D line play needs to improve for Virginia to get stops

virginia defense
Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Pro Football Focus had Virginia D linemen playing a total of 156 snaps in the 34-33 win over Louisville on Saturday. Which would work out to having a three-man D line front on 52 of the 64 defensive snaps.

The lack of depth up front – Adeeb Atariwa has only logged 38 snaps in two games in 20221, and hasn’t played since Wake; Ben Smiley has played 120 snaps this season, but missed the Louisville game – has forced defensive coordinator Nick Howell to get creative, plugging the line with linebackers Noah Taylor and Elliott Brown.

Veterans Aaron Faumui (38 snaps, 69.8 PFF grade) and Mandy Alonso (58 snaps, 68.7 PFF grade) put in solid efforts against Louisville, but the rest of the unit … so-so.

Jordan Redmond (14 snaps, 56.0 PFF grade) and Jahmeer Carter (30 snaps, 54.9 PFF grade) were OK at nose tackle. Nusi Malani (12 snaps, 41.5 PFF grade) and Olasunkonmi Agonlye (4 snaps, 27.8 PFF grade) are works in progress on the ends.

The unit obviously misses having Jowon Briggs (149 snaps, 76.3 PFF grade), who transferred to #3 Cincinnati in the spring, taking up blockers in the A gap, but that is what it is.

Virginia needs to get more from its young guys, but progress is coming, “(j)ust as you’d expect, incrementally and positively and slowly and inconsistently, but trying really hard,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said this week.

“Every rep is experience that is going into the vault of performance, and they are improving where everyone is racing against the clock,” Mendenhall said. “When you have someone that gets hurt, and you’re looking for the next player to then perform the same, and normally the next player won’t perform the same because they’re not as experienced or for whatever reason, so you do your best to build, inspire and just move on, and that’s what we’re doing, and we’re making progress. I see it. Just chipping away.”

The line faces maybe its biggest challenge to date this season with Duke and its star running back, Mateo Durant,  who is second in the ACC and fourth nationally in rushing (131.3 yards per game).

The bulk of that damage comes between the tackles. Durant has run for 593 of his 788 yards through the A and B gaps, averaging 7.0 yards per carry, with 33 of his 85 carries between the tackles going for first downs, seven of them going for scores.

“Yeah, just runs for power, runs for speed. He’s tough,” Mendenhall said. “Again, I think the system, again, we’re talking about David Cutcliffe, I think is an exceptional football coach and person, and the system is really well-designed. So, they’re using their running back exactly as he should and needs to be used and getting a lot of production out of him. It’s not only the player, but it’s also the coaching.”

Cutcliffe uses Durant to attack a defense at its heart and soul, and that has been where Virginia is most vulnerable.

Louisville ran for 172 yards on 19 rushing attempts at the A and B gaps last week. North Carolina, you may remember, ran for 215 yards on 19 runs through A and B back in Week 3.

The guys gaining the yards in those games: not Mateo Durant.

And if you load up the box against Durant, Cutcliffe can dial up QB Gunnar Holmberg, who is completing 72.5 percent of his passes and has thrown for 1,616 yards in six starts in 2021.

Virginia is averaging just 11.7 QB pressures per game this season, after averaging more than 20 per game in each of the past two seasons.

That can make it so that you feel the need to commit extra guys to get some pressure from the edges, which can leave you more vulnerable to the runs between the tackles, with less help at the second and third levels if a back leaks through, as we’ve seen happen several times this season, to ugly results.

“We did well we did well in the first half, but second half there were some gaps that you can see that were open,” safety Coen King said of the defensive effort in the Louisville game. “People weren’t in the right gaps, and like coach says all the time, the ball will go where somebody isn’t doing their job, so we’ve got some things we’ve got to fix gap wise and run fit and stuff like that between the D linebackers and secondary as well. So yeah, we’ll work on that this week of practice because Duke has a great running back, so we’ll have to be on our A game.”

“I think it’s improving,” Mendenhall said. “I think it’s improving week in and week out, and there are certainly inconsistencies that are easy for everyone to see around that. I think you can see lots and lots and lots of progress, and so yeah, there’s two or three plays per game that right now have to be addressed and fit more appropriately and then tackled before they become big gains. In between that, yes, lots of progress. Yeah, I’m encouraged.”

Story by Chris Graham

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