The 2009 Georgia Bulldogs have been much maligned and highly criticized for their sudden inability to play good defense—many attribute that to the current defensive coordinator.
Coach Willie Martinez was given the defensive reigns at Georgia after Brian Van Gorder left to take a position with the Jacksonville Jaguars to be their linebacker coach.
The Dawgs didn't appear to have any problem continuing their defensive prowess at first but over time their defensive numbers have dipped substantially and this season they have become an SEC laughing stock for their inability to defend the pass successfully.
However, playing devils advocate for a moment, what if the problem isn't the coach but the scheme?
Brian Van Gorder left the team prior to the installation of a true spread offense in the SEC. Urban Meyer replaced Ron Zook in 2005 and brought with him the spread offense that he used so successfully at both Bowling Green State and Utah—the latter use of it netted him an undefeated season, a Heisman winner, and a Sugar Bowl victory.
Many felt that the SEC would be a poor choice for the spread because of the defensive speed of the conference—the talent pool of the Southeastern Conference would be better than what Meyer was leaving in the Mountain West.
To the critics credit, Meyer did struggle in his first season against the better defenses. However, that had more to do with his personnel than his playcalling—former Florida quarterback Chris Leak was a pocket-passer.
Once Tebow took over, all bets were off and the spread has led the Florida Gators to two national titles and a Heisman trophy for their quarterback.
Today the SEC is littered with teams that have dual-threat quarterbacks—guys who are not only good runners but adequate passers as well.
Take that into consideration and the question is this: Can Georgia continue to run a 4-3 scheme and keep up with the evolving SEC offenses?
The 4-3 requires four down lineman and three linebackers. on the line of scrimmage (LOS), each guy has a responsibility.
The defensive ends (DE) are pass rushers and run stoppers. Their primary job is to put pressure on the quarterback and make it difficult for running backs to get to the edge and pick up yards.
The defensive tackles (DT) are there to seal the gaps and negate any running plays that might come up the middle. Typically the weak side defensive end is responsible for sealing the 'A' gap as well as applying pressure to the quarterback on passing downs.
The linebackers in a 4-3 have different assignments as well.
The middle linebacker (Mike) is supposed to defend the run—he is also asked to fall back into zone coverage on passing plays but his primary duty is to make certain that he keeps all runs up the middle to a minimum.
The strong side linebacker (Sam) lines up opposite the tight end and is a pass rusher. He covers the edge rushers and guards against passes out into the flats—he also covers the tight end on obvious passing downs.
The weak side linebacker (Will) has a little more flexibility. He safeguards against any runs coming toward the weak side while also being aware of the short-range passes. You will often see the Will around the ball on screens, curls, and any pitch-outs towards his side of the field—this is the position that Rennie Curran plays at Georgia.
The secondary, at least in Georgia's case, plays zone coverage. The corners are asked to keep the receivers from getting ahead of them while the safeties are expected to help with anything over the top.
This is different from man-to-man coverage where the corners are responsible for the man directly in front of him.
The problem with the 4-3 defense as it applies to the spread or the option offense is that there isn't enough team speed.
Spread offenses aren't usually relying on the run game to pick up yardage. There are a lot more three, four, and sometimes even five receiver sets employed—the tight end is generally a hybrid (meaning he is listed as a tight end but has the speed of a wide receiver).
If a spread offense is utilized with the right personnel it can be effective against a 4-3 because the 4-3 will have obvious weaknesses against team speed. Add in a dual-threat quarterback to boot and you can see the endless possibilities afforded by its coaches.
The spread just introduces lots of mismatches because of the multiple looks if offers to a defense.
Consider the job of the defensive tackle, although they are pass rushers, their primary job is to contain the run. They are not likely to be as quick as the guards or tackles they will face so it leaves them at a disadvantage if he can't blow his man off the LOS.
Spread offenses will typically have a faster, smaller, and more athletic offensive line. and that could somewhat negate the size of the defensive tackle because it will be harder for him to consistently outmuscle the opponent.
The quick-pace of the spread offense often leads to defensive fatigue—most SEC defenses do not have a Terrance Cody on their defensive line so they don't have the ability to simply run over double teams and dominate opposing offensive lineman.
Even more, the Sam linebacker for as fast as he is likely to be, will have a problem keeping up with a hybrid tight end who can probably run a 4.5 or even a 4.4 forty.
Georgia is taking notice, however. Their recruiting has begun to focus more on speed and less on size but the scheme hasn't changed and that has meant that the skills of Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith are not being maximized.
Willie Martinez is still relying on the defensive scheme of Van Gorder because it worked. However, in 2001 when Van Gorder took over as coordinator, the most mobile quarterbacks in the SEC were Tyler Watts and Corey Phillips—neither of whom operated in a spread system.
Now, the Dawgs see the spread at Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State, and Auburn. LSU and South Carolina both have incorporated variations of the spread into their offenses.
It's a changing league and the Dawgs need to start making some adjustments.
The 4-3 can be effective, obviously; look at Alabama.
However, Georgia has to be more astute about who they recruit and what their skill level will be. The spread can be defensed against if you have good team speed, sure tacklers, and discipline—too many players have the 'big-hit' mentality at Georgia.
Would a new scheme be just as fruitful? Perhaps employ a 3-4 defense instead.
Maybe, experiment with a 3-3-5 where you have three lineman on the LOS followed by three linebackers and five defensive backs—this scheme would seem to make teams more susceptible to the run. However, that is where the defensive coordinator comes in with his creativity. The 3-3-5 can work if players are used correctly.
The spread offense will continue to proliferate the SEC so long as defenses are powerless to stop it.
The Dawgs need to start finding better ways to guard against it's success or they will continue to be challenged by teams who are able to implement it in a disciplined fashion.