Defenses exploit hole in Georgia pass game, Stetson Bennett bothered by shoulder

ATHENS — Stetson Bennett ranks second in the SEC in passing yards, but there has been a hole in his game that defenses have caught up to: The Deep Ball.

Defenders are challenging receivers with tighter coverage on the perimeter and crowding the line of scrimmage, daring Bennett to beat them with longer throws.

Georgia has just one pass completion over 40 yards and that came on a ball that traveled 18 yards before Brock Bowers turned it into a 78-yard TD against South Carolina.

A look at the numbers shows just how inefficient Georgia has been stretching the field on throws that traveled 20 yards or more through the air, per PFF metrics:

SEC QB leaders on 20 air yards+:

• Hendon Hooker 13-of-29, 571 yds, 5 TD, 0 INT

• Anthony Richardson 14-of-30, 498 yds, 3 TDs, 2 INTs

• Will Rogers 13-of-23, 414 yds, 7 TDs, 1 INT

• Jaxon Dart 10-of-32, 400 yds, 2 TD, 2 INT

• Spencer Rattler 9-of-22, 378 yds 1 TD, 5 INT

• Brady Cook 10-of-29, 376 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT

• Robby Ashford 9-of-19, 342 yds, 2 TD, 0 INT

• Haynes King 8-of-17, 320 yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT

• KJ Jefferson 7-of-13, 271 yds, 3 TD, 0 INT

• Bryce Young 7-of-18, 254 yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT

• Will Lewis 7-of-19, 215 yds, 1 TD, 0 INT

• Stetson Bennett 7-of-23, 181 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT

• Jayden Daniels 5-of-15, 161 yds, 2 TD, 0 INT

The past three games Georgia’s longest pass completions have been 24 yards (Auburn, Dominick Blaylock), 33 yards (Missouri, Brock Bowers) and 23 yards (Kent State, Darnell Washington.

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Part of the issue has been that AD Mitchell has been sidelined with an ankle injury before returning last Saturday for a precious few snaps.

It was Mitchell who reeled in the deep fade pass Bennett threw against Alabama in the CFP Championship Game for a 40-yard TD.

Earlier that game, current Pittsburgh Steelers receiver George Pickens made a diving 52-yard catch on another Bennett bomb.

Ladd McConkey has been playing with an injured foot since the Oregon game, robbing him of his top-end speed and limiting Georgia’s deep-threat options.

But Bennett has also been inaccurate throwing the ball down the field, to the extent Kirby Smart is fending off questions that his quarterback may have a shoulder or arm injury

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“The shoulder was bothering him, but there hadn’t been a lot of major limitations,” Smart said on Monday, asked about Bennett’s health on the heels of the passing game limitations.

“He didn’t miss practice time and things. So he’s been good in regards to that.”

Bennett was not good in the first half against Auburn, just 7-of-13 passing for 25 yards, his timing and accuracy off.

Bennett threw six passes in the direction of the sure-handed, wide-catch radius Bowers on Saturday, but the All-American was only able to come up with two catches.

Prior to the game, Bennett was spotted on the field early, warming up his arm, rotating his shoulder.

Smart acknowledged Bennett was “dinged up” in the 26-22 win over Missouri, a game the Bulldogs had to rally to win after trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter.

“Stetson’s been good, he was dinged up after the Missouri game in terms of — he took some shots in that game,” Smart said. “I think he got knocked down a couple of times.”

Smart pointed to throws intended for Oscar Delp, McConkey and Bowers that, if caught, would have gone for big chunks of yardage.

“You hit any one of those three, and all we’re talking about is how explosive we were,” Smart said. “We’ve got to try and hit some of those.”

Bennett conceded missing the open receivers.

“Those are the worst ones, when you see them open and you throw it,” Bennett said, “and you think you’re throwing it well, and then they don’t hit.

“We’ve got to fix that.”

It’s a sure bet offensive coordinator Todd Monken is working on concepts that will spring more pass catchers wide open down the field.

Smart, however, points to the run game needing to do its part to help spring receivers loose.

“We had a couple passes in the first quarter that we either threw high or we dropped, and then we overthrew a guy on third down,” Smart said. “When you run the ball better, guess what you also normally do?” Throw the ball better.

“So on the drives that we ran the ball well, we threw the ball well. On the drives that we didn’t run it well, we usually didn’t throw it well because it brought up third and long.”

That’s what Smart means when he says it’s a team game.

But it’s also why Georgia needs to connect on the deep passes when the opportunities present themselves, to loosen up the defense, and help open the run.

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