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(Curtis Compton/AJC)
This is the way most plays end in which the receiver was targeted that Georgia's Deandre Baker was defending. Auburn's Darius Slayton caught only one pass for 8 yards last Saturday.

Road to Atlanta: Georgia pass defense reason for optimism in Alabama matchup

This is the third in a series of stories that compares units on the Georgia and Alabama teams as last season’s College Football Playoff finalists prepare for a rematch on Dec. 1 in the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

PASS DEFENSE

ATHENS — When Georgia embarked on the 2018 football season, pass defense and the secondary in particular was a huge concern, maybe the greatest concern.

Now in the 12th week and entering the 11th game, that’s no longer the case. In fact, Georgia defensive backfield might even be considered a team strength. That’s what the stats say, anyway.

The Bulldogs are second in the SEC and 10th nationally in passing yards allowed with 1,723, or 172.3 per game. That’s fairly astounding, especially considering three of the five starters in the back end of the defense are new.

But some perspective has to be provided for that stat. Number one, the Bulldogs haven’t exactly been going against a bunch of ball-slingers this season. Every FBS team Georgia has faced this season is ranked outside the Top 25 in passing. UMass, the little team from the Northeast that visits Sanford Stadium this Saturday, will actually be the highest ranked at 17th (299.1 ypg).

And, as this is a matchup analysis of Georgia vs. Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, it should be pointed out that the Bulldogs will be facing another level of ball-slinging when they meet the Crimson Tide at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Led by all-world quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Bama is second in the league and seventh in FBS at throwing the football. The Tide is averaging 323 yards per game and has thrown for 34 TDs with only 4 interceptions. Only Houston with 38 has more passing TDs.

But that’s a matchup to explore another time. This exercise is to compare Georgia’s pass defense with Alabama’s, and the two are remarkably similar.

Like the Bulldogs, Bama had considerable turnover after last year’s National Championship Game. The Tide returned only one defensive back with any starting experience, and that was redshirt junior safety Deionte Thompson with two starts. Thompson is manning the free safety position again this season and is one of the team favorites to earn All-SEC honors. Also, among Bama’s five defensive players that were taken in the NFL draft was cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, who went in the first round with the No. 11 pick to the Miami Dolphins. So the Tide lost a ton of talent.

Alabama has also had to deal with injuries this season. Junior cornerback Trevon Diggs went down against Arkansas on Oct. 6 with a foot injury and has not been back. But in his absence, the Crimson Tide has done what they usually do. That is, they replaced a 5-star with a 5-star. They replaced Diggs with Patrick Surtain II, a freshman out of American Heritage High in Plantation, Fla., who was rated the No. 1 cornerback prospect in America. Surtain has held his own, recording 19 tackles, 5 pass break-ups and an interception this season.

Of course, at American Heritage High, Surtain played across the field from Tyson Campbell. Campbell also a 5-star prospect, was ranked the No. 2 prospect in the country at corner and signed with Georgia. But while Campbell has also mostly held his own, he has also had some struggles. And they finally reached the point against Auburn this past Saturday that he was supplanted in the starting lineup.

Redshirt freshman Eric Stokes came in for Campbell in the first half this past Saturday and played extremely well. His pass break-up in the end zone prevented a touchdown and forced the Tigers to settle for a field goal in the first half of a game the Bulldogs eventually won 27-10.

Stokes is another example of the youth and inexperience that abounds in Georgia’s secondary. In fact, at one point early in the Auburn game, the Bulldogs had three players on the field in Stokes, sophomore Mark Webb and freshman Otis Reese, who hadn’t played in a college game as a defensive back before this season. But that hasn’t held Georgia back when it comes to playing good pass defense.

The Bulldogs are able to counter that youth with the veteran leadership and superior play of senior cornerback Deandre Baker and junior safety J.R. Reed. Baker is Georgia’s best chance of landing a player on an All-America team this season. Already a semifinalist for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards, he has 33 tackles, nine pass break-ups and is second in the SEC in passes defended. Reed, a former transfer from Tulsa, leads the DBs with 44 tackles, has led the team in tackles three times and also has an interception.

Normally playing alongside Reed is sophomore Richard LeCounte, a former 5-star prospect himself. LeCounte belies his smallish 5-11, 190-pound frame with a knack for following the ball, coming up quick and hard for run stops and running deep with the fastest of opposing receivers. Safety play is one of the biggest reasons that the Bulldogs have given up the fewest plays of 20-or-more yards in the SEC.

“It might have something to do with safeties; it has a lot to do with the corners. I think it has a lot to do with the way we call defenses,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who played safety himself. “I think it’s leverage and tackling. We believe that if everybody in front of the safeties and secondary just fell down and took the play off, there shouldn’t be a play of over 20 yards.”

What’s amazing about that is Georgia has managed to do that without much in the way of a pass rush. It’s not necessarily by design, but the Bulldogs haven’t pressured opposing quarterbacks much at all. They’re last in the SEC in sacks with 14, or 1.4 per game. Bama leads the league with 36, or 3.6 per.

“It’s just not who we are right now,” Smart said of pressuring quarterbacks. “We’re not a twitchy team that’s quick and make people miss and get in the backfield and penetrate and get a tackle for loss or an elite pass rusher that can just beat guys one-on-one. That’s not indicative of who we are. But what we are is a team that knows how to leverage and tackle the ball and not give up explosives. That’s kind of our identity right now.”

Alabama, obviously, hasn’t given up many big plays either. In fact, it hasn’t given up much at all, with back-to-back shutouts in the last two games and only seven points to Tennessee in the one before that. And the Crimson Tide has been able to get its hands on more balls than the Bulldogs. Bama actually has more interceptions (13) than passing TDs allowed (12). Georgia has five picks to eight touchdowns.

But the Bulldogs rank considerably ahead of Alabama in overall pass defense. The Tide is allowing 186.5 yards a game. Let’s look at common opponents:

LSU

vs. Alabama: 35 attempts, 18 completions, 184 yards, 1 interception, 0 TDs

vs. Georgia: 30 attempts, 15 completions, 200 yards, 0 interception, 0 TDs

TENNESSEE

vs. Alabama: 25 attempts, 14 completions, 227 yards, 0 interceptions, 2 TDs

vs. Georgia: 21 attempts, 13 completions, 143 yards, 0 interceptions, 0 TDs

MISSOURI

vs. Alabama: 26 attempts, 13 completions, 142 yards, 2 interceptions, 1 TD

vs. Georgia: 48 attempts, 23 completions, 221 yards, 1 interception, 0 TDs

Overall, you have to give the nod to Georgia here. But it’s close:

ADVANTAGE: GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Road to Atlanta