This is our 10th installment of Film Review, our weekly series where we break down a particular aspect of the weekend's action to help you better understand what's happening on the field. Here's where to find our previous pieces.
Back before the season started, in The Daily Tar Heel’s takeaways from training camp article, we discussed North Carolina’s secondary and the key problem facing it.
“Behind M.J. Stewart, Des Lawrence, Donnie Miles and Dominquie Green — the likely starting secondary for the season opener against the Bulldogs — the Tar Heels have a lot of unanswered questions on the defensive depth chart.
North Carolina lost seniors Sam Smiley and Malik Simmons and suffered some attrition within the position group when two key contributors — Brian Walker and Mike Hughes — left the team within a couple months of each other during the 2015 season.
Somebody has to replace them, and there’s been a position buzz around a trio of underclassmen who could see the field this fall — Myles Dorn, Patrice Rene and K.J. Sails.”
The starting secondary, outlined above, has been very good this season. Stewart and Lawrence have been solid corners, as expected, and while Miles and Green won’t make All-ACC teams, seldom have they been bad.
But the issue for the Tar Heels is that they haven't been able to find someone who can thrive in the nickel corner position.
At first, first-year Patrice Rene started at the position. UNC fans undoubtedly remember the two pass interference penalties he committed against Georgia, and he hasn’t played as much in the second half of the season.
The other two players mentioned above, Myles Dorn and K.J. Sails, haven’t done much in the nickel corner slot. Dorn has made his impact as a backup safety, and Sails doesn’t play much at all — but he is a standout dancer. Against Duke, whenever the appropriate music came on, Sails would just start waltzing up and down the Tar Heel bench, looking for someone to dance with him.
Instead, it’s been sophomore Corey Bell who’s grown into the role. But in UNC's 28-27 loss to Duke on Thursday, he struggled in one key area that hurt North Carolina’s defense: defending the screen pass.
It’s 2nd-and-6 early in the first quarter, and the Blue Devils opt for a simple screen to the running back in the left flat.
Duke has a numbers advantage on the play. There are three blockers on three Tar Heel defenders to that side of the field, so someone has to get off their block and make a play.
North Carolina’s other two defenders on the play here — Andre Smith and M.J. Stewart — do a poor job setting the edge, so this was probably going to be a positive gain regardless. Bell has a lot of green grass ahead of him, and the burden now falls on him to make a play.
Unfortunately for the Tar Heel defense, Bell gets cut blocked and isn’t a factor on the play.
Bell, lying on the ground, can't get up in time to make the tackle. Duke gets a first down and a big gain.
This would be a theme throughout the night. Time and time again, the Blue Devils would attack Bell on these little screen or swing passes.
Here’s another example from the second quarter.
This time, Duke doesn’t have a numbers advantage. It’s just a one-on-one tackling drill between Bell and the receiver.
With no blocker in his way, all Bell has to do is bring down the Blue Devil receiver to halt the play.
But he fails to make the tackle, and you can also see the flag flying in — Bell commits a facemask penalty while trying to make the play. North Carolina’s coaching staff couldn’t have been happy with the sophomore after this play.
Here’s another example, coming under a minute later and on the same drive.
It’s not a complicated or even well-masked play; Duke sends their running back in the right flat, and North Carolina’s defensive backs are challenged to be better than the Blue Devils' blocking wide receivers.
Bell has his eyes in the backfield, but he doesn’t feel the oncoming block from the wideout.
Bell ends up on his rear end, which isn’t a great look.
Bell is just a sophomore. He will get better at defending screens, making tackles and being a nickel corner the Tar Heel defense can count on. But he struggled against Duke on Thursday. In simple one-on-one situations — either blocker vs. Bell or ball-carrier vs. Bell — he often lost.
To Bell’s credit, in the second quarter, he snuffed out a Duke attempt at a deep shot off the same play.
The running back goes into the flat again, and the Duke quarterback fakes a pass to him — and then the wide receivers go deep instead of blocking. North Carolina scored a touchdown pass to Carl Tucker earlier in this game on the same concept.
On this play, Bell stays with his man step for step.
If the ball was thrown better, Bell might have had a chance to make an interception, because he was in great position to make the play.
Bell doesn’t have to look far for guidance on how he is supposed to defend these screens. Here’s a final example from late in the third quarter.
It’s the same idea as before, but this time Stewart is at the front lines of the coverage. He does very well here, snuffing out the play for a short loss.
The best thing he does is set the edge: He beats the Duke receiver to the outside, forcing him to cut back to the inside of the field where more Tar Heels wait to help make the tackle.
Stewart also completely beats his block. The receiver (No. 82) was supposed to get his hands on Stewart, but he failed.
The play ends in a negative gain for Duke.
That’s how it’s done.
Bell has been put in a tough spot this season. Because Lawrence and Stewart are so good at cornerback, Bell gets targeted more often than not because he’s a weak point in the secondary.
It’s a difficult place for him to be in, but he — or whomever the coaching staff puts in that nickel corner role — has to rise to the occasion and make plays when given the chance.