If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then on Saturday whoever be holdin’ the ball was the beauty in Atlanta. When Alabama was on offense, beauties such as Amari Cooper, TJ Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Blake Sims (yes, he was a beauty – we’ll discuss in detail below) performed at a high level, gaining over 500 yards of offense and posting 33 points. The offensive line played beautifully, as well, as they dominated the line of scrimmage and didn’t allow a single sack. Compare that performance to last year’s opener against Va Tech and surely you would agree that the O-Line deserves some kudos. And how about young Cam Robinson who played very well in his first start as a TRUE freshman? These were no sleeping beauties – they were alive and well and very much in control of the Mountaineers.
Then there was the defense. And, please spare me the red zone accolades that many are trying to bestow upon these Tide defenders. On first and goal from the five, West Virginia (for the second time) slipped their fullback into the flat completely uncovered. I repeat: COMPLETELY UNCOVERED. As was the case all night, Bama’s best defense was the club hands of the WVU receivers as their wide open fullback contributed one of seven drops on the day. If he catches the ball, dude could have taken out his phone and googled all of the naked celebrity pictures before walking gingerly across the goal line. But, hey, if you want to chalk that up to some awesome and mysterious red zone tactics then be my guest. But just to be clear, on second down the Mountaineers threw the ball out of the end zone and then on third down WVU snapped the ball about 20 yards over the quarterback’s head. A little girl’s soccer team can play good red zone D if the opponent can’t catch, throw or snap the football…
But enough of that. The highs were the offense, the quarterback, the offensive line and the kicking game. Sweet holy mother of Ray Guy, that JK Scott can punt a football. And mega props to Adam Griffith who struck every kick like an old NFL vet. Who knew that Alabama would ever field a team whose special teams would outplay their defense???? Weird, wild, wacky stuff – and that’s just week one! Speaking of weird, wild, wacky stuff – let’s put down our Googled pictures of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton and get to the write up!
Alabama on Offense
So much for the vaunted QB battle, eh? About 30 minutes before kickoff, tweets began to roll in stating that all of the Bama QBs were warming up except Jake Coker. Ten minutes later, Coker finally emerged from the locker room with a large wrap on his leg – it was at this point that you could see the writing on the wall that Sims would likely go wire to wire. Frankly, Sims surpassed my expectations as a QB. Why? Well, considering this was his first ever start…with a first year coordinator (with Bama)…with another QB looking over his shoulder…in a tight game…and with an entire nation of fans expecting him to fail…this is what he did:
- Engineered more explosive plays against WVU than against OU or Auburn. That’s without Christion Jones catching a 50 yard pass.
- Completed 7 of 9 passes on third down, converting five first downs.
- Led Alabama to convert 9 of 16 third downs.
- Completed 24 of 33 passes (72.7%) for 250 yards. Again, tack on 50 more for Jones’ drop.
- Got the ball out to Cooper 12 times for 130 yards.
Listen, these are good numbers no matter how you slice it. If someone told you that Sims would complete over 70% of his passes on Saturday, you would have asked him if he’s been drinking Mollies with Wes Welker! Sims exhibited tremendous poise in the pocket, avoiding sacks and keeping plays alive. He threw two horrific passes into the dirt and, of course, threw the one pick towards OJ Howard but out of 33 passes for SIMS to only throw three or four bad ones is a tremendous job.
Oh Captain My Captain: I’m happy to report that our new captain and leader of the offense, Lane Kiffin, did a tremendous job Saturday. He calmed Sims down when he was clearly rattled and Kiffin called plays that perfectly fit Sims’ skill set. Sims’ calm demeanor was a direct result of Kiffin’s presence on the sidelines. Additionally, Kiffin got the ball to his playmakers and called an assortment of plays that totaled over 500 yards of offense. Were it not for the O clicking on nearly all cylinders, we’d all be muttering about how the heck we lost to WVU…
Ooooh Line: In my pre-game write up, I called out the offensive line. If you remember the cluster that was the Virginia Tech game last year, then you know that a tremendous amount of improvement was needed here in game one of the 2014 season. While OL coach Mario Cristobal is a phenomenal recruiter, his O-line charges have left quite a bit to be desired at times so I wanted to see how they would respond with an entire year to work with them. Even with changes at left tackle and right guard, the line worked as a cohesive unit, opening holes for the backs and keeping defenders off of Sims. Now, if you could just take Leon Brown and his three penalties out of the equation….
