ATHENS -- Todd Grantham didn’t want to come out and say it. Three games is a small sample size, and grand pronouncements at this point can be hazardous.
But Grantham, Georgia’s defensive coordinator, did seem to agree with the premise of the question: his defense, uneven last year, has passed the eye test so far in 2011.
“I can go through each game,” Grantham started to say, before keeping his comments general: “I think we’ve flown around, we’ve played physical, we’ve played fast. Do we need to make some better plays in a couple games? Yeah. Do we need to finish in the fourth quarter? Yeah.
“But if you look at 60 minutes of playing, I think the guys have played pretty good.”
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Certainly, it is too soon to call Year 2 of Georgia’s 3-4 defense a success, especially when the team has a 1-2 record and ranks 74th in the nation in scoring defense.
But that doesn’t tell the entire story. The Bulldogs have allowed 299 yards per game, 30th in the nation, which is pretty good considering two of their opponents were No. 4 Boise State and No. 12 South Carolina.
And in each of those two losses, the defense was done little favors.
Several times, head coach Mark Richt has returned to the point that of the 45 points scored by South Carolina, essentially 28 of those points weren’t the fault of the defense.
And even in the Boise State game, the Georgia defense was done no favors in terms of short fields or time to rest.
So when asked Tuesday about the importance of a shutout, even against Coastal Carolina, Richt pointed to the offense having an improved showing.
“Shutouts have a lot to do with defense, for sure, but it also means your offense did a good job, too,” Richt said. “It means they didn’t have a turnover deep in (their own) territory. It means they didn’t have a turnover that caused a touchdown or a special teams play didn’t cause a touchdown or really bad field position.”
There’s another glaring stat that Georgia has: just one sack. Only six other teams at the FBS level have just one sack so far, and four have none. But Grantham pushed back on the importance of that stat, saying that pressuring the quarterback is just as important.
“Yeah. I mean, we’re doing fine,” he said. “Look, sacks, everyone wants them, I like them too, but there’s other things that are more important.”
He then pointed to third-down defense, where the team is now second in the SEC after finishing 12th last year, which he said was a byproduct of pressure.
Besides third-down defense, another area of obvious improvement from last year is big plays. The defense was plagued by them last year, but so far this year there have been just two plays of more than 20 yards.
The secondary returned basically every player from last year, and defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos pointed to that.
“A lot of our mistakes last year were lack of experience and lack of communication and not being 100 percent certain how to do things,” Lakatos said. “But now I think we’ve gotten to the point where guys know what to do most of the time.”
Grantham also thinks the run defense has been better, shored up by nose tackles Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins. South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore did rush for 176 yards, only six fewer than last year against Georgia. But Grantham didn’t think that told the story, especially since many of the yards came on outside runs in the fourth quarter.
“If you compare the South Carolina game this year to last year -- I’m talking just the approach to each play, the approach to sudden change, the approach of next series, next play -- there’s no comparison,” Grantham said.
Still, it will take more than a shutout over Coastal Carolina to make others believe the Bulldogs really are a better defense. Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones answered “absolutely” when asked if he and his mates still needed to show people how they’ve improved.
“I don’t care what team you play for. Look at the Baltimore Ravens and how good their defense is,” Jones said. “Every time you get a chance to step between the lines, you get a chance to improve yourself, and I definitely think we’ve got a chance to improve ourselves.”