W2W4 – Alabama vs Texas A&M

Welcome back to the Lighthouse, where it’s been gloom, despair and agony over the last two weeks.  As a result we’ve been in a deep, dark depression with excessive misery because the Bama offense has given us very, very little to Hee Haw about.  Now we’ve come to the W2W4 on the schedule that I’ve been dreading the most and, after watching A&M get beaten soundly by Mississippi State and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks, we at the Lighthouse are even more bumfuzzled than ever.  When Alabama is on offense you’ll get to see the classic tilt between the moveable object of A&M’s defense and the resistible force of Alabama’s offense.  And, when the Tide is on defense, you’ll get to witness Dr Kevin Sumlin attempt to surgically shred Nick Saban’s Achilles heel.  But, know that the good doctor will be blindfolded and can be pressured into stabbing himself repeatedly.  Basically it feels like over 100,000 fans will pile into Bryant Denny Stadium to see Sumlin and Saban take turns spinning the Wheel of Misfortune.

To the good, the Aggies are limping into Tuscaloosa after an absolutely brutal three game stretch that saw them get physically whipped by Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks.  After the Alabama game the Aggies will get a much-needed bye week where they can finally kick their heels up (pretty sure their some on their defense wear heels but more on that later) and take a breather after eight consecutive weeks of football.  In the West, the only other team to run the same gauntlet is LSU – they have played every single week of the season.   As a contrast, Mississippi State will have enjoyed TWO bye weeks over the same span of time.  Wow.

Why is that important?  Well, the hope here is that the fast paced Texas A&M offense has actually taken a toll on their own defense because the film certainly seemed to indicate a tired bunch of Aggies in their collective games against the state of Mississippi.  Their whole team looked gassed.  Why?  A&M is first in the conference (and 23rd in the country) in snapping 81 offensive plays per game.  However, all those extra snaps and possessions have also meant that their defense has been on the field for 75 plays per game.  As a comparison, Alabama has defended an average of 63 plays per game – good for second in the country – and Alabama has played one fewer game.  So, this season the poor Aggie defenders have been out there on the field for 147 more plays than Alabama’s defense and their efforts in the last two ballgames certainly seem to reflect tired legs and tired hearts.  Will Alabama be able to take advantage?  Here’s What to Watch For this week….

Alabama on “Offense”

How do we even begin to break this side of the ball down after the last two weeks?  I watched an ESPN “Film Room” last night that detailed exactly what I pointed out in the Arkansas Game Review.  Blake Sims isn’t using his best attribute (his legs) in the pocket and, as a result, the entire offense is bogging down.  Even the likes of Matt Millen could point this out on the telestrator as Sims had huge avenues to run for first downs but, instead, he elected to throw the ball into double coverage.  By now, you know that we feel 100% certain that Sims is injured and both his running and his throwing have been affected by this.  The staff seems unwilling to let him throw the ball down the field and his mind seems unwilling to let him expose himself to more hits.  At some point it would seem that the “more harm than good” rule of thumb would come into play at this position and a change at the QB position would be considered.  I think if A&M pounces on us out of the gate as they have the last two years, you could see Jake Coker make an appearance in the huddle.

Right now, Alabama just needs first downs.  The more first downs they get, then the more plays they can run.  The more plays they can run then there will be more opportunities for repetitions the offensive line will have a chance to gel.  With Arie Kouandjio still nursing an ankle injury and Ryan Kelly still out with a knee, we aren’t sure how optimistic we should be that the running game will be in for a reemergence this week.  But, if ever there were a pick me up bouquet of Hallmark card bearing defenders, it’s the Aggies.

Who Are You:  To this point, Alabama has no identity whatsoever on offense.  Since Saban arrived at the Capstone, 3rd & 2 has been a virtual layup because his offensive lines have generated a huge push and his big, physical backs have been able to get several yards down the field before experiencing the first contact.  This year it’s been different.  Very different.  But, after watching Arkansas, MSU and Ole Miss have their way with the Aggie d-line (it didn’t surprise me to find that A&M ranks a woeful 93rd against the run)  even Alabama should be able to make some hay on the ground Saturday afternoon.  If they can’t, you may want to start looking into reservations for the Music City bowl.

