That Georgia is 5-1 isn’t a big surprise at the halfway point. 6-0 would be preferable, but we knew the South Carolina game was going to be one of the biggest challenges of the year. What’s unexpected is that we’re halfway through the season and talking about Georgia’s defense as a crisis. The offense, though not consistent, has at least been enough to carry the team to its record and has left the team in a position to still compete for the conference title. With the expected strength of the team faltering, there has been no shortage of articles over the bye week looking into some of the bigger problems facing the defense. They seem to fall into one of three areas:
It’s true – the defense with as many as three potential first-round picks in its front seven is right there at 11th out of 14 SEC teams in sacks. Aside from Jarvis Jones’s big day at Missouri against an injury-riddled offensive line, Georgia’s pass rush hasn’t been a game-changing weapon.
Injuries have played their part. Jarvis Jones was bothered first by a groin pull and now by an ankle injury. His agility was limited enough that South Carolina was more or less able to steer him behind the play while Connor Shaw escaped. It’s still questionable enough that he might miss the Kentucky game. Abry Jones also had ankle problems.
Personnel has been in flux. The move of Cornelius Washington from outside linebacker to defensive end has had mixed results. The team has tried a line with both Geathers and Jenkins in at the same time, but Georgia’s giant nose tackles have no sacks and only three tackles for loss between them. Garrison Smith, who answered the call off the bench against Georgia Tech last year, has also seen time – though not as much as he should. If Jones is unable to go in Lexington, freshman Jordan Jenkins should get plenty of opportunities to develop as a pass rusher. Jenkins, coming off the bench, is still the only other defender besides Jarvis Jones to record more than one sack so far. (Jenkins has three.) In fact, apart from Jones, only one starter – Washington with 0.5 sacks – has been credited with a sack this year.
Containment has been an issue since the season opener when Buffalo QB Alex Zordich rushed for 83 yards at nearly a 6 YPC clip. The Dawgs did a better job against the rushing threat presented by the Missouri and Vanderbilt quarterbacks, but South Carolina’s Connor Shaw ran for 78 yards on 14 carries – several of which were broken plays where the Georgia defense allowed Shaw room to scramble. Florida’s quarterback isn’t RG3, but he has made some huge plays running the ball both in scramble situations and, last week at Vandy, on zone read plays.
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It seems incongruous that a defense returning so much experience would have communications issues. Even granting the adjustments due to the suspensions, everyone was still involved with preseason and offseason preparation, right? There has been one subtle change that could be at the heart of some of these issues.
The linebacker position has seen some subtle shifts this year. Cornelius Washington has moved to defensive end, freeing up an outside linebacker spot occupied primarily now by Chase Vasser. There’s also a change at middle linebacker: Amarlo Herrera, who came up big as a freshman early last year when Ogletree was injured, now starts. During Ogletree’s suspension over the first four games, Herrera was joined at MLB by Michael Gilliard, a more experienced senior. When Ogletree came back, Herrera’s shift from “Mo” to “Mike” didn’t just mean he was standing over a new patch of grass. Herrera’s responsibilities also changed.
The return of Alec Ogletree to the Georgia defense pushed Amarlo Herrera over to the other inside linebacker spot….At “Mike,” (Herrera)’s asked now to signal the plays to the defense and identify formations.
So as the quarterback of the defense (to use a clumsy analogy), Herrera’s still getting a feel for reading the offense and getting the defense lined up. Combine that with a typically hectic sideline and a pretty complex scheme, and you can start to see some of the sources of the confusion even with so many returning players. It presents the coaches with a decision: other middle linebackers like seniors Gilliard and Robinson might do a better job of “quarterbacking” the defense. But Herrera might be the best pure player – he leads the team in both solo and total tackles.
Shoring up the middle
No area of the defense has been lights out, but the biggest issues so far seem to be focused around the middle. You start with the push from the down linemen. You have the supervisory role of the middle linebackers. You can also add in coverage issues at safety. Whether it’s Rambo’s missed opportunity for early momentum at South Carolina or Williams biting on underneath routes and play fakes, we have another unit with problems to work through. Williams and Rambo combined for 12 interceptions in 2011, but no safety has recorded one yet in 2012.
Problems up the middle can lead to difficulties defending the run. Georgia is currently 10th in the SEC against the run, and every opponent but Missouri has had a player rush for over 80 yards. The problems in rushing defense have been more acute in the past two games with Tennessee and South Carolina combining for over 425 yards on the ground. With Florida’s relentless running game ahead, the improvement of the defense against the run might be the most critical factor in Georgia’s chances of remaining in the SEC East picture.
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