Making Progress: Red Zone Defense

Tennessee’s greatest area for potential improvement is in sack rate. Vol quarterbacks went down on nearly 10.5% of their pass attempts, the highest percentage at UT in the post-Fulmer era. It continues to amaze that Hendon Hooker still threw just three interceptions on 300+ passing attempts, a Tennessee record.

On the other side of the ball, where can Tennessee improve the most? When teams get in the red zone, keep them out of the end zone.

Last year the Vols finished 119th nationally in red zone touchdown percentage allowed. Opponents had 50 possessions in the red zone against the Vol defense, and scored touchdowns on 36 of them. It stands out in Tennessee’s losses, as you’d expect:

OpponentRed ZoneTDs
at Florida54
Ole Miss43
at Alabama77
vs Purdue62

Sometimes, you just get beat by a really good team. Against Georgia, there was little opportunity for any of those drives to go differently once they reached the red zone, where bent = broken.

But in each of the other games, there was at least one really good opportunity for Tennessee’s defense to get off the field. It’s these plays – the ones that can make the biggest impact on the scoreboard – that could make the biggest difference in Tennessee’s defensive improvement this year.


  • The Panthers got on the board by opening the second quarter with a touchdown on 3rd-and-10 from the 11. This cut Tennessee’s lead to 10-7, and was the first of five straight scoring drives for Pitt.


  • On their opening possession, the Gators converted a pair of 3rd-and-4s in the red zone to cap off a touchdown drive.

Ole Miss

  • After the fumbled punt in the first quarter, Ole Miss was backed up to 3rd-and-14 at the 15, but a defensive holding penalty extended the drive and set up a touchdown.
  • Leading 17-9 in the second quarter, Ole Miss converted a 3rd-and-10 at the 12, punching it in two plays later for a 15-point lead.


  • With the Vols leading 14-7, Alabama converted a 3rd-and-Goal at the 5 for a tying touchdown
  • On their next drive, Bama converted 3rd-and-7 at the 17, eventually taking the lead
  • On the last play of the third quarter, Bama had 2nd-and-12 at the 14. They gained eight yards, then Bryce Young ran in for the score on 3rd-and-4 at the 6, making it 31-17.

The good news: against Purdue, Tennessee’s defense turned the Boilermakers away three times in the second quarter. Though they later allowed a touchdown on 3rd-and-Goal from the 10, their red zone work – perhaps less affected by a thin secondary? – was a vast improvement.

Still, that’s nine conversions of 3rd-and-4+ in the red zone in our six losses. And overall, only four opponent drives came away with zero points in the red zone: two against South Alabama, a garbage time drive against South Carolina, and one of the most impactful plays of the year:

If you’re looking for meaningful improvement, there’s plenty of opportunity here. Whoever the Vols are playing close games against this year, these are the plays that can end up making the difference. Will Tennessee’s overall depth make a significant difference here? And will we see this defense able to impose its will and turn more teams away entirely?

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