This Georgia defense looks awfully familiar.
Snarling linemen, zooming linebackers and lockdown corners, all moving at hyper-speed, shutting down every inch of grass. Kirby Smart’s squad is starting to resemble, dare I say it … Alabama’s defense.
Watch and Georgia game this season and you’ll see a swarming, hustling defense packed with future NFL talent such as Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy and Trenton Thompson.
It’s not just the athleticism, though. That comes through recruiting. Everyone in the SEC has good athletes. A few even have a steady stream of elite ones, but not all of them have built solid defenses.
The key differences for the Dawgs: discipline and experience.
Smart is working with a uniquely experienced side this season. Usually, his top players one season are making plays on Sundays the following season. But Smart & Co. saw all 11 starters return on defense. With them, the Bulldogs retained depth and garnered experience. Now, the coach and his team are cashing in on that veteran leadership.
Another year older, and with a second year in Smart’s system, the players are no longer over-thinking their assignments; they’re playing on instincts. The unit is playing fast. Having great athletes is one thing, but understanding the system, doing your job and trusting your teammate to do his, is what allows a group to cut it loose and play fast team defense.
That swarming style typically found in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Gainesville, Fla., that’s great team defense. This Georgia unit has it, too.
The results have been striking. The team has notched impressive wins against Notre Dame, Mississippi State and Tennessee, with the defense leading the way. The Bulldogs currently rank third in defensive S&P+ and 10th in overall S&P+, and they are second in the nation in points against at just 9.2 per game following their 41-0 shutout of Tennessee in Knoxville on Saturday.
That’s a pretty seismic jump from the first five games of the 2016 season, against weaker opponents on average. That side gifted 30.2 points per game as Smart looked to install his own defense — a complex system on the back end, but one that’s kind of, sort of, simplistic up front.
Perhaps most impressively, they’re surrendering just 3.6 yards per play — second in the nation, per Team Rankings — compared to 5.2 yards per play a year ago, 35th in the nation. Yes, five games is a small sample size, but knocking off more than a yard-and-a-half per play is a gigantic difference.
The Bulldogs’ front seven has received much of the credit for the team’s turnaround. We’ll get to the guys up front, but let’s start with the secondary.
After all, while the front has been tremendous, the Bulldogs ranked just 68th in the nation in havoc rate prior to the bludgeoning they laid down on Tennessee’s lousy unit. The front is not dominating games single-handedly. Everyone is chipping in, and a much-improved defensive back room has allowed the guys further up the field to flourish.
As I wrote in my preview of Smart’s arrival in Athens ahead of last season, he brought with him a new system that would put mental and physical strain on the defensive backs:
Smart’s arrival in Athens will see a move away from the 2-deep quarters coverage of last year and will usher in a return to mostly single-high defensive coverages, most notably cover-3 match and man-free.
Man-free is a simple man-to-man coverage with one safety playing the deep center field spot and the other safety either dropping into man-to-man coverage if there is an additional receiver or playing the “robber” role: sitting in a zone and reading and reacting to the quarterback.
Nick Saban calls this “cat coverage.” Each defensive player takes on an offensive player 1-on-1, whoever has the best “cats” — the better players — wins.
If a team doesn’t have the better “cats,” it can run zone defenses or pattern-matching systems. Instead of the four-deep version employed by Alabama DC Jeremy Pruitt, Smart runs a three-deep pattern-match variant. Both are looking to build flexible defenses that play hybrid man/zone pattern-matching concepts in the secondary, while having enough defenders to flood the box and successfully defend the run.
Year 1 in the fresh system had some beta errors. At times, it looked like Georgia didn’t have the “cats” to body up on each down, regardless of what their recruiting pedigree suggested. And onlookers were routinely greeted to coverage busts, as defenders misread whether they should transition from zone to man coverage. Switch releases (receivers crisscrossing at the line of scrimmage) and man-beater concepts often proved calamitous, with defensive backs clearly over-thinking rather than playing on instincts.
This season? So far, so good.
