The Arkansas Game Review

In the immortal words of Herm Edwards, “You play to win the game.” Or, to quote someone closer to home, as Gene Stallings always said, “The fun is in the winnin’.” I think it’s important to keep those two quotes in mind throughout this season because this team is not going to emulate the classic Nick Saban teams we are all accustomed to. There will be few if any blowouts. Heaven forbid, games will be contested at halftime and beyond. No, this season Alabama will not simply manhandle their opponents. Instead, like Saturday, games will likely be tightly contested til the end. While Saturday’s offensive display was about as uneven and unspectacular as we’ve seen in a very long time, credit the Alabama defense for finding its mojo at a time when the Crimson Tide needed it most. The Arkansas game wasn’t pretty but it also wasn’t a loss. It’s important to remember that the result wasn’t as bad as it certainly could have (or should have) been. Just win, baby.

But, seriously, what’s going on with the offense? Well, if you’ve been reading along, you know that I’ve been telling you after the Florida game that Blake Sims’ throwing shoulder is not 100% healthy and I think that’s been proven out. Gone are the downfield throws and, instead, everything is short and seemingly forced into the double coverage surrounding Amari Cooper. But, honestly, that was one of the fears going into the season – that Blake Sims wouldn’t be able to carry the team with his arm. However, we all slept well at night knowing that either Coker or Sims could simply hand the ball off to a fleet of talented running backs and we’d be fine. Now we know better. So what is Kiffin going to do with a quarterback who isn’t healthy enough to throw and a running game that can’t run? Well, at this point he hasn’t quite figured it out either and frankly, it’s a mess and his options appear to be limited. This week our crack Lighthouse staff tried to break the offense down as best we can and, as always, we’ll simply comment on what we saw on tape –  whether it’s good news or bad news. As they say, the truth shall set you free – but, can you handle the truth? Because I think we are looking for a few good men…(on the offensive line)…

Alabama on Defense

I’m flipping the script this week and leading with the defense if for no other reason than to give kudos to the group that deserves the accolades the most (short of JK “Great” Scott and the howitzer that is attached to his leg). What a tremendous performance against a really, really good running football team. Bret Bielema’s team is going to give someone a bad loss this season and it dang near was Alabama. The true difficulty and awesomeness of the SEC schedule isn’t just the talented opponents but it’s also the diversity of the attacks that you face each week. If Kirby Smart loaded up his team with smaller, more athletic players to defend the spread, then teams like Arkansas, LSU and Auburn would run the ball down his throat. But, if he were to simply go big, the teams that spread you out and get your bigger players in space can give you all sorts of grief. We’ve seen Arky give Texas A&M’s smallish defense all it could handle and I suspect that Ole Miss will have their hands completely full when they face the Hogs.

Thankfully for Bama fans, size matters at the Capstone and Alabama’s defensive front is about the only SEC defense that can stand up to the biggest offensive line in all of football – college or pro. So, as predicted, the Bama front seven throttled the Hogs running game, forcing them to reluctantly take to the air to move the football and while they made a few good plays, it wasn’t what Arkansas wanted to do at all. As a result, Alabama’s defense won their matchup and won the day.

Ground Hogs: First and foremost, credit has to go out to Bama’s big uns of A’Shawn Robinson (who played his best game of the season), Jarren Reed, Brandon Ivory (who played a key role) and DJ Pettway. The front line held the point of attack beautifully and allowed linebackers Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland to come downhill and make plays. With each player doing their job, there were simply few if any running lanes for the piggies to exploit.

Livin on the Edge: To me, this was Bama’s best game from their outside linebackers and edge rushers. Ryan Anderson continues to make me proud game in and game out and Xzavier Dickson was huge in holding the edge and forcing the running plays back to the middle of the line. But, a guy who really stood out to me was…

Here I Come: I don’t know how many of you remember me gushing about Todd Williams last season but I continue to say he’s the best pure edge rusher on the team. In very limited action, he was involved in a sack and three pressures off the edge. Wanna know who forced that final pick to Landon Collins? Look no further than the Tim “The Tool Man” Williams. Look for him to play a role this week against A&M.

