The red zone was not Georgia’s friend a year ago.
On either side of the ball, the Bulldogs struggled to find success to either score touchdowns or defend inside the 20-yard line.
It played a significant factor in Georgia’s 8-5 record. Dating back to SEC Media Days in July, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has been bold and persistent about his plans to fix it.
“The biggest thing was red area. We make no bones about it,” Smart said.
The most-glaring statistic come on defense. When the Bulldogs’ opponent had a chance to score, it happened virtually every time.
Although Georgia only gave up 24 points-per-game in 2016, its opponent scored 90.7 percent of the time – a touchdown 74.4 percent of the time – when it was inside the 20. That mark ranked 114th in the nation.
In an attempt to improve, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker implored that the tireless repetitions began in the spring and have continued throughout the fall.
“The major breakdown is execution,” he said. “When we go back and look at the tape, on defense if one guy does not do what he is supposed to do you’re going to lose the down, probably. There is a huge emphasis on execution. There are some scheme things that we’re looking at that we can do to help our players. Our goal is to be much improved in that area.”
Natrez Patrick has been an advocate for the need of red-zone improvement as he said it needs to get “much, much better.” Patrick also used the term “dominance” to describe the goals for the unit in Tucker’s second season.
Georgia returns 10 starters and replenished the losses of two major contributors – Maurice Smith and Quincy Mauger – with a recruiting class that signed seven defensive backs. With depth returning, Tucker indicated minus-yardage plays and pass rush as priorities, along with pass rush.
Smart, while speaking of those areas, circled back around to red zone and reiterated the importance of limiting the opposition’s scoring.
“If you take 10 of those (scoring) opportunities and you hold them to a field goal, that is four points per those attempts — that’s 40 points,” Smart said. “It changes your entire complexion, so the red area is one of the most evident. We gave up less explosive plays, but we did not do what we needed to do in the red area. But the big thing for us is tackling in space, being able to affect the passer with our pass rush and then red area defense were the big areas we have to improve on.”
Offensively, Georgia was a tad better statistically with red-zone output. But there is still significant concern.
Inside the 20, the Bulldogs scored a touchdown at a 56.6 percent rate. The deficiency could correlate to the run game that struggled at times, despite having two All-SEC running backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
During critical situations, the 50th-best rushing total can come back to hurt your production.
“You have to be able to run it fourth and inches, third and one, goal line situations and the red area,” Smart said. “If you cannot run the ball in the red area, you are going to get beat. You have to be able to run the ball some in the red area. At the end of the game, you have to be able to run the clock out.”
Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney – after one of his lower scoring outputs throughout his 29-year coaching tenure – looked extensively at ways to improve his offense in order to find a solution.
Chaney did the same studying within the red zone, but it isn’t as simple as finding a single answer and putting it to practice.
“We had a lot of different little issues,” Chaney said. “We have been working on those plays continuously since the start of spring through the summer. The kids have been out there all summer working on them too. All you can do is emphasize your weaknesses and try to get them improved, and I think by putting time in, you’re demonstrating that you are doing the best you can to get better down there.”
Georgia will lean on its running back tandem of Chubb and Michel to be a key asset of offensive production.
The two returned to win a championship, and in order for that to happen, one member of the backfield expects nothing less when he stands in the red zone.
“We have to score. Point blank. Period,” Michel said.