Last weekend, the Carolina defense put together its finest half of football yet in the last 30 minutes against East Carolina. The Tar Heels did not allow the Pirates on the scoresheet and held the visitors to just 71 yards of total offense. There's a trend that seems to be emerging: Carolina has allowed just 10 second-half points through four games and has outscored opponents 52-0 in third quarters.
But what you saw Saturday was the most complete defensive performance to date. The Tar Heels rattled ECU quarterback Shane Carden early and then sacked him six times in the second half. That was due to pressure from the front and lock-down coverage in the back of the defense.
"They covered their guys," defensive end Kareem Martin said of the Tar Heel secondary. "They were on them a lot longer, so we were able to get to the quarterback. He had to hold the ball a little bit more, and we were able to flush him," Martin said after Saturday's game. "I think today we worked as a unit. We made him throw a lot of balls out of bounds due to their coverage and our pressure, so I think that shows what can happen when both defensive backfield and the front seven are all in sync."
Senior linebacker Kevin Reddick had nine tackles, including two for loss, to lead the Tar Heels. "I tell them to lock them (the opposing wide receivers) down, because we're coming," he said he tells the secondary. "Hold them down, because we're coming, and we'll get there." Through four games this season, Reddick has two sacks, matching his career total coming in to the year.
We're only four games in to the 2012 season and the Larry Fedora era, so it might be premature to draw conclusions based on the small sample size. But through those four games, the Tar Heels have seen steady improvement. Perhaps the players and coaches aren't as impatient as we the fans are. While they certainly want to be successful every game, their standards are in more categories than just the win column. Fedora and his staff understood that this would be a work in progress.
"Have we arrived? We're not there, but we are closer than where we were when we started," Fedora said of his team's progress at his Monday press conference. "And that's all that we can really ask for, is that we're improving. At some point this football team is going to be a good football team. Where that's going to happen in the season, I don't know where it is. I do know that we're getting better, guys are understanding more, they have a better feel for what the coaches really want from them. It's learned experience. Each rep helps every single one of them and the coaches. We get a better feel for what they can actually do."
The implementation of the 4-2-5 defense meant that experienced players would be in new roles and new players would step up to new opportunities. Through four games, 35 different Tar Heels have recorded tackles, 25 of them with two or more. Nine different players have quarterback sacks to their names. "We're getting there," Reddick said. "We're not quit there, but it's a long season, and we're going to get better each week in practice and through new things each game, and you'll see a lot of different guys sparking."
So far, a lot of different guys have sparked this team with game-changing plays, be it a Jabari Price sack, a Tim Scott interception, an Alex Dixon forced fumble or a Romar Morris blocked punt.
Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, himself no stranger to climbing upward, can't hide the delight he has in his team when they are performing optimally. "I'm so proud of this coaching staff, and I'm excited to be here. It's just amazing what you can do if you put it all together and go out there and play a good football game," Williams said. "The sky is the limit for this team. We've got some great players all over the field, offense, defense, special teams and all we've got to do is put it all together. We're not there yet, but we're working hard every week and we've got o to continue to work hard every week, and we should be able to get there."