Georgia’s defense was good last season, but perhaps not always great. UGA coach Kirby Smart laid out a plan Tuesday to change that, and at least one former player predicts fans will enjoy the results.
The Bulldogs were 13th in total defense (an old-school stat that measures yards allowed per game) and 14th in points allowed per game in 2018. The so-called advanced stats were more favorable. UGA was fifth in ESPN’s defensive efficiency rating, Eighth in S&P+ and 11th in FEI.
Yet there was a feeling Georgia could’ve done more in 2018, and Smart was clear about what he thinks is needed.
“We want to increase our havoc rate on defense,” Smart said. “That’s one of the main target areas. We want to be more disruptive, and the only way you’re going to be more disruptive is practice being disruptive. So we’ve gotta do that. We’ve gotta create more lost yardage plays, more negative situations, and that’s something we’ve really worked on.”
What does Smart mean by “havoc rate?”
Georgia safety J.R. Reed provided an explanation.
“We want to get TFLs (tackles for loss), sacks, PBUs (passes broken up), turnovers, interceptions, anything to create havoc on an offense [with] negative plays we want to make it happen.”
The description from Reed is similar to the definition provided by stats guru Bill Connelly which describes “havoc rate” as “the percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up).”
According to Connelly, UGA’s havoc rate was 15.6 percent in 2018 — 73rd-best in the country.
A closer look at why UGA rates so low provides some alarming data.
First of all, it’s hard to blame UGA’s secondary for the lack of “havoc” last season. The Bulldogs were tied for 42nd with 49 passes broken up despite being 91st in passing attempts faced. It’s true UGA’s eight interceptions are fewer than would’ve been expected, but forcing turnovers is an erratic part of the football equation.
The big issues are generating sacks and tackles for loss.
Georgia was just 84th in the country with 24 sacks last season, and tied for 95th with 65 tackles for loss.
If the Bulldogs are going to win a national championship those stats have to improve, and former Georgia defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter thinks improvement is on the way and that the catalyst for the improvement will be the impressive crop of talent added in recent recruiting classes.
“I’m happy for these guys coming in,” Ledbetter said in an interview that aired as part of Before the Hedges. “They’re hungry. They’ve got fast guys off the edge… it is definitely going to get crazy on that defense. Those boys are going to be hunting. They’re going to be hunting on every down.”
Ledbetter didn’t mention any young players by name, but it’s easy to assume who he might’ve been referencing. UGA has scored big in its last two recruiting classes with defensive linemen and linebackers — signing a total of five 5-stars and another nine 4-stars at the positions that contribute most to sacks and tackles for loss.
However, when it comes to how all that young talent might be deployed, Ledbetter didn’t want to reveal any secrets.
“I don’t want to spoil anything that Georgia has coming up,” Ledbetter said, “especially not giving anything to our opponents.”
Smart was willing to provide a few more details.
“We’ve done studies on the top 10 teams last year in havoc,” Smart said. “We’re trying to do some of the things they do and we’re trying to put guys in a position to do that.”
Some fans might interpret Smart’s message to mean new defensive coordinator Dan Lanning and co-defensive coordinator Glenn Schumann will dial up a lot more blitzes or other defensive gimmicks, but that might not necessarily be the case.
Presumably some of the teams on Smart’s list of top 10 havoc teams include Alabama (havoc rate of 21.2 percent), Clemson (21 percent), Mississippi State (20.3 percent) and Kentucky — whose havoc rate was 19.8 percent.
What do those defenses have in common? They weren’t necessarily known for their clever tactics as much as they were known for their dominant personnel. Each of those defenses is expected to produce at least one first-round draft pick from its front seven in this year’s NFL draft.
Smart has also downplayed the value of blitzing when he’s previously spoken on the subject.
“[Pass rush is] one of the big things we’ve tried to improve,” Smart said before the 2017 season. “You can improve your pass rush by bringing more guys or you can rush four better, and obviously I like to rush four better than bringing more guys.”
This year’s version of “rush four better” might mean allowing the elite signees Georgia has amassed over the last two recruiting cycles to be turned loose in the hopes that a couple will emerge the way Josh Allen (17 sacks) did for Kentucky, Montez Sweat (11.5 sacks) did for Mississippi State or any of the other individual standout performers did from last season’s most dominant defenses.
Ultimately, whether Georgia’s plan to wreak more havoc on defense means smarter coaching tactics or better individual player performances might not matter that much. The more important point is that this year’s defense could be a lot more fun to watch — so much so that Ledbetter wishes he could’ve been a part of it.
“I’m just kind of mad [Smart’s] doing it when I left,” Ledbetter joked this week. “I could’ve gotten in on some sacks.”