Georgia Tech’s defensive linemen and linebackers are playing better than they have in two seasons during the team’s two-game winning streak.
The defensive linemen have combined for eight sacks — matching the team’s total through the first nine games, while starting linebackers Brant Mitchell and P.J. Davis combined for 25 tackles in last week’s win over Virginia.
But Georgia, this week’s opponent, and its offensive line will offer a much different test.
“They’re nasty,” Tech defensive line coach Mike Pelton said when asked to compare the Bulldogs’ front five with what his group faced against Virginia Tech and the Cavaliers.
Pelton said he wasn’t trying to discredit Virginia Tech or Virginia, but Georgia’s players were on a different level. The Bulldogs, led by running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, are averaging 179.5 rushing yards per game. Chubb didn’t play in last year’s game against Tech because of a knee injury. Michel rushed for 149 yards on 24 carries in the 13-7 win.
Since back-to-back anemic totals of 75 and 21 rushing yards in losses to Vanderbilt and Florida earlier this season, the Bulldogs have posted 215, 135 and 235 totals in wins against Kentucky, Auburn and Louisiana-Lafayette. Coach Paul Johnson said Georgia has gone back to pounding the ball.
“They are more downhill than the other teams we’ve played,” defensive tackle Pat Gamble said. “They will get the ball to Chubb and go to work.”
To slow them down, the Yellow Jackets will need to do what they’ve been doing: play as a group.
After getting torched for more than 500 yards by Duke and 600 by North Carolina, Mitchell said the players came together and decided that they have to play for themselves, have fun and stop worrying about mistakes.
That change in approach, combined with a simplification of communication, and mixing in a little more zone coverage, has made a huge difference in the results. Virginia Tech had more than 400 yards, but almost half of that came on the last two drives when Georgia Tech’s victory was in hand. After allowing 209 yards in the first half against Virginia, Tech’s defense held the Cavaliers to 200 yards in the second half and created three turnovers.
“We’ve been playing like we know how to play,” Mitchell said.
Gamble said the front four are confident in their rushes. He thinks they were confident during the season’s first eight games, but sometimes it takes time for everything to click.
Johnson, never shy about pointing out errors made by the defense, noted Monday that the Jackets got two sacks in the Virginia game with a three-man rush.
Getting pressure with only three men allows defensive coordinator Ted Roof the option of dropping eight and mixing in zone coverage, which he said they have been using more of in the past few games. Seeing zone can sometimes cause a quarterback to hold on to the ball for just a second more, which gives the rushers that much more time. Tech has 16 sacks after having eight through the game against the Tar Heels.
“There’s not any one cause for anything,” Roof said. “It’s a combination of the team. When our pass rush is going good it’s a combination of pass rush and coverage. It all goes hand in hand.”
The improved ability to pressure the quarterback and led to the Jackets creating seven turnovers in the past two games. The defense recovered five fumbles and had four interceptions in the first nine games.
Now, Tech’s defense is slowly starting to resemble the 2014 group that was one the best in FBS in takeaways. That was also Tech’s most recent win against Georgia.
“Everything clicks,” Gamble said. “I think we are all just playing well together.”