Lost Boys: For the majority of the season, middle linebackers Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland have looked lost in coverage and unsteady with their assignments. DePriest has begun to emerge but on Saturday, it was Reggie Ragland who showed up big time with 12 tackles, most of which had a mean spirited nastiness. But, best of all, when Arkansas smartly challenged the backers with passes to their fullbacks out of the backfield (which happened a number of times) neither blew a coverage as they had done in previous games. In fact, this time DePriest was able to influence a critical turnover at the goal line because he was on his assigned back out of the backfield.

Funky Bunch: That damn bunch set bit us once again as the defense blew two consecutive coverages on it. The first time, Bama blitzed and forced Allen to make a quick decision, otherwise he would have been able to spot a receiver running free across the middle of the field as Cyrus Jones completely blew the coverage. The Hogs smartly came back to this play later and, once again, Jones blew the coverage and the receiver was wide open for a huge gainer.

Yer so Bad: Oy, that touchdown to their big tight end was so ugly. The big, lumbering tight end caught a crossing pattern against Geno Smith at the Bama 44 and Smith meekly fell down attempting to tackle him. That left Eddie Jackson with a clear path to fell the big Hog tree but first he took a bad angle and then he compounded his mistake by getting stiff armed to the ground as the big pig galloped to the end zone. So, some big white dude for Arkansas lumbered 44 yards for a touchdown against our defense. Wow.

You Can’t Hurry Love: Even though Bielema isn’t a hurry up kind of guy, Arkansas spent much of the game hurrying to the line of scrimmage in an attempt to get the Bama defense to misalign. The Tide D did a fantastic job of getting aligned and prepared so the quick snaps had little to no effect.

I’ll Be There for You: The defense was continually put in awful situations yet they always bailed the team out. Whether it was Christion Jones or Maurice Smith inexplicably touching a punt, Cyrus Jones fumbling or Blake Sims bumbling a 4th and 1, the defense met the challenge posed to them each and every time. The biggest play of the game was when Alabama shut down the nearly unstoppable Hogs on 4th and 1 right after Sims attempted his quarterback…what’s the opposite of a sneak? Anyway…

Anatomy of a Stop: With a line that averages 6’6 and 326 lbs, the Hogs have been nearly unstoppable in short yardage situations. However, facing a critical 4th and 1, the Tide D rose up and stuffed them for a game saving play around midfield. Here’s how it went…

  • A’Shawn Robinson got 2 yards of penetration at the snap which forced the Hog back (Williams) to bounce a little further outside than he wanted.
  • However, the key penetration on the play was Brandon Ivory who’s push into the backfield allowed Reggie Ragland a gap to shoot thru and make the first contact, forcing the running back to stumble.
  • After Ragland made the first hit, Dickson, who was holding the edge, was able to shed his block and stuff an off-balance Williams well short of the first down. Awesome!

Tidebits

I thought Alabama’s defense was far more aggressive during this game and they played with a physicality we really haven’t seen much of this season. Robinson was fantastic, as was Anderson and Williams but I simply can’t say enough good things about DePriest and Ragland. Evidently, Arkansas watched the same Bama games that I’ve watched (or maybe Bielema subscribes to the blog?) and they identified our backers as the weakest link, sending pass after pass to their backs out of the backfield. But, the backers had their best game of the season and the Tide walked out of Fayetteville with a win.

Bama on Offense

The defensive part of the write up was fun, eh? Props to the D for saving our bacon. But now we come to the part of the blog where things will take a bit of a different turn. Just one year ago the Tide rolled up 532 yards of offense against Arkansas, including a robust 352 on the ground. Absorb that for just a moment – last year we gained 352 yards on the ground. This year the Tide rushed for a mere 66 yards. In watching the tape, Bama typically ran at just a six or seven man front and usually had the Hogs outnumbered at the snap of the ball. Also, there were few, if any, missed assignments across the Tide front. So what happened?

