So, How's That New Defense Working Out For You?

So good news. I've discovered that if I use Excel 2007 worksheets I can paste in snazzy, color coded, and formatted charts into my 2000 word diatribes on obscure relationships between often outdated, vaguely correlated, value abated, non license plated (but not yet incarcerated) statistics and such. So in an effort to provide reams of data which are more pleasant to read and contemplate ignore and mock, we're upgrading. Merged, centered, conditionally formatted. Yahtzee. Please, hold your applause until the end. If anyone is aware of an "Interesting," or perhaps "Funny" format please advise, and we'll go with that too.

So I'd like to talk a little bit of defense with you today, and, to begin, let's discuss the most recently (if perhaps not most deservingly) arrested member of the offensive backfield. Quite a bit of hand wringing, angst, embarrassment, maybe even a few tears shed for the future. I don't know. I think King's mistake was to get busted after eleven other guys. It's like the old saying, the best defense is a first offense. But seriously folks.

Ok, on to the real stuff:

To put it gently, there were some areas in which the UGA defense could have stood to improve in 2009. Let's take a quick look a quick look at UGA's defensive performance from 2009 compared to that of the rest of the teams in college football:

Tackles for loss            0.82
Opp. yards per carry            0.79
Opp. Total yards per play            0.72
Opp. rush yards per game            0.71
Opp. total yards per game            0.69
Opp first downs per game            0.66
Red zone td %            0.65
Sacks per game            0.65
3rd down conversion %            0.63
Opp. passer rating            0.61
Opp. Pass yards per game            0.58
Opp. Points per game            0.48
First downs by penalty per game            0.33
Red zone conversion %            0.33
Interceptions per game            0.29
Fumbles forced per game            0.16
Fumbles recovered per game                 -  

This is Georgia' percentile ranking among all division one college football teams sorted in order of what they did relatively well to what they did relatively poorly. For example Georgia's red zone touchdown defense was in the sixty fifth percentile. This means that Georgia gave up touchdowns less frequently than 64% of division one college football teams in 2009.

See any surprises? How about fumbles recovered per game? Typo right? It is not. That's Excel's way of expressing Mr. Blutarsky's grade point average, 0.0. The Dawgs were the worst team in all of division one football at recovering fumbles. It's like the scene in Forrest Gump where the principal is explaining to Mrs. Gump about her son's I.Q. "Mr. Richt, your defense is going to have to go a special school." For those of you that remember the next scene in Forrest Gump, I'm going to strongly advise against carrying that metaphor any farther. Interesting side note:  the two spots directly above the Dawgs in this regard were Florida and Cincinnati, so it isn't to say that you can't be bad at recovering fumbles and win. Still Ye Gods, last.

What else? Interceptions right. It's pretty well documented that we didn't do too well at that. First downs by penalty (Don't you love that they track that)? I'm shocked (Shocked!) to learn that we were in the bottom third of the country. Also allowing points in the red zone was not a relative strength.

So I think we see some of the major deficiencies of 2009, but what did UGA do well? Tackles for loss and rush defense were fairly strong, and while the Dawgs certainly gave up points in the red zone (33rd percentile) they frequently held their opponents out of the end zone (red zone touchdown % - 65th percentile).

And a lot of things in the middle of the road. Empirical evidence of what everyone was thinking, relatively mediocre against the pass, pressuring the quarterback and on third down.

Which brings us to Todd Grantham (along with Coaches Belin and Lakatos). The man charged with remedying these deficiencies and improving on the mediocrity brought the 3-4 scheme, a renewed emphasis on fundamentals and an aggressive attitude. It has been half a season, how's that going?

Here is the same chart, with 2010 national percentiles to date added along with the change in percentile from 2009 to 2010:

2009 2010 Change
Tackles for loss            0.82            0.68         (0.14)
Opp. yards per carry            0.79            0.87           0.08
Opp. Total yards per play            0.72            0.56         (0.16)
Opp. rush yards per game            0.71            0.80           0.09
Opp. total yards per game            0.69            0.77           0.08
Opp first downs per game            0.66            0.87           0.21
Red zone td %            0.65            0.10         (0.55)
Sacks per game            0.65            0.61         (0.04)
3rd down conversion %            0.63            0.26         (0.37)
Opp. passer rating            0.61            0.83           0.23
Opp. Pass yards per game            0.58            0.54         (0.04)
Opp. Points per game            0.48            0.69           0.21
First downs by penalty per game            0.33            0.70           0.37
Red zone conversion %            0.33            0.36           0.03
Interceptions per game            0.29            0.46           0.18
Fumbles forced per game            0.16            0.13         (0.03)
Fumbles recovered per game                 -              0.20           0.20


So does anything catch your eye here? Based on relative performance:

The Good:In general rushing defense, specifically opponents yards per carry and total rush yards. The Dawgs are better than 86% and 76% of the teams in Division One football in these areas respectively. First Downs by Penalty! Hey there we go, that's got to make you feel good, along with the corresponding improvement in first downs per game.

