The 2013 Georgia Bulldogs got a lot of leeway for a tough season due to the obvious and sympathetic fact that Mark Rich lost control of the health of his team. The offense lost its top two running backs and three wide receivers for much or all the year, and quarterback Aaron Murray went down for the final three games.
Meanwhile, the Dawg D had a horrendous season despite staying relatively healthy, finishing 43rd in Football Outsiders' defensive S&P+ rating. While defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was coaching a large number of inexperienced starters, he was also coaching one of the most talented groups in the nation. Watching the Bulldogs on defense, the tremendous size and overall athleticism of their players stands out instantly.
Despite the lackluster season, Grantham was given $5 million guaranteed over five years to help Bobby Petrino launch Louisville into the ACC. Meanwhile, Georgia plugged in Jeremy Pruitt, fresh off a national championship at Florida State and the successful coordination of one of the best defenses in college football over the last 10 years.
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Contrasting Georgia's and FSU's seasons gives the impression that Richt has stumbled upon a substantial upgrade. Is that actually the case?
Comparing Georgia's 2013 season has to involve the context of their season. Heading into 2013, Grantham had to replace two first-rounders and seven other starters from his strong 2012 squad, so his mission became to find ways to unleash the athleticism of his roster with simple and sound tactics. Murray and a loaded returning offense would carry the water for the team.
His plan was entirely reasonable.
By personnel, Georgia is a 3-4 team. But in reality, it used hybrid over/under fronts that mixed two-gap and one-gap techniques. Defensive linemen like Ray Drew, Josh Dawson, and Sterling Bailey are large, powerful players who could fill interior gaps or stand up offensive linemen and fill creases inside.
Then the Dawgs deployed 3-4 outside linebackers like Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd on the edge in hybrid DE/LB positions that might include the responsibilities of a defensive end one snap and the role of an outside linebacker the next. The sheer size and athleticism of these players helped Georgia to rank 23rd on rush downs and 20th in rushing S&P+ in 2013.
Because they played two versatile and athletic outside linebackers along with a cast of powerful defensive linemen, Grantham was able to bring four-man pressures and disguise them with relative ease:
This was one of Georgia's many different fronts with two outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage. There, the duo could threaten the offense with edge blitzes. In this instance, the strongside backer blitzes the edge while the weakside backer drops into coverage.
Grantham would also use 3-4 odd fronts, a 2-4-5 nickel package, and several other variations to match up his cast of athletes against SEC offensive lines.
On the back end of the defense, the Dawgs were far simpler in their approach. Grantham had a very large and athletic group to work with, highlighted by returning inside linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera and backed by young safeties in the recently arrested Tray Matthews and the recently removed Josh Harvey-Clemons.
Harvey-Clemons in particular is a special, former five-star athlete who checks in at 6'5, 220 pounds. The Georgia corners, Shaq Wiggins and Damian Swann, are shorter players and easier for opposing offenses to pick on, so Grantham relied heavily on two-deep coverages that kept the safeties deeper than 10 yards off the ball to help over the top and keep offenses in front.
The outside linebackers, one of whom was Harvey-Clemons spun down into a nickelback role vs. spread sets, were aligned outside with the slot receivers. This meant that the safeties were free from primary run-support roles and could play over the top while the underneath five defenders can play tighter man coverage against the receivers.
Man coverage was key for the Dawgs all season. It allowed them to stay simple on defense, with straightforward tasks for their defensive backfield behind myriad different fronts. This put a lot on the linebackers to cover ground playing the edge against the run or helping in the flats against screens. It also put a lot on the line and inside linebackers to hold with only five in the box:
Because of their overall athleticism and size up front, this was actually a viable strategy for the Dawgs and allowed them to pursue a strategy with keep-'em-in-front principles on defense. They would rely on the line and outside linebackers inflicting negative plays on an offense to kill drives.
The only problem with this plan was that Georgia was terrible at it. Harvey-Clemons didn't show tremendous awareness of normal coverage techniques, the linebackers managed to get lost despite the simple man coverage structure, and quarterbacks picked on the corners.
Unlike at Michigan, where offensive coordinator Al Borges threw schemes at walls trying to find something that would work, Grantham had the right idea. He just couldn't get his players to make it work. For instance:
Here the middle linebacker, Herrera, responds to running back motion by dropping deep to ... rob a curl route by the outside receiver? He leaves the easy slant wide open for Missouri instead of simply picking up the new No. 3 receiver. There is complete miscommunication between the middle and weakside linebackers as to whom is responsible for which receiver, despite the fact that they played this coverage almost every snap against the Tigers.
Here they are attempting to handle speed-option to the trips side of a formation from Missouri:
It would have been hard for Grantham to have a better call to defend this play. The unblocked defensive end forces a quick pitch, and then it's up to the three receivers to block a middle linebacker and the enormous Harvey-Clemons in order for Missouri to succeed.
