Kris Wright, thesabre.com Best Seat Partner
It’s not secret that North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron is a major threat in the offense. After all, he is the team’s leading receiver with 44 catches for 669 yards. He has pulled in 3 touchdowns this season too. There have been some monster outings in there this season with an 8-catch, 199-yard performance against Miami and a 9-catch, 70-yard day in last week’s win against NC State.
With that said, the Watch List wanted to look at some ways the Tar Heels use Ebron. Two items jumped out. One, the skinny post or tight end seam route is a tough one to defend because of Ebron’s ability to get in and out of breaks quickly as well as his top-end speed for the position. He can show you an inside release for a crossing pattern and then run past you up the seam if you’re not careful.
This is a critical piece of the puzzle this weekend for Virginia because we know that the Hoos like to use Cover-1 and Cover-2 frequently. For example, Anthony Harris’ interception last week against Clemson was in Cover-2 when the Tigers tried to slide Sammy Watkins up the seam from a slot receiver spot. Harris identified Watkins as the inside receiver and with a Cover-2 call on the board, he figured that the offense might try to attack middle linebacker (MIKE) Henry Coley because that particular defensive call requires the MIKE to drop down the middle of the field against any vertical routes until he can pick up safety help. It’s something that Tampa Bay did in the NFL for years and it has been used quite a bit all around football (JHoo’s Chicago Bears were really good at it with Brian Urlacher in the middle).
Where it gets tricky with North Carolina is the ability of the outside receivers – Quinshad Davis, T.J. Thorpe, or Bug Howard – to pressure the safeties on the sideline routes. Essentially, the safety has to split the difference and then try to break on the throw once the quarterback decides where to throw. Ebron, however, is able to get by the linebacker and up the field faster than many tight ends so the openings on either side of the safety – the inside seam with Ebron or the outside vertical with a receiver – are wider. UVa’s secondary is depleted with injuries so this combination is a daunting challenge this week.
Here are a set of catches from Ebron this season:
Intermediate crossing route vs. Miami that becomes a big touchdown play
Seam route as discussed above vs. Miami
Shallow crossing route vs. Miami
Fake bubble screen, inside receiver slip up the seam vs. Georgia Tech
Solo split-out receiver opposite of trips receivers vs. NC State
Slot receiver seam route vs. NC State
Sideline soft spots. The UNC defense likes to play a lot of Cover-2 too so the space between the safety and the defensive back on the sidelines is an area vulnerable to deep and intermediate passes. Tim Smith made a big catch against Cover-2 in the Clemson game in the exact window being referenced here and the receivers will need to find those spots again this week. The trouble? UNC can turn those windows against you with 10 interceptions on the year.
Third downs. The Heels are vulnerable on third down defense, ranking 91st nationally in that category. They allow conversions 42.64% of the time (55 of 129) this season. If UVa struggles on third down against a defense with its own issues there, it will be a bad sign for the Hoos’ chances of winning.
Read option, but with more quarterback runs. North Carolina is the latest spread offense on the schedule for Virginia. The Tar Heels can be explosive with it as they show you a variety of three- and four-receiver looks. They also use the Diamond formation that the Watch List has talked about previously. With quarterback Bryn Renner out for the season, it thrusts Marquise Williams into the leading role. He’s a better runner than Renner as he’s shown in splitting some of the snaps this season. That means more quarterback runs are on the table like this QB sprint out against NC State.
Receiver screens. It had to be in here somewhere. UNC picked last season’s defense apart with a heavy diet of receiver screens. Quinshad Davis finished with 16 catches and 178 yards in the game! Don’t be surprised if the Tar Heels come out with several of these screens on early drives to test this year’s defense, especially with Demetroius Nicholson done for the season and Maurice Canady still on the shelf.