Explaining Georgia Tech’s reduced number of possessions

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson is getting his turnabout. With opponents holding the ball longer and playing keepaway, the Yellow Jackets are having to manage with fewer possessions per game. It is precisely the game that Johnson has used to considerable effect in his career.

“People are doing to us what we’ve been doing to them for 100 years,” Johnson lamented following Tech’s 35-24 win over Georgia Southern, when the Eagles ran 83 plays to the Jackets’ 55 and held the ball for 33:35.

Through seven games, Tech’s time of possession (30:39) is the lower than any season-ending average for a Johnson-coached Tech team since his first in 2008. The Jackets are playing 59.9 snaps per game, which is lower than all of Johnson’s teams at Tech and second fewest in FBS this season. Johnson’s offenses have typically averaged around 70 snaps per game.

This season, Tech has averaged 10.4 possessions per game, nearly two possessions less than the team’s 2015 average (12.2).

It has placed a greater pressure on being efficient with each possession, a burden that the Jackets have typically placed upon opponents.

“It’s hard to take chances when you’ve got to zero in (on each possession),” Johnson said.

A few factors are influencing the slowdown. The first is that Tech’s defense has had difficulty forcing punts. The Jackets rank 125th of 128 teams in defensive third-down conversion rate at 49.5 percent. That’s coupled with one of the defense’s bright spots, the Jackets’ ability to prevent big plays. Tech is tied for first nationally with just six plays by the opposition of 30 yards or more. The two together means that time-consuming drives are not uncommon for Tech opponents.

On the flipside, Tech’s offense itself hasn’t been up to its high standards for ball possession. The Jackets rank 42nd in third-down conversion rate (43.9 percent), not high enough for a team that surpassed 50 percent in four of Johnson’s first seven seasons.

“There have been games where we were terrible on third downs on offense, so that’s why you’re not out there much,” Johnson said. “The Clemson game, we were awful. Somewhat better against Miami. The last three games we’ve been a little better, gradually. We’ve just got to get a little bit better.”

There are a couple of less obvious reasons contributing to the decline in possessions and plays. Both Tech and its opponents are playing more slowly play to play than they typically have.

Over the course of Johnson’s tenure, the trend toward up-tempo offensive play has been reflected in the plays per minute run by Tech’s opposition, peaking at 2.52 in 2014. The rate is down this year, to 2.22. Hence, not only are Tech’s opponents staying on the field longer with a higher third-down conversion rate (and also a low rate of turnovers), but they’re taking longer between snaps, increasing the wait time for the Jackets offense to get back on the field.

The Jackets are averaging 1.95 snaps per minute of possession, about six percent slower than last season. In 30 minutes of possession, that’s a difference of about 3 1/2 plays.

Johnson said that it is not intentional.

“Some of it’s when you go no-huddle and you try to call ’em from the side, it’s going to be slower,” Johnson said. “We need to get in and out of the huddle better. That’s something we’ve talked about.”

Also, Tech and its oppoennts have turned the ball over a total of 14 times, one of the lowest numbers nationally. That means fewer possessions starting in opposing territory, which can mean longer drives.

It isn’t necessarily problematic — both teams get equal possessions, and the Jackets are used to a slower pace than its opposition, typically. But it’s perhaps symptomatic of weaknesses that need addressing.

“There’s no pressure,” quarterback Justin Thomas said. “I’m going out there to play my game, one play at a time, try and execute as best as possible.”

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