How Will Alabama Stop Johnny Football

Since the league announced the 2013 SEC schedule, all eyes have been locked on Alabama’s September 14 matchup against the Texas A&M Aggies.  I, however, decided to look back at last year’s game in order to gain the proper perspective on the future.  Yes, for you, I braved the cruel and unusual punishment of breaking down the 2012 Texas A&M game one more time in an effort to figure out what Alabama did to slow Johnny Manziel and the Aggies in the second half of last year’s epic matchup.  As a result, I found some really interesting stuff I think you will very likely see this Saturday.

You may recall that Johnny came marching home to the end zone again and again and again in the first quarter.  And, in doing so, he scorched a path to the Downtown Athletic Club where he collected his shiny new Heisman trophy.  However, nearly all of his heroics took place in the first quarter as the Aggies jumped out to a 20-0 lead.  By halftime, Bama had closed the gap to 20-14 and it was clear the Tide was turning.

Obviously, Alabama changed something in their defense after the first quarter because Alabama certainly seemed as though they’d figured out how to slow Johnny Football down to at least a dull roar.  But, what changed?  Let’s take a look…

First Quarter Follies

Manziel and the Aggies scored touchdowns on their first three possessions and his legs seemed to do the majority of the damage.  Alabama opened up in a nickel defense with Dickson, Square, Williams and Hubbard across the line of scrimmage and Mosley and DePriest lining up behind them.  After this formation failed to hold the Aggies down, the Tide implemented a ton of dime looks with four across the line and using Sunseri and Mosley as linebackers.

In both of the early formations, Alabama used a four man front.  The ends, particularly Hubbard, continually crashed down inside which allowed Manziel to escape the pocket with back-breaking runs of 29, 32 and 7 yards.  After the second quarter Alabama adjusted their four man pass rush to contain the edges.  As a result, after the first quarter Manziel only rushed for 1, 0, 2, 5, 6, 3, 9 and 2 yards.  The nine yard run was once again a failure on Alabama’s part to keep him contained at the ends (Hubbard again) and it resulted in picking up a critical first down that led to a field goal.

On Manziel’s famous fumble turned touchdown pass, Hubbard once again got sucked into the middle of the line.  Once Manziel finally got a handle on the pigskin, he was easily able to get outside and roll to his left.  This forced Sunseri to leave his man and the result is a Heisman Trophy award-winning play.

Adjustments

On A&M’s third drive of the game, Alabama began using only a three-man front and they continued to use this tactic for much of the remaining time.  The problem on the third drive was that Hubbard was still crashing down from his defensive end position and this allowed Manziel to get outside.  However, after giving up their third touchdown of the game, Bama began to flatten out their ends in an effort to contain Manziel in the pocket.  Instead of rushing with their front four, the three-man rush (which converted to a four man rush when Hubbard blitzed from his linebacker position) simply tried to push the pocket back into Manziel’s lap, effectively forming a type of tall picket fence.  With Manziel only standing about 6’1 (this is his listed height), pushing the pocket from the middle proved to be pretty effective as he found it difficult to see the throwing lanes.  As a result, Manziel panicked in the pocket and looked to flee.  However, because the edge rushers flattened out, he couldn’t escape – Johnny Football was sacked four times in the second half

Of course, man cannot live on a three or four man rush alone.  In the second quarter, Saban & Smart began (and continued) blitzing Mosley and Hubbard (lined up as a LB in a 3-2 look) on nearly every down. When he didn’t blitz with Mosley Saban blitzed Sunseri and others off the edge and used Mosley to mirror Manziel’s movements as a sort of spy.  Basically, this had the effect of sending in the dogs (in this case Sunseri and sometimes Collins or Clinton-Dix) to flush the prey while Mosley was positioned to finish him off.  Saban and Smart effectively used the front three or four to build a wall around Manziel and then sent in Mosley and others to chase him down in the within the confined pocket.  Again, he was sacked four times by this tactic so it obviously worked pretty well.

Saturday’s Game Plan

Nick Saban and Kirby Smart have been game planning for this one for a long, long time.  They devoted a large part of their spring practices to develop a game plan to stop or slow down the Hurry Up No Huddle approach of Texas A&M.  After hours and hours of working on the X’s and O’s in the lab and on the practice fields, we’ll finally see what Alabama’s defense has in store for Johnny Goofball.  Here’s what we think we’re going to see…

Defensive Line:  Last year, Alabama changed their defensive front throughout the contest, alternating between a four man front and a three-man front.  They started the game with a four man front and then shifted mainly into a three-man front during the second quarter.  Alabama still showed a few four man fronts in the second half but the majority of the time was spent with three men on the defensive line.

