Georgia coach Kirby Smart addresses the Bulldogs' 21-14 win over the Tigers in Auburn. (Video by Chip Towers/AJC)

Weekend Reflections: Kirby Smart gets by playing it safe

What I think about some things I saw over the weekend . . . 

Bud Allen of the Banner Society notes that Georgia gained 230 yards on its three scoring drives and 20 yards on its other 12 possessions. Throw out the kneel-down plays on the final drive, and the Bulldogs gained 24 yards on 11 non-scoring possessions. Auburn’s defense is excellent, and the Bulldogs did enough to win 21-14 there on Saturday, but come on. 

Georgia has an elite defense, a great kicker, an elusive tailback and a smart quarterback. Using those assets, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart can play it relatively safe and beat most teams on most days. The game plan at Auburn included lots of runs on first and second down, screen passes and short throws to the flats.  

It worked. It’s a defensible style from Smart’s point of view, even if it sometimes can be hard to watch. But eventually it could get the Bulldogs beat again. Georgia’s defense leaked oil late against Auburn as its offense sputtered. Auburn just doesn’t have enough offense to take advantage.

Georgia went into safe mode after Auburn pulled within 21-7 in the with 9:56 left. Tailback D’Andre Swift ran up the middle for two yards. The Bulldogs opened things up on second down with ... a run by wide receiver Demetris Robertson. It lost a yard. Quarterback Jake Fromm threw incomplete on third down and the Bulldogs punted after using just 1:45 clock. 

Auburn needed just 1:08 to score another touchdown — even a great defense can sag when leaned on too often —and then the Bulldogs couldn’t play it so safe. Auburn knew this and went after Fromm. After three incomplete passes and just 1:03 of possession, the Bulldogs punted again. 

Auburn got the ball with six minutes left. The Bulldogs got a big fourth-down stop at their 34-yard line with 2:24 to go. They responded with a run by Brian Herrien (one yard), a run by Swift (four yards), and a screen pass to Swift (no gain). Georgia punted again. 

I get it: Georgia was trying to make Auburn use all its timeouts. Mission accomplished. Auburn still had 2:03 left when it got the ball back at its 27-yard line. Smart rightly figured that wasn’t enough time for Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix to drive the field for a TD. He was going to let his defense win the game, which it did. 

That recipe works for Georgia most of the time.  It can work against Texas A&M, which is a two-touchdown underdog for Saturday’s game at Sanford Stadium. It will work against Georgia Tech, which may not score a touchdown against Georgia. 

But playing it safe could backfire against LSU, its likely opponent in the SEC championship game. Those Tigers aren’t as sound defensively as Auburn, but LSU quarterback Joe Burrow can put up points even against Georgia. If that time comes, playing it safe won’t be a viable option for Smart. 

Hawks guard Trae Young moves the ball down the court as the Lakers' Danny Green trails during the first half Nov. 17, 2019, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Photo: Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

The Hawks are hurting 

A Hawks road trip that started with good vibes crashed in Los Angeles. The Clippers drilled the Hawks on Saturday. The Lakers did the same the thing in the same building the next night. That’s six losses in seven games for the Hawks, by an average margin of 22 points. 

The Hawks (4-9) pushed Portland to overtime to begin the trip and won at Denver the next game. They’ve faded amid roster attrition. It’s not clear when things will get better. 

Kevin Huerter (shoulder) left the Nuggets game, missed the next three and will sit at least five more. John Collins still has 17 games left on his league suspension for violating the terms of its anti-drug program. That’s two of the three best players from a team that doesn’t have a lot of them.

Trae Young is developing into an All-Star, but he’s got a big offensive burden to bear. According to Cleaning the Glass, the three most-used lineups featuring Young have included Collins, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Jabari Parker, Alex Len and Damian Jones. With Collins and Huerter out, Young is left with one running mate (Parker) who’s been a consistent positive offensively. 

Rookie wings Reddish and Hunter have helped Young defensively, but they’ve struggled at the other end. Collins, Huerter and Young are the only Hawks player shooting better than league average on three-pointers (minimum 15 attempts). Parker, Jones and Fernando have been effective scorers around the rim, but only Parker has been a big part of the offense. 

The result is that the Hawks rank next-to-last in points scored per possession. The Hawks’ defense has improved a bit from last season, when it was awful, but they’ll have to dig a lot deeper to compete with their offense so limited now. The Hawks won’t be the promising team they showed to start the season until Collins and Huerter return. 

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones talks about the team's performance in Carolina and their effort since starting season 1-7. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

The Falcons still aren’t going to the playoffs 

The Falcons (3-7) earned an impressive win at Carolina on Sunday after their big victory at New Orleans the week before. Dan Quinn’s defense has been dominant since the second half of the Seattle game (15 points and no touchdowns allowed). The Falcons now will play three straight home games. They are favored by four points against Tampa this week, then get rematches with New Orleans and Carolina. 

All that got me wondering if the Falcons could somehow claw back into the NFC wild card race. They are still alive because this is the NFL, where the Bengals (0-10) were just officially eliminated. But do the Falcons have a realistic shot of qualifying for the postseason? 

The short answer, according to the FiveThirtyEight statistical projection: no. Its model gave the Falcons a less-than one percent chance of making the playoffs before beating Carolina, and it was the same after that victory. If the Falcons beat Tampa Bay and New Orleans, their playoff chances only rise to 1 percent per FiveThirtyEight. 

That doesn’t mean the Falcons have nothing to play for. Winning games is always meaningful, especially for professionals. Plus, the Falcons still can work on their “Plan D” by developing players who can be productive in 2020 on bargain contracts that help their strained salary cap. Three of those players performed well on Sunday: wide receiver Calvin Ridley, defensive end Takk McKinley and cornerback Isaiah Oliver. 

My Weekend Predictions went 8-4-1 

Another good week picking games against the spread was marred by being spectacularly wrong (again) on Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were getting 5½ points at home against Virginia Tech and lost 45-0. I was on the right side ATS with the rest of the locals, though I didn’t see the Falcons winning outright.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
X