Georgia mailbag: The future of the defense

semerson@macon.comNovember 20, 2013 

uga_clemson

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, left, and head coach Mark Richt watch and work their players as the clock hit seven minutes to go.

BEAU CABELL — bcabell@macon.com

This proved to be another week that not everybody's question could be answered. My apologies for that, but the good news is once again I'll be holding my live chat Friday at noon. So feel free to stop by then to ask again.

Now let's start with a question that gets right to the point.

Do you think we should/will fire Todd Grantham given the history of the defense, or wait one more year?
- Scott Tuggle

Mark Richt’s opinion is the only one that really matters here. He’ll make any decision on staff changes, and lately he’s been keeping his feelings on the defense close to the vest. Maybe that’s a clue. Or maybe he just doesn’t feel like talking about something he doesn’t feel should be an issue. Either way, I get the impression his mind is made up, whatever decision there is to be made, and we’ll find out after the Georgia Tech game.

I know it’s easy for people to say it’s simply time for a change. But the youth on this defense has to be taken into account. That doesn’t mean there’s no need to change anything. But what if Grantham comes to Richt, if he hasn’t already, and says: “Look, we were young this year, but there were also some things I could have done differently. I’m going to do X, Y and Z differently.”

The question is whether Grantham will do that. He can be stubborn. But a chastened and flexible Grantham might be better than potentially blowing up the defense under new leadership.

This isn’t to lobby for the status quo. Clearly, something’s not working on defense. But Richt has to look forward a year and decide what will put the team in the best position to win, rather than just punish a staff for the previous season.

Clearly the defense is bad objectively, according to stats to other teams in the nation and to Georgia teams in years past. But what about subjectively? Is it fair to compare the current defense to past ones when you have fast-paced spread option offenses, are not most defenses giving up more yards, points, etc? And how do the stats compare to "better" teams when accounting for the caliber of teams and offenses we have played? Surely there must be some grace there, especially with a young D? My hope is that some subjectivity might allow for hope... but I'm willing to be proved wrong.
- J. Johnson

The schedule does have to be taken into account: Here is the total yardage ranking of the five best offensive teams Georgia has faced: No. 9 Clemson, No. 14 Auburn, No. 17 Missouri, No. 32 LSU, No. 41 South Carolina.

Believe it or not, Georgia has held four of those five teams under their season average for total yards. The exception is Auburn, which was 73 yards over its season average, that 73 yards coming on … well, you know.

The problem for Georgia’s defense is three things: The eye test (it just doesn’t look like a good defense), the laughable lack of turnovers (third-least in the nation) and the scoring defense. There’s just a sense that the offense has to score almost every time it touches the ball, and that’s too much to ask.

There’s no getting around that it’s been a disappointing season for the defense. But youth and the schedule have to be taken into account.

Shouldn’t the coaches advice be the same for a long or short pass on 4th down? Knock it down. I thought that’s what coaches do at time-outs. Remind the players of the situation and tell them what their job is. Very disappointing.
- Glenn, Newnan

Honestly, I think the issue may have been a bit overblown. Perhaps I contributed to that by tweeting it out and writing a separate story on it. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews not speaking to the media this week (it’s not clear whether it was their call or the coaches’) then we were just left with Richt, who chose to fall on his sword.

Yes, the coaches could have reminded the players to knock it down. But it’s also basic football. While I haven’t spoken to Harvey-Clemons, I seriously doubt he’s sitting there mad at Richt and Grantham for not reminding him. He’s mad at himself, as evidenced by his tweet after the game: "Definitely a play I wish I could have back."

But ultimately it was just a fluke play. There don’t need to be recriminations just for that one play. Stuff happens sometimes.

I feel like I'm the only UGA fan I know who wasn't devastated by the ending to Saturday's game. Maybe it's because I started looking towards next year after the Vandy loss ( I wasn't buying Mizzou losing their last two games to give Georgia a shot at the East), but I would have been much more upset if the 4th quarter comeback hadn't occurred and UGA had just laid down and been embarrassed by losing by 21. I realize I'm going to have to see that play for many years to come, but is anybody on the team pointing out the most obvious positive: that with Gurley and Bennett on the field, the #6 team in the country needed a miracle to beat the Dawgs at home, thereby showing just how good UGA really is? And doesn't this loss set them up for better "nobody believes in us" potential for next year?
- James Echterhoff

The shock of the way it ended, and various other issues eminating from the game (officiating, whether to knock it down, etc.) has obscured the comeback. You are right that if that final play doesn’t happen the entire discussion is different. Georgia is still in the running for Atlanta (because Missouri losing its final two games is a real possibility) and yes, people are wondering what might have been if Georgia had been healthy against Missouri and Vanderbilt.

As to your final point, I don’t think Georgia will be able to play the no-respect card next year. Aaron Murray may be leaving, but Todd Gurley and the presumed return of Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and almost all of the defense makes Georgia a candidate for the preseason top 10.

