In a press conference Thursday morning, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith said, "Football doesn't really begin until November." If he's right, Will Muschamp and the Gator boys are in luck as they take on Georgia in Jacksonville to open up the month.
(For the record: Lovie's very much not right. And that's an incredibly stupid thing to say, even with limited context.)
Florida comes into its neutral site contest with the DEAD LAST RANKED OFFENSE IN ALL OF FBS, at just 2,208 total yards this season. The Gators haven't been very good at moving the ball through the air, either, sitting at 118th out of 124 teams, and JUST ABOVE TEAMS LIKE BOSTON COLLEGE AND MINNESOTA, in total passing yards in 2014. And starting true freshman Treon Harris probably wouldn't boost those number a whole lot.
Statistics like this make for ideal conditions for a ground and pound day up at EverBank Field, but the team north of the state line has their counters to a runner's philosophy.
To understand what the team north of the state line will bring to bottle up Muschamp's seventh "must win" offensive attack, I sat down with the chief canine over at Dawg Sports, MaconDawg, but I like to call him Jeremy — we're on a first name basis, it's cool.
To begin this film breakdown, let's get some history. And let's go into this session thinking Florida is going to #RTDB (Run The Damn Ball) for most of the game.
In his first year as defensive coordinator for Georgia, Jeremy Pruitt has molded the Dawgs defense into the SEC's No. 3 run defense, and the No. 12 run defense in the country. Pruitt is also an apple not far from the tree of Saban's defense — you may remember him as the defensive coordinator from Hoover, Alabama and the MTV show Two-A-Days.
If you remember the Saban style of formation, you're looking at a base 3-4 with a STAR linebacker at the line of scrimmage during most downs (this creates the look of a traditional 4-3), and big, powerful players all across the front seven used for gap control and heavy blitzing.
However, Pruitt gives his own little twist and adjustment to the Saban style by running most of his defense out of a 4-2-5, with the Saban 3-4 as more of a secondary formation to combat plays against heavier offensive formations (meaning more offensive lineman/bigger blockers). Pruitt is trying to counter more of the spread offense here in 2014, and has reshaped his defense to do so, as opposed to just trying to get faster players on the field.
Pruitt is also coming off a national title campaign as defensive coordinator with Florida State, where he coached for just one season, and is trying to bring some of those principles over to Gators fans' most hated team north of the state line. But as we all know, coaches can only execute a scheme if they have the players to do so.
It's fair to say UGA's 2014 defense isn't as talent-loaded as FSU's 2013 defense was. So who is Pruitt highlighting from this squad to get the most out of his D? That can be broken down into three principles: Setting the edge, overwhelming, and surprise attacking.
Setting the Edge
Whether it's out of the 3-4 or the 4-2-5, Pruitt makes it a priority to let his more athletic pass rushers have the space to get to the quarterback. In most instances, Pruitt will blitz, or at least threaten, one of two of their inside linebackers near the line of scrimmage to at least get a one-on-one matchup with both of their defensive ends.
Here's what I mean.
See how the line is cluttered? Even if Pruitt isn't bringing any of the linebackers on a blitz, the offensive line will have to focus on them at the snap, leaving the tackles isolated for a short time. That time may be enough for one of the defensive ends to make an impact.
The first is Leonard Floyd. At 6'4", and 230 pounds, Floyd can create separation using the length of his wingspan, which allows him to push or bend his way around opposing tackles. His job off the edge is to get disruption by getting those long arms near the quarterback, whether it's by raising them up to bat down a pass, or reaching them out and trying to make contact during a throw.
Here's an example:
Traffic at the center of the trench creates a need to lock up on the outside. Floyd's lean frame allows him to escape the grip of Clemson's right tackle and get his arm in to disrupt the throw and even knock the ball loose. Floyd wins with his bend and separation. One of the only offensive tackles to really neutralize Floyd (as you'll see with each of the Georgia D-linemen we'll highlight) was South Carolina's Brandon Shell. At 6'6" 340 pounds, Shell was able to just engulf Floyd. Florida has similar size with D.J. Humphries on the left size, but both he and Chaz Green are smaller than Shell, each being outweighed by 40 pounds.
Plus, Humphries will have his hands full with Jordan Jenkins.
Jenkins is a different style of a pass rusher than Floyd. Floyd uses his length and lean body type to his advantage; Jenkins uses his new-found quickness (after dropping nearly 30 pounds in the offseason, going from 270 to around 245 as part of Pruitt's "Get Faster" theme) to bull rush his opposition. At what would be the STAR position in Saban's defense, Jenkins is more of a DE/OLB hybrid player than just a rushing defensive end. Jenkins uses strong hands as a good punch to catch his blocker off balance, then can disrupt the pocket by collapsing its form.
Here's an example on a run play of what that looks like:
He plays a role similar to what Jarvis Jones did a few years back, but doesn't have the size or frame to dominate his blockers like Jones. Floyd's got a similar style, but he's simply not as transcendent a talent.
These two players are needed to breakdown a pocket's formation. Then it's the job of the remaining front seven to confuse and overwhelm. That means stopping the run, too.
Georgia loves to blitz. Whether it's up the middle, out of the nickel formation or off the corner zone, Pruitt will certainly see what an opposing offensive line is really made of by the time the clock hits zeroes.
What allows the Dawgs to be so strong against the run? First, the sizable leads they've been able to create early on in games, which tend to gum up an opposing team's run game until (or if) the score evens out. Second, though, Georgia's ability to overwhelm read-option attacks has been exceptional.