It appears as though the end was actually expected to force the ball inside, but James Franklin gets the pitch off too fast. Then you see the mike, Herrera, hesitate before trying to run under a block while nickelback Harvey-Clemons is looking to force the ball back inside. For the nickel to have been effective, the middle linebacker needed to be running to fill that lane, but no one is there to fill the crease between the second and third Tiger receivers.
Too often, Georgia's lines have carried the secondary. Like the photo! Scott Cunningham, Getty
The Bulldogs ranked only 36th in passing S&P+ and 44th on passing downs despite having multiple strong pass-rushers, safeties deep, and simple man coverages. They were rarely beat by better athletes but by their own terrible techniques and blown assignments.
Either Grantham's charges were inattentive and sloppy, or he was a poor teacher and motivator, because this unit put some terrible football on tape. The overall rankings of Grantham's defenses over the last four years point to a pattern of underachievement, with even the NFL-laden 2012 unit managing to rank only 14th in S&P+.
Enter Jeremy Pruitt.
The new plan
Once FSU's Jimbo Fisher called Pruitt's name to replace Mark Stoops as defensive coordinator, the outgoing Alabama defensive backs coach immediately installed the Nick Saban hybrid 3-4 at Florida State. He saw tremendous results. The Seminoles' lightning quick and physical defensive backfield flew around largely unimpeded by blockers while defensive line studs like Timmy Jernigan and Mario Edwards demanded extra attention from offensive lines.
The 'Noles would mix in some two-gappers with their line and, like the Dawgs, would use a few different fronts, including over, under, traditional 3-4, and some more exotic varieties.
When a team can get a former blue-chip like Edwards to blow up a pulling guard, thereby spilling a play outside for his linebackers and safeties to make the tackle? That's a good sign.
The Seminoles' play in the secondary was considerably more aggressive than the tactics employed by Grantham's Dawgs. Pruitt often dropped a safety shallow to give Florida State an eight-man front against the run and the ability to swallow up the quick passes that so many teams rely on today, all without requiring the linebackers to cover a lot of ground underneath.
On this play, the boundary safety Jalen Ramsey sneaks down late to be the flat defender, and the Duke quarterback is completely oblivious. He throws the throwback screen, and that safety makes a huge stick several yards behind the line of scrimmage. These single-deep safety coverages allowed FSU to get LaMarcus Joyner and the safeties out in the flats or in the shallow middle, where teams often abuse a defenses' lack of quickness with short routes.
The challenge with these coverages is that they often leave corners on islands:
Not a problem at Florida State, but Pruitt will have some work to do with the Georgia corners before they can routinely play press coverage and erase a fade route like that.
As far as blitzes, the typical 'Noles pressure packages took advantage of their team speed to overwhelm the edge with speed rushers and corner blitzes. For teams already struggling to block Edwards, it wasn't helpful to then have to consider the possibility of Joyner or a corner joining him off the edge.
Pruitt walked into good situations under Saban and Fisher. Can he bring Georgia to that level? Matthew Emmons, USA Today
Executing the new plan
Pruitt first became a national figure while the defensive coordinator for Hoover High, an Alabama suburban school that has won seven state championships since 2000 and was featured on MTV's "Two-A-Days." As a Saban assistant, he was part of national championships in 2010 and 2012 before being promoted by Fisher to coordinator at Florida State, where he immediately won a third title. At the very least, Pruitt knows what good defense looks like.
There are only a few cautions on his résumé, such as the fact Pruitt ran a secondary at Alabama loaded with talent and, in Pruitt's own words, was effectively coached by Saban himself. Nevertheless, his reputation was strong enough amongst the Saban coaching tree to earn him his opportunity with Fisher and the Seminoles. In Tallahassee, Pruitt made effective use of an extremely talented team that had been coached up the previous seasons by Stoops.
But can Pruitt develop players that have been coached by Grantham into savvy, intelligent players, like the ones he coached at Florida State? Can Pruitt develop a defensive program to churn out the kind of results that Saban and Fisher saw in their respective systems?
The Georgia front is loaded with big, athletic playmakers who should feel at home in Pruitt's hybrid fronts, which aren't terribly different from what Grantham utilized. The challenge will be in playing the kind of aggressive coverages the 'Noles used to destroy passing attacks without FSU's defensive backs. Is Georgia's secondary a few helpful offseason lessons away from erasing SEC teams with press coverage? Or will the roster take time to develop to that level?
The overall versatility of FSU's athletic safeties and the exceptional Joyner allowed Pruitt to strategically put elite athletes with sticky fingers and amazing change of direction in place to disrupt opponents' favorite passing routes. How long until Georgia has leveraged their excellent recruiting into a similarly effective secondary?
All indicators suggest that Pruitt is an excellent coach who will mold the great talent and resources available in Athens into consistently great defenses that put Mark Richt in control of the SEC East. In the meantime, he'll have to show the organizational structure to develop Georgia's athletes into a machine competitive with the systems in Tallahasse or Tuscaloosa.