, most famously against Miami and Duke, and the run defense has been stout against the Hurricanes and Virginia Tech.

What key ingredient is missing from the defensive recipe that would make this team more appetizing? Here’s a hint, he’s earning a paycheck in New York right now.

Carolina has a sack problem. Part of that is by design, part of that is underperformance. Gene Chizik, until recently, was gun-shy about blitzing, preferring a four-man rush. Junior defensive end Des Evans appears to be instructed to set an edge and prevent his man from gaining width, rather than getting past his man to hunt the quarterback. The defensive tackles clog gaps and bottle up running backs (not running quarterbacks), while Noah Taylor has free rein to chase the quarterback from the “Jack” position.

The early returns on Noah Taylor, a transfer from Virginia, were quite promising. In Week Zero against Florida A&M, Taylor got an easy 9-yard sack on 2nd & 10, which effectively killed the Rattlers second drive.

Taylor leads the team in sacks with 3.5 on the year, which puts him off the pace to match last season’s sack-leader Tomon Fox, who had 8.5. Worse still is that the team only has 12 sacks through seven games, and two of them have come from subs in garbage time against Virginia Tech. Power Echols and DeAndre Boykins both have two sacks from designed blitzes. Kaimon Rucker (2) and Jahvaree Ritzee (0.5) are the only linemen in the regular rotation to tally any sacks.

If UNC wants to give their defense better chances of getting off the field on third down, sacks are a great way of doing so. Generally speaking, sacks drop an offense’s chances of getting a first down by around 30%. Factored into this is probably an assumption of solid open-field tackling, and decent (if unspectacular) pass coverage, but I don’t want to muddle the formula too much.

If Chizik wants to give his corners a better chance of not getting burned and his defense a better shot of getting off the field, he needs to come up with some schemes or designed plays to get more of these: