ATHENS – Nearly 200 times this season, the quarterback facing the Georgia football team has put the ball in the air. The average result of that pass, whether complete or not, has been a gain of 4.8 yards … the lowest such result in the country.
By that measure, Georgia has had the nation’s best pass defense. And yet on the list of things that could still trip up the unbeaten, playoff-ranked Bulldogs this season, high up there is pass defense.
“We definitely feel we have something to prove every time we step out on the field on Saturdays,” senior defensive back Aaron Davis said. “We set high expectations for ourselves. So we definitely don’t want to come up short with those expectation and goals.”
Davis and his unit can be proud of what they’ve accomplished thus far. Even by the most common statistical measure, passing yards allowed per game, Georgia is 10th nationally, and the overall defense ranks third in least yards allowed, and second in scoring defense. Very impressive.
But for Georgia’s secondary, the opponents have to be taken into account: The highest-rated passing offense Georgia has faced is Appalachian State, ranked 73rd nationally. The others: Vanderbilt (88), Tennessee (91), Mississippi State (110), Notre Dame (115), plus Samford, an FCS opponent.
The latter half of the schedule will be tougher. Beginning right away.
Missouri, which visits Saturday, ranks 26th nationally in passing offense, as measured by passing yards per game (294). Junior quarterback Drew Lock passed well last year against this Georgia defense, most of whom are back this year.
That will on paper be the best passing offense Georgia faces the rest of the regular season. But Auburn is also lurking, and while Gus Malzahn’s offense isn’t much for passing yard volume, it ranks 10th in the nation in yards-per-pass attempt. (Georgia Tech, for what it’s worth, is sixth.)
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart called Missouri “an extremely high-powered offense, extremely explosive.” Smart painted the Tigers as a unit that would have even better stats if they didn’t hurt themselves with turnovers.
“They stop themselves,” Smart said. “People don’t stop them.”
Well, can Georgia? A big reason that Georgia has fared so well this season is the type of quarterbacks it has faced: Mainly dual-threats like Brandon Wimbush (Notre Dame) and Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State). The first true pocket quarterback it saw was Kyle Shurmur at Vanderbilt, and he did manage some good intermediate throws, and would have had more than 172 passing yards if not for a few dropped passes.
“I hope last week got our attention that a good quarterback that is accurate that knows where to throw the football can attack a defense,” Smart said.
There are two main things that go into pass defense. And in both cases, there is room for improvement:
Georgia has 10 sacks this season, around the middle of the pack statistically. It has gotten more pressure, but when Smart was asked what he thought of the pass rush this year, he termed it “up and down.”
“It’s not where it needs to be,” Smart said. “We’re not an explosive pass rush team. I don’t care what everyone wants us to be, that’s just not who we are.”
What the Bulldogs are, Smart went on to say, was a strike-blocking team that plays the run well and forces other teams into passing situations, which is when they can blitz more. The implication being that when other teams pass in running situations they can burn the Bulldogs, and when the other team blocks well in passing situations, that could also lead to trouble.
“There’s so much more to pass rush than sacks and it’s affecting the quarterback and that’s where it was disappointing last week because we didn’t do as good of a job with that as we need to,” Smart said.
DEFENSIVE BACK PLAY
Smart was asked how he would evaluate Georgia’s secondary when it came to one-on-one balls, just the defensive back against the receiver.
“Some good,” he said. “Some bad.”
It’s been mostly good, with some high-profile pass break-ups, especially downfield. The Bulldogs have also done a good job of keeping receivers ahead of them and limiting yards-after-catch.
But Vanderbilt was able to complete 17 passes, and with speedier and bigger receivers coming up on the schedule, other teams will try to take advantage.
That makes the Missouri game interesting. Georgia (6-0) is favored by four touchdowns. But if Missouri at least shows that UGA’s secondary is vulnerable, that could matter as the season goes on.
“It’s hard to tell. Time will tell,” Davis said, when asked if Missouri will be the best passing team Georgia has faced to this point. “We’ll see come Saturday but there’s no doubt that they have the weapons and the quarterback to toss the ball around and challenge us.”