ATHENS, Ga. — Tate Ratledge and his finely tuned mullet were at the podium Monday in the old Georgia team meeting room, and the right guard was asked what it felt like, as an offensive lineman, to open the season facing two defenses that chose to stack the box to stop the run.
“I think saying that’s just an excuse,” Ratledge said. “A good offensive line’s gotta figure out how to do that either way. We’ve just gotta go out and figure out a way to execute better.”
That’s exactly what Ratledge should say and exactly what his coaches would want him to say. But is it actually fair?
That’ll be the focus this week after re-watching Georgia’s 45-3 win over Ball State, which followed a 48-7 win over UT Martin, a sentence that if read by fans of Alabama and Texas A&M would elicit a response akin to “quit your whining, Dawgs.”
Or, perhaps, play somebody good, Dawgs. Which they may this week when South Carolina comes to town. Or maybe not. But it’s understandable why some in Georgia-land are concerned. The goal is a three-peat, and the fans want to see a team that can three-peat. The question is whether this team is on track or if these are legitimate concerns. Let’s dive in.
First, some context
Georgia’s offense playing with its food against weaker teams happened last year, when the sainted Todd Monken and Stetson Bennett were running the show. Compare the offensive numbers to the past two years against the FCS and Group of 5 teams.
The difference is last year Georgia began the season in spectacular fashion against Oregon, scoring seven touchdowns on the first seven possessions. Then after the Samford game, the Bulldogs went to South Carolina and had another explosive performance: 48-7. In fact, those two games ended up being Georgia’s two best offensive performances in the regular season, at least by yards-per-play: 9.21 vs. Oregon and 8.42 at South Carolina.
The offense then hit some lulls, nearly losing the Missouri game. By the end of the season, Monken’s offense was the second-best in the SEC, behind only Tennessee, in scoring offense and yards per play.
So is this only a perception issue? I’m not saying yes or no, but starting slow — both in the games and the season — may be reinforcing the existing concerns: new quarterback and new coordinator and no Darnell Washington, the unicorn/tight end whose blocking was so key to last year’s approach.
Speaking of which …
Early stat to watch
Georgia isn’t using as many double-tight end sets as expected. After using 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends) on 59 percent of plays last season, it has been only 12 percent so far this season. That’s a stark difference, even accounting for the loss of Washington and the addition of slot receiver Dominic Lovett.
Oscar Delp, a sophomore tight end, has seen an uptick in playing time. But he’s just not close to the weapon Washington was as a blocker, which to be fair nobody was going to be, but it means Georgia always was going to have to play differently.
Which brings us to …
The perimeter blocking
It has not been great. Arian Smith missed some assignments early. That may be from a lack of experience as much as anything, given his injuries during the past few years. He’s also getting reps the more experienced Ladd McConkey will get. C.J. Smith missed a block on the one Brock Bowers touch, which only ended up a 3-yard gain.
How much of this is the Bulldogs still feeling their way without Washington? This is how Kirby Smart answered that Monday:
“Darnell is a very unique player. He had a very unique skill set,” Smart said. “But we have more depth at some positions and less depth at some positions; that allows us the freedom to do some things. My concern is not about not having Darnell, we’ve known that for a long time. It’s really trying to figure out who our best 11 are, what those plays look like. I think we have a very good perimeter-blocking team. They’re going to have an opportunity to show it for the next however many games we have. We worked really hard on that. I watched our guys do it in practice; they do a really nice job of it.”
Of course, that’s not the only area where the blocking has had some bad moments.
Mekhi Mews, defense lead Georgia to another easy win
The offensive line
The clearest answer here is numbers. Ratledge may call it just an excuse, but it’s a good one: Five NFL offensive linemen would give up some plays if they’re always blocking seven or eight in the box. But there were times against Ball State when the line was just beat, period.
One example: On second-and-10 from midfield in the second quarter, Kendall Milton was stopped for no gain on an inside handoff. Despite it being a passing down, Ball State began the play with seven in the box and upon the handoff swarmed the Georgia line. It was six-on-six in the box because one Ball State linebacker followed a receiver out and Georgia had Delp on the line. But when Georgia’s linemen pulled, Ball State just played it well. That wasn’t a case of Georgia not being powerful enough at the line; it was just Ball State playing it really well because they saw run right away. (One play later Carson Beck hit C.J. Smith for 19 yards, which is why you probably don’t remember the unsuccessful Milton run the play before.)
This was similar to a few runs in the red zone. Georgia’s best run there was actually in a more traditional formation, the quarterback going under center and putting eight on the line. But many other runs were out of shotgun/spread/run-pass-option formations. And that’s something that will just have to improve because Georgia can’t telegraph its run plays the way it did at the goal line.
