The debate about who is responsible for the demise of the Georgia defense has spread out of control this week. Many are calling for the firing of Willie Martinez (under whom the Georgia defense has seen a steady decline in points allowed per game over the last few years).
Others have claimed that injuries or a failure to develop a serious pass rush from the defensive end position are the culprits for the lack of defensive production. Despite these arguments, I believe the reason Georgia is struggling on defense (particularly in the red zone, where we are allowing touchdowns on 68% of opponents’ possessions as compared to 49% last year), is the lack of a playmaker at the safety position.
Let’s take a quick look back at some of the guys that made the safety position great over the last few years.
Jones was a vicious hitter but also a great shut down player in the secondary. He was also a key member of the special teams unit (see Auburn 2002 for proof).
Davis came to Georgia as a linebacker, but became a breakthrough player as a safety his sophomore year in 2003. Who can forget the huge hits he laid in the destruction of LSU in 2004:
One of the hardest hitters I have ever seen. Blue wasn’t known for his coverage skills, but SEC teams knew that if they came over the middle he would be there to light them up:
A walk on who became a star for the Georgia defense. Despite his small size, Battle was a great tackler and also defended well in coverage. The Auburn game in 2006 stamped his name in the Georgia record books:
What do all of these players, along with Jermaine Phillips, Kentrell Curry, and Kelin Johnson, have in common? They all played the safety position with a linebacker mentality. In the current defense that Georgia uses (which is the same basic scheme under Martinez as it was under Van Gorder), we tend to rush four linemen and drop our linebackers into coverage. In the past, one of our safeties has pressed up with the linebackers to help stop the run and shut down passes over the middle. This is evident in guys like Thomas Davis being the team’s leading tackler from the safety position. These guys have also put themselves in positions to make game changing plays. Sean Jones’ 95 yard scoop and score at Tennessee in 2003 and Kelin Johnson’s opening play pick against Auburn in ’07 are great examples.
This year’s team is missing that guy in the secondary who strikes fear in the opponents’ runners and receivers. Rennie Curran seems to be everywhere at the linebacker position, but how often do we see CJ Byrd right there with him? Not very often. Reshad Jones has all of talent in the world to be a head hunter like Greg Blue, but he has proven time and again that he can’t make easy interceptions. And Drew Williams is a good player on special teams, but he does not have any business being our first safety off the bench.
While I am not completely against a change at defensive coordinator, I am aware that a coach can only do so much. If the players don’t step up to the plate and make the plays when they have the chance, the team will look like it has failed. What Georgia needs to do is rally around the team we have and find that swagger that once existed in the Georgia defense. We’ve got two games left in the ’08 season, let’s make them count.