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Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Deeper Look at the Defense

The backlash against Willie Martinez has reached a new crescendo, and fans are justified in their animosity.

Georgia has allowed 78 points in their past two games, allowed 37 or more points in six of their past nine, and is averaging 33 points allowed during that stretch. The Bulldogs secondary has allowed 721 passing yards in the last two games and the defense has accounted for just four sacks and two take-aways in three games this year.

There really aren't many numbers that tell anything but a scathing story about the defense. But is it really as bad as the numbers say? Mark Richt isn't so sure.

"As a team we have not helped our defensive unit when it comes to (field position)," Richt said. "We need to do a better job of getting our field position right. I would just like to see what happened if we did that quite frankly.”

It's a fair point, even if most of the Willie haters don't really care about excuses anymore. In fact, as Martinez pointed out, there were some encouraging aspects of the defense's performance against Arkansas that tended to be lost in the high score.

“There’s some things we did well in this last ballgame, and I know it’s kind of hard to see when you give up that many points," Martinez said. "But their third-down efficiency was 80 percent. That was crucial to get them in third-and-long, and here we go, we’re off the field. We did that in the first series, and bang – something bad happens and you’ve got to go back out there, and our guys couldn’t sustain it. Then the fourth quarter, they had four series in the fourth quarter and we go three-and-out in three out of the four. The game’s on the line, and you build on those things. The same thing could be said in the previous game where we kept them out of the end zone in the fourth quarter and held them to a field goal. There’s some things that we did well that are obviously overlooked because of all the points that are put up.”

But are there facts to back that up, too?

Here are some stats from reader Jim F., who did some great research so I didn't have to…

Jim first defined a rather broad category of "mistakes," which include turnovers and kicking game miscues. So far there have been nine turnovers by Georgia's offense or special teams. There have been seven major blunders in the kicking games -- i.e. a return allowed of 50 yards or more, a kickoff out of bounds and, of course, the successful fake punt and the safety on the snap over Drew Butler's head.

So here's what he discovered:

-- Mistakes were direct contributors to 70 percent of all opponents' scoring drives so far this season (14 total out of 20 scoring drives), including two in which the defense was never on the field (the safety and the pick six).

-- Similarly, mistakes have led to 70 percent of the total points scored against Georgia (72 of 102).

-- Ten of the 16 plays defined as "mistakes" occurred on the Georgia side of the field, meaning the defense was put in a particularly bad position. Opponents have scored on 100 percent of these drives -- seven TDs, and three field goals.

-- Problems in the kicking game have contributed to 11 points per game thus far, and if you include the special teams fumbles or problems in punting, that number goes up even more, nearly 40 percent of Georgia's total points allowed.

-- Only twice has Georgia stopped a drive after a mistake (once forcing a punt and once forcing a turnover).

That last point can be looked at in two ways: 1.) Does Georgia's defense have the fortitude to handle adversity? Or 2.) Is the adversity simply too much for anyone to overcome on a regular basis?

I'd say it would be fair to give the D the benefit of the doubt for now, considering the sheer number of adverse situations they've been in, but here's what Bryan Evans thinks:

“Right now it’s to the point where anytime a turnover happens, our mentality is to get back on the field and not give up the touchdown. That’s something we’ve got to work towards as a defense. I really can’t complain or make any excuses because any time the defense is on, we don’t have any thoughts except getting our offense the ball back, and we didn’t do that (against Arkansas).”

So at least the D is taking some accountability, even if they weren't put in the best position to succeed regardless.

But what about when they are put in a good position to succeed?

Jim notes that Georgia has only allowed points on nine of 31 drives (29 percent) when the opposition starts on their half of the field. Take away possessions that included those problems in the kicking game (like the out-of-bounds kicks) and you're down to just six scoring drives -- three touchdowns and three field goals. In other words, just 10 points per game.

Georgia has also been relatively strong on third downs -- holding the opponent to just 15 conversions in 46 attempts.

It's also worth noting that Arkansas scored on both of those out-of-bounds kickoffs -- one TD and one FG. Considering that this was such a problem last year that Richt infamously promised to go to Poland to find a kicker who could better handle the kickoffs, the blame here squarely falls on the head coach, not the D coordinator.

