Georgia defense seeks to defuse some ‘explosives’

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

Caption
Georgia football coach Kirby Smart addresses the additional time the Bulldogs had to prepare to face the Wildcats.

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

ATHENS -- Coach Kirby Smart will have you think that the Alabama game is behind Georgia, that it’s all in the past. It isn’t.

The tread marks from that 41-24 thrashing in Tuscaloosa remain fresh, and those left on the jerseys of the Bulldogs' defensive backs may take a while to wash out.

The fact is, for all the fuss that has been made about Georgia defense – and, be advised, it’s still a good defense – there is a blueprint now for getting the best of it. Lines were being drawn before the Bulldogs got to Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide just boldfaced them in permanent ink.

It boils down to: Try to predict when Georgia’s going to come after the quarterback, identify your one-on-one matchup and send them deep; stand tall in the pocket, be on target.

That formula worked to sporadic success for Georgia’s first few opponents. Alabama cashed it in like a sure thing at local track.

“Guys got beat,” Smart said this week. “You are going to get beat. There is nothing shameful about getting beat in a one-on-one situation against a great athlete. But you can’t give things (away).”

The Bulldogs are doing a lot of things very well on defense. Once again, they’re one of the better defenses in the country at stuffing the run. They’re allowing just 2.2 yards a carry and 65.5 yards per game.

And everybody’s excited about Georgia’s havoc numbers. A point of emphasis the past two seasons, it’s really starting to pay dividends this year. The Bulldogs have logged an incredible 89 quarterback hurries in four games. The quarterback-sack numbers are up (14, or 3.5 per game), and so are tackles for loss (22), pass deflections (15), interceptions (6) and forced fumbles (5).

But that has come at a cost of allowing more explosive pass plays. It showed early in the first game of the season, when Arkansas hit Georgia with a 49-yard touchdown pass on the second offensive series, and it has occurred fairly regularly since.

Even though the Bulldogs beat Tennessee handily Oct. 10, the Volunteers hit them deep twice for touchdown passes of 27 and 36 yards.

Alabama took it to another level the next week. Georgia gave up man-to-man coverage touchdowns of 90, 40 and 17 yards and the Tide also had 38- and 34-yard completions in the game. DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle were feasting.

Over at UGA’s football complex, the Bulldogs define explosive plays as runs of 12 or more yards and passes of 16 yards or greater. Georgia has allowed 20 of those so far, all but three coming through the air.

“We’ve definitely got to play better as a secondary,” safety Richard LeCounte said.

Said fellow safety Lewis Cine, who was beaten on the first of Bama’s scores: “Alabama has a lot of great weapons, but for us as a secondary, as a defense as a whole, we’ve just got to play our assignments right and stayed composed.”

Georgia doesn’t appear to be in great danger Saturday, when they visit Kentucky. The Wildcats have thrown only four touchdown passes all season, and only two of their completions have gone for more than 30 yards, with a long of 40. But one can be sure they’ll try it, especially with the 6-foot-5, 221-pound transfer quarterback Joey Gatewood expected to get his first start this weekend.

And there will be stiffer tests beyond Lexington. Florida will bring a big-play offense to Jacksonville on Nov. 7 and Georgia has Mississippi State coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid and four other SEC opponents awaiting on the other side of that.

Of course, some of the Bulldogs' vulnerability to explosives is the price of doing business the way they intend to under coordinator Dan Lanning. The Bulldogs have put a priority on recruiting elite pass-rushers and defensive backs, and they’ve answered the call.

Few receivers are going to be faster than UGA corners Tyson Campbell, Eric Stokes, D.J. Daniel and Tyrique Stevenson. Georgia’s outside linebacker corps includes five former 5-star prospects, which does not include the best of the lot in Azeez Ojulari. The Bulldogs are equally well-stocked at defensive end, where Malik Herring and Travon Walker are wreaking havoc.

There’s no sense in recruiting such a group if you’re not going to deploy them, so Georgia’s DBs can expect to remain in one-on-one situations. But the Bulldogs' edge-rushers take responsibility here, too.

“I feel like we got some hits on the (Alabama) quarterback, but we didn’t get there enough to be effective and help out our cornerbacks and DBs,” Walker said. “We’re just not getting to the quarterback fast enough.”

Said Herring: “We’ve just got to get home with our pass-rush and our stunts and stuff like that. We’ve got to find better ways to do that.”

The Bulldogs are oh-so-close to playing defense to Smart’s vision. But to do that, they’re can’t be slip-ups, or even slips.

“You can’t give up a wheel route when you’ve got a guy manned,” Smart ranted. “He didn’t beat us, we just didn’t have discipline. You can slip down, fall down. He didn’t beat us, we just fell down. Some of them were (related to) scheme, and some of them were some really good plays they ran getting their guys in one-on-one situations. It was a combination of both.

"We can’t suffer from either and be a good team.”