No Time to Panic about the Defense

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

Are you in a state of widespread panic regarding Florida’s defense – or lack of – in the Gators’ 51-35 win over Ole Miss? Well, calm down. Take a step back off the ledge and repeat several times, “Everything will be all right. Everything will be all right.”

It will be all right. Count on it.

Sure, for agonizing stretches Saturday the Florida defense looked like it was following social distancing protocol by remaining six feet away from whichever Ole Miss receiver had the football. Former Florida commitment Matt Corral, who decommitted from UF when Dan Mullen became the head coach, threw for 395 yards and three touchdowns on a secondary that most experts ranked among the top five in the country in their preseason analysis.

It looked bad. Really, really bad. But it will be all right. Count on it.

Listen to what Dan Mullen said you might have a better understanding of why there were blown coverages and too many missed tackles to count.

“We've tackled twice since the Orange Bowl,” Mullen said. “Normally you've got a lot of spring ball, you're getting physicality, you're getting tackling. We only did two in our scrimmages and they were spread out over this long period of time.”

Nayy coach Ken Niumatololo essentially said the same thing after the Midshipmen were steamrolled by BYU, 55-3, in their season opener. With so few practices and practice time limited to 20 hours a week per an NCAA mandate added to the Covid-19 concerns, Navy didn’t do nearly enough physical work, particularly on defense. It took the Middies half of game two against Tulane (Navy came from behind to win 27-24) before they finally started hitting and tackling the way Niumatololo expects.

Florida didn’t get in the physical work and that had plenty to do with the missed tackles. There were several key players missing and that helped account for missed assignments, missed tackles and blown coverages. Starting safety Brad Stewart missed the game as did linebacker Jeremiah Moon. Stewart is a ball hawk who doesn’t miss tackles. Moon is a do-it-all type who can make tackles in the running game, rush the passer and is quick enough to cover a tight end. Early in the first quarter starting safety Shawn Davis was ejected on a targeting call. His replacement was a freshman who played quite well, but there were times when he was tentative.

The pass rush was consistently good in terms of creating pressure. The Gators finished the game with four sacks but there were problems when Corral broke containment because too often there was no one home to clean things up. As a result, Corral finished the game with 50 net yards of rushing plus he was able to find receivers on the run.

Mullen was not pleased to put it mildly, but there are plausible reasons for the breakdowns.

“We haven't hit a quarterback since the Orange Bowl last year and you look at all the quarterback scrambles that went on today,” Mullen noted. “In practice you're not allowed to touch the quarterback.”

Pass rushers in practice ease up before they get to the QB but that doesn’t explain the lack of containment once Corral broke free of the pocket. That is something that will have to change and change in a hurry.

Tackling is critical. Ventrell Miller was all over the field, finishing the game with 15 tackles including a sack. Brenton Cox Jr. had eight tackles, a sack and a batted down pass that freshman Gervon Dexter intercepted. By the second half, Ole Miss was doubling Cox on every play. So, someone else is going to have to prove capable of creating havoc off the edge or opponents will know going into a game that if you take Cox out of the picture the Gators get no pressure.

The tackling has to improve. The play in the secondary has to improve. There were far too many missed assignments. Instead of attacking too many players were reactive and Ole Miss has too many fast, explosive players for reactive defenses to work well.

The important thing Saturday was Florida got the win, but it was a win that left so much to be desired on the defensive side of the ball. So much needs to improve this week. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and his staff have their work cut out.

“I know Todd and the staff are going to do a great job and I know our leadership on defense probably not pleased - not the coaching, the player leadership on defense not pleased - with our total performance on the day,” Mullen said. “I think those guys need to step up and get that improved from week one to week two.”

What Mullen explained does make plenty of sense. No matter how exotic the offenses get, no matter how big and fast the players are, the game still comes down to blocking and tackling. Teams that can block and tackle win far more often than they lose. This is a Florida team that has the talent on the defensive side of the football to be elite. They didn’t show it Saturday against Ole Miss but this is a case where one game shouldn’t tell the story for whole season.

Is the Ole Miss production on offense a shot across the Florida defensive unit’s bow? Absolutely. This is a wakeup call that cannot be ignored but there are factors that tell you this is more likely an aberration than the norm. Missing players. Not enough tacking in practice. First game of the season and it was on the road. There are plenty of areas that need to be cleaned up and plenty enough film to point out the shortcomings.

It is often said that the greatest improvement for a team during a football season is the time between the first game and the second. South Carolina comes to Gainesville this week and the Gamecocks don’t have nearly the firepower the Gators saw in Oxford nor do they have a quarterback anywhere close to the capability of Matt Corral. Still, they have some players with ability and they will come in with an emotional edge because of Will Muschamp. Don’t think for a second that the Gamecocks won’t want to do a number on the Gators. Muschamp won’t mention it to his troops that Florida is the school that fired him in 2014, but his players know. Say what you will about Muschamp, but players love him and are intensely loyal. They will want more than anything to hand Muschamp a Gator hide next Saturday. So color South Carolina dangerous.

And color Florida a team that needs to come out next Saturday in Gainesville playing defense like a team with its hair on fire. Figure the offense will more than do its part. The talent is there on defense. Next week the talent needs to show up and play.

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