A few things that can be pinned on the defense though (my research now):

-- Although they've been on the wrong side of nine turnovers, they have created just two.

-- They have just four sacks in 118 passing attempts (which doesn't include plays in which the QB ran, either by design or due to pressure). That's a success rate of 3.38 percent.

-- And again, Georgia has been particularly bad at handling adversity. Let's look closer at those third-down conversions: Overall, the opposition is just 15-of-46 (32.6 percent) on third down, but on fourth down, that number shoots up to a successful conversion on 5-of-7 tries (71.4 percent), with one being the fake punt executed by South Carolina.

Looking even further, Georgia has faced 32 situations that were either third-and-long or fourth-and-long (defined as needing five or more yards for a first down) and has held on all but five occasions. That's a success rate of just 15.6 percent by the opposition, including an 0-for-10 mark by Arkansas last week. On third- or fourth-and-short, however, those numbers swing badly in the other direction. The opposition has converted on 16-of-22 tried in short-yardage situations -- a nearly 73 percent success rate.

I mentioned in my post about the defense the other day that I thought there might be too great of an emphasis put on stopping the run -- something Georgia has done well in these first three games -- and that the Bulldogs have not been in position to handle the pass as well.

My wording may have been wrong by saying "emphasis." The problem isn't that the Bulldogs are emphasizing stopping the run, it's that they're failing to recognize when it's a pass.

"We have to do a better job of getting off the run blocks," defensive end Demarcus Dobbs said. "A lot of teams kill us with play action because we’re so zoned into the run. Play action will kill a defense and we have to learn to convert and get into the quarterback’s face, even if it isn’t a sack, but just to alter his throws a little bit so our DBs can make a play.”

More evidence:

Bryan Evans on the TD he was burned on: “It was kind of a zone to a man coverage, and one of the receivers ran a take-off. We got caught trailing, looking in the backfield.”

Jeff Owens on the upcoming game: “For the front seven, we’ve got to get more pressure on the QB. We’ve got to rush more. That’s what our focus should be this week. We know Arizona State is going to throw the football, and as a defensive tackle, I’ve got to pin my ears back and try to get to the QB.”

Rennie Curran on the team's recognition of pass plays: “When you’re an aggressive defense like we are, sometimes you get caught out of element when you’re focused on the run and you don’t make a quick enough read to react to the pass. When you’re blitzing, it leaves open holes for the short passes. We’ve just got to watch more film and recognize pass formations better. It’s going to come with time.”

Willie Martinez on the problems against Arkansas: “When you play action, it’s going to be hard sometimes to get pressure because you’re holding ‘backers or D linemen. You’re trying to defend the run. So that’s hard to generate. When you bring pressure, you have a better chance of disrupting the passing game. They had a very good balance last week, and they made some plays and we didn’t execute. When you don’t execute against a good offensive football team, they’re going to exploit you.”

Well, look at those third-down numbers again. Obviously when a team has farther to go for a first down, there's a greater chance of success for the defense, so we'd expect a stark difference in the numbers. But the other key thing to remember is that, on third-and-long, it's nearly always going to be a pass play. The situation dictates the defensive approach, not the read by the defenders. On third-and-short, things are different. The offense has options, and the defense now needs to make the proper read and adjust. That's simply not happening.

The same is true in the red zone. Georgia has been strong inside the 20, holding the opposition to mostly field goals. But what the short field does is reduce the amount of space the defense has to cover. They can misread a play, but still be able to react because they don't have as far to go.

So is this execution or coaching? I'd say it's probably a little of both. The coaches have to make sure the players know their keys and the players have to make the right reads and react. I'm not sure which part of this isn't happening -- and maybe it's both -- but clearly there is a problem here.

Talking to players, to Martinez and to Richt this week, there seems to be a few constant points of emphasis:

1.) The offensive and special teams mistakes are killing the defense.

2.) The pressure up front has not been there, which kills the secondary.

3.) The execution simply hasn't been good enough.

I think the numbers Jim listed more than illustrate the first point has merit. If Georgia's turnover was 9-to-2 in the other direction, I'm pretty sure there'd be no need for me to write this post. So that's step one.