The Bad: Tackles for loss, sacks, and pass yards per game haven't exactly ascended into the elite levels of college football yet. Tackles for loss is a particular concern since it was such a strength in 2009.

The Ugly: Holy Red Zone Touchdowns what's going on there? Third down defense isn't exactly lighting it up either.

Overall assessment of relative performance. There's a good bit more green on the chart in 2010 than there was in 2009, but some of the areas where we would expect improvement maybe haven't shown up yet. Sacks for instance are a bit of a head scratcher. The three four is designed to apply pressure on the quarterback, Georgia seems to be stopping the run, so you would think that sacks would improve. Part of this could be due to the relative schedules played to this point of the year. In other words, Georgia's relative performance to Tennessee might be better after playing Vanderbilt if Tennessee plays a tough opponent. The further in the season we go, the less this should matter. Put another way, it could be that the early season games against Division Two teams and weak non conference are skewing the sack distribution and making Georgia's performance look relatively worse. We'll see at the end of the season.   

But wait you say. How do we know that UGA got any better at all, those are just the percentile rankings. How do we know that the rest of the country just hasn't gotten worse, or that these are just the temporary results of early season scheduling? Good point. Who cares if your opponents passer rating is better compared to the rest of the country but was worse than last year. We can't award credit for that. So let's look at the same chart with the absolute changes. Instead of percentiles these are comparisions of actual numbers from UGA's 2009 to 2010 seasons:

2009 2010 Change % Change
Fumbles recovered per game 0.15 0.50 0.35 225%
Interceptions per game 0.77 1.00 0.23 30%
First downs by penalty per game 1.62 1.16 0.46 28%
Opp. Points per game 25.90 20.30 5.60 22%
Opp first downs per game 18.40 15.70 2.70 15%
Opp. rush yards per game 126.15 113.17 12.98 10%
Opp. yards per carry 3.42 3.07 0.35 10%
Opp. total yards per game 339.40 315.20 24.20 7%
Opp. Pass yards per game 213.20 202.00 11.20 5%
Sacks per game 2.23 2.33 0.10 4%
Red zone conversion % 82.93 84.62 -1.69 -2%
Tackles for loss 6.89 6.67 -0.22 -3%
Opp. Total yards per play 5.10 5.30 -0.20 -4%
Opp. passer rating 132.31 144.30 -11.99 -9%
3rd down conversion % 37.70 43.37 -5.67 -15%
Fumbles forced per game 0.69 0.50 -0.19 -28%
Red zone td % 53.66 76.92 -23.26 -43%

A quick word on the table: the changes are set up to calculate so that positive is good. For instance Georgia got 2.23 sacks per game in 2009 and 2.33 in 2010. 2.33 minus 2.23 is a positive number, in this case positive is an improvement in defensive performance, so we leave it as is. However, in the case of 3rd down conversion percentage, the opposite is true. Georgia's opponents converted 43.37% of third downs this year and 37.70% last year. 43 minus 37 is a positive number, but increased third down conversions by the opponent is not a defensive improvement. To correct for this, we flip the sign on the the change in third down conversions and all similar stats. In summary, everything in the change column that is positive is an improvement for Georgia, everything negative is not.

So what has gone well? Turnovers. Obviously recovering 225% more fumbles maybe overstating the case of recovering an extra third of a fumble per game (in the same way that a nickle is a four hundred percent improvement on a penny but is still a long way from buying a beer), but still, improvement in both areas where Georgia lagged it's peers very badly in 2009. All facets of run defense and most of past defense (the exception being passer rating) are at least slightly improving.

What hasn't? Touchdown's in the red zone has been a bit of a disaster, so has stopping opponents on third down. The fumbles forced per game, would seem to be an issue, but we're certainly recovering a lot more of them, so I'm not sure how big a deal that is.

