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Post Cry havoc…

Monday August 19, 2019

Any preview of the Georgia defense this year must include one word: havoc. Coaches and players usually aren’t that willing to volunteer details about what they’re working on, but this season’s focus on creating more havoc has been an exception. That’s not as vapid as saying the defense’s objective is to keep the offense from scoring; being more intentional about havoc implies certain adjustments to scheme and a willingness to take a few more chances. It’s willing to put one of Georgia’s 2018 defensive strengths at risk and suggests that the staff might have a little more faith in the 2019 secondary.

What is “havoc rate?”

Yes, “havoc” is a measurable thing and has been a part of the emerging advanced stats developed by Bill Connolly and others. Connolly writes that havoc rate is “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up).

But does a good havoc rate go hand-in-hand with a good defense?

Not exactly, but it doesn’t hurt. Here’s the 2018 defensive advanced stats for college football. Only four of the top 10 defenses by S&P+ had top 10 havoc rates. The rest rated 20 or below, and over 40 teams had havoc rates better than three of the top 10 defenses.

Then again, nine of the defenses with top 10 havoc rates rated no worse than 21st in defensive S&P+. The outlier? Resurgent UAB had the sixth-best havoc rate in the nation but rated 45th in defensive S&P+. The Blazers demonstrated to the extreme the give-and-take of havoc: they were #1 in success rate, #2 in front 7 havoc, and #6 in overall havoc. But they were #112 in IsoPPP – a measure of effectiveness against explosive plays. UAB was aggressive up front and often successful, but they were extremely prone to getting burned by big plays.

I think the takeaway here is that there is more than one way to play effective defense. Still, if you look at the teams Georgia considers its peers – Clemson and Alabama – there’s no mistaking dominant defenses featuring a high havoc rate led by disruptive defensive fronts. You had just better be able to cover well behind that front.

Georgia was 73rd in havoc rate in 2018. That’s bad, right?

Again, Georgia had a top 10 defense by S&P+, so the lack of havoc wasn’t crippling. It’s just not how Kirby Smart prefers to play defense. In a way, it’s a credit to the coaching staff that they were able to adjust the defensive scheme last season to get a fairly effective season out of a rebuilding roster. By dialing back aggressive playcalling, Georgia was top 3 in IsoPPP, passing S&P+, and passing down S&P+. They kept things largely in front of them, didn’t give up big plays, and made opposing offenses work. Even when teams were able to move the ball on Georgia, the Bulldog offense (rated #3 in S&P+) was much more often than not able to put enough points on the board to make up the difference.

There were weaknesses in that approach though. Without many lost yardage plays, teams could generally stay ahead of the chains against Georgia, and the Dawgs had a mediocre defensive success rating of 63rd and were 53rd in rushing S&P+. We saw that softness against the run at some key moments last year. Even at Missouri, the Tigers were kept out of the endzone through the air but still made things interesting by running the ball with surprising success. That was a choice by Georgia to take away the big passing plays on which Drew Lock and the Mizzou offense thrived. Fortunately not too many Georgia opponents in 2018 had the firepower to force Georgia into that kind of a choice.

So what’s Georgia’s plan?

As with any defensive scheme, it begins up front. A defensive line without much push by definition won’t have many havoc plays (sacks and tackles for loss). A veteran group with a few key pieces getting healthy should help. Developing underclassmen like Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt, and Malik Herring will be key. Travon Walker could have the kind of impact Davis had a year ago as a freshman. Collectively they must improve at taking on the offensive line and getting a push into the backfield.

Behind that line is one of Georgia’s more talented and deep units. The Dawgs have recruited as well at linebacker, especially outside linebacker, than most other positions. In a 3-4 base defense (granting that Georgia plays more nickel than anything), many of your havoc plays will come from the linebacker position. While the defensive line occupies blockers, explosive linebackers can attack. Roquan Smith is obviously the model here, and that’s why so much attention has been paid to Monty Rice’s health and the arrival of Nakobe Dean. The guys on the edge have as much to do with it, and getting more production from the insanely talented outside linebackers will have as much as anything to do with improved havoc rate. A more aggressive approach from this group against Alabama was effective, and getting to Tua Tagovailoa led to sacks and turnovers until D’Andre Walker was injured.

The secondary has an important role to play if you want to avoid the UAB scenario of getting torched in the name of creating havoc. Coaches won’t be as willing to be aggressive up front if they’re not confident in their safety net. The four (or five) defensive backs can’t allow explosive plays. That means pass coverage, yes, but it also means sure tackling to prevent small gains from turning into bigger ones. That wasn’t always a strong point of Georgia’s defense in 2018, especially at safety. This unit will have its own role in havoc: if the front seven are creating pressure, you would expect a quarterback under duress to make more mistakes and create opportunities for interceptions.

Even the offense can help. If Georgia is able to establish early leads, the opponent’s offense becomes more predictable. Georgia can leave its pass rushers on the field, play coverage schemes that might be a little more vulnerable to the run, and get after the quarterback.

Since we have metrics for these things now, the defense’s progress won’t be hard to track. We’ll see it in more traditional stats like turnovers, tackles for loss, and sacks, but “havoc rate” is what we’re really looking for. It will also be worth keeping an eye on IsoPPP to see whether the defense can continue to limit explosive plays as well as they did a year ago. With an improved havoc rate and sustained success against big plays, Georgia would take the step forward on defense that could get the team over the top this year.

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