Not No Mini Cooper: In the pre-game write up, I mentioned how Kiffin featured Marquise Lee during his time at USC and wondered if Amari Cooper could be the beneficiary of his new OC’s philosophy. Well, wonder no more. Cooper seems fully healthy and damn near unstoppable!
Sledgehammer: Yeldon and Henry obviously had huge games but the key guy leading the way was Jalston Fowler. Fowler was out there quite a bit (and when Fowler was in, Howard was on the bench about 90% of the time) as a TE, H-back and fullback and he delivered his best blocking performance of his career. He’s always had the physical tools but now he’s getting downright physical. Nasty!
Nowhere Man: OJ Howard. Zero catches. Enough said. As I theorized in the pre-game, Vogler got the majority of the reps at TE while Howard was mostly only used in 2 tight end formations and a sprinkling of other times. Throw in the fact that Fowler’s role also put Howard on the bench and, well, you realize Howard’s opportunities were limited more than we hoped.
- Kiffin used a variety of different formations that were fairly unexpected. A few faves were lining up a fullback in the pistol formation with no tight ends, lining Vogler out wide and teaming Fowler and Vogler together in essentially a two tight end formation. He also manipulated a formation where WVU was covering Cooper man to man with a safety but Sims overthrew the pass badly.
- WVU dialed up several corner blitzes that came completely free. Sims didn’t see them but was deftly able to avoid them and avoid getting sacked. It is bothersome that they came so free, though.
- OJ Howard completely missed at least three blocks including one near our own goal line when Sims audibled. If he wants to stay on the field, he’d probably better lock down his assignments.
- Traps were the order of the day with Fowler and Howard coming across the formation to seal a huge hole in the line. Gorgeous teamwork and scheme. I’ll try to draw this up later this week.
- Did you notice the attempted (but incomplete) deep back shoulder fade to Kenyan Drake on a wheel route out of the backfield? Look for him to be used in space this season – and this makes me tingly all over…
- Sims used a hard count coming out of a time out that drew WVU offsides. Vet move.
- Bama uncharacteristically had to call timeouts in the first half due to late play calls and formation busts.
- Feeling that Sims was getting rattled, Kiffin employed a hurry up offense that seemed to jump start the entire group. Smart! I mean, Kiffin!
Alabama on Defense
In the pre-game write up on the defense, I stated that this matchup would indeed be a challenge due to the HUNH West Virginia employs. Now, I didn’t expect Trickett’s arm to be so good but I did think the pace and the schemes had been problematic for the Tide in the past and this one likely would be as well. Even after a year of preparation, you still saw the same schemes that you saw against Oklahoma so naturally you saw similar results. Alabama stayed in a 4-2 look for 90% of the game and this left their two linebackers uncomfortably out in space. Reuben Foster took horrific angles throughout the game and looked lost in coverage. Ragland seemed ineffective and on his heels through most of the game. Meanwhile, West Virginia found a matchup they liked and wore poor Bradley Sylve out. Things got so bad that they put Cyrus Jones on White so WVU smartly went after Sylve with a different receiver – good for a 26 yard completion. Sigh.
The only readily apparent change from last year’s defensive tactics against the HUNH was to put Jonathan Allen and A’Shawn Robinson at defensive tackle and surround them with more athletic players on the edges. WVU countered this by pounding on Allen in the first half, gashing Bama’s run defense for 5 yards a pop. The undersized Allen was absolutely dismantled on the interior (seriously, watch the tape of the first half). In the second half, you saw Reed and Tomlinson man the inside while Allen was moved outside and this, along with sending Foster and Ragland downhill on run blitzes, stopped the Mountaineers running game cold. If Bama can find a defensive back who can knock away just a few of the 12 passes (for 154 yards) that Sylve allowed to be completed, then it’s an entirely different result. But, after only one game, it still appears that a more consistent pass rush and better coverage is still needed to combat the HUNH…or, perhaps a change in defensive expectations is in order.