Ok, last chart of this type, let's combine the relative changes with the absolute changes:

2009 2010 Change Absolute Improvement
Tackles for loss                   0.82                   0.68                (0.14) -3%
Opp. yards per carry                   0.79                   0.87                  0.08 10%
Opp. Total yards per play                   0.72                   0.56                (0.16) -4%
Opp. rush yards per game                   0.71                   0.80                  0.09 10%
Opp. total yards per game                   0.69                   0.77                  0.08 7%
Opp first downs per game                   0.66                   0.87                  0.21 15%
Red zone td %                   0.65                   0.10                (0.55) -43%
Sacks per game                   0.65                   0.61                (0.04) 4%
3rd down conversion %                   0.63                   0.26                (0.37) -15%
Opp. passer rating                   0.61                   0.83                  0.23 -9%
Opp. Pass yards per game                   0.58                   0.54                (0.04) 5%
Opp. Points per game                   0.48                   0.69                  0.21 22%
First downs by penalty per game                   0.33                   0.70                  0.37 28%
Red zone conversion %                   0.33                   0.36                  0.03 -2%
Interceptions per game                   0.29                   0.46                  0.18 30%
Fumbles forced per game                   0.16                   0.13                (0.03) -28%
Fumbles recovered per game                        -                     0.20                  0.20 225%

What can we see here? If we look at the bottom of the chart we see the items where Georgia was deficient in 2009. The Dawgs have improved in most of those areas. If we look at the top of the chart, UGA is improving or holding steady in most of the areas where they excelled were less than a complete disaster in 2009. As discussed earlier, Red Zone Touchdown % and Third Down Defense are a concern.

Let's discuss one last area which these statistics do not measure. Big Plays. The good folks at College Football Statistics (who rule at life), in addition to providing all of the underlying data for this post, have been kind enough to begin tracking big plays allowed by team in 2010. Without further ado, your Georgia Bulldawgs among SEC teams:

      20+ 30+ 40+
  Name G Yards Yards Yards
1 Georgia 6 27 13 7
2 Tennessee 6 27 11 5
3 Kentucky 6 23 11 3
4 Mississippi State 6 21 8 3
5 Alabama 6 19 8 4
6 Mississippi 5 18 10 2
7 Auburn 6 17 3 2
8 Florida 6 17 9 3
9 South Carolina 5 17 9 6
10 Vanderbilt 5 17 6 1
11 LSU 6 14 5 4
12 Arkansas 5 12 9 5

*Note - when I first posted this I had a total column that added the plays from each category. Doing so double counted the number of 30+ yard plays and triple counted the number of 40+ yard plays. The 20+ yard play column includes the other two. Sorry.

 Clearly there are still some issues to work out. Georgia has given up big plays about twice as often as LSU and more than twice as often as Arkansas. If you run this same table nationally you'll see that Georgia is about the 20th worst (about 100th best) team in this regard.

So I return to the original question. How's the new defense working out? I don't think it's a very easy answer. I think that any answer should be prefaced with "it's only been half a season." I don't think it would be fair to start calling for Coach Grantham's head or casting his statue even if the results were more extreme one way or the other. Still, an honest appraisal is probably worth undertaking.

The "glass half full" case to me is that Georgia has improved against the run, the pass, and in creating turnovers even though they are giving up more big plays than anyone in the conference. The big plays and the poor third down defense could be the result of mental issues particularly on third downs. I think that the idea behind Georgia's version of the three four is to attack in unusual ways on third down. Unusual defenses require the personnel on the field to understand their assignments. Since the defense is still new, we would expect this to improve in the next year. If this defense can improve on third down and allow fewer big plays, I think the improvement from 2009 would be very clear, and there is reason to believe that is the natural progression of installing a new scheme.

The "glass half empty" case: you still can't cover and quarterbacks who had a relative field day against the 2009 defense are doing even better this year. You have allowed more big plays than anyone in the conference, but the turnovers and sacks that you are creating, though better than last year, are still mediocre. Opponents are scoring touchdowns three quarters of the time they get into the red zone.

I don't know which, if either, case is correct. Perhaps somewhere in the middle. I'm inclined to give glass half full the benefit of the doubt, because it is halfway through the first season. I have a hard time imagining that the defense will be worse at this time next year. The improvements seem to be on the typical plays. For example, Georgia stops the run very well. In the exceptional situations, for example third downs where the Dawgs blitz frequently and I assume play some different coverages, they are falling short. I think that situation shows better potential for the future than the reverse. 

Throwing the numbers out the window, it looks and feels better right? I'll go with that.  

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