Deep dive: How UVA might try to defend the Carolina passing game

joey blount
Joey Blount. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Last year, in North Carolina’s 44-41 loss to UVA in Charlottesville, UNC quarterback Sam Howell was 23-of-28 for 443 yards and four TDs.

Of course, last year Howell, the 2021 preseason ACC Player of the Year, had Dyami Brown to catch 11 balls for 240 yards and three TDs, and he also had Michael Carter (nine carries, 64 yards) and Javonte William (11 carries, 54 yards, 1 TD) to hand the ball off to.

He doesn’t have those guys this year.

It’s all – or pretty much all – on him.

He does have an offensive line that had everybody back, but looked out of its league in the 17-10 season-opening loss at Virginia Tech two weeks ago.

The Tech D recorded 16 pressures on 44 Howell dropbacks, with six sacks, six QB hurries and four hits, and one batted ball.

Howell struggled to find a rhythm with the constant pressure, finishing the night a pedestrian 17-for-32 passing for 208 yards, one TD and three INTs.

The Carolina offense got back on track last week in a 59-17 win over Georgia State, with Howell going 21-of-29 through the air for 352 yards and three TDs.

But that was against Georgia State.

And the numbers that he put up last year in Charlottesville were against a different UVA defense.

We’re just two games in, but through two weeks, the Cavaliers look more like they did in 2018 and the first half of 2019, before the defensive unit began to be decimated by myriad injuries.

The Virginia D ranks second in the ACC through two weeks in total defense (260.0 yards per game) and scoring defense (7.0 points per game), and ranks fourth in pass-defense efficiency (100.6) and fifth against the run (105.0 yards per game).

The matchup in prime time Saturday night down in Chapel Hill seems like it will hinge for Virginia on how well it can rein in the North Carolina passing game.

With that in mind, I went to Pro Football Focus and did a deep dive on the two teams’ games against Power 5 opponents – the Carolina loss at Virginia Tech, and the UVA win at home over Illinois.

Pressure

As mentioned, the Carolina O line didn’t avail itself all that well in the loss at Tech, allowing the 16 pressures on 44 Howell dropbacks.

Three members of the unit had solid games – RG Marcus McKethan (86.3 PFF pass block grade), RT Jordan Tucker (81.8 PFF pass block grade) and LT Joshua Edezu (75.8 PFF pass block grade).

The other two were sieves – C Quiron Johnson (48.4 PFF pass block grade) and LG Adam Richards (39.7 PFF pass block grade).

Right there in the A gap, up the middle. That’s a big reason why Howell wasn’t able to get any kind of consistency in Lane Stadium.

The Hokies were able to get pressure on Howell without having to blitz much. According to PFF, Tech only blitzed on eight Howell dropbacks, and Howell actually handled those snaps well, going 4-for-6 for 66 yards and a TD pass.

Howell had a 136.1 NFL passer rating against the blitz. On his 36 dropbacks when Tech rushed four, he was 13-for-27 for 152 yards and the three INTs, and he had just a 26.1 NFL passer rating on those snaps.

Whoa.

Virginia, in its 42-14 win over the Illini in Week 2, logged 17 pressures on Illinois QB Artur Sitkowski on his 51 dropbacks – three sacks, seven hits and seven QBHs.

Sitkowski finished 24-of-45 through the air for 221 yards, a TD and an INT.

According to PFF, UVA blitzed on 17 of the 51 dropbacks, and Sitkowski on those snaps was 4-of-17 for 43 yards and the INT, and a 15.1 NFL passer rating.

On his 34 dropbacks when the ‘Hoos went straight up with its pass rush, Sitkowski was 20-of-28 passing for 178 yards and the TD pass, and had a 100.0 NFL rating.

So, interesting, there.

On the 16 snaps on which Sitkowski was under pressure, he was just 2-for-11 for 12 yards.

With a clean pocket, he was 22-for-34 for 209 yards.

Howell, with a clean pocket in Week 1 at Virginia Tech, was 14-for-26 for 164 yards on 31 dropbacks.

That may be a function of the pressure up the A gap, which may not measure as official pressure, but can make it such that a QB feels some heat to get rid of the ball earlier than he would like.

Coverage

The Illinois game plan had Sitkowski going underneath an awful lot. He was 8-for-9 for 50 yards on passes at or behind the line of scrimmage, and 11-for-21 for 68 yards on pass attempts of 10 yards or less – and just 5-for-15 for 103 yards on passes of 10 yards or more.

Virginia uses a 3-3-5 defensive alignment, basically a nickel, getting an extra defensive back on the field as part of its base package, which can force an offensive coordinator to go to the dink-and-dunk passing game and the run game more.

The coverage guys generally did a good job against the Illini wideouts. The best day was registered by Louisville transfer Anthony Johnson, who allowed three receptions on nine targets for 33 yards, with an INT and two pass breakups, and a 5.6 NFL passer rating against.

Also having solid days were Nick Grant (1-for-5 passing, 10 yards, 2 PBUs, 39.6 NFL rating against) and De’Vante Cross (1-for-3 passing, 14 yards, 1 PBU, 49.3 NFL rating against).

Fentrell Cyprus allowed one completion in three targets, but it was for a 33-yard TD (thus he had a 115.3 NFL rating against). Darrius Bratton allowed three short completions on three targets for 27 yards (104.2 NFL rating against).

Elijah Gaines allowed three completions in five targets for 48 yards with one PBU (92.1 NFL rating against).

The rest of the work was done underneath.

Howell, against Tech, was 7-for-8 for 68 yards and a TD on passes at or behind the line of scrimmage, and 5-for-7 for 56 yards and two INTs on passes of 10 yards or less.

He wasn’t effective downfield – just 5-for-17 for 83 yards with an INT of passes of 10 or more yards.

Bottom line

Virginia Tech was able to get pressure on Howell up the middle and was more effective when it didn’t send extra guys.

Virginia likes to disguise pretty much everything – where pressure is coming from, coverages – and likes to send extra guys more often than other teams do.

If the Tech game is any indication, you may see UVA change up its game plan a little bit and try to get pressure with its three-man front and one outside backer, safety or corner, to force Howell to be patient, which he wasn’t all that good at two weeks ago.

Story by Chris Graham


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