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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?


Stu said...

There's no doubt that "mistakes" have led to a ton of points. But these mistakes have nothing to do with the crazy amount of yardage of defense allows. Really, no matter how you try to explain it, our defense simply didn't stop USC or Arkansas.

Stu said...

Meant to say "the crazy amount of yardage OUR defense allows."

Texas_Dawg said...

With all the Martinez talk, I decided to look at how UGA has fared in points allowed vs. the rest of the SEC’s big 6 programs during the Richt era.

The chart here shows UGA’s average points allowed per season (2001-2008), in SEC games only, compared to the averages of the SEC’s other big 6 programs during that time. (The table below the chart has the yearly data for the individual teams.)

From this perspective I think Martinez’s defenses come out looking a little better than many suggest. As seen in this table of point differentials from the averages of the other major SEC programs during these years, UGA’s 2007 defense actually had one of the 10 best seasons (among those of the SEC’s major programs) this decade. By that measure, it actually comes out better than all but one (2003) of the Richt era defenses.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again David for your continuing terrific coverage and analysis of UGA football. By far the best coverage I've ever seen of any college football program in my near-60 years on the planet.

I'm glad to see Martinez getting at least a little relief in this analysis, and look forward to seeing the adjustments he comes up with for the rest of the schedule.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:16 said...."I'm glad to see Martinez getting at least a little relief in this analysis, and look forward to seeing the adjustments he comes up with for the rest of the schedule."

I don't think Martinez and Adjustments belong in the same paragraph.

Liam said...

We all see the mistakes and turnovers that have led to easy scores. That's not CWM or the D. BUT, we also see ineffective blitz packages, DBs who don't play enough man coverage to be competent and the secondary continually blowing coverage- one guy not on the same page with the other guys. That is coaching, no matter how many excuses CMR and CWM make. They point to red zone efficiency on defense. At that point our guys are so tightly bunched they don't have room to let people just roam free. More to the point, most of the time the other team has scored from a distance, long before they approach the red zone! No doubt our D will look improved if we stop giving the other team the ball on a short field. It will not stop the poor coaching on the defensive side of the ball and we will be up and down as long as CWM is defensive coordinator.

Anonymous said...

The "Fire the coach!" crowd won't read this fine analysis and couldn't really understand it if they did. It's a shame. If they actually learned a little about the wonderful game of football, they might realize that coaches who work at their trade 100 t0 120 a week, know more about the game than the fans. Sorta simple to understand, but few do.

Dog44 said...

Excellent piece. You actually provided a few things I hadn't thought about on this issue, even with all the other things written out there about it. (and you're not getting paid any extra for all this work, are you?) You either just really enjoy your job... really love the fans... or... (I'll let you fill in the last one).


Anonymous said...

It seems that everyone wants to jump on Martinez. Why are we not hearing the up roar over Fabris's coaching. IT appears that if a Defensive End does not come to Georgia with natural talent he can't coach them up. His "I love the chalenge of the sideline kick" with special teams is making me sick. If we are going to yell for change let's start with Fabris.

Anonymous said...

I'll take what Stu said a step further - one would think that with the short field our offensive turnovers have put the defense on, the yards allowed would be less, right? To give up 721 passing yards in two games (IN THE SEC NO LESS) is insane! I'm not necessarily in favor of terminating "Soft Willie" but their MUST be a behavioral change in the defense to have a shot at beating the likes of an LSU or Florida. And I'll further agree that the turnovers have to be minimized BUT THERE IS NO EXCUSE for kickoffs out of bounds. Isn't it amazing that when we allow Walsh to boom the damn ball, it results in a touchback or the return man takes it out from a few yards deep in the endzone. BUT just like clockwork, we try and get cute and "directionally" sh!t all over ourselves putting the ball on the 35 or worse.

Xon said...

I know it's sometimes just therapeutic to vent, but the down on Willie contributors in this thread are really just repeating the same old stuff that has already been covered. This article by David is not an "everything's fine" analysis. Nobody is denying that too many yards are given up. Nobody is disputing that something is bad wrong with our pass D, etc. The point is to try to figure out why, and to say something more specific than "Fire Willie!" or "too many passing yards, no excuse!" Right, there is no excuse, so let's get busy trying to fix it. But that requires doing more than saying, yet again, that it is a problem. The problem is recognized and undisputed.

And the interesting thing about this analysis of David's is that it really is starting to look like the D's big weakness is reading and reacting to the pass in situations that are not obviously calling for the pass. Arkansas destroyed us on only a handful of play action plays the other night. Of course, they really ran surprisingly few play action plays, too, and so that's probably part of the reason they were so effectiv when they did. (You can't run Branden Smith on a reverse every play, but if you do it once every 80 plays, it will probably rock). But our D simply HAS to figure out when it is pass, and GET TO THE QB! Disrupt, give him happy feet, deflect a few, get a few sacks. All of these are good things. Just be there near the QB, and let the rest take care of itself.

IveyLeaguer said...

One of the problems of our defense the past several years has been players who simply don’t give 100% every play, guys that take a play off every now and then. Evans admitted to this after the game. Talent aside, you can’t have a top notch defense when that is going on. Sooner or later, a good offense will burn you, and Petrino and Mallett, in particular, did a good job of that last Saturday.

I know this hasn’t been mentioned much anywhere, if at all, but the fact is we can’t just continue to ignore this. There is no way around it. There may be other stuff going on, but if we don’t tackle this problem, it’s going to be a long year. Furthermore, it is fixable. Address it, and there is no reason we can’t beat anybody we play the rest of the year.

