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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...

Geez.... make a movie next time.

Anonymous said...

tend to agree-is P. Miller going to cover D. Bryant

Dog44 said...

Good post. I agree with your assessment (unfortunately) that at this point there are more signs of concern than optimism at the DE position.

I think the Houston suspension was potentially huge. Hard to think of many other players I would have preferred less to have gotten in trouble and miss a couple important games.

My hunch is the line will be improved (wouldn't it be hard to go backward?), but how much improved is the key question. Seems to me our defensive scheme is dependent on a very good pass rush (not just average) to be effective. You can look at the 07 season and draw a clear line between the first and second halves of the season... two different teams. When comparing the two, the key stat that jumps off the page is number of sacks (first half was horrible, second half was terrific.) Maybe a big reason we were so dominant at the end of the year.

In fact, it'd be interesting to research sack totals compared to W-L record during Richt's tenure. I know it's a little like the chicken and egg, but might be interesting nonetheless.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

let's just give up and call it a season already