Power runs from teams like Arkansas and South Carolina proved to have some success against Georgia, which is good for Florida: The Gators like to run power with Matt Jones early and often. But the Gators also like to mix in some read-option with their mobile quarterbacks. If game film is any kind of judge, that shouldn't be an emphasis on Saturday.
The read-option plays so well into Georgia does because of their constant pressure off the edge, mixed with too many threats near the line of scrimmage. When an offensive line is in a zone blocking scheme, and not just lined up with blocking assignments directly in front of them, it takes a split second of smart decision-making to make the correct block, recognizing who the more imminent threat is.
But what if there's a one-on-one matchup with the tackle, the center is calling out his assignment, you're looking at your defensive lineman, and a linebacker gets right in your face? Someone has to adjust along the line. The best offensive lines can do it naturally, but Georgia has done a great job of making sure shaky chemistry turns into frustration.
Here's a live look at a handoff gone for naught:
But it's not just the front seven. In fact, they might play second fiddle to Jeremy Pruitt's real bread and butter: The secondary blitz.
Remember the name Damian Swann; you'll hear it quite a bit on Saturday. Swann is Pruitt's main weapon. He's played the safety spot before, but is now used as the team's best lockdown defender on the sidelines, as well. Pruitt might well have two separate assignments loaded for Swann on a play, usually on first and second down. Swann will have his coverage assignment in his head, but if a certain shift or movement gives away a running play or an opening for a blitz, Swann will recognize it and move in.
The movement of the player on the opposite side gave away the direction of the play, and whether it was a run or not (this play was), Swann knew his side of the field wouldn't be a focus, at least until a point when the safety could cover his zone just as well. He wasn't needed to make the tackle for loss on this particular play, but that's the kind of stuff you could see from him.
Here's an example of how he was used from the safety spot to make an impact:
I love this call. This is a team saying "We're faster than you, we're stronger to the punch than you, we know it, and we're about to prove it." Swann's presence immediate disrupts the play, and he gets credited for a big loss.
That's Pruitt's plan. That's what he'll look to do all game long. Jeremy (er, MaconDawg) said that Georgia likes to have the mentality of just being in the game at halftime. If they can do that, Pruitt's confident in his abilities to coach well and adjust at halftime however he needs to.
But that's all in a perfect world. Those plays are where the rival's defense is at its best. But where is it weak? After watching film, I would argue their main point of attack can also be their biggest weakness.
Finding Weak Spots
Pruitt loves being aggressive, but it can come back to bite him in big ways because of the poor play from the secondary — I was actually shocked, the more I watched, by how much the Dawgs blitz off the corners, because of how poorly their secondary plays in help defense. Blitzing the corners only works if you can catch the defense off guard and if your safety (or linebacker, if the nickel corner is doing the blitzing) can get to the coverage point on time and in position.
Here are two example of how both the nickel and outside corners can get beat if they're noticed early.
In the play above, Swann does everything he can to disrupt the play, even though he's noticed early. He gets off the line quick, he gets in the Cole Stoudt's face, and even jumps to try and deflect the ball. But the quick pass and missed tackle prove to be costly. That's something that once you're caught in the act, a quick throw out will burn you. Florida fans have seen Harris make good, quick passes, but only if the play was designed for it. We've haven't seen him work on the fly enough to pick up blitzes yet.
This next play is a blitz by Dominick Sanders from the nickel spot. It's a bit safer, since you don't have to expose your blitz in order to get close enough to make an impact, but it can leave you more vulnerable because most of the time it forces a linebacker into coverage. The route by Tennessee's Pig Howard happened to be a skinny post, and the linebacker just couldn't keep up.
Harris has to recognize his opportunities down the field when quick blitzes come. And let me tell you, the opportunities will be there.
This leads me into my final knock on the team north of the state line's defense, and it's one that I'm shocked more teams haven't exploited: Georgia is teeeeeerrrrrible at secondary help. They're lost at times in zone coverage and are far too scared of the deep ball, even if there aren't any receivers running deep routes.
Here's an example:
Who in God's name are the safeties THAT afraid of? Did Demaryius Thomas suit up for South Carolina that day? Both of the safeties immediately move backwards at the snap, retreating until they're 25 yards away frim the line of scrimmage less than two seconds into the play.
And this isn't just an every once in a while thing, either: It's a design.
Here's another example. How did he get that open, you ask?
The offensive play design was great, and Dylan Thompson did a nice job of finding the soft spot in the zone, but the gap between the linebackers and the safeties is huge, even for team that may be trying to play damage control and keep everything in front of them.
One last example:
Here it's not even the spacing that kills Georgia: It's just blown coverage. The coverage there is Cover 3 (or Cover 4) with Swann and the safeties dropping back, but it seems as though the safeties No. 1 priority is to guard behind Swann's zone and not at all prepare for any receiver that might be on the upper edge of his zone.
And while blown coverages happen for each team every game, Georgia's happen far too often for Jeremy Pruitt to be happy about his secondary. The chemistry and understanding in the secondary leave big soft spots in zone coverage (which, to be fair, Pruitt doesn't run as much as man). If Florida had a quarterback who could throw with confidence and accuracy to targets 20-25 yards down the field, I could talk myself into the Gators having a chance in this game — and South Carolina provided the blueprint for how that would work.
At the end of every session, I ask my guest to give me a prediction. Jeremy said if history is an indication of how this one will go, he expects a sloppy, somewhat tense first quarter with emotion running high and a lot of penalties. He then played the "if this, than that" game to perfection, saying that if Georgia can win the turnover margin by at least three, they will come away victorious.
With the team north of the state line leading the SEC in turnover margin at +13, and Florida having coughed up two more turnovers (six) against Missouri than the Dawgs have all season (four), I'd say he's not only right, but describing a likely outcome.