ATHENS — In three games this season, A.J. Green has touched the ball for Georgia an average of six times. His effect on the game, however, is more far-reaching.
Since the star receiver returned from NCAA suspension, Georgia has seen an uptick in its running game, its other receivers and tight ends have caught more passes, and the offense in general has been improved.
That’s no coincidence, according to Georgia players and coaches, and opposing coaches.
“I don’t think there’s much doubt that he’s drawn the most attention of anybody I’ve coached,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. “There has definitely been an A.J. Green plan so far. He changes everything.”
Why does Green change everything, even if he’s only a receiver? Because when he’s on the field, the other team has at least a cornerback and a safety focused on him, and the rest of Georgia’s offense is essentially playing 10-on-9.
The numbers tell the story. Since Green returned, Georgia is averaging 37 points, versus 24.25 while he was out — or 14 per game in three SEC games.
Georgia is averaging 267.3 passing yards with Green, against 228 without him.
The rushing yardage has been even more stark: 185.3 yards per game with Green, 124.3 without him.
“He’s a special player,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “When he touches the ball, he has a chance to score every time he touches it, and defenses have got to know where he is, and they’ve gotta account for him, and that’s gonna take a lot of focus off of just lining up and playing ball.”
The past two opponents, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, have each used coverages they hadn’t tried at any point this season.
It still didn’t work.
“What happens is it’s is you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said. “You’re so focused on trying to handle A.J., it really puts a lot of pressure on the rest of your defense, whether it’s in the run game or in pass coverage away from A.J. We really didn’t defend anything well. We did put some new coverages in, and they obviously didn’t work.”
Vanderbilt head coach Robbie Caldwell concurred with Dooley’s assessment.
“We did a little bit more in the coverage in the back end than we had,” Caldwell said. “But we didn’t execute real well. Of course, Georgia had a lot to do with that, too.”
Richt went into a lengthy explanation Tuesday, detailing the different coverages they’ve seen against Green. It’s more than just doubling him. It has involved a cover-2 package just on Green’s side of the field, which Richt pointed out means the defense is “more vulnerable to things on the weak side of the field.”
And therein is the benefit for Georgia’s tight ends, who have caught more passes since Grene’s return. The same goes for slot receiver Tavarres King and fellow starter Kris Durham.
“They might want to start respecting them some more,” Murray said. “Because both of them when they’ve gotten chances to perform they’ve done a tremendous job.”
Durham isn’t offended.
“I’ve seen when I’m running routes the safeties are rolling away from me just because they have to roll to his side. So it’s opened the windows up to myself and Tavarres and other receivers,” Durham said. “It’s huge and at the same time with the defenses having to be worried about him and his playmaking abilities it’s opened up our running game and other facets of our offense.”
The Bulldogs have had a star skill-position player as recently two years ago: tailback Knowshon Moreno. But Bobo said defenses weren’t geared around defending Moreno because the Bulldogs also had quarterback Matt Stafford and Green.
“It’s kind of difficult to decide which poison you were going to defend,” Bobo said. “We had a lot of one-on-one matchups, it was just a matter of winning those matchups.”