September 22, 2010 10:03:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Pass pressure goes far beyond how many sacks a team collects.
And Mississippi State''s defensive players, despite having just four sacks entering Saturday''s game against Georgia, feel like they''re settling into State''s pressure-based scheme.
Manny Diaz dials up pressure from all three levels of his defense, hoping to create confusion and force opposing quarterbacks into mistakes. So far, the Bulldogs have created five turnovers, which is below expectations for Diaz and his players.
MSU hasn''t allowed a quarterback to pass for more than 200 yards in a game this season. Last week in a 29-7 loss at LSU, the Bulldogs saw tangible progress in their efforts to create more pressure on the quarterback.
MSU held Jordan Jefferson under 100 yards passing and scoreless. Unfortunately, its quarterbacks threw five interceptions. The Bulldogs'' defensive effort was due in large part to getting more hits on the quarterback.
"We''re getting closer and closer every game," senior linebacker K.J. Wright said. "Last week, you saw we were hitting the quarterback. This week, we plan on getting to the quarterback and causing turnovers. We''ve got to cause turnovers to get big plays for our defense.
"When we get to the quarterback, that''s real effective. He starts doing things he normally doesn''t do."
Against Auburn and LSU, MSU faced quarterbacks who are effective runners and passers. Auburn''s Cameron Newton and LSU''s Jefferson also have more experience over UGA redshirt freshman Aaron Murray, though Diaz warns he''s a capable runner.
Georgia''s pro-style, run-based offense utilizes play-action passes that put an emphasis on defenders playing one-on-one coverage down the field. Not having to defend heavy doses of misdirection, slot sweeps and designed quarterback runs will benefit State. However, Murray''s progression through three games means Diaz''s defense could be facing its best passing attack thus far.
Diaz agrees, despite UGA receiver A.J. Green having to sit out Saturday''s game because of NCAA suspension, which has seen the star wideout miss all three Georgia games this season.
"This is different -- the ball''s going to be in the air," Diaz said. "Murray can put it anywhere and throw the ball confidently. If I''m not mistaken, on the final drive before the game-winning drive this past weekend, (Georgia) had more total yards than Arkansas did with (Quarterback Ryan) Mallett and all those weapons they have on offense. That''s with a redshirt freshman quarterback. Even without their star wide receiver on offense, they''re making hay on offense."
Murray has four touchdown passes to two interceptions and is averaging just more than 200 yards per game. Murray has proven accurate through three games, carrying a 62.2 completion clip into Saturday''s contest. Forcing Murray, who has three games of starting experience under his belt, into making freshman mistakes will be pivotal in State''s limiting UGA''s offense.
Getting to Murray with only four or five players would help that effort, but it''s an area in which State''s defenders have yet to excel.
All-SEC defensive end Pernell McPhee has yet to record a sack and has just 2.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. McPhee led the Bulldogs in both categories last season but has been asked to play multiple roles this year. He''s dropped into coverage and played both end spots, drawing praise from Diaz as the team''s best defensive lineman to start the season.
But without a standout pass rusher to complement McPhee, the Bulldogs are still searching for the backfield threats that made the most preseason noise of any other position.
McPhee, who says he''s "not surprised" he hasn''t yet recorded a sack, feels he and the other defensive linemen are still working on mechanics.
"Instead of doing my thing I did last year, off my athleticism, now I''m just doing basic technique, like trying to use a one-hand stab, work on the game, work on my fundamentals basically," he said. "The only reason why it''s going down like that (number of sacks) is because I guess everybody''s still working on their fundamentals."
With three sophomores and two junior college players in the defensive line rotation, McPhee''s assessment of State''s line play gives heed to the learning curve players have navigated in Diaz''s first year running the defense. Diaz is pleased with the team''s transition into a new scheme and doesn''t want his players to get discouraged over falling short of early-season expectations.
"Week in, week out they want to know where the play is coming, and we''re closer and getting better," Diaz said. "You just have to show them the improvement. The plays will come."