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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Uphill Climb For D-Ends

I've devoted a good amount of cyberspace to talking about Georgia's pass rush recently.

Yesterday, I blogged about Demarcus Dobbs' hopes that the defensive ends are finally getting healthy (well, sort of).

I also blogged a few weeks ago about Rod Battle's plans for a big senior season .

In today's Telegraph, I have a story about Georgia's plan to employ a trio of linebackers as stand-up rushers this season, too.

Overall, the news there sounds good. Players are getting healthier. They plan to have big seasons. Happy times have returned to Athens.

Mmmm.... not so fast.

Yes, health alone should improve Georgia's pass rush exponentially. Throughout the 2008 season and then to an even greater degree this spring, the injuries have simply been too much to overcome.

Yes, the healthy return of Jeff Owens gives Georgia a push up the middle that will be one of the strongest in the SEC -- and maybe the country.

And yes, using Darryl Gamble, Darius Dewberry and Marcus Washington as occasional rushers makes a lot of sense.

But the problems with Georgia's pass rush last season -- particularly off the end -- were immense, and outside of Kiante Tripp (who moved from the O line in January) and Montez Robinson (a true freshman), the faces are pretty much the same. In fact, the unit lost its lone consistent contributor in Jarius Wynn, who was selected in April's NFL draft.

Just how bad could things be? Here are some numbers.

Georgia finished 10th in the conference in sacks last season with just 23, but even that number is a bit deceiving since six of them came in the team's final game against an overmatched Michigan State and four more came against a dismal Arizona State offensive line. In Georgia's other 11 games, the Dawgs had a whopping 13 sacks.

The worst numbers came in conference play. Georgia tallied just nine sacks in eight SEC games last season, and only 2.5 of them came from the defensive end position. Of that group, Justin Houston is the only player who recorded a single sack -- and he'll be sitting out the first two games of the season with a suspension.

To clarify, when Georgia takes the field against Oklahoma State's high-octane offense on Sept. 5, they will do so without a single defensive end who recorded even half a sack during SEC play last year.

Houston's loss isn't a big deal in terms of total games, but the timing is particularly problematic. First off, of Georgia's returning players, only Rennie Curran recorded more sacks last season than Houston's 2.5.

Secondly, there will not be another defensive end playing in those first two games who both played that position last season and didn't suffer through a spring injury.

Third, Houston had made a giant leap forward during spring and was widely praised for both his off-field efforts in the weight room and film room and his on-field performance. He was a prime breakout candidate and likely Georgia's best hope for a dominant force at DE, and now he'll miss the first two weeks of the season.

While that might not seem like a big deal, here's what Mark Richt said last year about Dewberry and Fred Muzenmaier missing time early in the season due to suspensions:

"It's not easy to watch your teammates go do their thing, and it's not easy to put all that work in and have to watch, and both those guys have been set back. They're not as ready as they would be Game 3, and they're probably not going to get as many reps as they would have got if they were playing all along. Sometimes it sets a guy back for half a season."

Half a season? Even if that's a liberal assessment, it's not hard to wonder if the suspension will undo a great majority of the development Houston made this spring.

Either way, Georgia will still face Oklahoma State without its best defensive end, and that could mean tough times for the rest of the defense.

"It's going to be rough not having him at defensive end because he offers a lot as far as run support and pass rush, so we're going to have to find some ways to get around that – especially against Oklahoma State because those guys have a real good offense," Washington said.

And that leads to the other big issue that the poor pass rush creates.

As we mentioned, Georgia finished 10th in the SEC in sacks last season. Similarly, the Bulldogs finished toward the bottom of the pack in turnovers, taking away the ball just 16 times all season. The relationship between the two is simple: Disrupt what happens in the backfield, make the quarterback uncomfortable, force him to throw early and the results tend to be good. Give the quarterback extra time or take away one (or more) defenders in order to bring the blitz too often, and you're asking for a big play to happen.

As it turned out, Georgia's defense was burned by veteran QBs like Tim Tebow and John Parker Wilson and struggled against even marginal quarterbacks like Nick Stephens and Randall Cobb.

Now look back to 2007, when Georgia led the conference with 42 sacks. That year the team -- which featured essentially the exact same secondary, only with a year less experience -- created 26 turnovers.

That's essentially the equivalent to having one extra possession per game, usually with prime field position. How much of a difference do you think that might have made against Alabama or Georgia Tech last year?

Sure, a truly great secondary can help ease the burden of a lackluster pass rush, and the Bulldogs certainly have the potential for a solid group of DBs this year. But gone are Asher Allen and CJ Byrd, two experienced veterans, and in their place reside unproven sophomore Brandon Boykin and Bryan Evans, who has been playing safety for just nine months (and who was burned by Stephens multiple times while playing corner a year ago).

