Kirby Smart offered a simple solution to Georgia’s big-play problems over the first third of the season.
Coming off a game in which Mississippi gashed the Bulldogs with big-yardage gains, Smart knows his defense to hold up better with Tennessee coming to town on Saturday.
"Tackle better," Smart said. "I mean, the offenses we play, they get explosive plays on everybody. It's more about limiting those. Like you mentioned, how do I give up less? If we tackle better and you take nine of the 15 missed tackles away, then you take away about seven big plays. I think that's the most important thing."
Georgia’s given up 18 plays of 20 yards or more through its first four games of the season. Eight of those big plays came against Ole Miss, which included a 23-yard pass from Chad Kelly to Evan Engram on the Rebels’ first play from scrimmage and a 41-yard rushing touchdown by Kelly in the third quarter.
Taking it a step further, nine of the aforementioned plays have been 30 yards or more. Four have been over 40 yards.
Through Georgia’s first four games a season ago, the Bulldogs only gave up nine plays of 20 yards or more. Of course the schedule was significantly lighter, with games against Louisiana-Monroe, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Southern to open the season.
The Bulldogs did begin to give up big plays last season in October as they surrendered 23 plays of 20 yards or more in games against Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri and Florida. But that stretch can be considered tougher than what it’s gone through this year, with North Carolina, Nicholls State, Missouri and Ole Miss up first.
Safety Aaron Davis echoed what Smart had to say about tackling. With Georgia missing a lot of tackles against the Rebels, it became easier for Ole Miss to pick up chunk plays.
"We have to tackle better in practice," Davis said. "That’s the best way it’s going to translate to the game. If we really focus and put in effort in tackling in practice, we can do better in the game."
In addition, Davis said the secondary needs to work on keeping each individual’s eyes in the right spot and not allow a quarterback to move them into a wrong spot.
"We have to be disciplined out there, myself included, in seeing the right things," Davis said. "I know I’ve given up some plays, just not having my eyes in the right position. As long as we play with the right eye discipline I feel we can limit explosive plays."
Georgia’s inability to keep big plays at a minimum can be attributed to each level of the defense. The defensive line hasn’t gotten the necessary push over the past two games and the outside linebackers have only gotten to the quarterback once.
The secondary hasn’t covered well or long enough to allow the pass rush to affect the quarterback much and has been beat down the field by the opposition’s receiving targets.
Defensive lineman DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle said it’s on the defense to respond better each time an offense picks up a big gain.
"Sometimes they’ll execute better than we do, sometimes we’ll execute better than they do," Hawkins-Muckle said. "Like Coach (Smart) always says, plays are going to be made in the game of football. But if they make a play, we have to make two times the plays that they make."
When playing shot-taking offenses like Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee, Smart said it’s given the opposition will convert some of those big-play attempts.
The key is to make sure they’re kept at a minimum and that the majority of drives that cross into scoring range result in a field goal attempt. With the Volunteers up next, Georgia’s defense knows it has to correct what failed this past Saturday.
"They're going to hit some down-the-field plays. They're going to be one-on-one and hit some," Smart said. "But you’ve got to tackle them when the ball breaks out of stack, and you’ve got to do the great job of limiting the opportunities to hit those big plays, and we didn't do that Saturday. So we’ve got to do a better job of that."