What to Watch for When Bama is On Defense Against West Virginia
Texas A&M. Johnny Manziel. Auburn. Oklahoma. The Hurry Up No Huddle. These are a few of the things that have kept Bama fans up late at night – the kryptonite to the Super Saban-man, if you will. You’ve all heard the mantra that “Nick Saban can’t stop the hurry up no huddle offenses and that’s why he wants to change the rules” and if you believe any part of that is true then Saturday night is the game for you.
When Dana Holgersen isn’t out drinking (WVU’s Holgersen linked to six alcohol related incidents) or out there lying to recruits, he’s working hard in the lab concocting an offense much like what you have seen with A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Remember Hal Mumme and Mike Leach? Holgersen worked for each of them. He also worked with Kevin Sumlin at Houston where Case Keenum led the nation in total offense, so he’s pretty familiar with the schemes that A&M has used to torch the Saban secondary.
Watching A&M’s offense last night was watching the death of a Gamecock by a thousand cuts. Kenny Hill was a surgeon, taking three step drops and getting the ball out in space to a plethora of talented playmakers. Meanwhile, the South Carolina defense had no answers. With the quick throws, the pass rush had no effect. So they blitzed. They played coverage. Odd man fronts. Even man fronts. It didn’t matter. The USC defense got pants’d all night long. So, you should know that the offense you saw last night from A&M is exactly the style of offense Holgersen and the Mountaineers will be bringing to the Georgia Dome Saturday night. And, this is the same style of offense that A&M and Oklahoma used last year to pile up obscene amounts of yardage and points against a pretty good Bama defense. Yep, Saturday night’s defensive chess game is going to be absolutely FASCINATING (but thankfully the WVU QB is coming off of shoulder surgery and their line is horrible, so it’s all good)!
Plottin’ and Schemin’
I’ll try to be brief here but, to me, this will be the best part of the game Saturday night. Against spread teams, Saban has used a 4-2 look with a four man front and two linebackers. Whenever possible in long down and distance situations the second linebacker takes the form of a safety so it becomes essentially a 4-1 look with a safety standing next to the linebacker. The schemes have been simple – they’ve relied on the four man front to stand up the offensive line and push the pocket (and not penetrate into the backfield) while the other seven guys were in some type of coverage. Against Oklahoma & Texas A&M, when stressed by QBs picking them apart, Alabama eventually brought pressure with CJ Mosley and that was the only real “wrinkle” that Saban showed from the 4-2 look. Scant few corner blitzes and certainly no zone blitzes from these 4-2 looks.
I believe part of the reason for this was that Saban was protecting his two corners: the one legged Deion Belue and the corner du jour on the other side of the field. Without lock down corners like Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner (who making millions in the pros), Saban suddenly was left with some less stellar options at corner so I think he tried to play coverage to protect them. Unfortunately, with the four man “rush” doing very little to affect the passer, this decisions hung his secondary out to dry.
So with Alabama facing the same type of offense that challenged them last year, it will be fascinating to see what they have learned and how the defense has changed/evolved this season. You may remember that even with a year to study Johnny Football, instead of stopping him we saw him set a historic passing record against Alabama last season. So, let’s not pretend that simply having a year to prepare and study the HUNH is the only medicine needed for this illness. No, this is a Doctor House case. During the off season I hope that Saban and Smart have worked outside of the box to come up with ways to affect the passer. Here are a few things I’m hoping to see Saturday night:
- Using smaller, faster players in the front seven to combat the speed and pace
- Four man pressure getting up the field and wreaking havoc in the backfield
- Different blitz pressures that force quick throws into coverages
- A rotation of players on the line running on and off the field to counter the pace of the WVU attack
Defensive Line Change
Three of the four items I alluded to above relate directly to the defensive line and that’s where Alabama needs to see significant improvement. The pass rush was downright woeful last season and it allowed far too much time for the secondary to get sliced and diced at times. This year’s d-line is much, much deeper and much more athletic so there should be no excuse for our 4 and 5 star studs to not get past the 2 and 3 star offensive linemen from West Virginia. They have two converted guards playing tackle and a guard coming off an ACL injury so it’s not like facing a legion of bulldozers. The question is whether or not they’ll be allowed off the leash to go and attack the Mountaineers backfield.
With the DL rotation being deep, I look for hockey line changes where four linemen will come on and four will come off. If they can stay fresh, look for Jonathan Allen and DJ Pettway to be burning a few couches in the WVU backfield throughout the night. I’m also excited to see Dalvin Tomlinson as I believe he will be a difference maker. But, the beastie of the group is A’shawn Robinson. Look for him to dominate the middle of the line if they can keep him fresh. If these guys get gassed then they won’t be nearly as effective so using our depth is critical here.
