You know the story by now. Missouri lacks talent on the defensive side of the ball. You’ve probably grown sick of reading those words by now. It’s true, of course. But it doesn’t tell the entire story of what’s gone wrong for Missouri’s defense.
A perfect example of this is Trajan Jeffcoat.
Jeffcoat is a talented player. He was talented enough last season to finish tied for fifth in the SEC in sacks (6) and 10th among SEC defensive linemen in tackles for loss per game. His production earned him first-team All-SEC honors.
#Mizzou DE Trajan Jeffcoat finished the 2020 season with six sacks in eight games, earning him first team All-SEC honors. He has just one sack in five games this season.— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) October 4, 2021
Here are all six sacks from a season ago. pic.twitter.com/x7WEGcJhRQ
Jeffcoat has followed up his all-conference season with a sack and a forced fumble in the season-opener against Central Michigan and it looked like it was going to be another special season for South Carolina native.
However, Jeffcoat has one tackle for loss and zero sacks in the Tigers’ last four games. The redshirt junior has seemingly disappeared to anyone looking at the stat sheet.
What happened? Jeffcoat’s story mirrors that of the defense as a whole.
The Tigers’ struggles on first and second down are impacting their ability to get into obvious passing situations which would allow defensive ends, such as Jeffcoat, to pin their ears back and get after the passer. The data on this can be difficult to find, but according to Football Outsiders, sack rates in the NFL doubled on third and long compared to second or third and short/medium.
That makes sense anecdotally. It also helps explain Missouri’s current (lack of) pass rush productivity. The Tigers are failing to stop teams on early downs and it’s impacting the passer on third down.
That’s part of the explanation for Jeffcoat’s drop in production, but it’s not the only one.
There’s also the fact that Missouri has simply seen fewer passes attempted against them. When you can run for an average of 6.6 yards per attempt, why throw? That seems to be the mindset. Missouri’s power five opponents (Kentucky, Boston College and Tennessee) have thrown an average of 22 passes per game against the Tigers. Only Iowa State has seen its power five opponents attempt fewer passes per game this season.
The proof is in the snap counts. Jeffcoat has been on the field for 100 snaps against the pass this season, according to Pro Football Focus. To put it simply, he’s not rushing the passer as much as you would like.
So the Tigers aren’t forcing opponents into obvious third down situations, and opponents aren’t passing against the defense because they don’t need to. That helps explain Missouri’s lack of pass rush productivity as a unit. But what about Jeffcoat, specifically?
Put yourself in an offensive coordinator’s shoes. Missouri’s defensive linemen seeing the most snaps are Trajan Jeffcoat, Isaiah McGuire, Chris Turner, Akial Byers and Kobie Whiteside. Who are you circling on the whiteboard for your offensive line to pay attention to on Saturday?
The answer is, clearly, Jeffcoat.
And that’s what we’re watching on Saturdays. Missouri’s opponents seem to be making a point to take him out of the game. They run the ball away from him, give help against him on drop backs and don’t seem to have any fear of the other defensive linemen winning their one-on-one matchups. In that regard, the Tigers really miss Tre Williams.
It’s worth noting that Jeffcoat is still impacting games despite the lack of production on the stat sheet. His hustle doesn’t go unnoticed and he has been close on a number of potential sacks or tackles for loss.
Jeffcoat is still a good player, but he’s been put in a rotten situation. The production will come, even if it’s been put on pause for a season.