Missouri's defensive line looks to overcome slow start

Thursday, September 12, 2013 | 8:38 p.m. CDT
Missouri defenders collapse on Murray State running back Duane Bradley in the first quarter of the Tiger's 38-23 win over the Racers on Aug. 31.

COLUMBIA — When it comes to rushing the passer in college football, quality can be more important than quantity.

Missouri's defensive line depth chart has plenty of quantity. Six defensive linemen have played meaningful snaps through the first two weeks of the season, and coach Gary Pinkel was quick to praise each one throughout fall camp.

Why then, do those six regular contributors to the Tigers' defensive line rotation have just a single sack between them? 

Defensive tackle Lucas Vincent is the only starting Missouri defensive lineman to bring down an opposing quarterback in the team's first two games. Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, expected to provide most of the pass rush from the defensive end spots, have been kept out of the backfield.

But Missouri's players aren't concerned. Ealy thinks that teams have simply figured out ways to counteract the Tigers' strong defensive line.

"Murray State, their offensive line sat back off the ball and just waited for us," Ealy said. "By the time we made a bull rush or another move, they threw the ball."

Murray State's quarterback, Maikhail Miller, also kept Missouri on its heels by escaping the pocket and becoming a threat in the running game.

What about Toledo?

Missouri couldn't bring down Terrance Owens once in the 38-23 win in Week 2. Again, Ealy pointed to the opponent's game plan.

"My hat goes off to the quarterback," Ealy said. "He just got the ball off a lot quicker, more so than the last games they had."

With Toledo running quick screen passes all game, it was tough for Missouri to generate any pressure on the quarterback. Still, the Tigers' defense forced Owens into mistakes, even if they weren't bringing him down in the backfield.

Missouri also made some adjustments of its own. That's where the quantity comes in. With such a deep rotation of defensive linemen, all with different skill sets, the Tigers have gotten creative with their defensive alignment, often moving Ealy inside to defensive tackle. That allows sophomore defensive end Shane Ray to play, giving Missouri more speed in its pass rush.

"It’s definitely more pressure on the quarterback when you have four or five guys in there that go all out and get after the quarterback," Ealy said. "On third down, it’s definitely who we want out there."

Pinkel doesn't think creativity would be possible if it weren't for the emergence of Ray and freshman defensive tackle Harold Brantley.

Brantley in particular has surprised Pinkel. The freshman defensive tackle is competing for snaps on Missouri's first team defense.

"It’s going to be a healthy situation where you have two guys who can move in and out of the starting position," Pinkel said.

“(Brantley) has great movement. That's the thing where you see him, it's almost a Sheldon Richardson thing, that type of movement. I'm not saying he's Sheldon Richardson. He's only a redshirt freshman and that's a long way to prove that."

As a whole, Missouri's defensive line has a long way to go to live up to its recent standards. In the past four years, defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski has produced three first-round picks, most recently Aldon Smith and Richardson. The quantity of defensive linemen is an asset, but Missouri is still waiting for a pass rusher to step up and provide the quality the team has had in the past.

"We expect more," Pinkel said.

Bye week injury report

The Tigers' bye week came at the perfect time. In addition to cornerback Ernest Payton suffering a torn ACL in practice prior to the Toledo game, Missouri had a handful of injuries to deal with after the game.

Cornerback E.J. Gaines suffered a concussion, guard Max Copeland is dealing with an ankle injury, and linebacker Kentrell Brothers also has an ankle injury. Pinkel said he expects the three to practice next week and play when the team travels to Indiana on Sept. 21.

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