Derek Barnett’s performance key to Tennessee’s playoff chances

Tennessee's star pass-rusher was back in form against Ohio, and must continue his dominance against a tough upcoming stretch.

| 6 days ago
(Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

(Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Derek Barnett’s performance key to Tennessee’s playoff chances


After the first two weeks of the season, despite picking up wins in both games, the Tennessee Volunteers didn’t look like the team that many people thought were going to be challenge Alabama in the SEC this year.

On offense, the trio of Josh Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara haven’t been the dominant running trio they were expected to be, while on defense star pass-rusher Derek Barnett hasn’t looked his best. Barnett was back to his 2015 form against Ohio though, and his prowess in the second half ultimately played a key role in keeping the Ohio offense at bay. So how did Barnett get back to his best? Let’s take a look.

Early-season struggles

Through the first two weeks of the season, Barnett had managed to register just two quarterback hits and two hurries on 46 pass-rushing snaps, averaging a pressure once every 11.5 pass-rushing opportunities. That’s below the NCAA average for an edge rusher, and while it was somewhat understandable in the game against Appalachian State — with the Mountaineers option attack stifling and frustrating him — it was surprising when he didn’t get back on track last week against Virginia Tech. Our pass rushing productivity rating measures pressure on a per-snap basis, with weighting towards sacks and hits, giving a better indication of a pass-rusher’s productivity than sack totals alone. Through two games Barnett’s PRP rating say at just 6.6, 29th among 4-3 defensive ends in all of college football, and a long way off the 13.1 mark he posted last year that ranked 10th at the position.

Dominant performance from start to finish

Very early in the game it looked liked Barnett was going to be frustrated again, and he lined up offside to extend Ohio’s opening drive of the game. It didn’t take long for him to get going though, with his first pressure coming on 3rd-and-7 with 3:43 left in the first quarter. By the end of the first half he had already more than doubled his season total in terms of pressure, registering four hurries and a hit in the opening two quarters.

barnetthit

He got even better in the second half, totaling five hurries and two hits in the third and fourth quarter, including leaving his mark on the game’s final play with a huge hit on Ohio quarterback Greg Windham. Beating left tackle Austen Pleasants clean off the snap from a wide alignment, he left his blocker literally trying to block air as he turned the corner and knocked Windham to the ground. It was his best play of the day, and a fitting end to a game that saw him regain his dominant form. By the end of the game he had racked up three hits and nine hurries, registering a pressure once every 3.3 pass-rushing attempts and producing a PRP rating of 22.5.

How he was used

Through two games, Barnett had spent 87 of his 116 defensive snaps lined up at either left defensive end or left outside linebacker, going up against the opposing right tackle 75.0 percent of the time. Whether or not that added to his struggles is an unknown, but against Ohio they moved him around much more evenly. He lined up at either right defensive end or right outside linebacker on 50.1 percent of his defensive snaps. 21 of those snaps came as a pass-rusher, and he averaged a pressure once every 2.6 pass-rushing attempts from that side.

Barnett came into this game needing a big performance to bounce back after a poor start to the season. With huge games against Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama all within the next month, these next four weeks will be key to Tennessee’s College Football Playoff chances this season, and having Barnett back to his dominant best gives them a big boost on the defensive side of the ball.

| Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst

Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.