Shake it Off:  Instead of the Aggies’ small defensive group looking swift, it appears they seem to play more like Taylor Swift.  A&M’s 2014 defensive hallmarks are poor tackling, poor angles and slow-footed play.  Attacking the edges of their defense has worked for everyone they’ve played, including the Arkansas punter who ran virtually untouched 51 yards for a touchdown.  Also, QB keepers on zone reads have bludgeoned the interior of their defense, as well, as both Bo Wallace and Dak Prescott looked like the second coming of Tommie Frazier on zone reads.

Air Supply:  Bo Wallace threw for 305 yards and Dak Prescott threw for 268 so plays via the air should be available.  The Aggies seem hell-bent on shutting down the back shoulder fades and sideline routes with outside leverage but they appear to be more than happy to give up easy slants and square ins.  They also seem content to give up yardage on the WR screens but much of that seems to do with their DBs inability to shed WR blocks or make tackles in open spaces.  Arkansas and Ole Miss both successfully played a ton of zone coverage against Alabama and they rolled it to wherever Amari Cooper was.  However, A&M appears to prefer to play man to man so Amari Cooper you should be cleared for take-off….

Wide Open Spaces:  Both Mississippi schools used tosses and sweeps to outflank the Aggies with a tremendous amount of success.  Look for Alabama to go back to the bunch formation they tried to use against Arkansas and run wide out of that.  With better blocks (or lesser defenders) there should be yardage available there.

500 Myles:  I’ll be the Proclaimer who tells you to watch out for #15 on Texas A&M’s defense – he’s Myles Garrett and he will be a three-year player for the Aggies before he goes on to the league.  He’s exceptional as an edge rusher and will likely have his name called more than once Saturday.

Conclusion

This year things have been about as stacked against Alabama’s offense as they can possibly be.  Gloom, Despair and Agony have taken the place of our three horsemen of Yeldon, Henry and Drake.  Injuries to Blake Sims, Kenyan Drake, DeAndrew White, Arie K and Ryan Kelly have certainly played a part in the Tide’s woes but, still, there have been plays that could have been made with just a little better individual execution.  As bad as things have been, the Aggies defense should be just what the doctor ordered.  It certainly cured Arkansas, MSU and Ole Miss so if Alabama’s offense doesn’t bust out the whoopin stick on Saturday then it may be a year or more before we get to see it in their hands again (unless you count Western Carolina).

Alabama on Defense

Regardless of what you think of the A&M offense right now, you should know that they are still every bit as lethal as they were originally thought to be earlier in the season.  They are still first in the world (ok, top 5) in nearly every single statistical category and their strengths happen to line up perfectly against our defensive weaknesses.  Additionally, this week Kenny Trill, er, Hill, will get his favorite blankey back in the form of slot receiver Malcom Kennedy (#84).  The last time we saw Kennedy, he was catching the game winning overtime touchdown out of the slot against Arkansas.  Kennedy is all of the things the other A&M receivers aren’t – he’s experienced, small, quick and reliable.  In watching Sumlin’s offense on tape I was floored by the number of times the receivers simply dropped the football on perfect passes.  And, it was multiple receivers who dropped them, too, not just one or two.  With Kennedy back, I think Hill will dial him up on multiple third downs and they’ll stand a much better chance of converting than they did in the last two weeks when Kennedy was out.

However, the simple addition of Malcom in the Middle won’t exactly be the Dr Quinn Medicine Woman for all of the Aggies’ offensive ills.  Instead of Kenny Hill focusing on what his brand name should be, he should have been working on his footwork and his delivery because it’s not the same as it was earlier in the season.  Nearly half of his throws are high and behind his receivers and his lethal fade passes aren’t nearly as effective when he’s consistently throwing them out-of-bounds.  The recent Hill is not the Hill from earlier in the season and, as a result, he’s been prone to turning the football over with regularity.  Hill threw three picks to MSU, two to Ole Miss and one to Arkansas.  All three teams simply rushed three or four men and sat in zone coverages, waiting for the ball to bounce their way.  Honestly, there were several more picks available during those games so Hill is lucky to have only thrown six picks in that span.

Fools Rush In:  Sumlin’s offense will make you pay if you recklessly send in the blitzing clowns so everyone I watched usually just rushed three or four (Arky even just rushed two) and tried to use matchup zones with deep safety help.  The Mississippi schools forced A&M to methodically march the ball down the field and sooner or later the negative plays (picks, drops, sacks) caught up to the Aggie O.

Stay With Me:  Kenny Hill must be begging his OL to stay with him for one more game as their play has regressed over the last three weeks.  Ole Miss’ front four found their way home quite a bit against the A&M line using stunts and loops that brought their ends up thru the vacant middle of their line.  The tackles are pretty solid but their guard play has been suspect from what I’ve seen.  And, they have absolutely no running game to speak of so that makes things even tougher for the Aggies.