For the second week in a row, an ultra conservative game plan didn’t really stress the opponent’s defense much at all. Nearly everything that Sims threw was short and the few times he threw the ball down the field he threw high and wide. He also missed some easy throws and he threw several passes that, at best, were ill advised. On the ground, while Alabama often had the blocking numbers, the right guard position failed to make their blocks time and time again. Also, Arie K (working on an injured ankle) appeared to have trouble getting to his blocks in time to have much effect. But, strangest of all, Alabama ran the same zone blocking scheme that produced cutback lanes galore last season. On Saturday do you remember seeing a cutback? Every play seemed to bounce further and further outside and the backs rarely looked to go against the flow of the play. I counted three plays where the backs actually took the ball and hit the hole at full speed. Three. The rest of the time they were chopping their feet, trying to avoid a big push coming against their right guard or center. Each man on the line knew his assignment, but often they were unable to either make or sustain their block.

What About Now: To me, the best offensive coordinators are the ones who can formulate a game plan that best suits the talents of his personnel. Right now, Lane Kiffin must be at a loss as to what to call. With teams playing a ton of zone and rolling their coverages to Amari Cooper, the ole let Cooper beat his man and throw him the ball play isn’t working. Teams have taken away the wide receiver screens and have played coverage, forcing Sims to survey the field and find the open man. The best plays in the last two weeks have been seam passes to OJ Howard but those seem to be called few and far between. The customary play action pass to Fowler actually drew triple coverage so the same ole same ole plays are not available. Until Kiffin finds some new throws and plays that Sims can execute, teams are going to play a ton of coverage and take away Cooper from the game plan. Where are the other innovative plays like the pop pass that sprung Howard on Saturday?

Throwing It All Away: Blake Sims was awesome in the first few games when he instinctively left the pocket and used his exceptional running ability. His execution of the zone read has always been outstanding, too. Yet, since his injury, Sims seems extremely reluctant to expose himself to hits and that seems to take away the one element that he can still bring to the table.

Rhythm is a Dancer: Even early on in the game, TJ Yeldon showed happy, dancing feet as soon as he got the ball. Sometimes there were holes where the play was designed but Yeldon chopped his feet, bounced and got tackled for a loss. Only twice did he take a handoff at close to full speed and both times he got 7+ yards.

One is the Loneliest: Numerous times my notes read something like this: “Run outside to strong side – we have numbers. Play setting up well until”…and then the reasons for a loss vary but it usually is one single breakdown on the offensive line. Austin Shepherd engaged but couldn’t keep block. Alphonse Taylor whiffed or is blown back into the backfield. Arie Kouandjio couldn’t get to his block. Bozeman pushed three yards into backfield. The main suspects in this game were whoever was at right guard (Leon Brown or Taylor) and Austin Shepherd but, as a unit, this was the O-lines worst game. Vogler showed up on the naughty list a few times as well. Once again Cam Robinson was stellar but the rest of the group consistently had at least one breakdown on nearly every running play resulting in a loss.

Abracadabra: It’s telling to me that both touchdowns were scored on a broken play. On the second touchdown, three Hogs jumped the play action pass to Fowler, leaving DeAndrew White standing alone in the end zone. It wasn’t the way the play was designed but it worked out. The other play was a Sims scramble that forced the linebackers to come up to tackle Sims. This left Yeldon wide open and he made a great play to score a touchdown.

For Your Eyes Only: On almost every single passing play, Sims’ first look is to Cooper. Three times he threw into double coverage and twice he hit the Arky defender between the numbers for what should have been a pick. In the event that Sims comes off of his first read, he appears to be lost as to where his second read should be and things quickly break down after that. And, even when he has plenty of time, he opts for the short throw rather than looking down the field.

Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot: That’s what Saban was asking after Sims tried to vault over a mass of humanity on a critical 4th & 1 – WTF? I have never seen what Sims did before and I hope I never see it again. Had the defense not bailed us out four downs later, this would have been the goat play of the game. Oh, and doesn’t Derrick Henry still play at Alabama? Might be a good idea to let that beast try and pick up a yard. Just sayin. He doesn’t dance much and he brings 245 lbs to the table.

