KNOXVILLE -- The causes have been different, but the results have been the same.
Tennessee's defense been susceptible to big plays this season, and now the Volunteers face the nation's biggest big-play makers Saturday in fifth-ranked Georgia.
Through just four games, Tennessee's defense has allowed 20 plays of 20 or more yards, which is nearly half of last season's total of 41. Fourteen of those have been pass plays. In the last six quarters alone, the Vols have surrendered touchdown plays of 80, 75 and 70 yards.
"There's some differences in all of them, some subtle differences," coach Derek Dooley said Monday during his weekly news conference. "Ultimately it's a combination of really screwing up up front in the gap control [and] the ability to get the runner down when he breaks through the line. We're not doing a good job of leveraging the football.
"That's the common [theme], if there is a common theme. None of them are excusable. You just can't give up plays like that and expect to win."
The Bulldogs lead the Southeastern Conference in offense, and their 35 plays of 20 or more yards lead the nation. Georgia has scored nine offensive touchdowns of 22 or more yards in four games. The starting offense ripped off nine plays or 20 or more yards in a rout of Vanderbilt this past Saturday.
Given the aggressiveness of first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri's defense, some of Tennessee's big-play allowances are to be expected. The Vols have forced nine turnovers, which is half of their 2011 total. Yet they are just 11th in the SEC in total defense, and the big plays are a major part of that.
Bray feeling better
Quarterback Tyler Bray hasn't been feeling well for more than a week now, and Dooley said he thought Bray was "doing fine now." After the junior took heat for poorly handling the Vols' second-half collapse against Florida, Dooley was proud of how Bray bounced back in that regard against Akron. He had eight incompletions on his first 16 passes but just seven on his next 27 attempts.
"There were a lot of conversations about how you manage what goes wrong in a game and how your body language and your thoughts and your words can affect other people, especially guys on the team," Dooley said. "He made some bad throws early, some bad decisions early, and he was frustrated wanting to get something to happen, but he really kept a nice calm about him and worked his way through the game. He got better and better and better as the game went on.
"That was a good step for Tyler."
Dooley again defended his quarterback's desire to win and perform well, but what's sure to be another talking point this week is Dooley's statement that the Vols allow their third-year quarterback to do "very little" in changing plays at the line of scrimmage.
"We would rather just do it ourselves as coaches," Dooley said. "I think Tyler plays a lot better when he's playing fast and we're not putting too much on him outside of what he's really good at. We can change them easily.
"We go so fast it's easy for us to change stuff, but maybe we need to be a little more aggressive."
Tennessee's offensive line has allowed just three sacks this season, but Bray has taken an increasing number of hits the past two games. Florida cranked up its pressure with fresh bodies, creative schemes and a lead, and Akron did some things Tennessee hadn't seen before to create free blitzers. Against Georgia, the Vols know the battle at the line of scrimmage is key.
"What happens at the line of scrimmage dictates who's going to win the game," said center James Stone. "I feel like we've been protecting him. We haven't been giving up a lot of sacks, but I feel like there's been too many hits on the quarterback where they're hitting him after the play after he releases the ball.
"That's something we're really trying to eliminate so we can keep him clean."
It's especially key this week against Georgia's All-America outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who had 13.5 sacks in 2011 and single-handedly swung the Bulldogs' game this year against Missouri.
"He can just wreck your game plan," Dooley said, "because of his athleticism and ability to win on pass rush and be disruptive in the backfield. He's just got one of those playmaking personalities, wants to make a game-changing play, and they move him around a little bit. You just have to be very aware of where he is, and you have to be very disciplined on how you block him."
Man vs. zone
Dooley said the Vols have been "pretty good" in both man-to-man and zone coverages and the 5.8 yards per attempt his defense is allowing is "respectable."
"We've probably gotten hurt a little bit more in man," he said. "I don't really have any data to support that. I just know how many yards they're getting every time they drop back and throw it over time, and we can do a lot of improving."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.