Opinion: Georgia defense can block out hype by focusing on unfinished business
There are two inarguable points about Georgia’s defense: The success the Bulldogs enjoyed in 2019 has generated hype around the unit this year, and there’s nothing UGA seeks to avoid more than unnecessary praise.
However, the pats on the back the Bulldogs have gotten this offseason don’t have to become “rat poison” (as Alabama coach Nick Saban would call it). The temptation to become satisfied with last season’s results can be overcome if UGA will simply focus on what it still hasn’t accomplished.
UGA sophomore linebacker Nakobe Dean addressed this topic this week with reporters, and emphatically rebuked the notion the Bulldogs’ defense would be complacent this season.
“We haven’t done anything,” Dean said. “The 2020 defense hasn’t done anything. We haven’t even stepped on the field yet.”
This is certainly true, but the accomplishments of 2019 still hang over the players’ heads whether they’re acknowledged or not.
UGA was best in the country in points allowed per game (12.6) and third nationally in yards allowed per game (275.7).
Yet even with those impressive stats, the Bulldogs still had a couple defensive numbers that left something to be desired.
UGA was just seventh in the SEC and 47th nationally in sacks last season with 31. The Bulldogs were also just sixth in the SEC and 60th nationally with 76 tackles for loss.
Sacks and tackles for loss are two of the key components of the so-called “Havoc Rate” — a metric that also includes turnovers forced and passes broken up that was a big topic among UGA players prior to the start of the 2019 season.
Bulldogs linebacker Azeez Ojulari said this week the unit didn’t accomplish what it intended to with “Havoc Rate” a year ago.
“With all those games, we didn’t reach our goal,” Ojulari said. “There’s always something we can improve on, and continue to get better. So we’re still going to preach that this season.”
“We’ve got to execute better and get more havoc plays,” Dean said. “We’ve got to take the ball off of people more and everything like that.”
The notion of making more impactful plays on defense was also a theme UGA defensive coordinator Dan Lanning addressed when he spoke to reporters Friday.
“We’ve talked about havoc plays a lot here in the past. That’s still definitely a big focus” Lanning said. “We want to get the ball out. We want to finish. We want to impact the game by having some game-changing plays.”
Producing more of those havoc plays — including sacks — will probably require a few players raising their individual level of play. There are no shortage of candidates to do that.
One of those guys is Ojulari — who led the team last year with 5.5 sacks. Behind him are a collection of other players who could also be primed to take a big leap.
Nose tackle Jordan Davis is a possibility as well. Primarily considered a run stopper through his first two seasons with the Bulldogs, Davis also tied for second on the team with 2.5 sacks last year and has emerged on the NFL draft radar as an improved interior pass rusher.
“I have really high expectations for Jordan,” Lanning said. “Jordan’s worked really hard… I expect him to really achieve at the highest level this year and have a phenomenal season.”
Two other potential breakout stars who could help the UGA defense be more impactful than it’s been in the past are also guys who had 2.5 sacks a piece last season — former five-star signees Travon Walker and Nolan Smith.
Lanning has high hopes pinned on both second-year players.
“I want to see them maximize the opportunities they get on the field,” Lanning said. “Both of them are dynamic players. Both of them are explosive and do a great job of creating issues for the offense with their suddeness. But more importantly, they finish.
“So just seeing them expand their role as they move forward, just really excited to see what they do.”
UGA’s attempt to redefine itself from what has been known as a stingy defense — one that limits yards and points — to a more impactful defense, one that creates more sacks and tackles for loss, is about more than just superficial differences.
“On a drive with a negative play, the average FBS team scores points just 25 percent of the time and scores touchdowns 15 percent of the time,” according to Sports Source Analytics. “On a drive with a sack, the average FBS team scores points just 16 percent of the time and scores touchdowns nine percent of the time.”
By comparison, on drives without negative plays, the average FBS team scores points 43 percent of the time and touchdowns 36 percent of the time. And on drives without sacks, the average FBS team scores points 40 percent of the time and touchdowns 31 percent of the time.
In other words, the best way to eliminate scoring opportunities for opposing offenses is to create more sacks and tackles for loss.
For a Georgia defense that has done well with almost everything, it’s possibly the one area where improvement is still needed. And it’s a good remedy for the hype that has built around the unit.
When someone tells them how great they’ve been, they can point to what still needs to be done.