Georgia running back Daijun Edwards (30) during a game against Samford. The Bulldogs settled for four field goals against the FCS team in their home opener on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. (Photo by Tony Walsh)
Tony Walsh

Kirby Smart harps on Georgia’s TD struggles in Red Zone, offense’s ‘Achilles heel’

Kirby Smart isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to how Georgia has “struggled” -- in his words — scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

“If it all had to boil down to one thing, I would say accuracy in the passing game,” Smart said at his Tuesday night press conference. “And then being effective at running the ball at the heavy boxes.”

Smart, whose No. 1-ranked Bulldogs play at Missouri at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night, has been thorough in examining what he deems a lack of proficiency scoring touchdowns in the so-called Red Zone (inside the opponents’ 20-yard line).

“That has been the Achilles heel of our offense,” Smart said. “We may not punt, but we kick a lot of field goals.”

Georgia has made 26 Red Zone trips and scored 25 times, which ranks 14th-best in terms of overall Red Zone efficiency.

But only 17 of those trips (65 percent) have resulted in touchdowns, while the Bulldogs have settled for field goals on eight other occasions.

Other elite offensive teams have higher TD percentages in the Red Zone:

* Ohio State (18-20, 90 percent)

* Tennessee (18-21, 86 percent)

* Alabama (16-20, 80 percent).

Georgia’s Red Zone touchdown issues aren’t necessarily a result of stiffer completion.

Smart pointed to quarterback Stetson Bennett not hitting open receivers in the Bulldogs’ game against FCS Samford.

“You go back to the Samford game where we struggled, and there were a couple of times that we had guys open, and we just missed them,” Smart said. “We have to do a better job.”

The Georgia run game has not been as explosive as some had expected, with Kendall Milton’s 27-yard run the longest from scrimmage by a UGA tailback through four games.

Milton, who missed two fall scrimmages with a pulled hamstring, leads the Bulldogs with 37 carries for 208 yards.

Daijun Edwards has 26 carries for 153 yards, while McIntosh has 25 carries for 97 yards and freshman Branson Robinson has 14 carries for 67 yards.

Running backs coach Dell McGee, who has recruited one All-SEC back (D’Andre Swift) in his seven-year tenure alongside Smart, is tasked with juggling the rotation for maximum results.

“We’ve looked at it really hard; first-down run percentage, second-down run percentage,” Smart said. “Third down conversions in the red area are critical because they get you a new set of downs.

“We’ve been there a lot, but we haven’t converted as much as we need to.”

That’s fine against opponents like Samford and Kent State, but Smart knows better than anyone his offense needs to be fine-tuned to handle difficult SEC opponents

“When the field tightens up and shrinks, that’s where the gun game is more glaring because the boxes are tighter,” Smart said, referring to how defenders can play closer to the line of scrimmage inside their own 20-yard line with less open field behind them.

“You have to block them and run through them.”

Missouri, a four-touchdown underdog, won’t be a pushover in that respect according to Smart.

“They’re really physical and big up front, (and) they did a good job of stopping the run last year versus us,” Smart said. “Their size up front, their athleticism up front, is really aggressive.”

Smart is challenging everyone on his offense to continue to improve from one game to the next.

“You can point a finger at the quarterback, the center, the guard, the tackles, the receivers,” Smart said. “Everybody can play better, and we can coach better, too, as coaches.”

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