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Football: Strong defense carried county teams to playoffs, but the similarities largely end there
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Stephon Bland’s three-sack performance against Lambert equaled the total that West’s entire team had accrued up to that point. - photo by Michael Chung

On a cold and windy night at South Forsyth last week, West Forsyth’s defensive front stared down War Eagles quarterback Drew Morris and dreamed of a home playoff matchup.

On a 2nd-and-10 play, the pocket closed in on Morris, and while no Wolverines player dragged him down, he chucked the ball out of bounds to avoid losing yardage. For West head coach Shawn Cahill, getting Morris to throw it away was just as good as a sack, and he didn’t hesitate to let his team know it on the sidelines.

“We were like, ‘That's fine,’” Cahill said. “It's 3rd-and-10 right now. When we get in those situations, (defensive coordinator Bill) Ballard knows they're in a throwing situation and he can kind of dial up the defense a little bit more to bring a little bit more pressure.”

For Forsyth County’s three teams that will play in the first round of the state playoffs on Friday, good defensive play has been paramount to their success, but that’s about where the similarities stop on that side of the ball. West, South, and Forsyth Central all subscribe to different defensive philosophies when it comes to pressure and dropping into coverage.

For West, pressuring the opposing quarterback was a little bit harder to come by at first. The Wolverines only had three sacks though the season’s first seven games, before Stephon Bland logged three against Lambert on Oct. 19. But even after that game, the pass rush was not a huge concern for Cahill.

“The game has changed so much where everybody’s in the gun, the quarterback gets it and they get rid of it quick,” Cahill said before his team’s game against North Forsyth. “Getting sacks is an added bonus right now – it’s almost like you have to just drop and cover.”

But the Wolverines began to notice a trend while looking at film. Defensive linemen would slow up when they reached the quarterback, which Cahill attributed to fear of getting called for a 15-yard penalty, and just being used to 7-on-7 style play before the season, when the quarterback is protected.

They seem to have learned from that, with West racking up sacks at a higher rate over the regular season’s last three games. The Wolverines now have 15.5 sacks, with players like Jack Hughes and Jake Weldy stepping up. Even so, Cahill’s focus is mostly on forcing mistakes, rather than getting negative plays.

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Forsyth Central's Jake Bretz rises to catch an interception late in the fourth quarter during the Bulldogs' game against South Forsyth on Oct. 26, 2018 at Forsyth Central High School. Photo by Paul Ward.
“When you have a 16, 17, 18-year-old kid (at quarterback) and you're bringing people from all over the place, that's hard for that kid to try to figure out who's open,” Cahill said. “Even if they have to take one second because they have to sidestep, that's good for us.”

Former Wolverines DC David Rooney has been a little bit more cerebral in his first season at Central. The Bulldogs haven’t quite had the sack total as the other two Forsyth teams in the playoffs, with just nine. It’s been more of a careful examination of the personnel and how to utilize it.

“We're trying to be creative with the different things that we send at you,” Central coach Frank Hepler said. “With David's experience, he knows kind of how to do that. He does a great job of looking at other teams and seeing where a weakness might be, and trying to expose that.”

Getting pressure has still been a big part, though, with Central totaling 33 quarterback hurries, eclipsing West’s 27. When Central’s defensive line plays well, they count on secondary players like Tristen Rose (six interceptions) to make plays. The Bulldogs usually see the most success when they can get that pressure up front, even if the sacks don’t always come.

“I think the stat of sacks can be misconstrued – I don't want to say overrated, because a sack is a great play – but if you can hurry that quarterback and if you can disrupt his passing lane or his timing, we're trying to do that as much as we can,” Hepler said.

On the flipside, South has been all about being as aggressive as possible, with a focus on getting negative plays by sending tons of blitzes. It’s worked well for the War Eagles, as they lead county playoff teams by a wide margin on the stat sheet, with 29.5 sacks and 110 hurries.

Having playmakers like Georgia Tech commit Jamal Camp on the line certainly contribute to that. Head coach Jeff Arnette says the War Eagles’ style sometimes means they’ll get beat in man-to man coverage, but it’s worth the risk.

“Teams are getting so good offensively and the quarterbacks are getting so good that if you just let them sit back there and have time to throw it, they're going to pick you apart,” Arnette said. “It's hard enough to stop offenses now when you get pressure on them. I think the fact that it is so hard to stop offenses, you've got to be aggressive in that way.”

For at least two of Forsyth’s squads, their first round challenge will be daunting. But for all of them, they hope they can stick to the respective formulas that have taken them to the postseason.

“I think they're starting to go where we're asking them to go,” Cahill said. “Everything is filled in across the board, and I think it's starting to show.”