So the problem is, we have players who feel they can take a play off now and then - both mentally, physically, or both. And they’ve felt that way for quite some time, some of them perhaps their entire Georgia career. They’ve been led to believe they can get away with it. I suspect we’re talking about a handful of players at most, not the whole team. We all know it only takes one to mess everything up, that it’s a team game and you play defense as a whole unit composed basically of 5 smaller units. That raises the question …. why did this happen and how do we correct it? Did we recruit the wrong players? Or is it the coach’s fault for not getting the most out of his players, and for allowing this thing to happen in the first place???

I suspect it’s a little of the first and a lot of the second. One thing we know about this years’ team … we have some heart and intensity, and have now developed enough mental toughness that we suddenly have a shot at anything, really, in spite of our problems (this is largely due, I suspect, to the drive and character of 2 players - Curran and Cox).

It would be shameful to throw this shot away simply because we can’t get players to play 60 minutes of ball without taking a play off. Because we can’t go 100% every play till the whistle blows. In the old days, there were players who went 100% for 60 literal minutes. Nobody has asked these kids to do anything even close to that.

We’ve got to demand more out of our defense, and out of our secondary, especially. We’ve got to have 11 guys going all out every play, whatever that takes.

After watching the Arkansas film, I’m convinced that we can return to a traditional Georgia defense - IF the coaches will get a handle on this. The DE’s are coming along, and even though it seems they’re crawling, they’re pretty close and getting better.

If we can get this one thing done, it will open up all kinds of possibilities as a team.


Anonymous said...

I could buy the gimmick offense argument when Tech ran all over us. I still believe we will figure out how to stop that sooner rather than later. But the play-action pass catching us completely off guard and out of position?? This is not exactly some newfangled play that we should need to adjust to on the fly. Defending this should be second nature to an experienced SEC defense.

WFdawg said...


This is the first sane thing I've read about what's wrong with our defense. Good work.

Anonymous said...

Come on! We aren't just talking about points here...we are talking about "swagger." Something the UGA defense lost with Van Gorder. I remember the days when teams marched into the red zone and you were surprised if WE didn't get points out of it, much less them! I remember when one-on-one in the open field meant someone was going to leave in a body bag, not a missed shoulder tackle and TD. I remember when coverage was so tight that you were surprised there wasn't a flag just for coverage being too ridiculously unfair. I remember the days when the refs had to just look the other way on holding calls on our DEs just to make the game fair (you remember Richt having to go to the SEC kingpins to complain!)

"Oh, what bad field position our offense and special teams leaves them in!" Come on! Does anyone remember the days when we didn't have Knowshons, Staffords, and Greenes?! Our offense was terrible! But no excuses. You think it isn't a coaching problem because our guys don't know where to be? Look at what Daddy Kiffin did with UT's defense in 1 offseason! They put the clamps on one of the top offenses in modern history. Imagine if he had the athletes we have and all of the years Martinez has had! Look at bama and what Saban has done in a short time with their defense. Get real, people. We have a coaching problem that needs to be fixed ASAP before the whole coaching staff is burned at the stake!

IveyLeaguer said...

You have some good points, Anonymous.

What I'm getting at above goes straight to the culture that has been allowed under Martinez. When players are allowed to take plays off, abandon fundamental tackling, consistently overrun plays, etc., and not lose PT for it, that's a sign that low expectations have been tolerated.

The difference between Georgia defenses under Martinez and BVG is basically what each coach demanded and tolerated from players. I can't imagine BVG allowing Reshad Jones to get away with what he did last year. The Tech game never would have happened because BVG would never have allowed things to deteriorate that far.

One of the primary differences between great coaches and average coaches is their ability to get 100% from their players. That's what made Bear Bryant great, not X's and O's, and that's what separates Willie Martinez from Brian VanGorder.

If you think about it, the leaven of allowing players to get away with things that aren't fundamentally sound explains the gradual deterioration of the defense which began in 2005, the year Martinez took over, to the point where it is today.

Sadly, I suspect it's gone on too long, and it's therefore too late for Martinez himself to fix it, assuming he realizes the problem.


Anonymous said...

I am with you all in saying that it's the expectation that the coaches give the kids. If a player knows he can tippy toe up to J Dwyer and slap him with a shoulder and that's it, are you kidding me? Jones should have been yanked out of that game last year without blinking an eye. Get kids in the game that WANT to hit someone. Yeah, they make a mistake but WANT to get better, continue to improve. I want to see hungry players, Georgia doesn't have that on defense. Georgia has stuck with B Evans all this time and he hasn't done anything. Burned to a crisp at DB. Now he is at S and we are seeing the same results. It's the accountability, the expectation is low and poor. Maybe the scheme is great and maybe CWM is great at setting the D right but until you have players that are ready to give it their all and play hungry, we are going to see this mediocrity.

Ant123 said...

The only problem I see with Texas Dawg's research is this. If you run those same number's but only use those six programs games against each other we do not look near as good. In other words when we went against the best teams we did not perform as well as the others against those same teams.
How many times have we won, or even had for that matter a defensive ballgame with an SEC opponent that finished in the top two of either the Eastern or Western division of the SEC? From 2001 to 2004 that happened pretty often, but not anymore.

Anonymous said...

The truth is, Willie is the root of all evil