WTF Part Deaux: With Arkansas hell bent on getting upfield and stopping the run late in the 4th quarter, Kiffin felt it would be a good idea to run a reverse to an injured Amari Cooper. This first down play lost five yards and forced an eventual punt. WTF?

Lefty Loosey: Can anyone recall a time Alabama ran a play that called for Blake Sims to roll to his left? Anyone? If you are strictly a right handed team then you are going to be easy to defend. Every play action roll was to the right. Every single one (and it’s been this way all season).

Outta My Head: Facing a 3rd and 1 that could have clinched the game, Alabama called a time out to set up the perfect play. Two plays earlier, Vogler had left the game due to an injury and Dakota Ball was called into action. After the time out, Ball trotted back out again to take his place at the tight end position. Unfortunately, Bobby Williams didn’t let Ball know that Vogler was ready to go back in so with both of them in the game the Tide was flagged for an inexcusable substitution penalty in a critical situation.

Tidebits

As good as the Bama defense was, the Tide offense was that bad. Nick Saban went into the season saying Alabama was going to get back to the physical style of play that would strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. However, six games into the season the Tide offense has yet to establish any kind of identity at all. If I were forced to define their identity, I’d say it was a finesse offense rather than a powerful one and I certainly don’t think anyone fears this group right now. If I’m right and Sims isn’t 100%, then that means the playbook Alabama has to work from is very limited (and it’s certainly been ultra conservative over the last two games). In asking my regular doctor about having a couple of surgeries, he told me that when my body isn’t allowing me to do everyday things then it’s time to have surgery. I’m not sold on Jake Coker by any means but IF Sims’s health is limiting the play calling and keeping the Alabama offense from doing what it wants to do then I think it would be a good idea to put Coker into the lineup. Yes, Sims’ teammates are strongly backing him but at this point there’s no denying that the offense hasn’t been as effective as it was pre-injury.

Also, coming into this season I felt it was a huge season for offensive line coach Mario Cristobal. While there’s no denying that he’s a phenomenal recruiter, his resume for coaching the O-line wasn’t what Joe Pendry’s or Jeff Stoutland’s was. Last year Alabama’s OL took an expected step back with Cristobal being the new OL coach and the loss of Fluker, Jones and Warmack, so everyone got a pass for last season. However, this year I don’t believe there should be any excuses. Six games into the season the Tide is still looking for a viable starter at right guard. The current players aren’t getting it done and evidently there isn’t a backup (Dominick Jackson) who has been prepared to take their spot. As a result the Bama offensive line has been underwhelming. Injuries to Ryan Kelly and Arie Koundjio certainly haven’t helped, either. During the last two weeks I’ve watched the zone blocking scheme either fail to cut the backside defenders to create a cutback lane or keep the defender from crossing their face and getting into the backfield. Could be the scheme. Could be the talent. Could be the coaching. Frankly, I have no idea what the issue is but I’ve seen the same issues plague the line during the last two games (with Arkansas being the worst by far). Maybe the upcoming bye week after Tennessee will allow them to work on the fundamentals or get someone else ready to play.

Conclusion 

I’m skipping the special teams section this week as there is not a lot to say that you don’t already know. Christion Jones and Maurice Smith made two of the worst decisions you can make on a punt and therefore turned the ball over. With the staff tired of Jones’ turnovers, Cyrus Jones was called into action and he promptly fumbled, too. How bizarre is that? At this point it’s gotta be in their heads so I’d almost just rush 11 and let the ball bounce freely. But the player of this game was JK Scott. Without his ability to flip the field, Bama would have lost that game.

So where do we go from here? I wish I knew. I also wish Kiffin and/or Saban knew. At some point I think you either have to cut Sims loose and allow him to do the things he can do with his feet or you need to find another option because the current offensive plan won’t allow Alabama to defeat any of the SEC teams left on their schedule. The defense may be coming around but rest assured Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn will certainly score more than 13 points. And I’m not sure Alabama can.

So, tune in next week as we open up yet another candy in the 2014 box of chocolates known as Alabama football – as Forrest Gump would say, “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

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