“There were times that we functioned at a high level. And there were times that we had some sloppiness,” Smart said of the offensive line. “We had one lapse in a protection, (and) one time we got beat when we shouldn’t have been beat. It’s game speed types of things. It’s making sure that, ‘I know if this guy is running a stunt, or a twist that I’m going to pass it off by getting my hands on the other guy and not letting leakage in there.’ But they also picked up a max blitz, picked up some tough things to pick up. So there was some positives and negatives like every position.”
A couple of personnel notes:
• Left tackle Earnest Greene was beaten on third down on the second drive, causing Beck to throw the ball away. It hasn’t gotten enough attention that Georgia is already replacing Broderick Jones and Warren McClendon at tackle. Amarius Mims hasn’t had many problems because he already had experience last year. Greene is a redshirt freshman and has had more hiccups.
• Jared Wilson got some early snaps at left guard, which Smart indicated was about building depth on the interior. Since Wilson was the backup center also, this makes him the potential sixth man: “He’s dependable, he’s accountable, he plays hard. … He played like a starter (in practice), and we wanted to give him an opportunity to play.”
Emerson: Georgia still searching for its offensive identity
The offense in general
• The running backs are also a clear factor in this. Daijun Edwards hasn’t been able to play yet, but let’s be real; we’re also not talking about an All-American here. The back with the most upside on the roster is probably Branson Robinson, and he’s not coming back. Roderick Robinson looks like he can grow into a pretty good back. Milton still can be very good and may be catching up mentally and physically after all the preseason reps he missed. Andrew Paul didn’t get any snaps against Ball State after getting four in the opener.
So you saw Dillon Bell being used out of the backfield, but not principally, and he said he’s still meeting with the receivers. (And said it in a way that it wasn’t even a question.) The plan is to use him in a Deebo Samuel-like role, Beck said after the game, and Smart said Monday that “this has been going on for awhile,” apparently meaning the general effort to cross-train some players like Bell.
“We’ve done this a lot with a lot of players, with our situation at running back, having guys go back and there and look, see if they understand it, certain plays they can run,” Smart said. “(Bell is) big enough, 200 pounds-plus to pick people up. He strikes people. So he can protect. He can do a lot of things from the backfield. It’s something we’re always going to have as an option or as a package, but a lot of it’s going to depend on the health of our backfield.”
• Another theory/thought: Georgia is just going to be better when it spreads out and throws the ball and not great when it runs the ball inside. But it needs to run the ball inside enough times to set up the outside passes: Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo told broadcaster Matt Stinchcomb that he wants to get the ball quickly to playmakers (Bowers, Bell, Mekhi Mews, etc.) and if you have the defense bunching up in the box to stop the run, you have more room on the outside for those quick hits.
• Beck made some debatable decisions on the first couple of drives. On a third-and-goal play, he tucked and ran quickly. On second down on the next drive, he went early for a swing pass (which seemed the first option) rather than throwing downfield. But he found his rhythm as the game went on, which Georgia only can hope continues as the season goes on.
• An argument for not obsessing about slow starts: The first quarter was the team’s first scoreless one since the Auburn game last year. Last year, the Bulldogs still ended up with 42 points; this time they ended up with 45. On Saturday, the Bulldogs only had two drives, missed a chip-shot field goal and had five first downs.
• Bowers only had one touch, but he couldn’t hold on to what would’ve been a touchdown catch and had an open-field drop. He is mortal, as it turns out.
How are the SEC’s teams feeling after Week 2?
Briefly addressing the defense
• The defense once again seems to be more bend-but-don’t-break than havoc, at least at the start of the game. But the more they don’t break, the more the offense begins to panic, take chances, and then Georgia takes advantage. When the other team has to throw, there are more chances for turnovers.
• Safety Javon Bullard will not practice Monday. Smart said the coaches probably wouldn’t know until Wednesday’s practice whether he’ll be able to play Saturday: “We’ve had guys in that position with that similar injury be able to play.”
• David Daniel-Sisavanh and Dan Jackson each got action in Bullard’s absence, which began late in the first quarter, so there was time to give both of them extended action. Jackson is already more experienced but is also already a first-teamer in the dime formation, so the default move, should Bullard not play, may be to start Daniel-Sisavanh and bring in Jackson in dime situations.
One final thought
It’s very, very early, but Georgia is only 78th nationally in red-zone touchdown percentage (six out of 10). That may be the run-blocking issues manifesting themselves.
But the red zone, you may recall, was also a worry in the early part of last season: only three touchdowns in eight trips against Samford; only three in six trips against Kent State; and only two in five trips against Missouri.
Things, you may also recall, ended up just fine. That doesn’t mean they will again this year. It just means there’s good precedent they will.
(Top photo of Dillon Bell: Jeffrey Vest / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)