Yesterday, we broke down the Alabama offense versus the Texas A&M defense. Good times! As we said in the W2W4 prior to the game, we knew the Aggies would score and score a lot. The question was whether or not the offense could keep up and thankfully they did. So what happened to the defense?
Nine months. An entire offseason to prepare. Oh, and that preparation included spring and fall drills that were specifically devoted to stopping the Aggies and Johnny Football. The result? The Alabama defense gave up more yards than any other Alabama defense in the history of the school. These stats are staggering: 628 yards of total offense that included Bama “holding” Manziel to 464 yards passing and 98 yards rushing. Where do we even start with this particular breakdown of an entire game of breakdowns? Oy…
Alabama on Defense
Prior to this game, Nick Saban said that preparing for Johnny Manziel was extremely difficult because he does so many things “off schedule”. This means that Johnny Football basically ad libs most of the time and he can use his legs as well as his arm to suck the life right out of your defense. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart devised a game plan that was intent on making Manziel stay in the pocket and prove he has the ability to be a pocket passer. Well, guess what? He damn sure proved it by hitting on 28 of his 39 passes, most of which emanated from the pocket.
Meanwhile, the Bama defense blitzed. They played zone. They played zone and man. They played bump and run (mostly whiff and run). They changed their front from a 4-2 to a 4-1 and then to a 3-2 and a 3-1. They did everything they could possibly do to Johnny Football but, in the end, nothing worked. And, in the rare instance that Alabama actually got some pressure on Manziel, he simply lofted up a pass to 6’5 Mike Evans and suddenly things got much better for the Aggies. In the pocket, Manziel was a nightmare but down the field the Tide had no answers for Evans, either. Between the two of them, Alabama nearly suffered an agonizing defeat. But, as it is, the Tide survived the A&M onslaught and they can be thankful that they won’t see the likes of Johnny Football ever again. Whew.
So what happened? Here’s what we saw….
Push It Real Bad: The game plan for the Alabama defensive front was to push the pocket and not allow Manziel to slip through the line and into the secondary. As a result, the lineman didn’t try to swim, rip or spin and instead just pushed and leaned on the Aggie offensive line. Unlike last year, this time around the A&M line stayed engaged and even used this lack of aggression to their advantage by running Manziel on counter plays that were wildly successful in the first half. Manziel would trot to his right and the Alabama defensive line would mirror this (including the back side defensive end) and move with him. However, the Aggies cleverly pulled their right guard (and sometimes the tackle) who would come around and seal the backside Bama edge defender. Johnny Football would start right and then outrace everyone to the left and, with the backside edge sealed, he was off to the races.
Mano Y Malo: At 6’5, 220 lbs Mike Evans is a man and, unfortunately, there were no men in the Alabama secondary who could, literally, stand up to Evans. There’s no Dre Kirkpatrick. There’s no Dee Milliner. There’s no one. John Fulton started out the day on Evans and it was quickly obvious that Fulton had no defense for Evans. Cyrus Jones tried, but at 5’10 180 he was no match athletically or physically and he twice meekly attempted (and failed) to bring Evans down on his 95 yard touchdown catch. The most comedic attempts at covering Evans were by Fulton, though, whose attempts at a “bump” in the bump and run technique were flat-out whiffs. From the moment Evans left the line of scrimmage, Fulton was left holding his jock or looking up at the 6’5 beast who was snaring a pass high above him. It was awful. Even when Fulton was playing zone, he lost the ball, lost the man and lost the battle. Yuck.
Twighlight Zone: Up 14 points with only eight minutes to play in the 4th quarter, A&M faced a 3rd and 9 on their own 5 yard line. Mike Evans had abused Tide defensive backs all day long in man-to-man situations so it was unconscionable to see Alabama shift from a two deep look to a single high safety on this play. Here – I’ll show you what I mean:
As you can see above, Alabama is showing a two deep look with their safeties as they are lined up on the hash marks at the 20 yard line.
However, Alabama blitzed CJ Mosley and shifted into a man-to-man defense. You can see that Clinton-Dix has shifted closer to the line of scrimmage since he’s responsible for the back out of the backfield. Manziel sees this and instantly looks to his left which draws Vinnie Sunseri, the only remaining safety, away from Manziel’s intended target – the beastly Mike Evans.
In this shot, you can see that Mosley is blitzing but he’s been picked up easily by #75. You can also barely see that Clinton-Dix is running over to cover the back out of the backfield, indicating man-to-man coverage. Manziel has all day to manipulate Sunseri away from Evans and he readies to deliver a 95 yard haymaker against the Tide defense.
In this last shot, you can see that Evans clearly has Cyrus Jones beaten like a rented mule. Sunseri was on the wrong hash and likely drew the ire from Saban for getting sucked away from the deepest man on the field. The result? A quick touchdown that turned a runaway game into a tight ball game.
Since Alabama blitzed Mosley, this forced poor Cyrus Jones into this man to beast match-up with Evans. This play was over as soon as the Tide shifted into the single safety look. Evans abused Jones off the line of scrimmage and quickly raced past him downfield. After he caught the football, he easily swatted Jones off of him twice on his way to the 95 yard touchdown, leaving me to wonder why on earth we weren’t in a two deep zone in this situation. I mean, I think we all understood that Evans could do this on any play he wanted to against man to man coverage, right? Seven catches. 279 yards. And no zone? No help over the top for a former wide receiver (Cyrus Jones) who was pressed into duty due to an injury to Belue’s toe (and the cruel and unusual punishment dealt to Fulton)? Whuh?
I Spy a Weakness: There were several times Alabama used a spy on Manziel and the result was that a defender (usually Mosley) was simply standing by himself as still as the Bryant statue. The spy was neither rushing the passer nor playing coverage. Spying was a total waste.