The second issue of pressure has been a problem for two years, however. Georgia simply isn't getting to the quarterback, and since NFL scouts have conceded that Jeff Owens and Geno Atkins have the skills to play at the next level, I can only assume there's some serious problems in terms of scheme or preparation.

The third issue is perhaps the most damning, however. The fundamentals have simply been poor -- from reading keys defensively to wrapping up on tackles. If this was a defense filled with freshmen and sophomores, that might be more understandable. But it's not. Georgia starts two sophomores (and one was a starter much of last year), five juniors (all of whom started games last year) and four seniors.

There's a cliche that Jon Fabris finds a way to use in nearly every interview: It's neither as good as it seems or as bad as it seems. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth.

The truth is, Willie is not the root of all evil, and clearly the defense has not been as bad as the final scores might indicate. But neither is the situation just a few plays away from resolution either. There is work to be done, and has been for far too long.

And the reasonable point being made by the fans who still have some reason left in this discussion is: If Georgia hasn't been able to fix those issues in the past 12 months, why should they think that will change in the next few weeks?


Josh said...

Wow, great post. Thanks to all for some great research.

I'm no Willie fan, but holding opponents to scoring 20% of the time, when the drive starts on their side of the 50 (and does not start as the result of some bonehead special teams play), is pretty good.

That's something the D should hang their hat on and look to build from.

Oh yeah... and Richard Samuel, HOLD ONTO THE DANG BALL. IT AIN'T HEAVY.

jferg said...

This kind of info definitely helps temper the vitriol of snap emaotional and sometimes irrational reactions.

I would like to see the offense and special teams do their part for 4 quarters (in terms of no turnovers) and see what happens.

Apparently this is a team sport...whoda thunkit?

doofusdawg said...

i guess cwm has never heard of the run blitz.

Anonymous said...

I watched the Ark game again last night and Mallett really was on target in the 1st half. He was very decisive with his throws and on at least 3 TD passes, he threw the ball ONLY where his guys could make the catch, and on 2 of those, the catches were pretty amazing. Obviously, the one that split our safeties and saw Bryan Evans trailing (again) was just a blown coverage.
In the 2nd half, we must have tightened up on the coverage because he was holding the ball longer (still pretty quick to get it out, though) but our line and linebackers were getting caught up in the "wash" at the line and not able to get pressure. It almost looked like Ark had 2 guys on every 1 of our D linemen and the linebackers were running into the backs of our linemen, for some reason. The one sakc near the goal line, Washington got under the tackles' pads, shoved him to the side and launched himself onto the back of Mallett, riding him to the ground. That was something we need a lot more of, and I don't know where it has been all year.
Anyway, David, as always your work is stellar, and thanks to Jim F. for his research.
As I have said before, Willie is the DC for "my" team, so I am going to support him, come hell or high water (probably not the best analogy, given the recent floods).
Go Dawgs!!!

Anonymous said...

If Georgia hasn't been able to fix those issues in the past 12 months, why should they think that will change in the next few weeks?

And that is it in a nutshell. The fact that we continue to have the same problems that we had last year tells me that our current coaches are not up to the challenge of correcting the problems.

I have defended Willie for as long as I am going to defend him. I do not agree that we fire him during this season. It is too late for that.

But at the end of this year there needs to be wholesale coaching changes on the defensive side of the coaching staff.

And get somebody in here who knows sometning about special teams.

Anonymous said...

If we are going to have to live with a sucky defense, at least make them go 70-80 yards every time against our sucky defense. Got to eliminate turnovers.

John P said...

If there had not been any turnovers/ fresh and soph mistakes this season,we would be 3-0 and ranked in the top 10 and we would not be having this discussion. That in a nutshell is the problem.

Last year was an anomolgy, with all the injuries, so lets not bring that up again.

Anonymous said...

anomolgy > anomaly. I like it.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough John P. We won't bring last year up again.

And next year when we are having this same discussion we won't talk about this year.

Even if we had whipped Oklahoma State 69-64 and stood at 3-0 we would not be in the top 10.

We are not a top 10 football team by any stretch of the imagination. And we won't be even if we beat ASU 89-86.

The LSU game will determine whether or not we even belong in the top 20.

MikeInValdosta said...

Great piece.

Excellent work by Jim, too!