Waiting for Superman:  From Saban’s comments earlier this week it sounds as though Landon Collins will be playing a ton of linebacker this week.  Alabama plans to defend the Aggies’ four wide looks with a dime package and that means Landon Collins will line up beside Trey DePriest and he’ll have to be superman yet again this week.  I meant to point this out in the Arkansas game recap but, if you still have the Arkansas game, go back and look at the game winning interception.  Collins’ responsibility was the back out of the backfield but, when the back stayed in to block, Collins came in to apply pressure on the QB.  As Allen rolled right, the running back suddenly released down the field.  But, instead of doing what 90% of the defenders would do and get sucked into the pass rush, Collins reversed course and trailed the back and that’s why he was in perfect position to make the interception.  Brilliant play by Collins there and he’ll have to be even better this week.

Allen-town:  Alabama has prepared for this game by working Jonathan Allen, a natural defensive end, at defensive tackle since A-Day and on Saturday we’ll see if it pays off.  Brandon Ivory, Jarren Reed, A’shawn Robinson, and Darren Lake have played a ton of tackle lately but look for Allen to get a ton of reps inside in order to generate interior pressure on Hill.  Quick tackles have had their moments on film against the A&M line so perhaps the Aggie backfield will become Allen-town before the end of the day.

Greased Lightning:  Rabbits, rabbits and more rabbits – look for Alabama to put their fastest d-line on the field for as much time as they can get away with.  Dickson, Anderson, Williams, Evans and Allen will all have plenty of opportunities to generate some pressures and sacks on Saturday.  As a counter, look for A&M to try to run Bama out of this look, especially when Landon Collins is at linebacker.  It will be interesting to see if the Aggies can find some semblance of a running game against this smaller defensive group – if they do, it will wreck the plan that Saban has been crafting for the last year.

And Now for the Rest of the Story:  Alabama’s pass defense has been lacking throughout this season and there isn’t a better passing team on Bama’s schedule than Texas A&M.  Quite honestly, this matchup could very well be a nightmare.  Bunch formations have befuddled the Tide secondary so the fear here is that we’ll see a bunch of the Bunch.  Poor Cyrus Jones will look up to A&M’s receivers all afternoon because they go 6’4, 6’5, 6’0 and 5’11 and, yes, they are all very well acquainted with the deadly back shoulder fade that has given us fits.  Honestly, if it weren’t for some inaccuracies from the QB and some blatant drops by the Aggie wide receivers then this offense would be every bit as menacing as we originally thought them to be.  And, the thought of locking up many of our DBs in man to man coverage makes me physically ill.  Best case scenario for Saturday would be for Alabama’s defense to generate some pressure from the front four and patiently wait for wild passes, ricochets and drops to take their toll.  Blitzing Hill will be akin to handing Jameis Winston a bottle of GHB and locking him in a Seminole sorority house – you’ll be asking for trouble.

Conclusion

I’m afraid many Alabama fans looked at the Aggies’ last two losses and decided the A&M’s offense must not be all that.  Statistically, they are all of that and then some.  And, if their wide receivers decide to actually catch the majority of their catchable passes then it could be a long, long day for the Tide defense.  Watching Ole Miss generate sacks and pressures by only using four pass rushers gives me a tremendous amount of hope but, more than that, seeing Hill be inaccurate in the last two games actually gives me some optimism on defense.

Special Teams

Catch the damn ball.  Hold on to the damn ball.  That is all.

Final Thoughts

This may as well be the Christmas edition of the W2W4 because it’s full of ifs and buts and candy and nuts.  IF Alabama can run the ball…IF the same Aggie OL, WRs and QB play the same on Saturday as they did the last two Saturdays…IF Alabama can continue to thwart the run with their dime defense in the game.  And IF a few passes end up landing in the hands of the good guys….then Alabama should escape with a victory.  There are many reasons to be optimistic this week but IF Alabama once again struggles on offense then you’d better know A&M won’t do us the favor of scoring just 13 points.

Final Score:  Alabama 24                Texas A&M 23

 

*Editor’s Note:  If Texas A&M showed even the slightest pulse on defense then the Lighthouse would have predicted a loss for the first time in the history of the site.  Looking into our crystal bulb, there are two very solid chances that will change later this season.

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