Rip/Liz 3-match has been the coverage of choice. Its goal: Limit big plays while getting an extra defender into the box to defend against the run. That’s particularly important against option teams, where the threat of the quarterback run adds an extra number to the box.
It works like this: The defense opens up in a split-safety look (2-deep), before rotating one toward the line of scrimmage. That safety then reads the release of a receiver (typically a tight end, but it could be a wideout or back), before re-routing that receiver or helping form a wall against the run.
On the outside, the corners read the release of the receivers. If they release vertically, the corners convert to man coverage. But if the receivers release inside, the corners pass them off. That provides the best of both worlds — man coverage if a receiver accelerates downfield, zone coverage to read the quarterback and help prevent deep shots if receivers release inside.
Of course, teams run different “matching” principles, and they will consistently bluff in and out of looks. On the example above, the boundary corner (bottom of the screen) is presenting a pre-snap man-coverage look, while on the field side both corners are in off-coverage, showing a zone look. That look opens up all kinds of options for the defense, including bluffing the rotation and keeping two safeties deep.
It’s tough for a quarterback to decipher. And even if he does, the defense is reading patterns regardless, making his progressions tougher. Oh, and he has to do all that, and get rid of the ball, before the pass rush comes calling.
Taking away deep shots is important, but the system originally was designed by Saban to kill two birds with one stone: No explosive pass plays, and no explosive runs.
Rotating the safety toward the box is the key. It helps the defense build a wall at the second level, as well as muddy up option reads.
Georgia currently ranks third in the nation in conceding explosive plays — sixth against the pass and sixth against the run, per Football Study Hall. Safety play has been crucial to both.
Tennessee’s offense was so overwhelmed on Saturday that it never even reached the red zone. An offense that leans on the ground game — and its best player in running back John Kelly — totaled just 62 yards rushing yards.
The lack of an option threat at quarterback left Tennessee a man down in the box as Georgia’s safeties rotated down to fit against the run or read the vertical release of a tight end. It became a math problem — there were more defenders than blockers.
Below, you can see how the rotation of the safety freed up Georgia’s corner to set the edge. The safety picked up the receiver on the crack block, allowing the corner to flow to the outside of a pulling tight end. That forced Kelly to cut back inside, where he was greeted by a wall of defenders.
It’s going to be tough to move the ball on the ground against this unit without a quarterback who can even out the numbers in the box.
It hasn’t all been perfect, however. Georgia’s DBs still have a tendency to peak into the backfield to jump routes or charge down to fill against the run. The mentality is admirable, but it’s an invitation for big plays.
Notre Dame burned the Bulldogs on the opening play from scrimmage in Week 2, taking advantage of some early excitement and eager players. It should have been a huge gain:
It was a smart play call. Smart enough in fact that Georgia’s offense opened up the Mississippi State game the following week with the same play — for a touchdown.
Installing a pattern-matching system is a difficult process, particularly with the roster turnover in college. But once it’s ingrained in players, coaches are able to call the same play over and over again, knowing that the concept can morph on the fly to whatever an offense throws at it — both on the ground and in the air. The number of play concepts is reduced, but the difficulty is raised.
Georgia’s secondary seems to have mastered it. That’s a game changer.
Georgia’s linebacker crew has visceral speed. Like, jump-off-the-screen, punch-you-in-the-mouth, make-you-shout-“oomph” speed.
LSU’s linebacking corps has speed. Jump-off-the-screen, punch-you-in-the-mouth, make-you-shout-“oomph” speed. It’s 5-star athlete on top of 5-star athlete.
And yet, Mississippi State gashed the Tigers for a 6-yard rushing average, while Georgia held the opposing Bulldogs to 4.8 rushing yards per play. Georgia’s linebackers run fast. They hit hard. But it’s their experience and eyes that have made a world of difference.
Gap discipline and eye discipline are foundational traits for any good off-ball linebacker. You can have all the speed or the longest arms, but they’re rendered neutral if you attack the wrong gap or can’t find the ball.
That was a killer for LSU’s young squad when it faced off against Dan Mullen, Nick Fitzgerald and Mississippi State’s spread-option attack. Mullen consistently put three receivers into the boundary to unload the box before attacking the Tigers’ young linebackers with option plays or gap-scheme runs (pulling and moving linebackers).
