Georgia defense may need to finally crank up the pressure against LSU
ATHENS – We’ll soon find out if Georgia has been holding anything back in its blitz package.
The No. 2-ranked Bulldogs (6-0, 4-0 SEC) either haven’t had to pressure the opposing quarterback much this season or simply can’t. But it may behoove them to bring the heat when they travel to Baton Rouge to face No. 13 LSU (5-1, 2-1) this Saturday.
That’s not to say that Georgia’s defense is not playing well. On the contrary. The Bulldogs have reached the midway point of the 2018 season actually leading the SEC in total defense (275.6 ypg) and scoring defense (13.0 ppg). They’re ranked sixth nationally on both counts.
But one thing the Bulldogs haven’t done particular well this season is get after the quarterback. They’re last in the SEC and tied with eight other teams for 116th in the nation at 1.0 per game through six games.
If the Florida Gators proved nothing else this past Saturday in their 27-19 upset win over the Tigers – then ranked No. 5 – it was that getting after quarterback Joe Burrow pays dividends. The Ohio State graduate transfer had been nearly flawless with the football this season before arriving in “The Swamp.” With Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham drawing up all sorts of blitzes, the Gators sacked Burrow five times and forced him into throwing two interceptions, including a game-turning pick-6 in the fourth quarter
Earlier, Burrow had actually established the LSU record for consecutive passes without an interception with 158. Not only had he not thrown an interception this season, but he hadn’t thrown one in his college career, going back to two seasons as a backup for Ohio State.
But Burrow’s 159th pass for LSU was intercepted by Florida safety Brad Stewart – a New Orleans native, no less — and returned 25 yards for a touchdown. If that play didn’t seal the victory for the Gators, then Burrow did when he threw another interception on a deep ball with 28 seconds remaining.
For the game, Burrow was hurried eight times and was hit six times as Florida disrupted what had been until that final quarter a fairly consistent offensive attack by LSU all season. Burrow finished 19-of-34 for 191 yards passing and no touchdowns, his poorest outing with the Tigers. For the season, the 6-foot-4, 216-pound junior has completed 53.9 percent of his passes for 1,214 yards, 6 TDs and 2 INTs. He also has 176 yards and two rushing touchdowns.
The question for Georgia is whether it can apply similar pressure, or if it wants to take the inherent risks in trying to. Florida entered Saturday’s game against LSU ranked second in the SEC in quarterback sacks with an average of 3.0 per game.
True to form, Georgia recorded just one sack in its 41-13 win over Vanderbilt. This one was registered by inside linebacker Tae Crowder. Senior outside linebacker D’Andre Walker leads the Bulldogs with 4 sacks on the year.
Coach Kirby Smart addressed Georgia’s lack of pressure a couple of weeks ago.
“Obviously, based on the statistics, we haven’t pressured a whole lot, but I don’t know that we’ve held back on any,” he said. “We’re a run-stop-first team, and we haven’t had a lot of opportunities. … But, no, I wouldn’t say we’ve held back. We are who we are. We’re not keeping secrets.”
There’s no secret that pass protection has been a weakness for LSU this season. The Tigers have had to shuffle a lot on the offensive line since losing starting right guard Ed Ingram to an arrest in the preseason and left guard Garrett Bromfield to a knee injury two weeks ago. Burrow, a very mobile quarterback, has now been sacked 13 times in six games, which is in the bottom third of the league.
Georgia has been good against good quarterbacks this season. It held both Drew Lock and now Vandy’s Kyle Shurmur without a touchdown pass. After the Commodores got loose for 230 offensive yards in the first half this past Saturday, they managed only 91 in the second half. Georgia also stopped Vanderbilt on fourth-and-1 at the Bulldogs’ 14 late in the first half, a play that seemed to turn the tide for the game.
“We made some adjustments,” Smart said. “We got guys doing their job and not worrying about making plays. … I did think we came with a little more energy in the second half and played a little harder as a defensive unit.”
LSU is known for playing well in Tiger Stadium, also known as Death Valley. But the Bulldogs are excited and up for the challenge as Georgia forays into Baton Rouge for the first time since 2008.
“I’m really excited,” said senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter. “I’ve never been down there and I don’t think anybody on this team has had the opportunity to go into their stadium and a play a good game of football.”
If the Bulldogs want to come out a winner, they might need to take a page out of noted New Orleans chef Emeril Lagassie’s cookbook and — Bam! — crank it up a notch with the pressure.