ATHENS -- It was just one play, and not a memorable one. But, to Amarlo Herrera, it was emblematic of the problems the Georgia defense has faced this season.
It was the end of the first half, and Georgia was clinging to a lead over Tennessee. Herrera, playing inside linebacker, misunderstood a teammates play call. The next thing he knew, Tennessee tailback Raijon Neal was catching a pass and rumbling into the end zone.
They said the wrong word, and me not really knowing the position like that, I did the wrong thing and he scored, Herrera said.
Communication. Mental mistakes. A player at a new position. The problems of the Georgia defense wrapped into one play.
Or it could just be that the Georgia defense was wildly overrated entering the year. The Bulldogs, understandably, prefer to blame mental errors. Whether they solve them probably dictates whether the team can salvage its hopes for a great season.
The defense was supposed to be the backbone of the Georgia team this year. It returned nine starters, including two All-Americans, from a team that ranked fifth in total defense last year.
Instead, the defense has been a huge disappointment -- most notably the past two games, which also happened to be the first two games it was at full strength. The result was a closer-than-expected win over Tennessee, in a 51-44 shootout, and the 35-7 shellacking at the hands of South Carolina.
Rather than take a step forward to be a great defense, as hoped by fans and players, the Bulldogs look a lot like they did in 2010, when they were a middle-of-the-road defense prone to giving up big plays.
Georgia ranks 50th in total defense and 51st in scoring defense. Making matters worse, the problems arent focused in one spot. The rush defense has struggled often (ranking 67th nationally), and the pass defense ranks 39th. The team also isnt getting much pressure on the quarterback, averaging 1.67 sacks per game -- compared to 2.5 per game last year.
I think its a snowball effect, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. Meaning that lets say it doesnt go the way you want early, and you try to make something happen, and you cant. I think the players have just gotta understand theyve gotta let the plays come to them, theyve gotta make sure they do what theyre supposed to do when they do it. I feel like theyve (understood) that, and I feel really good about where they are and the way theyve worked, and I think well be fine.
Its not the scheme. Its not the coaching. At least thats according to senior inside linebacker Christian Robinson, who said the problem is execution.
People dont like to hear that, but when you look at film, its Is this guy where he needs to be? Is this guy making the play at the right time? Robinson said.
And, too much of the time, the answer has been no.
They teach us what to tackle, they teach us what to know, they teach us where to be. If you blow one of those, youve messed up the whole defense. And thats the difference between a good defense and a bad defense, Robinson said. Ive watched the Alabama games, theyre where they need to be at the right time. They have great players at the same time. So you put all those things together, thats how you have a good defense.
So what do those communication mistakes amount to, and why do they happen? Grantham typically calls a play, with each player assigned a role, whether it be to blitz, drop in pass coverage, spy on a runner, or whatever. Then its up to players to know the calls and yell them out before the snap, and make sure everyone keeps their assignment.
And when it breaks down, as happened with Herrera in that Tennessee game, the results are bad.
Jordan Jenkins, a freshman outside linebacker, used this example: He and Cornelius Washington are both in the game, and its a play where Washington is supposed to drop into pass coverage.
If we say the wrong call, or he thinks hes rushing, then one of the linebackers might not even see that guy, Jenkins said.
The personnel situation also hasnt helped. Four players were suspended to start the season, and there have also been injuries.
Weve had guys suspended. Obviously, I was one of them, said senior cornerback Sanders Commings, who missed the first two games. It took me awhile to get really back going. I think the first game I really felt comfortable was the Tennessee game. I made a couple plays. The guys that are back now, I think theyll be ready. I would look for (Bacarri) Rambo, for (Alec Ogletree) to make some plays, to make some turnovers. All over the field, really. Well play like we did last year these last six games.
Safety Shawn Williams, speaking as one of the few to play in every game, said non-suspended players are affected, as well.
I mean, yeah, because when youre playing with certain guys, knowing where certain guys will be at certain times, then all of a sudden you look up and theres another guy in there. You dont know if youre on the same page or youre not comfortable with that same guy, Williams said. So I guess weve got everybody back and gotta be on the same page and communicate better.
All of these issues are reminiscent of the 2010 season. That was the first year of the 3-4 defense at Georgia, when the teams struggles were chalked up to adjusting to a new system.
But this year the team has taken a step back -- to those 2010 issues.
Yeah, theres a similarity, Robinson said. I think two years ago we had more athletes on that team than we did last year. I think guys like Akeem Dent and Justin Houston, all those guys, were better physically. But at the same time we didnt make the plays when we needed to.
In fact, Robinson pointed to the Kentucky game in 2010, when the Bulldogs jumped out to a big lead but let the Wildcats back in the game via some blown coverages.
I can see the similarities where if you dont make the plays, if one guy messes up, it looks like the whole defense doesnt know what youre doing, Robinson said. And people start pointing their fingers, saying you dont know what youre doing. Its really not that, its big plays, its getting off the field on third down, and its not tackling.
Commings also agreed that the problems were similar to 2010 -- with one exception.
Yup. But fortunately were 5-1, unlike in 2010, he said.