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North Carolina's defense needs to take another step in 2016

Depending on your point of view, your lingering perception of North Carolina’s 2015 defense was either (A) a massive improvement from the previous season or (B) a patchwork unit that showed its true self during a disastrous bowl loss to Baylor. More importantly, perhaps, your particular perception of that D likely defines how you’ll feel about North Carolina’s chances of repeating as Coastal Division champs in 2016, since the offense should, once again, be very good.

So, which is it?

The answer, it turns out, may be a little of both.

First off, let’s be clear: North Carolina’s defense -- despite the numbers put up by Clemson and Baylor at year’s end -- was much improved. It allowed significantly fewer points per drive, yards per play, yards after contact and explosive plays. Of course, the 2014 UNC defense set such a low bar, it would’ve been tough for Gene Chizik’s defense not to improve on those numbers.

Dig a little deeper into the results, however, and there are both some good signs and some bad ones for the Tar Heels.

On the plus side, the passing defense was dramatically improved from 2014, and the combination of M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence was one of the best in the nation. The duo combined for 34 passes defended and was one of just two sets of teammates to each defend at least 16 passes. Stewart and Lawrence combined for six INTs and allowed just two touchdowns all season. On throws to wide receivers, UNC’s opponents averaged 21 percent fewer yards per attempt than they had against other Power 5 defenses, and on deep balls (throws of 15 or more yards), UNC was 28 percent better. Only three of UNC’s 2015 opponents -- Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech -- averaged more yards per pass attempt against the Tar Heels than they did against other Power 5 foes.

And the good news: Both Stewart and Lawrence return for 2016.

Of course, there’s some bad news, too. Those three games where UNC struggled, relative to their opponents’ averages, in the passing game? Those were also the only three times all season when the Tar Heels’ defense was better than average against the run.

Overall, UNC was 15 percent worse against the run than other Power 5 teams against the same opposition, which is bad. More concerning was the way the season ended, a three-game stretch against NC State, Clemson and Baylor in which the Heels were nearly 30 percent worse relative to their opponents’ averages.

Given those results, it’s pretty clear that Chizik had to pick his poison last season, and his choice was to focus on the secondary at the expense of the run defense. Those touch choices became even more problematic once strong safety Sam Smiley went down with an injury against NC State.

And for what it’s worth, Chizik doesn’t claim otherwise. With UNC’s explosive offense, his goal was largely to avoid catastrophe, to keep plays in front of his defenders, and to give the offense a chance to win. It was a smart strategy ... but will it work in 2016, too?

There are a lot of big questions still. UNC still has vacancies at safety and linebacker. Opponents now have a year of film on Chizik’s defense with which to prepare. Stewart and Lawrence had the luxury of playing with a lead often, and that may not be the case again this year.

But there are also lessons North Carolina has learned. Chizik has had a chance to bring in more of his own players. That Baylor game -- when the Bears played with a third-string quarterback, ran a game plan UNC was utterly unprepared for, and star defensive tackle Nazair Jones was out with an injury -- was an embarrassment, but also likely an anomaly.

And that UNC offense is still really good, which is why Chizik said he’s not planning to deviate much from how he ran his defense in 2015. He’s just hopeful his personnel will make some of those pick-your-poison decisions a little easier to swallow.

The bar was raised by last year’s performance, which means things get tougher in 2016. But given the smart strategy of the defensive coordinator and another year for players to adjust to the system, it’s not a bar that will be impossible to exceed.