Even in the run game, the poor pass rush creates problems. As the ends continued to struggle to get to the quarterback last year, their impatience became evident. Opposing linemen took advantage, and the ends fell victim to cut blocks repeatedly, opening up gaping holes for tailbacks who spent far too much time in the Georgia secondary in the latter half of last season.(Yes, Reshad Jones could have done a better job of wrapping up, but he's taken a lot of heat for those big plays that probably could have been stopped long before Jones reached the ball carrier.)

Of course, this is the time of year for optimism. Offensive linemen are never quite as strong in July, and quarterbacks are never quite so adept at avoiding pressure. The future always looks bright, and Georgia's D ends are certainly talking the talk.

"Our unit has taken more leadership this offseason, and we've gotten more of the killer instinct mentality," Dobbs said. "We have everyone stepping up to the plate now and not just following an example. This year we plan on turning things around."

It's a nice sentiment, but the numbers say it will take a lot more than the desire to be better if Georgia is to turn things around this season. Maybe Gamble, Washington and company prove to be the secret weapon the Bulldogs have been looking for. Maybe Houston returns from his suspension even hungrier than before. Maybe Rod Battle and Demarcus Dobbs return to full health and take their games to the next level. Maybe Cornelius Washington or Montez Robinson become superstars in their first year of action. Maybe.

But that's an awful lot of question marks at this time of year at an integral position, and for all the concerns about Joe Cox's quarterbacking or who will carry the load at tailback, it seems to me that the pass rush will likely be the biggest factor in whether Georgia can complete another 10-win campaign or watches Tebow, Urban Meyer and the Gators enjoy another easy road to the Georgia Dome.


Anonymous said...

Well, that was depressing.

The Cuatro said...

Nice write up. DE is the question mark on this year's squad for sure. Our O-Line should make up for a few deficiencies in the backfield, but you can't disguise a poor pass rush.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Daivd Downer. I have a hard time seeing a 1-year aberration growing into a trend when measured against our entire DE production during the Richt era. We've recruited too well for that to happen.

MikeInValdosta said...

consider me sobered

jferg said...

Let me be the positive light and identify two silver linings:

One-- David Hale is on the cutting edge of getting in depth stories about the exact topics we are interested in. And it's FREE to us! That's a huge plus and Silver lining #1.

Two-- This FORCES CWM and Fabris to change...something they have proven unwilling to do over the past few years (CWM is obvious, Fabris' unwillingness to change his Special Team's philosophies). Change, in this case, is a GREAT thing. It will force them to learn the nuances of a stand-up LB at DE. It will force them to look at defensive personel in a new way. At this point in CWM's career, new-fresh ideas should be a welcome opportunity to improve. What if they really see the light and put Kade-Owens-Geno-Washington as our front four for a play. Can you imagine trying to RUN or PASS versus that front 4? I really like this move because there will now be more STUDS on the field. More STUDS = More Tackles. More Tackles= Better Defense. Better Defense= Better offensive field position. Better offensive field position= scoring more points. Scoring more points than the other team= everything everyone at UGA wants.... WINS!

Silver lining 2.5---Battle makes a great point in the article "knowing how to play DE and LB looks real good to NFL teams running the 3-4". More NFL draftees means better high school recruiting for the Dawgs. Win-win.

*as always, please ignore my grammar and/or spelling issues

the anonymous suckup said...


Our ol' pal Mr. Ching has a blog post up today saying that UGA is no longer welcome at Carver HS in Columbus because of they way they rescinded a scholarship offer to one of their players. Since that is sort of in your back yard, I figured I would ask you what you know about it.

hinesacl said...

If they can stay healthy, I am betting that Cornelius Washington (that you mentioned) and Neland Ball have something to say about how it goes at the position. It may be a little later in the season. The first two games without Justin will be a test. I also think Kiante is a full grown man, now. He may surprise some folks. Just having a few more healthy bodies to choose from and run in there (Fabris loves to rotate) is going to help.

David Hale said...

Sorry for the depressing post, but I did link to three stories I wrote about the DEs that were more upbeat!

Suckup -- Ching's post was the first I'd heard of it, but I shot out an email to our preps writer in Columbus to see if he had some more details he could share.

the anonymous suckup said...

Thanks, David.

The Knower said...

Do not worry. This D will lead the SEC in sacks this year.

IveyLeaguer said...

Reshad Jones hurt us more ways last year than just not wrapping up. His play was poor, at best, and horrendous at times. And it was not just one game, it was the whole year.

jferg, you have a good point about the forced change to use the Sam as a LB/DE hybrid to rush the passer. Because of the spread offense, last year we were in nickel and dime more than half the time and the Sam was on the bench. Making the adjustment should really help us. But like most WM adjustments, it's really late.

FWIW, your dream front 4 is flawed, however. There is no way Kade Weston rushes the pass from the edge. By the time he could get there, the play will long have been over.