If not for that play, would Murray's performance have earned him a trip to NY?
- Jason in Asheville, NC

It might've made it interesting. certainly the game being on national television would have put Murray back on the minds of a lot of voters who had discounted him. We'll never know, obviously. But my sense is Murray, though little fault of his own, had slid down the list of contenders so far that it was too high of a hill to climb.

I don't get our offensive line. It's not that they're just outright bad. Instead, it's one of the most wildly inconsistent lines I've seen - not only game to game, but their play sometimes varies dramatically by half or even by drive. There really is no middle ground - they either look great or awful. This has got to be screwing with Murray's mind. It seems like once he thinks his )-line has figured things out and is feeling somewhat comfortable, it breaks down completely again and he just gets blindsided. First quarter at Auburn is a great example. I know it seems a shame given some of the progress the line was making earlier this year, but at what point do we just adjust our game plan to anticipate the o-line's breakdown regardless of how they're playing?
- Mark S

They’ve actually been adjusting it for much of the season. It happened in the Auburn game, when they went to the short passing attack. That’s happened at other points this season. The reason they don’t just come out in that attack is they have Todd Gurley, and they want to be balanced. Plus, the line HAS had some very good games, including South Carolina and LSU. It’s just been wildly inconsistent.

My question focuses on the perception of our team’s talent in relation to others throughout the country. Despite our record, I truly do believe we have a talented squad that can stand toe-to-toe with many of the top 10 teams in the country. We've proven that we have that ability by knocking off two talented teams in USC and LSU, by nearly beating AU, and by hanging tough against both Clemson and Missouri. So my question is this: Do the Dawgs still have a chance at a decent (New Years Day) bowl game, and do they have a shot at still landing in the top 25? Or is the season completely lost, from a ranking stand point? What do voters think of UGA…are they still a rankable team, or do the 4 losses just make us look mediocre?
- Andrew

A New Year’s Day bowl not only is still a possibility, it might be a probability: The Gator Bowl is on Jan. 1, and that’s currently the best bet for Georgia. But if not the Gator, then the Chick-fil-A (Dec. 31) or Music City (Dec. 30) are the next most likely. I wouldn’t rule out the Outback (Jan. 1), but a lot of other SEC teams would have to struggle.

Georgia will almost certainly be ranked in the top 25 if it wins out, including the bowl. It could even make it back by winning the next two games, depending on what happens elsewhere.

I'll try to maintain my optimism with this submission. Although Georgia will obviously miss the talent, experience, and determination of Aaron Murray, the coaching staff must be eager to witness the skill players who return next year. Assuming the ACL injuries heal properly and Mitchell doesn't declare for the draft, Mason will be have a lot of options to choose from when he takes the reins. The following six WRs should be capable playmakers: Mitchell, Bennett, Conley, Scott-Wesley, Tramel Terry, Jonathan Rumph, and Reggie Davis. The projected RBs on the roster will also be impressive: Gurley, Marshall, Douglas, Green, Turman, Sony Michel, and Nick Chubb. I imagine UGA will spend a lot of time in three or four WR sets because these folks present better options than the FBs (Hall and Hicks) or TEs (Rome, Jordan Davis, and Jeb Blazevich). What are your thoughts?
- Shag, Phoenix, Ariz.

There will be time soon to dissect the offense and the outlook for next season. But for now I’ll just say you seem right on. The question with the offense next year will be whether Mason is as good as he’s looked in practice, and whether the offensive line can produce while losing three starters. The other skill position spots should be as strong as anywhere in the country.

I chided you on Twitter Saturday night regarding your criticism of the three- (actually. two-) man rush on the last play. Sunday you said you were softening. Upon further review, have you completed your evolution?

I am no fan of Coach Grantham. In fact, I think that call is one of the few things he has done that isn't open to question. The 3-man rush against Mettenberger was, predictably, a disaster. But Marshall is a different breed of cat (well, still a Tiger, technically). I think Grantham's biggest fear on that play, rightly, was that Marshall would get outside the pocket and run for the first down (or more) or have a coverage bust as he scrambled. And for once, his call achieved exactly what he wanted -- Marshall trapped in the pocket with the nose (who just stood up after the snap and didn't even try to rush) and at least one linebacker spying him. And predictably, Marshall heaved up a wobbly pass with no hope, until, well... AU was in max protect (which Grantham saw before the second timeout). We would have had to send six or seven men to really have a shot, and that kind of jailbreak scenario is just what Marshall wants. Give him a jailbreak and he'll end up in the warden's swivel chair, sipping his scotch, before disappearing into the night.
- David in Athens

You make some very valid points. Richt said the other night he was very “comfortable” with that play call, and Grantham was when I talked to him after the game. However, I do still think something could have been gained by rushing a few more guys. Georgia’s tackling in space has been so bad that I’m not sure keeping guys near the marker to stop Marshall scrambling was a surefire strategy. A big reason Georgia had contained Marshall in the fourth quarter was much better pressure.

But ultimately the biggest problem on the play wasn’t the rush, as we know.

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