If this new-look Georgia Bulldogs defense wants to pull out a win against Clemson, the 2013 edition is going to have to fix all of the little things the 2012 Dawgs defense got wrong. That means playing tough, disciplined football and making the defense as a whole match, or exceed, the sum of the individual players making up the unit.
The nation knows all about the Georgia defense from 2012. It was the unit that had seven draft picks playing on any given snap. It was the unit that posted five sacks against Florida and the game-saving forced fumble. It was the unit with freakish athletes like Alec Ogletree and Jarvis Jones.
It was also the unit that gave up 350 rushing yards to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. It was also the unit that surrendered 230 rushing yards and 35 points to the Gamecocks. It was also the unit that kept Nebraska in the game with 443 yards and 26 first downs.
It was the unit that allowed opponents to average 182 rushing yards a game in 2012.
Georgia was great at making the spectacular play a season ago, be it an amazing sack by Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree getting a hand on a football that a linebacker had no business getting to in coverage, or an amazing interception from Bacarri Rambo and Sanders Commings.
Meanwhile, the ordinary things—like holding the edge, checking for the run before dropping into pass coverage, and not over-running the quarterback—escaped the Bulldogs.
In 2013, this defense has a chance to transform from a highlight-reel squad that lacked attention to detail to a unit that does all of the little things.
Against Clemson, a team boasting one of the nation's most explosive offenses, crossing the t's and dotting the i's is going to be a must.
Jordan Jenkins has replaced Jarvis Jones. Jenkins, an explosive player in his own right, brings a more physical presence to the lineup. Jenkins is where the biggest change must come on the edge of the Bulldogs defense. That starts with making reads and playing under control. Clemson will hit Georgia with the zone read, and Jenkins will be the first line of defense there.
Instead of chasing the running back down inside as Jones did in this play, Jenkins has to remain on the edge. Tajh Boyd is going to pull and keep in Saturday's contest. If the Bulldogs' edge defenders do not set and hold the edge, the senior quarterback will have a field day.
Not only do the Dawgs need to bring edge discipline to the table, they also need to recognize disadvantages and push plays to their help. Clemson is going to play numbers games on most plays, stretching Georgia wide, taking bodies out of the box, and then running the ball inside. Or it'll bunch players into the backfield and with cut-splits, then spread the Dawgs out on the snap.
Here, Nebraska spreads out the Bulldogs in last season's bowl game. Notice how few Bulldogs are in the box.
The Cornhuskers run a simple zone right against the five Georgia players in the box. The back-side edge linebacker is unblocked, as the quarterback zone-read possibility keeps him on the outside, leaving a humongous cutback lane for the back.
When there are more help defenders on the edge than in the interior, the goal should be to spill runs to the outside. Force the running backs to bounce by playing more outside-in than inside-out. For the edge 'backer, that means squeezing that gap down, forcing the quarterback to keep and bounce outside, or closing down the lane for the running back.
This is how Clemson plays football nearly every down. The Tigers want to run the ball when the defense gives them numbers. Georgia's defense has to stop the run out of pass sets, or Boyd and running back Roderick McDowell will look to churn out yards on the ground.
That means defensive linemen have to avoid being blown off the ball. Linebackers have to take on and defeat blocks of both lead backs and linemen. Safeties and corners have to alley-fill once the run is diagnosed.
In the pass game, the back-end players have to work as a unit. Tray Matthews, the freshman early enrollee, is going to be tested at the safety position. With new starters at three of four positions and Josh Harvey-Clemons suspended for the first game, the secondary will take its lumps as the players learn to communicate and adjust with one another.
Sammy Watkins is the big ticket in the pass game for the Tigers, but for Georgia, succeeding is all about the little things. In the pass rush, that means not speeding past Tajh Boyd, opening up a seam for him to slip out and pick up first downs.
It also means playing rules football—linebackers reading guards and backs to determine run versus pass, and pure pass defenders getting to their drops instead of peeking into the backfield. Play-action passing and screens are a fundamental part of the Clemson offense. Guessing at them is not going to help Georgia make plays.
Run action by the quarterback and running back do not always signify pass; that's why linemen need to be read by linebackers. Guessing at a fake handoff gets 'backers sucked up into the wash, and then Boyd completes passes in the void for big gains.
In the screen game, the linemen and edge-rushers have to recognize linemen giving ground quickly, then redirect and go make a play on the running back.
This season for Georgia is about doing the little things right to get better against the run. The Dawgs must form a defense where the parts create a greater whole. The run-pass duality of the Clemson offense is going to test the Dawgs' defense.
Rules are job one. If this unit walks into Death Valley guessing and freelancing, it will be in for a long night.