Rush Hour: Credit Alabama for recording three sacks and multiple pressures whenever WVU was forced to take something more than a three step drop. But, against a three step drop there’s not much a pass rush can do. So……
Tighten Up: Did you notice how far off the corners were playing for the majority of the game? Mercy. Giving a 10 yard cushion when they are killing you with three step drops is just brutal. Thankfully, WVU contributed SEVEN dropped passes, making our absentee coverage stats appear to be much better than it actually was.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: Without Trey DePriest out there to set the defense, Alabama had tremendous difficulty lining up against WVU’s multiple receiver formations and they got killed by it. Far too often the Tide D was outmanned by WVU’s wide outs. Many times when WVU would line up three receivers to one side, Bama countered with only two defenders. Other times the Mountaineers lined up two wide receivers while Alabama countered with only one defender. The result was typically an easily blocked WR screen that went for good yardage.
Who Dat: West Virginia converted a fourth and short by slipping their fullback and their tailback out past the line of scrimmage. The QB seemed confused for a moment as neither back out of the backfield was covered. Later, the Mountaineers slipped their fullback out uncovered once again inside the five but luckily he dropped the ball. The issues with lining up against the wide receivers and covering the backs out of the backfield were scary and will need to get fixed before some even better offensive teams come calling.
- I was really impressed with Reed, Pettway and Tomlinson. All held the point well and Pettway provided a couple of pressures. It’s a really, really deep group of DL this season.
- The defense is still working on their timing as Jarrick Williams blitzed, leaving his man in the slot wide open. Landon Collins was supposed to backfill for Williams in coverage but he was way too late, allowing a completion for 10 yards.
- Reuben Foster took really bad angles throughout the day but he sure popped a WVU back once when he blitzed. Lots of potential there but it was not his best game by a long shot. Honestly, it was a little tough to watch. Bad angles, inability to disengage from blocks, keeping his head down when he tackles (resulting in a complete whiff)…not pretty.
- The defensive look with Dillon Lee and Geno Smith in the game seemed to provide a little better pass coverage and I look for these two to be more involved in the coming weeks. Geno will obviously be pressed into service since Jarrick Williams is out for a few weeks with a fractured foot. Lee is far more athletic and instinctual in pass coverage so I look for him to become a fixture in the 4-2 before too long.
- Tony Brown is the best cover corner on the team and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t somehow work his way into the rotation soon.
- Captain Obvious here but Xzavier Dickson was a breath of fresh air at defensive end. His ability to dip and bend around the corner is sorely needed.
- Jonathan Allen looked a TON better as a DE than a DT. Very fast and strong.
- Landon Collins was really good in coverage but he made a strong statement to future opponents with a decraptitating hit across the middle. Some assembly required on that WVU receiver.
What more can you say about Alabama’s kicking and punting game? Alabama was a Jabriel Washington missed tackle away from an A++ on special teams. Numerous people told me to watch out for the punter and they sure were right. JK Scott introduced himself to the world with a 62 yard BOMB! But perhaps the best thing that came out of the game was the extraordinary effort of Adam Griffith. Every ball he hit was Thunderstruck with the length and trajectory we haven’t seen in a while. Man, he really looked good! We didn’t get much out of the return game but, honestly, that’s just quibbling here. Great job by Bama’s special teams, IMO.
I talked to several people lamenting over the close of the 2014 season and, as many of you know, I was mystified why we would kick Nussmeier to the curb. In my opinion, the defense needed far more tweaking than the offense did and I wondered aloud what adjustments would be made during the offseason to combat the HUNH. As it turns out, not too many. I did like the athleticism across the front and the rotation of bodies on the DL was extremely impressive. Even Brandon Ivory got some snaps. So, the increased athleticism and depth should help as the season progresses. But, more edge rushes like the ones Dickson gave us around the corner will be needed as that’s the best defense for the HUNH.
In the secondary, well, that’s where things really need to change. Leaving receivers uncovered off the line and in the secondary is not the best way to defend, IMO. And finding a corner who can hold up in man to man situations will be of paramount importance for success against teams like A&M, Auburn and Ole Miss. Over the next few weeks I expect to see an open audition including Maurice Smith, Tony Brown and some of Eddie Jackson. Someone is going to have to step up…
But perhaps we are looking at this completely wrong. Maybe our perception of what makes a good defense needs to change. With the fast paced no huddle teams that have quarterback friendly systems, yards and points are nearly guaranteed. It’s possible that the best defense against these systems is to keep the play in front of you and not give up the big play so that you can tighten the noose in the red zone. Maybe there are no answers other than to outscore the opponents. The world of college and pro football is changing so maybe the fans have to adapt even if the defenses can’t.