Film Study: Georgia’s Tight End-Centric Offense Will Provide a Unique Challenge in the CFP Semifinals

Film Study: Georgia’s Tight End-Centric Offense Will Provide a Unique Challenge in the CFP Semifinals

Author’s note: Ahead of Ohio State’s matchup with Georgia in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31, Film Study will spend each week until then breaking down one aspect of the contest.

  • Last week: Scouting in Georgia Defense
  • Today: Scouting in Georgia Insult
  • December 22: Create a Game plan to beat Georgia
  • December: 29: Ohio State’s Keys to the game

Film study

Since taking over the football program at his alma mater, the University of Georgia, Kirby Smart has tried his best to rebuild it in the image of his former employer. With top signing classes and a defensive playbook that shares more than a few copied pages, one wouldn’t be blamed for thinking of the Bulldogs as an Alabama replica.

Offensively, the similarities were hard to miss when comparing Smart’s first UGA team to the Alabama teams where Smart worked in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Just as Nick Saban had done during his first few seasons in Tuscaloosa, Smart recruited a stable of talented running backs who ran behind massive linebackers with a lesser-regarded ‘playmaker’ under center and tried to bully opponents into submission.

Such was the case when Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift led the program to the CFP Finals in 2017. Freshman Jake Fromm won the starting quarterback job that fell to the more heralded Jacob Eason, creating a domino effect that eventually led to Justin Fields donned the scarlet and gray instead of the red and black.

Five years later, however, the Bulldog offense has evolved to create its own distinct identity, just as Smart’s defense did. While Saban eventually embraced the spread RPO offense that earned Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones all championship rings, the system that has flourished in the Peach State with Stetson Bennett at the helm looks quite different.

The Bulldogs remain a run-first team, relying on another group of gifted runners who fit the “one-cut” style needed to maximize a zone running game. While, like most teams, they favor inside the zonethe Dawgs often add one shared zone element to it, with massive tight end Darnell Washington (#0) coming across the formation to seal the back end.

At 6’7″ and 270 lbs, Washington is actually a sixth-ranked offensive lineman and earned second-team All-SEC honors, thanks in large part to his ability to move defenders and create running lanes. He was only second-team, of course, because his teammate, Brock Bowers (#19) earned first-team honors after a stellar sophomore season that saw him excel in a number of areas.

Although Bowers led the team with 52 catches for 726 yards (by far the highest total for an SEC tight end this season), he still played a big role in the UGA ground game. Like Washington, he also proved more than capable of moving across the formation to block a wing defender, such as Disk game shown below. Bowers and the right guard pull around the left end before sealing defenders inside as Washington plows the cornerback out of the play in front of them, creating a huge lane for the running back.

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2022 Georgia Tight Ends – Snaps by Alignment

Player

TEA

Traces

Wide

RB

Brock Bowers

284

359

70

14

Darnell Washington

494

104

16

1

“Bowers can do so many things, he’s very versatile, whereas Darnell is just a massive human being who can just overwhelm you with his size and athleticism,” Ryan Day said this week. “With them, the first thing is their versatility, the second thing is their versatility. Anytime you can do multiple things as a running back, receiver or tight end, you can create mismatches, and they can both do that.”

The versatility of these two all-conference tight ends is the foundation of the 2022 Georgia offense. Coordinator Todd Monken keeps both on the field on most occasions and moves the two all over the field.

That movement is also often dynamic, as the Bulldogs use pre-snap shifts, switches and motions on nearly every play. Very often they will line up in one formation before switching to another and quickly snapping the ball.

As a former NFL assistant, Monken rarely speaks publicly about his scheme, either to the media or at coaching clinics. However, it’s clear that the goal of all this pre-snap movement is to force defenses to think and communicate, rather than just line up and react.

The result is not often a big play, but defenders who are just a step or two out of position. With NFL-caliber backs like Kenny McIntosh (#6), Daijun Edwards (#30) and Kendall Milton (#2) each amassing more than 500 rushing yards and averaging over five yards per carry, the Bulldogs regularly turn over four-yard- gains to eight, and eight-yarders to twelve.

With this philosophy in place, the UGA offense has become one of the nation’s best, ranked 7th nationally, which is just one spot below the more heralded unit from Columbus. What it lacks in truly explosive plays (more on that later), it makes up for in efficiency, as it ranks third in offensive Expected Points Added (EPA) per game behind only Ohio State and Michigan.

The best way to slow down this brutally efficient offense is, fortunately for the Buckeyes, something Jim Knowles’ defense does regularly.

Despite all the pre-snap action that can take place, once the ball is snapped, the Bulldogs don’t run exotic play calls, opting instead to try to outrun their opponents with superior size and speed. If the defense mixes up how it fits from play to play, these massive offensive linemen often leave second- and third-level defenders unblocked on the interior.

