KNOXVILLE -- After surrendering 450 more yards and 41 more points, Tennessee's defense continues its search for answers.
The Volunteers' maligned unit can use some of their own game tape as a starting point.
First-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's bunch has been gashed by three Southeastern Conference offenses and remains on pace to be statistically one of the worst defenses in the program's history. Yet within those poor performances are stretches where Tennessee played well and got stops.
Third-year head coach Derek Dooley said at his news conference Monday that the Vols can't hide from their defensive problems.
"Let's just call it like it is," he said. "But when you have six or seven drives where you can really show, 'Man, this is winning defense, it's solid defense, it's sound defense,' you've got to build on that. You say why haven't we been able to do it over 60 minutes and sustain it, and there's a lot of reasons. We've got to go fix those reasons."
Never in its history has Tennessee allowed 40 or more points in three consecutive games. After Georgia and Mississippi State scored 51 and 41, respectively, top-ranked Alabama will come to Knoxville for Saturday night's game having averaged 40.5 per game.
"We're looking to the future," linebacker Herman Lathers said. "We've got to line up right this week. If we don't, they're going to kill us. They're going to run the ball right at us. We've got to line up right and play our gaps. It's all about us executing."
It's certainly alarming that Tennessee is struggling to line up correctly six games into its first season in a new system, and Dooley said again Monday that those pre-snap breakdowns are leading to some of the mistakes and big plays. On the most basic level, though, the Vols are struggling to shed blocks and cover opponents.
At times, however, there there has been success, though it's hard to see those singular trees in the forest that is the SEC's 13th-ranked team in total defense. Tennessee stopped Georgia on four consecutive possessions to give its offense a chance to win that game. Mississippi State's first four second-half possessions ended in punts, but the Vols couldn't get a needed stop with five minutes left in that loss.
"The good thing about them is we are having them," said defensive tackle Daniel Hood. "So we know what we can do. Now we've just got to go do it."
It's obviously easier said than done, and Dooley said there's been discussions among the players and coaching staff on how to fix the problems.
"We can't go through the whole season and say, 'Well, we didn't line up right.' You can't do that," Dooley said. "We've got to keep limiting the calls. We went into that [Mississippi State] game with a significantly cleaner plan than we did the week before.
"There's really two components to it. One is where it is too much and we're slowing you down and we're not playing sound football trying to get the perfect defense into every play. The second component is there are some basics that we have to be responsible to execute [on] things we've been doing since day one of spring practice."
It's a group effort, the coach said, and one in which he plans to be more involved.
"I think it's important that I do, given what the results have been," he said. "I'm not going to go micromanage what we do and how we do it, but I'm certainly going to have a bigger say in it because ultimately it's my responsibility. I can't just say it's not mine. It is. I'm the head coach.
"The kids are bought in and they believe in what we're doing, and they're frustrated. We've just got to make sure we understand our players -- who's having the struggles and how can we help them the best by either not calling it, not doing that or maybe teach it a different way."
The Vols hope different approaches can help create different results.
"It's all about what we do," Lathers said. "When you look at the film and the stretches we do play good, it's because we line up right and we play our technique right. It's frustrating, but at the same time it gives us confidence to know that when we line up and play right, we can play with anybody in the country.
"We've got to play it right all the time if we want to compete."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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