Tennessee DE Derek Barnett could be due for major rebound game versus Virginia Tech
The Tennessee Volunteers’ 2016 season almost got off to the worst possible start, nearly losing in a major upset to Appalachian State. How close was it? Well, the Mountaineers missed an extra point that wound up being the difference in regulation, and then Vols running back Jalen Hurd fell on a fumble by quarterback Josh Dobbs for what resulted in the winning touchdown in overtime.
They escaped with the win, but the Vols know that they will have to improve if they are to beat Virginia Tech this weekend — and they’ll also need a much-improved performance from defensive end Derek Barnett. One of the top defenders in the nation in 2015, Barnett was held to just a single quarterback hit against Appalachian State, and was left frustrated by the Mountaineers’ option attack.
This week, he’ll have to try to get past Virginia Tech right tackle Jonathan McLaughlin, who didn’t allow a single pressure in the opening game of the season. Let’s take a look at this critical matchup, which could go a long way toward determining the outcome of this primetime game:
Why Barnett can win
If you chalk up last week as an outlier performance for Barnett, perhaps simply a case of a pass-rusher being stifled by an option-based attack, then it’s worth instead looking at what Barnett was able to achieve at Tennessee last year. The second-highest graded edge defender in the nation last year, behind only Ohio State’s Joey Bosa (the No. 3 overall draft pick of the Chargers), Barnett racked up 10 sacks, 10 hits and 42 hurries on 396 pass-rushing attempts. That works out at to an average of one pressure every 6.4 pass-rushing attempts. PFF’s pass-rush productivity rating measures pressure on a per-snap basis, with weighting towards sacks and hits, and Barnett’s PRP of 13.1 was the third-best mark in the SEC in 2015.
Barnett had only one game last year where he didn’t have at least three total pressures, the third game of the season against Wake Forest where he played just nine snaps. So with that in mind, it’s at least mildly concerning that all he could muster against Appalachian State was this unblocked hit you see below:
Was this simply a by-product of a sluggish team performance, or an indication that Barnett is perhaps not going to be the force he was last year? It’s far too soon to think this is anymore than a one game slump, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind as we watch the game between the Hokies and the Volunteers unfold this weekend.
Why McLaughlin can win
Aside from the potential that Barnett is going through some form of slump, the reason why McLaughlin can win is because he played really well as a pass-blocker last week in Tech’s win over Liberty. Obviously, you need to take the level of competition into consideration, and Liberty don’t exactly have a top edge rusher, but if Barnett’s struggles against Appalachian State tells us anything, it’s that just because you are playing a lower level of competition, doesn’t mean you will dominate. One of 24 offensive tackles out of the 157 to play at least 34 pass-blocking snaps to not allow a single sack, hit or hurry, McLaughlin started the season off in the best possible way.
He wasn’t quite so perfect throughout the 2015 season, however, allowing eight sacks, five hits and 13 hurries. Our pass-blocking efficiency signature stat works in a similar way to our pass-rush productivity rating, measuring pressure allowed for an offensive linemen on a per-snap basis. In 2015, McLaughlin’s PBE rating was just 94.8, ranking 111th out of the 130 offensive tackles to play at least 404 pass-blocking snaps.
What the grades say
In the first week of the season, McLaughlin (76.1) had a higher rating than Barnett (49.7). That proves that the level of play we saw from Barnett just won’t get it done. Thankfully for Tennessee fans, that’s just a one-game sample, and on the larger-scale 2015 season grades, it’s Barnett who has a significant edge. His 2015 grade of 89.9 towers over McLaughlin’s 73.3, and unless Barnett has some sort of injury slowing him down, which seems unlikely, everyone should expect a big bounceback game from Barnett at McLaughlin’s expense.