Just as the Bulldogs succeed by showing the offense one thing before quickly doing another, opposing defenses (like Kentucky’s, which held the Dawgs to a season-low 363 yards) succeed by trying the reverse and confusing the UGA blocking schemes.

As you might imagine, such a task is easier said than done. Like most play-callers coming out of the NFL, Monken does an excellent job of complementing every run from every formation with a screen, a “movement” play-action pass that attacks horizontally, and a deep play-action “shot” that all basically look like the same play.

For example, when Washington has already beaten a cornerback while running one shared zone player, Monken will follow that up by releasing him into the flat instead, catching the defender expecting a fierce collision flat-footed.

Given that the most gifted skill players on the Georgia roster line up between the numbers, linebackers and safeties are often put at odds by Monken’s philosophy. Once those defenders have stepped up to stop what looks like another run (thanks to the movement of easily spotting Washington), Bowers is left wide open in the space just vacated.

As mentioned in the lineup stats above, Bowers will line up all over the field. While Washington’s sheer size is what initially draws the eye, it’s Bowers’ athleticism that makes him the figurative queen on Monken’s chessboard.

He’s just as likely to catch a pass over the middle as to be targeted on a bubble screen, using his 4.5 speed and 6’4″, 230 lb frame to make life miserable for cornerbacks who find themselves having to to take him down in the open field.

Screens are a big part of the UGA offense, and not just when Bowers is the target. Nearly a quarter of Bennett’s pass attempts this season have been behind the goal line, but those throws take many forms.

Each of Monken’s weekly game plans seems to include everything from jet sweeps…to screens attached to a running game (as shown above)…to designed running swing passes that effectively double as throwing sweeps…to middle screens to receivers. All in all, a primary goal of the UGA offense is that of a traditional spread offense: get the ball to the athletes quickly and let them make plays in space.

With Bowers and Washington lining up all over the field, however, that “space” often includes an all-conference leading blocker.

All of which might lead you to believe that Bennett is simply the one taking advantage of all the talent around him, and that he had no business sitting alongside Caleb Williams, Max Duggan and CJ Stroud last Saturday night in New York City. But in his sixth year as a college QB, the 25-year-old former walk-on has emerged as much more than a simple “game leader.”

First and foremost, Bennett is a much better athlete than many expect. Monken will even call the occasional QB draw for him when defenses don’t respect that threat, which has led to seven rushing touchdowns and a 4.6 ypc average this season (excluding sacks).

This athleticism also allows him to extend his time in the pocket and find receivers downfield. While the UGA offensive line is often lauded for giving up just seven sacks this season, tied for second-fewest in the nation, Bennett deserves just as much credit in that department.

He finished with a higher completion percentage than any of the other Heisman finalists this year, thanks in large part to his connection with Bowers. The two have excellent chemistry and Bennett has no problem throwing the ball over the middle to his top goal.

But despite being smaller than most Power-5 QBs, listed at just 5’11” and 190 lbs, the South Georgia native has enough arm strength to push the ball vertically when asked.

Rather, the main problem with Bennett is his accuracy when throwing deep. While Monken has no problem plotting receivers open, his QB struggles to deliver a catchable ball down the field.

2022 CFP Quarterbacks: Deep Balls (throws of 20+ yds)

Player

% of throws

Completion %

Yards

TD

INT

Max Duggan (TCU)

18.4%

50.0%

1245

18

3

JJ McCarthy (MICH)

17.0%

34.7%

598

7

2

CJ Stroud (OSU)

15.2%

46.3%

922

9

2

Stetson Bennett (UGA)

13.2%

36.5%

676

4

5

It comes as no surprise, then, that among his peers in the College Football Playoff, Bennett not only attempts the fewest passes downfield, but is the least successful when he tries to do so.

This inability to drive the ball downfield changes the way Monken approaches play-calling, as the Dawgs are more than happy to string together long, methodical drives that end with points on the board. They rank fifth nationally in both time of possession (33:50 per game) and third-down conversions (51.57%), and finish with the nation’s best red zone scoring rate (97.18%).

But the red zone scoring rate belies a relative weakness for the UGA offense. The Bulldogs only punt the ball into the end zone on 67.6% of their red zones, resulting in a fairly pedestrian ranking of 35th in that category.

While Bennett has actually been at his best as a passer when the Dawgs pass the opponents’ 20-yard line, the UGA running game goes in the opposite direction. When the field is compressed and bodies are lined up close to the line, the shifts, motions and switches become far less effective at forcing confusion on the defense.

As we’ll discuss in more detail next week, the Buckeyes must avoid letting the Dawgs put together long drives that not only wear down the defense, but keep CJ Stroud and the explosive OSU passing game on the sidelines. But as Smart’s team has proven time and time again over the past two years, such a task may seem feasible on paper, but is far more difficult to accomplish on the field.

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