On Saturday, the job of the front line will be simple – stand the offensive line up and try to push them back into the pocket.  This basically forms a picket fence in front of Manziel and makes it very difficult for him to see down field.  The ends’ job will be to keep containment at all times so you likely will not see a furious pass rush that is hell-bent on getting to the QB.  Look for the faster defensive ends like Devall, Hubbard, Dickson, Allen and Anderson to work at the position as they have the most speed and athleticism to hold the edge and prevent a breech in containment.

Linebackers:  In last year’s contest, the Bama defense opened in a 4-2 look with DePriest and Mosley lining up as the two linebackers.  As the game progressed, DePriest came out, Mosley stayed in and they actually moved Hubbard to a stand up position in a 3-2 front (with Mosley and Hubbard as the two LBs).  This allowed Bama to flow from a four man front to a three-man front with the same personnel and it kept A&M a little off-balance up front.  When he was lined up as a linebacker, Hubbard blitzed every time which basically gave the Tide a four man rush.

They key to this game will be Mosley.  He will be used to attack Manziel either via the blitz or by spying while others flush him out of the pocket.  I absolutely do not think Mosley will be used as a pure spy as that essentially removes him from being able to make plays.  The only time he’ll be spying is when Saban expects Johnny Heisman to be flushed from the pocket by one of his exotic blitzes.

Defensive Backs:  First, Vinnie Sunseri and Robert Lester were both victimized by big plays in the passing game last season but Lester is gone and Sunseri has been moved back to a deep safety spot.  This season, Nick Saban moved Landon Collins up to the line of scrimmage in the dime package and he’s much better suited to stay in coverage against the A&M receivers.  He’ll also provide more speed to chase down Manziel when he blitzes (and it says here Landon Collins will blitz early and often).

The corners will be lined up closely to the A&M receivers in order to attack the numerous screens and quick hitches the Aggies love to throw.  This time around, Geno Smith will be lined up in the slot and should provide a much, much better defense against the pass.  The safeties, Clinton-Dix and Sunseri, will likely play two deep throughout much of the contest in an effort to keep most of the plays in front of them (and will concentrate on not getting beaten deep).  However, I do look for a variety of blitzes coming from the safeties.  Saban loves to walk them down a few times to blitz and he’ll use a single high safety (one man playing deep in centerfield), to provide deep coverage.

Conclusion:

Kirby Smart and Nick Saban have been working on the chalkboard since last season in an effort to find a way to slow down this offense.  They’ve used consultants (and they’ve been consultants themselves) from the NFL as that league prepares for the onslaught of the Hurry Up No Huddle offense.  So, believe me when I say stopping this style of offense has been the subject of discussion for a long, long time.

With spring and fall practices focused on simplifying defensive calls and preparing personnel groupings for quick substitutions, many of the issues that were encountered with substitutions and late calls last year should be resolved.  Rest assured that each time A&M substitutes, Alabama will use that as an opportunity to get fresh troops onto the field and slow the pace of the game.  I also wouldn’t be surprised to see a cramp or two happen to a few big men along the way.  Say what you will but it’s evident that part of the NFL’s game plan is to have players go down when they are winded and need a rest.  Against the Eagles, the Washington Redskins seemed to have a few cramps prior to a couple of critical third downs.  I’m just sayin…

I personally believe that Alabama will attempt to dictate terms to Manziel on nearly every down by bringing pressure blitzes with Mosley, Clinton-Dix and Collins because they will have the kind of speed it takes to track down Manziel if he flees from the pocket.  Last year Alabama had tremendous success by bringing pressure blitzes complemented with a controlled rush up the middle and I think that’s what you’ll see once again on Saturday.

Saban versus Manziel.  Smart versus the spread, no huddle attack.  Good versus Evil.

This is what college football is all about!

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2 comments on “How Will Alabama Stop Johnny Football

  1. I am sure A&M has spent a considerable amount of time on how to counter any of our possible counters too. What do you think they will try to do differently this time? By the way liked your write-up very much.

    Like

    • lneck says:

      Thanks so much for the comment and wow, what a great question! With Bama playing with only one LB in the middle in Mosley, he’s going to either be blitzing or spying all day long. If he blitzes, I would look for slants and crossers over the middle. I also would utilize swing passes to the backs to test Alabama’s coverage responsibilities. Saban’s defense usually leaves the backs open so that’s what I would do if I were A&M. Look for the crossers as their primary counter to our defense, though.

      Like

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