Won’t You Gimme Three Steps: There were actually three defensive plays that tipped the scales allowing Alabama to secure the seven point win, though you will never read about these good plays or hear about them on the Finebaum show. Here they are:
- The first was the interception by Cyrus Jones in the end zone. Jones was squatting on the fade but Manziel inexplicably threw the fade anyway. With his receiver correctly reading Jones’ coverage, he expected a back shoulder throw so the resulting fade went right into the waiting arms of Jones.
- The second big play was the excellent seam coverage that Jarrick Williams (who had a really good game) provided on the A&M slot receiver. Williams was in perfect coverage but Manziel fired the pass anyway. Williams deflected the pass into Sunseri’s arms and the resulting touchdown return was a huge swing in momentum.
- The third key play by the defense was a nondescript sack by true freshman (and Texan) A’Shawn Robinson. On the prior play, Clinton-Dix was unfairly flagged (see below) for a BS helmet to helmet hit. Somehow they decided he didn’t do it on purpose but still flagged him for 15 yards. On the very next play, Alabama sat on the quick wide receiver screen, forcing Manziel to bail out of the play. Here, Alabama recorded its only sack of the game. This sack was huge because it put the Aggies behind the chains and turned the huge Ha Ha penalty into a weird four and out drive. Bama then took possession and scored again, making it 28-14 at halftime.
Wake Up Call: Sometime early in the first quarter it was very evident that Alabama could not match up with the Aggie receivers in coverage for long periods of time. However, with Alabama’s front four simply leaning on the A&M offensive lineman, Johnny Rifleman had all day to shred the Alabama secondary with ease. When you are on defense, you can basically do one of two things: A) rush four men or less and play coverage or B) blitz the quarterback and employ the Al Davis edict of “the quarterback must go down and he must go down HARD.” Against the Aggies, the Tide staff blitzed Mosley more than half the time and sometimes brought Landon Collins in as well. Alabama was committing 5 and 6 guys to a pass rush that wasn’t intended to really rush the passer (and it certainly wasn’t remotely effective). This left Manziel with plenty of time to manipulate the only single deep safety who could provide help to the corners in man to man coverage. If you still have the game, watch as Manziel looks the safety off to his left before lofting passes to Evans down the right sideline. If you don’t truly rush the passer yet you are asking your underwhelming corners to man up against talented wide receivers then the result is what you saw on Saturday.
Applause: The Tide secondary and the defense as a whole was woeful on Saturday but they were successful in stuffing two staples of the A&M offense. Every Saban defense is hell-bent on stuffing the run and, besides Manziel, the Tide stuffed the Aggie running backs all day long, limiting them to a mere 66 yards rushing. Also, the Aggies’ bread and butter play in the passing game is the wide receiver quick screen but, for the most part, Bama’s rolled up corners eliminated the effectiveness of these plays. Of course the rolled up corners opened up the deep shots to Evans…
Berzerk: Tell me again why Clinton-Dix was flagged? The refs ruled he wasn’t targeting and he got his freaking hands on the freaking ball so any contact was incidental. I can’t stand the wussification of football that is going on at both the pro and college level. Oh, and after watching the replay of Fulton “forcing” Evans out-of-bounds, I nearly lost my mind. WHAT? Fulton couldn’t even force his own foot into his own shoe so how in the world did he, with one flailing arm, force a 6’5 and 220 lb receiver out-of-bounds? It was clear Evans ran out-of-bounds to get around Fulton and the linesman properly called the penalty. So what happened????? Total crap. But I digress.
I truly believe that if Nick Saban had it all to do over again, he would attack Manziel completely differently. Saban’s premise was that Manziel was a freelancing quarterback who’s best work was done when the scripted plays broke down. The plan was to keep Manziel in the pocket and not provide any running lanes for him to escape. The problem was that Manziel turned out to be a helluva pocket quarterback and he used his time back there to read and dissect the Bama secondary with ease.
As the Monday Morning Quarterback site pointed out, there were four exceptional throws that Manziel made that were absolutely of pro caliber. On the last bomb to Evans, he manipulated the safety by looking him off and then he lofted a perfect strike hitting Evans in stride. Manziel also ripped two perfect throws into the end zone that required accuracy and arm strength that Alabama simply wasn’t prepared for. The last throw he made was exquisite. From the opposite hash mark he threw a touchdown on an out route to his receiver who was tightly covered by Landon Collins. It was a gutsy throw but it was perfect. Saban and Smart underestimated Manziel’s ability to stand in the pocket, make his reads, manipulate the single high safety and then deliver the goods to his receivers. Instead of spending all off-season concentrating on how to deal with the pace of the Aggies, they should have concentrated more on the Xs and Os execution of the Aggies. For as much as I despise the circus that is Johnny Football, there’s simply no denying that he is a very special QB with some God-given talents and he runs their offense to perfection. Folks, it’s not all ad libs – this kid is a “fo real dough” quarterback. But, perhaps his best gift is simply his ability to thrive when he’s put under enormous pressure – the pass he completed after getting loose from Jeoffrey Pagan’s grasp is proof positive of this.
The last point is this, though. You simply cannot send 5 or 6 men at Manziel unless all of them are tenaciously getting after the quarterback. This puts the Bama corners into a perilous position that they simply do not have the talent to excel in.
In the coming weeks, you should see the athleticism and the depth that is the Alabama defense. Saban is challenging his secondary and, like last year, I wouldn’t bet against him on fixing it. Players like Geno Smith, Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Eddie Jackson will all be challenged to become the cure for what ails the back half of the defense. But, the biggest cure will be a pass rush that is actually allowed to seek and destroy the quarterbacks they face.