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

By Kyle Jones on December 15, 2022 at 11:35 am
Stetson Bennett & Brock Bowers have proven to be a lethal combination in 2022
© Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Author's Note: In advance of Ohio State's matchup with Georgia in the Peach Bowl on December 31, Film Study will spend each week until then breaking down one aspect of the contest.

  • Last week: Scouting the Georgia Defense
  • Today: Scouting the Georgia Offense
  • December 22: Creating 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 would not be blamed for thinking of the Bulldogs as an Alabama replica.

Offensively, the similarities were hard to miss when comparing Smart's first UGA squads to the Alabama teams on which Smart was a staff member in the late 2000s and early '10s. Much as Nick Saban had done during his first few seasons in Tuscaloosa, Smart recruited a stable of talented backs who ran behind massive linemen with a less-regarded 'game manager' under center and attempt to bludgeon opponents into submission. 

Such was the case when Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and D'Andre Swift led the program to its CFP final in 2017. Freshman Jake Fromm won the starting quarterback job that fall over the more-heralded Jacob Eason, creating a domino effect that ultimately led to Justin Fields donning scarlet and gray instead of 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 saw Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, and Mac Jones all earn championship rings, the system that has flourished in the peach state with Stetson Bennett at the helm looks quite different.

The Bulldogs are still a run-first team, relying on yet another group of gifted runners that fit the 'one-cut' style needed to maximize a zone running game. While they, like most teams, favor inside zone, the Dawgs often attach a split-zone element to it, with massive tight end Darnell Washington (#0) coming across the formation to seal the backside end.

At 6'7" and 270 lbs, Washington is effectively a sixth 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 the first-team designation after a stellar sophomore season that saw him excel in a variety of areas. 

Though Bowers led the team with 52 catches for 726 yards (by far the highest such totals for an SEC tight end this season), he still played a major role in the UGA ground game. Like Washington, he also proved more than capable of moving across the formation to block an edge defender, such as the Counter play 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 back.

2022 Georgia Tight Ends - Snaps by Alignment
Player TE Slot Wide RB
Brock Bowers 284 359 70 14
Darnell Washington 494 104 16 1

“Bowers can do so many things, he’s very versatile, while 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 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 often dynamic as well, as the Bulldogs use pre-snap shifts, trades, and motions on nearly every single play. Very often, they will line up in one formation before shifting 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 apparent that the goal of all this pre-snap movement is to force defenses into thinking and communicating, rather than just lining up and reacting. 

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) who have each amassed more than 500 rushing yards and average over five yards-per-carry, the Bulldogs regularly turn four-yard gains into eight, and eight-yarders into twelve.

With this philosophy in place, the UGA offense has become one of the nation's best, ranking 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), is made 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 this brutally efficient attack is, fortunately for the Buckeyes, something Jim Knowles' defenses execute regularly.

Despite all the pre-snap action that may take place, once the ball is snapped, the Bulldogs aren't running exotic play calls, opting instead to try and run over their opponents with superior size and speed. If the defense mixes up how it fits the run from play to play, those 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 (such as Kentucky's, who held the Dawgs to a season-low 363 yards) succeed by attempting the inverse and confusing the UGA blocking schemes.

As you might imagine, such a task is easier said than done. Like most play-callers who come from 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 initially look like the same play.

For instance, once Washington has already pummeled an edge defender while running a split-zone play, Monken will follow it up by releasing him out into the flat instead, catching the defender who expected a violent collision flat-footed.

Given that the most gifted skill players on the Georgia roster line up between the numbers, linebackers and safeties often find themselves put into conflict by Monken's philosophy. Once those defenders have stepped up to stop what looks like another run (thanks to the movement of easy-to-spot Washington), Bowers is left wide open in the space that was just vacated.

As noted in the alignment 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 he is to get targeted on a bubble screen, using his 4.5 speed and a 6'4", 230 lb frame to make life miserable for cornerbacks who find themselves having to bring him down in the open field. 

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

Each of Monken's weekly game plans appears to include everything from jet screens attached to a run play (as seen above) designed running back swing passes that effectively act as toss middle screens to receivers. All in all, a major goal of the UGA offense is that of a traditional spread offense: quickly get the ball to your athletes and let them make a play in space.

With Bowers and Washington lined up all over the field, however, that 'space' often includes an all-conference lead-blocker.

All of this may lead you to believe that Bennett is simply the beneficiary of all the talent around him, and had no business sitting alongside Caleb Williams, Max Duggan, and C.J. 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 manager.' 

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 this 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 acclaimed for giving up just seven sacks this season, tied for the second-fewest in the nation, Bennett deserves just as much credit in this 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 target.

But despite being smaller than most Power-5 QBs, listed at just 5'11" and 190 lbs, the south Georgia native has plenty of arm strength to push the ball vertically when asked. 

Rather, the main issue with Bennett is his accuracy when throwing deep. While Monken has no issue scheming receivers open, his QB struggles to consistently 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% 1,245 18 3
J.J. McCarthy (MICH) 17.0% 34.7% 598 7 2
C.J. 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 trying 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 piece 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 cap it off with the nation's best red zone scoring rate (97.18%).

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

While Bennett has actually been his best as a passer once the Dawgs pass their opponents' 20-yard line, the UGA run game goes the opposite direction. When the field is compressed and bodies are lined up near the line, the shifts, motions, and trades become far less effective at forcing confusion within the defense.

As we'll discuss in more detail next week, the Buckeyes must avoid letting the Dawgs string together long drives that not only wear down the defense but keep C.J. Stroud and the explosive OSU passing game on the sideline. But as Smart's team has proven time after time over the past two years, such a task may seem doable on paper, but is far more difficult to execute on the field.

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