Linebackers in Space
The beauty of a truly good spread offense passing attack is that they continue to threaten you with the run even though they are pass oriented. Because of this, defenses typically have to keep two linebackers on the field to defend the run and those are the huckleberries for quarterbacks to pick on thru the air. Alabama has desperately tried to get more athletic at the LB position but with the loss of CJ Mosley, this is an area where I expect WVU to attack. Trey Depriest isn’t the most adept coverage linebacker but his instincts usually led him to the ball so losing him for this particular ballgame may sting more than we realize. Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland are both outstanding at stuffing the run but neither has wowed me with their coverage skills.
Call it a hunch. Call it intuition. Call it film study. Call it whatever but I think you are going to see a ton of Dillon Lee Saturday night. Lee, who I’ve affectionately called the “hair apparent” to CJ Mosley (because he has long hair, not because I can’t spell heir), is the most athletic non-freshman linebacker on the roster and his coverage skills are superb. Unless Ragland and Foster have improved their cover skills by leaps and bounds, our buddy Lee will have to be the man in the middle. Honestly, this looks like a susceptible area in our pass defense.
I’m blown away that Cyrus Jones is starting at one corner. I’m simply blown away. From what I saw at A-Day, Tony Brown is damn near NFL ready right now. Brown’s size, speed and tenacity are far greater than Cyrus Jones’ so, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how Jones is starting. If you look back at the Auburn game and the Oklahoma game (and A&M), Jones’ 5’9 and 185 lbs doesn’t translate well in holding up the edge. WVU will use swings and screens to hit the flanks and Jones simply doesn’t appear to have what it takes to hold up to that kind of attack. Maybe something has changed? Now, in pass coverage I do like Jones a lot because his coverage skills are pretty decent – that’s why I’d have him as a nickel defender or something like that in passing situations.
At the other corner, I’ve projected Sylve to start for quite some time. He’s one of the fastest players on the team and appears to bring more size and ability to the run support game. I can see him holding the edge much better and forcing the action back inside to pursuit and he’s shown a willingness to do this when given the opportunity.
I do think Saban trusts his corners more this year than he did last year and I think he has a deeper group with Maurice Smith and Brown being every bit as good as the starters. As a result, I think Saban and Smart will gamble a bit more and be more aggressive as they feel their corners may be able to hold up in coverage. Look for a lot of man coverage that is aggressively and physically playing bump and run with safety help over the top. Look for Bama’s corners to be very physical at or near the line of scrimmage.
The ability of the front six to stop the running game will dictate how the safeties are used in this game. Alabama shut out Ole Miss last year because the front six absolutely squashed the Rebs running game and this allowed the safeties to be used in coverage. If you see Landon Collins and Nick Perry down in the box then things likely aren’t going all that well but Saturday night the front six should once again crush the running game. However, I really do believe that you’ll see some exotic blitzes that utilize the safeties near the line of scrimmage because the staff trusts their corners more this season. So, look for a sack or two from the safety position.
A friend of mine attended a fall practice and I asked him to give me a report on Sims and Coker. His text read “The new punter is good – like really good.” How was Coker? “He was ok. Did I tell you about the punter? He’s Ray Guy good!” So, it sounds like true freshman JK Scott will be just fine this season.
To me, this season may be a bit of a cross roads for the Alabama defense. On the one hand, Alabama has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success on defense so what’s to worry about. On the other, they truly have struggled against A&M, Oklahoma and, to some degree, Auburn. As the whole world transitions to HUNH offenses, Alabama has had to adapt by recruiting and using smaller, more athletic players on the defensive line and at the linebacker position and this will be evident Saturday night. Gone are the 300 lb defensive ends like Marcel Dareus. Gone is the 360 pound Terrance Cody. Gone is the 3-4 defense predicated on stuffing the run. Gone are the 260 lb linebackers like Hightower and McClain. These days Alabama plays a four man front and either nickel or dime defenses about 75% of the time and that means using smaller, faster players.
So on Saturday night I want to see Bama’s smaller, faster defensive linemen go thru the West Virginia line (that is not very good due to injuries and lack of talented tackles) like turnstiles at the fairgrounds. Instead of watching a line that is content with holding up the offensive line, I want to see them hell bent on getting into the backfield. I want to see corners and safeties near the line of scrimmage making the QB wonder what they are doing up there. In essence, I want to see Alabama dictate to offenses instead of offenses dictating to us.
With improved corner play, an improved pass rush and a QB coming off of shoulder surgery, I think I’ll be very happy Saturday night – I hope you are, too!
Final Score: Alabama 31 West Virginia 10
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