Everyone wants Nick Saban’s defense. That’s one reason everyone keeps hiring his former assistant coaches. The Georgia Bulldogs have been trying to build a Saban-quality defense over multiple seasons, starting in 2014, when they hired former and current Saban assistant Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator and culminating in 2016, when they made longtime Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart their head coach.
The Dawgs have been good on defense over this period, ranking as high as 11th in defensive S&P+ in 2015, but this season, they might be breaking into elite status, currently ranking No. 8.
2017 has already seen Georgia put away a pair of strong spread offenses led by dual-threat QBs, with a 20-19 victory in South Bend over Notre Dame and a 31-3 home victory over Mississippi State. Among teams that’ve played multiple ranked opponents, Georgia and Clemson rank far above the rest in yards allowed per play; UGA’s allowed 3.71 to ranked teams.
The Dawg defense held Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush to a total of 212 yards despite the Irish QB throwing or running 55 times, an average of 3.9 yards per play with a pair of lost fumbles. They held Nick Fitzgerald to 130 total yards on 39 combined passes or runs, for a total of 3.3 yards per play with a pair of interceptions to boot. They also held the Irish to almost seven yards below their average per carry otherwise (1.49 to 8.28) and MSU to more than a yard per carry less than LSU allowed (4.78 to 5.94).
For spread offenses built around the QB, those are dismal numbers that virtually guarantee defeat. Here’s how the Dawgs have been shutting these teams down.
1. Matching big on big against Notre Dame
Georgia regularly recruits at an elite level; you just wouldn’t necessarily know it from some of their results over the last decade. The state is loaded with prospects, ranking as the second-highest in talent per capita. The ultimate blue-blood privilege is access to 250-pound high schoolers who can move, and the Georgia defensive line is loaded with elite talents.
They’re particularly loaded at strong side DE and defensive tackle, spots manned primarily by Jonathan Ledbetter, Trent Thompson, and Tyler Clark. The Dawgs also have a pair of senior outside linebackers, Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter, who can attack from various angles on the perimeter. Against these spread teams, their abundance of big athletes across the front is a tremendous advantage.
Smart likes hybrid fronts that split the difference between attacking opposing backfields and eating up interior lanes to free up linebackers and defensive backs. The Dawgs tend to play either a three-down front with both the DT (T below) and the DE (E) in a 4i-technique, which means lined up inside of the offensive tackles ...
... or in an hybrid front, with the T moving further inside and Bellamy (J) right outside of him:
In either set, the DE and DT are primarily in charge of the gaps between guards and tackles, with the outside linebackers focused on keeping the ball inside and the inside linebackers running free.
Notre Dame plays a lot of 11 and 12 personnel sets (one or two tight ends), and under new offensive coordinator Chip Long, has become more of a gap-oriented running team, using TEs to pin edge players while guards and tackles pull around in search of linebackers. Consequently, Georgia’s plan for Notre Dame involved a lot of base defense with Bellamy and Carter on the field, to make sure they had some muscle on the edge.
For example, here the Irish try a pin-and-pull scheme from a double-TE set against the Dawgs’ 3-4 base defense.
The pulling guard gets little movement against Bellamy, and the LT/TE combo on DE Jonathan Ledbetter also fails to move the line. On the backside, No. 78 Thompson and No. 7 Lorenzo Carter get off blocks to swallow up the cutback.
Here’s a QB outside zone, with the TE and RB serving as lead blockers to create a numerical advantage:
Georgia is in its 4-3 under front. Carter forces the edge, preventing the Irish from getting horizontal. Irish TE Durham Smythe fails to kick him out wide or even keep him blocked, and the pursuit reaches the ball easily.
2. Erasing space against Mississippi State
Dan Mullen’s offense is rather different from the Irish attack. While MSU often plays with a tight end, it prefers to operate on the perimeter with spread-option concepts.
Georgia aligned mostly in nickel and worked to deny MSU access to the perimeter. Here’s MSU running an outside zone read that present threats to three different areas on the perimeter:
- First, there’s the bubble screen to the three WRs aligned on the right side. Georgia plays three DBs to that area while middle linebacker Reggie Carter (No. 45) also waits to see what Fitzgerald does with the ball.
- Then there’s the zone-read element, which could allow Fitzgerald to run off the edge, but DE David Marshall (No. 51) is forces the MSU QB to hand off.
- Finally, there’s the actual outside zone play, which has five OL working against two DL and two linebackers, with Carter and the free safety en route.
Bellamy works to set a hard edge, so the RB can’t bounce into space, and the nose tackle crashes into the left guard, to make sure he can’t cut off linebacker Roquan Smith. Mississippi State gets some yardage from two sheer double-team blocks, but never succeeds in springing a player into open grass.
Here’s how that looked if they didn’t get a double-team on the DT they were running toward:
Georgia is basically playing with five in the box and a sixth or seventh defender coming as late help, daring MSU to run. Mississippi State wasn’t up for it.
3. Matching athletes on the perimeter
By matching Notre Dame’s TE sets with base personnel, Georgia dared the Irish to either win mano y mano in the trenches or win by passing. That meant that it was difficult to get safety help over Notre Dame’s receivers, because safeties were needed to fill in holes left by Carter’s presence on the edge.
The risk would have been a 100-yard day by star receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Notre Dame targeted the big receiver nine times and got a pair of catches for seven and nine yards and a pass interference call for another 15-yard gain. Including the penalty, that’s 3.4 yards per target to their best receiver.
Part of the reason was former walk-on defensive back Aaron Davis, who spent much of his night blanketing St. Brown. The Dawgs played Davis on the left and Deandre Baker on the right, and the Irish couldn’t throw against either.
These two had impressive days against Fitzgerald as well. While Notre Dame’s passing game is largely play-action oriented and built off the downhill run game, Mississippi State uses lots of quick routes and dropback passing to slot receivers in the middle.
Georgia moved Davis inside to nickel, to help take away the quick game, and the senior had a huge day. His physical play on wide receiver blocks required that he often be double teamed on bubble screens ...
... while his quickness and route recognition allowed him to smother rub routes on third downs:
Georgia has a blistering pass rush, bringing Bellamy and Carter on the edges or star linebacker Roquan Smith from unexpected angles. It’s hard to beat a quick-pass team without smart coverage in the middle, though, which Davis provides. On this play, the Dawgs are in their dime package, with Davis as an inside linebacker of sorts.
The Bulldogs are loaded with athletes at every position on defense, and it’s difficult for opponents to create leverage for their own top players as a result. Between their deep and powerful defensive line, multiple edge players, speedy linebacker corps, and strong coverage defenders, UGA can typically force right-handed offenses to use their left hands, so to speak.