The result was a football massacre. Linebackers consistently out-leveraged themselves by charging to the wrong gap or losing their discipline as the force or contain defender.
At times, something as simple as a quirky formation or pre-snap motion threw LSU off. The Tigers would align in the wrong gaps, have trouble communicating and, again, hit the wrong holes.
Below, both off-ball linebackers got fooled by a counter play. The weakside linebacker (to the right of the screen) pinched inside, vacating his responsibility to the perimeter. And the middle linebacker shuffled first to follow the pulling blocker, then toward the initial angle of the running back, before being left flat-footed as the back scooted in behind the pulling tackle.
Poor eye discipline. Poor gap discipline.
By contrast, Georgia’s linebackers put on a clinic against Mullen’s side.
The play above is a look similar to one that torched LSU: a split-zone option, with two receivers into the boundary.
Fitzgerald, the quarterback, read the unblocked edge defender while the H-Back (No. 81) wrapped to lead the way in case the quarterback decided to pull the ball and take off. If the edge defender sits down (he does), Fitzgerald would hand the ball off. The play then becomes a traditional split-zone — albeit with the initial unblocked defender being blocked by a read rather than the H-Back coming across to seal the defender.
To shut it down, every defender had to play with the correct leverage, play their own gap and not bite on any of the delicious window dressing. Georgia’s down linemen did an excellent job of occupying bodies and not allowing an interior lineman to climb up to the second level. That allowed star linebacker Roquan Smith to dance his way through the trash and finish off the play.
Smith has been Georgia’s most impressive defensive player so far. The edge rushing duo of Carter and Bellamy are finally realizing their potential up front — racking up production on third downs. But it’s Smith, in conjunction with the secondary, who’s helped those guys get into favorable pass-rushing situations.
Conversely, the gravitational pull of the two edge defenders helps Smith. That’s team defense, folks!
Smith’s diagnose-and-attack instincts are off-the-charts good. He doesn’t arrive at the collision point on time; he arrives early. It’s as though he’s reviewed an advance copy of the game. There are few better at thundering downhill and shooting gaps. He navigates the malaise up front effortlessly and closes with jarring speed.
However, good defense isn’t about flashy plays. It resides in the absence of spectacle.
It’s the little things that make Smith such a destructive defender from down to down: always playing with the proper leverage; attacking the correct shoulder; hitting the right gaps; stack-and-shedding rather than charging downhill with reckless abandon; conjuring space when it appears like there is none; head up, wrap-up tackling; accelerating on contact; not falling for fakes or being caught out of position; playing with great eye discipline; and playing with great gap discipline.
Smith does it all well, consistently. Add to that the ability to turn and run in coverage or zoom from the hash mark to the sideline — along with a penchant for making big plays in big moments — and you’ve got yourself a special player patrolling the middle of the defense.
As SB Nation’s Bill Connelly likes to say, a coach has three roles: talent acquisition, talent development and talent deployment.
Smart was fortunate that the previous staff did a pretty nice job of the acquisition part — he inherited a defense loaded with top-end talent. He was equally fortunate that a bunch of those future draft picks opted to return to school for this season in order to further develop.
There’s nothing fortunate, however, about their deployment. This is the style of defense Smart envisioned when he ultimately left Tuscaloosa. It took a year, but his players developed, cracking the code of Smart’s intricate coverage system, and learning to trust one another up front.
It’s hard to argue with the results. A once-talented but underperforming group finally has cracked the ranks of the elite.
The staunchest test for the unit will come later in the season. No one in the SEC East has the artillery to hang with this Georgia squad, barring injury. It’s fair to look to the ultimate goal: Alabama.
Can a carbon copy of Saban’s defense help end his dominance?
It’s going to be tough for the Bulldogs to match the Tide’s offensive firepower, even with a talented young quarterback — two in fact — and a trio of quality running backs. Yet this defense has Georgia as well-equipped as any SEC East opponent in recent years to finally hang an L on Saban’s squad.