With No. 8 Auburn coming to Athens on Saturday, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart is well aware his team must keep freshman quarterback Jacob Eason upright in order to have a chance at winning.
The Bulldogs face an Auburn team that has been disruptive on the defensive front during the 2016 season. Through nine games, the Tigers have racked up 21 sacks, which places them fourth in the SEC. Stopping their pass rush has proven to be a difficult assignment and could be for a Georgia squad that's had its issues on the offensive line.
Carl Lawson has been chief among the hard-charging Tigers in 2016. The junior defensive lineman has been a menace throughout the season, racking up 8 ½ sacks to sit only half-a-sack off the SEC lead.
Lawson's presence Saturday is something that Smart and his assistants will be sure to pay attention to for the sake of the Georgia offense.
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"He's a dynamic pass rusher, dynamic player," Smart said. "The challenge is knowing where he's at. They've been creative in ways they've moved him around. I think that frees him up to more and expand his role where he's not in one place all the time. If you're in one place all the time, then obviously you can find ways to protect (against) him. They do a good job of moving him around."
Smart said a key part of stopping someone like Lawson is the offense not getting itself in positions where the Auburn defense knows a pass is inevitable. It's a problem the Bulldogs have experienced a considerable amount in the last two weeks. Georgia faced six third downs with seven yards or more to go against Florida and then dealt with nine in the win Saturday over Kentucky.
Auburn is one of only two teams the Bulldogs faced this season who have five different players with at least two sacks this season. The other team was Florida, which was a matchup that could prove to be a cautionary tale for Georgia.
Eason had his issues in the Bulldogs' 24-10 loss in Jacksonville. While he threw for 143 yards and one touchdown, he repeatedly struggled in handling himself in the pocket. Along with being sacked twice, Eason dropped deep in the pocket far too often while also struggling to recognize the amount of time he had to work with behind his offensive line.
It was an issue that Smart hit on when the Florida game was said and done.
"He's got to learn to trust the pocket and step up," Smart said after the Florida loss. "He did create some time. He did run the ball. He's got to figure out when it's time to run and when it's time to throw. He got rattled a couple of times."
Eason seemed to step up last weekend against the Wildcats, throwing for 245 yards and one touchdown in the 27-24 victory. He and the offensive line also seemed more in sync in the effort, which partially explains how he avoided being sacked in the game.
"His maturation process is what's most important, and him improving week to week," Smart said.
Smart pointed out that the different caliber of defenses Georgia has faced plays a role in Eason's ups and downs.
It's evident that Auburn, with players such as Lawson, has one of the best Georgia has faced. As a result, Eason's decision-making against a tenacious Auburn defense will be a deciding factor in the Bulldogs' chances.
"We know this defense is really good," Smart said. "He's got to play within the system. He's got to understand to put us in the right plays, to make the right decisions with the ball. Sometimes that's throwing the ball away. Sometimes it's not throwing it into coverage. He continues to improve at that."