Tennessee's pass protection much improved over last season

Tennessee's pass protection much improved over last season

October 6th, 2011 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

KNOXVILLE - Tennessee's offensive linemen certainly have their preferences.

Some might like the physical pride that results from helping tailback Tauren Poole run for more than 100 yards in a game, while others get more satisfaction from seeing quarterback Tyler Bray's jersey stay spotless.

Not that those preferences really matter, of course.

"Whatever's going to get us points," left guard Alex Bullard said.

Right tackle Ja'Wuan James said it was "probably" run-blocking, "but when we've got Tyler behind us, we just do what's best as a team."

Through four games this season, Bray has been the source of most of UT's yards and points. While the Vols' ground game has been off and on, the offensive line has protected its quarterback much better than it did a season ago.

"Sometimes you barely even notice with everybody talking about the run [game]," James said, "but I noticed the other day when I looked at the sacks that we had way less than we had at this time last year. I feel like we have a better understanding of who we're going to and we're all on the same page in the passing game."

UT gave up 14 sacks through four games last season, including five in an overtime win against UAB. Bray has been sacked just seven times this season, the third-least in the Southeastern Conference. Three of those sacks came in the loss to Florida when the Gators built a comfortable lead, pinned their ears back and battered Bray.

The pass protection has allowed the Vols take advantage of Bray's abilities throwing the football helped UT convert 62 percent of its third-down conversions, which is tied for the national lead.

"I'm pretty comfortable with it," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said Wednesday. "We're not having a lot of breakdowns where we're cutting people free. In pass protection you're inevitably going to get somebody beating somebody, so that's always going to happen. But as far as blocking the right guys, we're doing a pretty good job of that."

With four starters back from the line that finished last season together, the sack total was expected to decrease. The Vols are hoping to continue keeping Bray upright on Saturday night against a Georgia defense with 10 sacks this season that has allowed just one touchdown in its last three games.

The Bulldogs, though, won't have sack leader Cornelius Washington after he was suspended for his arrest last weekend. In Buffalo and Florida, the Vols have seen defenses similar to the 3-4 scheme Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham runs and expect to see both three- and four-man fronts Saturday.

"Everybody is multiple [defensively] now," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "That's why chemistry and experience is so important up front. You see a lot of plays get made on Saturday with breakdowns, and it's because defenses now more than ever create confusion."

Most 3-4 defenses present the challenge of picking up blitzes from a variety of holes and angles. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones has three sacks this season, and cornerback Sanders Commings has one as well. Bullard said he expects to see some of what he called "exotic" blitzes from the Bulldogs.

"It's just me knowing the protection, knowing when I'm hot and need to get rid of the ball," Bray said. "If I can do my part in helping the line in protection, we should be OK. You've just got to know how many men you've got to protect and how many they're bringing and know that you're fine."

Similar to the growth of the offensive line, Bray has improved his ability to read defenses and adjust protections.

"He's got to change some protections for us on particular plays, and he's done a pretty good job of that," Chaney said. "He does a little bit of it, but we don't ask him to do it a lot. We want him to concentrate on throwing it to the right guy accurately."

The easiest way to allow Bray to do that is by protecting him, something the Vols have done much better this season.

"We've done an OK job protecting him," Bullard said. "We've been far from perfect. Our technique's not always been perfect all the time, but we fight and try to protect him the best we can. I think that's why we have success."

And that's everybody's first preference.