Making progress

Published 8:29 pm Wednesday, September 14, 2011

East Carolina defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell (background) looks on during a Pirates’ practice earlier this year. In 2010, ECU had one of the worst defenses in the nation, but after two games the unit appears to be headed in the right direction. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — After two games against two of the top teams in the country the members of East Carolina’s defense can stand tall despite the fact that the Pirates are still searching for their first win of the year. In 2010, East Carolina allowed Navy to rush for 521 yards in its 76-35 Week 9 loss, then two weeks later looked on as Rice racked up 410 rushing yards in the Pirates 62-38 defeat at the hands of the Owls. In those two losses ECU let up a grand sum of 921 yards on the ground.

After switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense in the offseason, defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell would not have to wait long to see how his team would fare against elite competition as the Pirates opened the year against No. 12 South Carolina and No. 11 Virginia Tech, both of which have premier running backs. Against star RB Marcus Lattimore and the Gamecocks, ECU allowed a total of 220 rushing yards in its 56-37 loss. The next week against David Wilson and the Hokies, the school yielded 241 yards on the ground. After two games the total is 461, or 60 yards less than what the team gave up to Navy in one game last season.

“I think the things we’ve seen are some of the things we’ve emphasized since Day 1: running to the ball with a sense of urgency, being assignment sound and finishing plays. The kids have done everything we’ve asked of them,” Mitchell said.

So far this season the Pirates’ pass defense has been exceptional. Against South Carolina they held all-American candidate WR Alshon Jeffrey to five catches for 92 yards and no touchdowns. As a team, USC passed for a mere 131 yards. In Week 2, ECU made the Hokies more or less one dimensional by halftime as Tech hit on only 8 of its 20 pass attempts for 91 passing yards, and had no passing TDs and one interception.

“It’s a collective (effort). You can’t play great pass defense without a great pass rush, or linebackers dropping underneath and taking care of the short to intermediate coverage and the guys in the secondary making plays on deep balls,” Mitchell said.

In two games against BCS schools ECU has tallied seven quarterback hurries, one sack and five tackles for a loss, while racking up 10 pass breakups and one interception. While the sack number is low, Mitchell didn’t feel it was indicative of his defense’s ability to pester opposing quarterbacks.

“It’s the unpredictability (of the defense),” Mitchell said. “We’ve faced two teams that rushed the ball, they’re running teams that like to grind it out so that was our emphasis the last two games. “(Against UBA) we’ll switch gears here and with one-back passing teams we’ll hope to get more sacks. When you only give up (222) yards passing (in two games) that’s remarkable. I think teams are only completing less than 50 percent of their throws. Whether you get sacks or not, if you get pressure and you’re in the quarterback’s face and you’re making plays out in space that’s good defense.”

After a relatively impressive first two games, the Pirates new defense will be forced to play with something they didn’t have last season: expectations. The pressure will be on for the unit to continue to trend upward, but Mitchell said that won’t faze his group. “It won’t affect us,” Mitchell said. “The only thing we’re in this for is to help our team win football games. If that means we win 20-17 or 31-10 we want to continue to play good defense and help this team win football games.”