Where the Dawgs are a good match for the 3-4 alignment ... and where they're not.
As practice began heating up and we got our first looks at how Georgia's new defense was coming together, I'd started thinking about doing a Q&A or soliciting a guest post from one of my many blog buddies who is far more qualified to comment on the ins and outs of football strategery than I am. Turns out I don't have to: The job's been taken care of by none other than CougCenter, SBN's faithful Washington State blog.
It's a great primer for folks who know enough about football to tell when a blitz is coming up but would be lost about 10 pages into Mark Richt's playbook. While written from the point of view of "Is this something Wazzu should try?" (their verdict: nope, but not because of any failings with the scheme itself), there are some salient nuggets in there for Dawg fans ruminating over how well their team will fare in Year One of the Grantham Era.
We'll start with this:
The single most important aspect of a 3-4 is the play of defensive line. They absolutely must be able to tie up the offensive line no matter the situation. Unlike a 4-3, their job is not to get into the backfield and create havoc. Instead, the NT and DEs are there to control gaps and free up the linebackers to make tackles. Without lineman for the scheme the defense is incredibly vulnerable, to the point where it becomes useless.
Almost as important is the play of the linebackers. The backers must be able to make plays. They need to be sure tacklers, recognize the gaps open in front of them, and quick enough to shoot the gaps and disrupt the run of play. While the defensive line holds up the offensive line, the linebackers are the ones called upon to get into the backfield and stop the run or pressure the quarterback. These are the guys that will have high sack and tackling numbers.
For Georgia, that's good news in terms of the linebackers, at least: While the four guys projected to comprise this year's starting linebacking corps amassed only 15 total starts last season, they had playing time in 45 games between them, and they made the most of their time, totaling 12 sacks on the season (close to half of Georgia's team tally for the season). Depth will be an issue all season long, but the starters, at least, have plenty of experience in opponents' backfields.
As for the defensive line, well . . . that's a bit of a different story. Over the course of Richt's tenure in Athens, Georgia has made something of a cottage industry out of somewhat undersized D-linemen (particularly ends) who are nevertheless extremely athletic and high-motor -- think David Pollack, Quentin Moses, and Marcus Howard. (It's no coincidence that the first two were moved to linebacker almost immediately upon being drafted into the NFL.) For the most part, that's worked out just peachy in terms of both getting bodies on the QB and stuffing the run. The implication from CougCenter, though, is that it may not translate nearly as well into a three-man front where there'll be fewer bodies to go up against the offensive line. For comparison's sake, Georgia's DEs are almost the exact same weight as, and within a coupe of inches in height of, the starting ends who were so dominant for Alabama's 3-4 last season. Where the rubber meets the road, though, is the guy standing between them:
This is where a 3-4 really differs from a 4-3. The 3-4 defense relies heavily on the play of the nose tackle. The nose tackle needs to be big -- much bigger than a typical defensive lineman -- and have the strength and technique to control two gaps while warding off double and triple teams.
. . .
The WSU defense would be consistently torched if they tried out a 3-4. The biggest player on the depth chart is 330 pound Tyson Pencer. Nobody on the depth chart could adequately handle the nose tackle position that is so vital to a 3-4 defense. They must be big, space-eating lineman that are strong enough to occupy both 'A' gaps.
If you're wondering who Tyson Pencer is, he's a 6'7", 330-pound redshirt sophomore for the Cougars. He's also Canadian. He's also a backup left tackle, which isn't really the roster spot where you want to go looking for the linchpin of your defensive front seven. Now guess where projected starting NT Justin Anderson played last season! If you said "offensive guard," congratulations, and please claim your prize at the concierge desk.
This isn't meant as an indication that Georgia's defense is sunk for 2010, of course. Rodney Garner has forgotten more about coaching D-lines than the rest of us have ever known, so if he says Anderson is his leading candidate to start at nose tackle, then that's obviously a big endorsement. And at 6'5", 330, Anderson certainly occupies more space than DeAngelo Tyson (6'2", 290), who was the favorite for the NT spot before excelling at the end position in cross-training, according to Garner. But there's still going to be a learning curve here, and the fact that Anderson didn't practice in spring due to injury is only going to make it that much steeper.
Again, none of this should be interpreted as a declaration that Georgia is predestined to stink on ice on the defensive side of the ball this year. But if it throws some cold water on anyone who was crossing their fingers and hoping for a borderline-miracle that the Dawgs would take to the 3-4 and start knocking heads right away, well, that seems appropriate. UGA has recruited extremely well under Richt, and if what Richt wanted all along was a switch to the 3-4, he found an excellent guru in Todd Grantham. But a change this major doesn't happen overnight, and in the beginning, at least, we may have to hope that our roster's sheer athleticism can keep them afloat for a critical 2010 season.