Defense steals the show for Peachtree Ridge.

It's a unit that has allowed only two teams to score more than 20 points on it. It held Norcross and North Gwinnett, both high-scoring offenses, to seven points and North's came on a punt return. It has two official shutouts, one against playoff-bound Collins Hill.

Yet in the shadows of this defense, the Lions' offense spent the 10-game regular season morphing from young to experienced, from liability to threat.

In Peachtree Ridge's first two games of the year, the Lions scored 10 total points in losses to Harrison and defending state champion Lowndes. In their final two games, the unit scored 39 in wins over Norcross and state runner-up North Gwinnett.

"When you start out the year with the lack of experience that we had, it is one of those things it takes a while for those guys to learn everything," Peachtree Ridge coach Bill Ballard said. "Once you start learning, then you are more aggressive."

Inexperience for the Lions was rampant at year's start.

Both offensive tackles and one guard were new with Jesse Garcia and Trevor McBurnett both returning from injuries the year before. Connor Orr moved back to tight end after a year at tackle. But as a group and as individuals, the learning curve wound furiously upward. And after this past game, a win for the school's first region title and first over North Gwinnett, Ballard said the group played its best of the season.

"They have really gelled and gotten better and better as the season has gone on," Ballard said.

Just like the offensive line, the improvement of the Peachtree Ridge offense hinged on the growth of first-year starting quarterback Nick Lombardo. In his first game, Lombardo completed four passes. Against North Gwinnett, he completed 7 of 12 for 128 yards and two touchdowns, both of them for more than 30 yards. He also ran the ball 10 times for 43 yards to compliment a 140 yard performance by Ronnie Smith.

"He has matured throughout the season," Ballard said of Lombardo. "He has gotten better each week, running the option. He has gotten better in the passing game in terms of reading coverages.

"Our offense, there is a lot to it. For a guy who hasn't played a lot he has done a wonderful job of getting better each week and working to improve."

More than just Lombardo's increased output of completion, he also plays his role on the Lions' offense. He puts the ball in the hands of playmaking wide receivers Mitchell Williford and Brad Roby when he passes and he tosses the ball to running back Ronnie Smith on the option. Like the improvements up front, Lombardo succeeds because of the others around him.

"He does a good job of managing the game," Ballard said. "He puts the ball in the hands of guys who can make plays and when it is his time to make a play, he does it."

From the offensive line, to the return of Smith from suspension and the consistent improvement of Lombardo, the Peachtree Ridge offense rode its slow crescendo to eight straight wins and No. 1 playoff seed and a chance for a playoff run. But the climb is not yet at its summit.

"We really want to play as good as we can as a team," Ballard said. "Our guys are goal-oriented kids. I feel like they are getting better and better each week.

"We hope they can get better this week."

SideBar: STATE FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS

Friday's first round games

Class AAAAA

7:30 p.m. - Collins Hill at Grayson,

7:30 p.m. - Norcross at Parkview

7:30 p.m. - Brookwood at North Gwinnett

7:30 p.m. - Dacula at Peachtree Ridge

Class AAAA

7:30 p.m. - Apalachee at Rome,

7:30 p.m. - Hill Grove at Loganville

Class AA

7:30 p.m. - Heard Co. at Buford

7:30 p.m. - GAC at Callaway

Class A

7:30 p.m. - Warren Co. at Wesleyan