Georgia defense needs to wrap it up

Missed Clemson tackles lead to urgency in drills

The Macon (Ga.) TelegraphSeptember 4, 2013 

Georgia Clemson Football

Georgia coach Mark Richt

RICHARD SHIRO — AP

— Damian Swann said he hadn’t heard what was said on the television broadcast, but he remembered the play.

Oh, did he remember it.

During the first quarter of last Saturday’s game, Swann had a straight shot on trying to tackle Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins. But the Georgia cornerback went low, Watkins bounced off, and then went on for a 77-yard touchdown, leading ABC analyst Kirk Herbstreit to decry Swann for “awful tackling.”

Swann said he wasn’t bothered to hear the criticism — “That’s what they’re paid to do” — and owned up to his mistake.

“I thought I could hit him, and he’ll go down. I didn’t wrap up. That was my mistake,” he said. “But at the end of the game, that wasn’t the play that lost the game.”

True. Georgia rallied to take a 21-14 lead. But missed tackles in general were an issue for Georgia, and it must be firmed up if it hopes to knock off No. 6 South Carolina on Saturday.

To that end, the Bulldogs have been emphasizing physical practices all week. In an unusual move, coach Mark Richt held a full-pads practice on Wednesday.

“We need to tackle better than we did, especially in space,” Richt said.

There were plenty of examples.

On Clemson’s first drive of the second half, freshman safety Tray Matthews couldn’t wrap up on fourth down, on a stop that would have given the Georgia offense the ball at its own 37. Instead, Clemson got the first down, and on the next play got the go-ahead score on a long touchdown pass.

Early in the fourth quarter, with Clemson leading 31-28, defensive end Toby Johnson had a clear shot at Tajh Boyd but couldn’t bring him down for the sack. One play later, the Tigers had a first down into Georgia territory.

Some players traced the problems to the preseason, when numerous players — especially in the secondary — either missed practices or went non-contact because of injuries. Matthews was among them.

But it doesn’t explain all of them. Swann was healthy pretty much all of preseason, and started every game last year.

Johnson’s missed sack may have been due to inexperience: The junior college transfer reached the backfield in one of his first plays, and admitted he was “super surprised” to suddenly be on top of Boyd.

“It came too open,” Johnson said.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham did appear to think the missed practices were a culprit. Not so much the lack of physical contact, but finding the correct timing and taking the right angle on the ball-carrier.

“If we’d have done a little better job, there we would have given the offense a chance to win the game,” Grantham said. “So you’ve got to work on it.”

Other times, defenders were in the wrong spots.

Outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins pointed to one of Boyd’s touchdown runs: Three Georgia linemen lined up to one side of the ball, leaving Jenkins practically alone on the other side. Boyd went right through the hole.

“A couple times we just never gave ourselves a chance to win,” Jenkins said. “It’s really small fixes like that, that will give us a chance to fight off of that, and possibly stop it if everybody was lined up right.”

Those instances will get a look this week, too. But physical play will get more emphasis.

“I mean, tackling is one of the things you learn when you start playing the game,” Swann said. “So missing a couple days of practice, I don’t think that was it. It was just being able to make the play. We didn’t make them, and it kind of hurt us.”

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