When Todd Grantham installed his 3-4 defense a year ago after taking over as Georgia’s defensive coordinator, he knew there would be a few bumps in the road.
When you put in a new system, that’s part of the trade-off.
But with Georgia facing a key Eastern Division showdown with Tennessee on Saturday night, it’s obvious that the Bulldogs are better equipped from a personnel standpoint to play the 3-4 this season and are simply more comfortable with the scheme, which has allowed them to play faster and more instinctively.
The numbers are proof.
In the last three games, Georgia’s defense has allowed just one touchdown, that coming on a double-reverse pass by Ole Miss.
Even in the 45-42 loss to South Carolina the second week of the season, the defense played well enough for the Bulldogs to win. South Carolina scored three non-offensive touchdowns, and one of the three touchdowns the Gamecocks did score on offense came on the heels of a 56-yard fumble return to the Georgia 5-yard line.
The season-opening 35-21 loss to Boise State was disappointing on a lot of fronts, but Georgia’s defense has been headed in the right direction ever since.
Counting the Boise State loss, the Bulldogs’ defense has given up just nine touchdowns in five games, and two of those scores came on drives that were 28 yards or shorter thanks to a long punt return and long fumble return.
“They’re beginning to believe,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
And, now, if the Bulldogs can end a two-game losing streak in Neyland Stadium on Saturday, they’ll find themselves in great shape in the Eastern Division race despite all the gnashing of teeth to start the season.
“They’re really starting to understand what coach Grantham and his staff want,” Richt said. “Year 2 is usually a whole lot better than Year 1 when you’re installing something. I’m thankful that’s coming true.”
Georgia is tied with Florida at No. 7 nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 258.6 yards per game.
The Bulldogs, who gave up 176 yards to South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore in Week 2, have smothered the run in their last three games. Nobody has gained more than 63 yards on the ground against them during that stretch, and the longest run they’ve given up the last three weeks was 14 yards.
The other key factor in the Bulldogs’ defensive surge is that they’ve been able to get off the field on third down. They’re second nationally in third-down defense, as opponents are converting just 25.4 percent of the time (18-of-71).
Third down will be huge on Saturday, because Tennessee is tied for first nationally when it comes to converting on third down. The Vols are 36-of-58 (62.1 percent).
“Our d-line has not totally dominated, but has controlled the line of scrimmage as far as runs are concerned,” Richt said. “We’re finally beginning to pressure better without blitzing, and that’s helped. We do have a veteran bunch of DBs that are strong physically, fast and are good cover guys.
“Our linebackers have been banged up a little bit, but the front end and the back end have played so well that it’s really helped the young linebackers make some plays because the d-linemen are forcing double teams and letting these guys get some free hits.”
The improved play up front has made a big difference, according to junior safety Bacarri Rambo. The Bulldogs' three starters in the defensive line all weigh more than 300 pounds. Nose guard Kwame Geathers is 350 and has been one of the most improved players on the team. His backup, junior college transfer John Jenkins, is 351.
“It’s the small things that separated them from last year,” Rambo said. “They’re doing a magnificent job, as a matter of fact, like getting great pass rush and stopping the run.
“By this time last year, I probably had 40 or 50 tackles. But right now, I only have 20 because I don’t have a chance to tackle the running back because they already got to him.”