Georgia Looks to Smother Spread

Georgia Coach Mark Richt, wearing headset, had much to celebrate during last season's Sugar Bowl, as his team shut down Hawaii's spread offense.
Georgia Coach Mark Richt, wearing headset, had much to celebrate during last season's Sugar Bowl, as his team shut down Hawaii's spread offense. (By Rob Carr -- Associated Press)
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By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

It made sense at the time. Preparing to face the No. 1 scoring offense in the nation in a BCS bowl on New Year's Day, the Georgia coaching staff figured it would be wise to employ more speed than bulk. Relying on nickel packages that utilized one more cornerback and one less linebacker, the Bulldogs' defense throttled Hawaii, 41-10, in the Sugar Bowl and provided an example of how to slow down the vaunted spread offense.

When spring practice arrived, Georgia reverted to the defensive scheme that had worked so well just a few months earlier. Injuries to junior Darius Dewberry and a few others had limited the number of healthy strong-side linebackers on the Bulldogs' roster to one, sophomore Akeem Dent. Consequently, Georgia spent a good portion of the spring making do without one. It made sense at the time.

With the start of Georgia's 2008 campaign approaching, players and coaches looked around the Southeastern Conference and took stock of a growing trend. Urban Meyer implemented his version of the spread offense the day he took over at Florida. Tommy Tuberville hired offensive coordinator Tony Franklin away from Troy during the offseason to infuse his spread offense into the dilapidated Auburn attack. Rich Brooks runs the spread at Kentucky, as well.

The Bulldogs came to a consensus: It makes sense, given their schedule this season -- which includes Arizona State, yet another opponent that occasionally employs the spread offense -- to continue operating out of a nickel package on defense, even if that means starting and playing a majority of the game with an unconventional two-linebacker formation.

"When we do face spread teams," Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said, "that certainly will be the case."

Responsibility for patrolling the middle ground of the Bulldogs' defense, then, will fall to senior Dannell Ellerbe and sophomore Rennie Curran. At 6 feet 1 and 232 pounds, Ellerbe is equipped with the size necessary to engage offensive linemen effectively, whereas Curran (two inches shorter and 12 pounds lighter) possesses the quickness to go around them.

Both linebackers have the speed to make up for not having a third member of their unit present on the field at all times. Take the Sugar Bowl, for example.

Martinez said his squad knew entering the game that Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan liked to release the ball quickly, roughly 2.8 seconds after the snap. There was little chance of the Bulldogs getting to Brennan on a normal blitz if the quarterback was able to get off his pass in less than three seconds. The defensive line needed just a little more time.

"We wanted to see if we could get enough pressure with our [defensive line] and get enough coverage behind it," Martinez said. "We wanted to try to take away [Brennan's] first read and get him to hesitate for a half-second to a second."

With Ellerbe and Curran helping the secondary defuse Hawaii's wide receiver screens, Georgia was able to hold Brennan to 169 yards passing. The Hawaii quarterback also threw three interceptions and was sacked eight times.

So when Georgia's coaches informed the squad this spring that it would be working more on the nickel package that had been so efficient against the Warriors, the news was met with little opposition.

"It allows you to play the run and not have to worry about playing the pass at the same time," Curran said. "The main philosophy with our defense is to get to the ball. Adding an extra cornerback helps us out by taking some of the responsibility off of us."

The nickel formation may lessen the linebackers' responsibilities in the passing game, but it increases them against the run. Martinez said creating extra space for Ellerbe and Curran to stalk opposing runners should not pose much of an issue, given their speed.

"When you have linebackers making plays on the perimeter and in space, it gives you an advantage," Martinez said. "With their speed, they can do some things that other guys can't do."

Ellerbe acknowledged that no two spread offenses look the same. Florida allows its quarterbacks to run bootlegs. If Franklin's work at Troy is any indication, Auburn's spread plays will take more time to develop after the snap. Regardless, Ellerbe said Georgia's defense (ranked No. 14 in the country in 2007) will be prepared to shut down any form of the spread offense, just as it did Hawaii's in the Sugar Bowl.

"If our defense comes out with intensity and a certain swagger," he said, "we're going to play well, of course."

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