Alabama vs Middle Tennessee Game Review

It’s been said that you can’t always get what you want.  But, if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.  Saturday, neither the offense, the defense nor special teams could absolutely get what they wanted but, at times, they got what they needed.

Unfortunately, whether it was inconsistent play at the quarterback position, horrific play at the right tackle position or a high percentage of third down conversions – Alabama could not always get what they wanted on offense.

Defensively, there were no sacks, there were long drives and there were linebackers beaten in coverage.  And on special teams, well, there were missed field goals and still too few booming punts from the foot of JK Scott (his long was 44 yards).  In fact, the Crimson Tide is so needy on special teams (particularly field goal kicking) that it’s damn near time to organize a Sally Struthers telethon or some kind of Hands Across America or Farm Aid or something.  I would say instead of Farm Aid we need Barn Aid but the Barn appears to be in the midst of keeping the orchestra playing whilst their beloved one and done Titanic sinks.  But, anyhoo….

Ok, so all of the above is kind of bad but you should take heart.  There was some good.  There was some very, very good.  And, there were a few things that maybe you didn’t notice that did seem to indicate Alabama’s defense is better prepared to defend the “fast ball” offenses than it’s ever been before.  Piqued your interest yet?  Let’s get to it………..

Alabama on Offense

It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.  And, oftentimes that was on consecutive Jake Coker decisions!  In my notes I have comments like “great decision to spike the ball at Henry’s feet – avoided a sack.”  Or, “great job to just throw the ball away.” And, there were several kudos given for to Coker for working thru his progression to find his second and third receivers.  During the best of times it was, well, the best of times!

But then there are these notes – “what the hell did he see there?”  “Could he not tell the corner was squatting on the deep route?”  His receiver (ArDarius Stewart) did and was shaking his head on the way back to the huddle.  Or, “why oh why did he throw into double coverage???”  He was so lucky not to have more than just the one ball picked off.  He also audibled into the strong side of the defense and committed a few other errors.  But, you wanna know the worst part of it?  He’s still much, much better than Cooper Bateman.

Meanwhile, when Alabama wasn’t flinging the ball here, there and everywhere, they were mauling the little Blue Raiders on the ground whenever they wanted to.  Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, Damien Harris and even Derrick Gore all looked good on the ground.  During this game, Bama was seemingly (and smartly) working on the passing game in preparation for the rest of the schedule.  Here’s what else we saw when Bama had the ball…

Blue Bayou – If you say it aloud, it sounds like “Blew by You” and that’s exactly what was happening to poor Dominick Jackson at right tackle all night long.  When he wasn’t able to clutch and grab the defenders, they just flat out beat him around the corner.  He actually whiffed on three straight plays, if you can believe that.  We’ve heard for quite some time that Jackson is a mauler in the run game and that’s spot on.  But, he has a country mile to go before he’ll qualify as more than a speed bump on the way to the quarterback.  If you think it was bad, it was worse than what you think.

Worth It:  Finding OJ Howard in the passing game is totally worth it and Lane Kiffin seems to have identified Howard and Kenyan Drake as his two go-to weapons on offense this season.  When Kiffin schemes Howard open, it’s a gorgeous thing of beauty.  His long, loping strides gobble up yardage as he runs free in the secondary.  However, they design A LOT of plays to go to Howard but oftentimes he’s unable to separate from his defenders in coverage.  Howard does not attack his routes with urgency and, as a result, lesser talented athletes are able to stay with him easily.

Hot Route:  One more note about Howard.  If you still have the game recorded, go back and watch Alabama’s fourth down attempt in the first quarter.  Facing 4th & 5 at the MT 41 yard line, the Raiders blitzed Coker off of OJ Howard’s side.  Howard was the hot route but instead of recognizing the blitz and turning around at the sticks, he loped on down the field (all by himself), forcing Coker to throw the ball away under duress.  Coker waited for Howard as long as he could but OJ failed to recognize the blitz and make himself available, therefore forcing Coker to throw the ball away.

Uptown Funk You Up:  There is nothing prettier in Alabama’s offense than when Henry lines up in the shotgun next to Coker and Drake is lined up in the slot.  The possibilities out of that set are endless.  Is it a gash up the middle with Henry?  Is it a screen out to Drake?  Or, is it my favorite play?  When Drake motions across the formation and receives the little flip pass, I think I pee on myself a little bit every time.  You see, OJ Howard is usually flanked to the left off the massive posterior of Cam Robinson and then Kiffin positions the 240 lb Henry right behind them.  When Drake gets the flip going left, it is one helluva convoy.  Robinson’s down block is so good, he usually wipes out the pursuing linebackers.  With Henry and Howard cleaning up the leftovers it’s “East bound and down, we loaded up and truckin’!”  I have to kiss myself it’s so pretty because this Uptown will Funk You Up.

Invisible Man:  Time to give a shout out to Michael Nysewander, Alabama’s unsung fullback.  Nysewander showed up several times delivering key blocks (and one de-crapitating blow on a kick returner) and proved himself to be a very, very valuable asset in the running game.  Frankly, he’s been far more effective than Ball, Howard or Flourney-Smith and is earning more and more playing time.  Ball is particularly slow off the snap of the ball nearly every time and it’s getting tough to watch.  Nysewander is a massive upgrade, IMO.

One on One:  One interesting tendency that I saw Saturday was Coker’s penchant for throwing to the single receiver in the formation.  Basically, when two or more wide receivers are clustered to one side and one single, solitary wide receiver is flanked out wide on the other side, Coker seems to throw to the lone wide receiver the vast majority of the time.  Kind of interesting.

Tidebits

  • Derrick Henry is one mean mother when he’s protecting his QB.  He’s like a momma bear protecting her cubs.  Hmm.  Let’s go with daddy bear, instead.  It gets grizzly when he’s in pass protection.
  • Coker has to recognize double coverage and also be able to see when the corner is playing a bail technique in anticipation of a bomb.  He made some horrific decisions at times.
  • But none of his decisions were as bad as Bateman’s pick.  Ooph.
  • Alphonse Taylor was very good this week.  Ryan Kelly was once again superb.
  • Coker is no longer under throwing his receivers.  Now he’s over throwing.  I’d rather he under throw them so they at least have an opportunity to make a play.
  • At the end of the first half it was 26 passes to 13 runs.  We talkin’ bout practice!
  • Ridley and Harris continue to impress me each time they have the ball in their hands.  Lester Cotton and Dallas Warmack showed well as true freshmen on the second string offensive line, too.
  • I read that thru two games, Drake has 256 yards and Henry has 255.  Wow.

Alabama on Defense

As Allen Iverson says,we talkin’ bout practice, man!  And that’s exactly what Middle Tennessee was for Alabama’s defense.  If you are wondering why the Blue Raiders are on the schedule, it’s because their offense runs the very same dastardly offense that typically gives the Crimson Tide defense fits.  Yes, Alabama has the best defensive line in all of college football but, against Middle Tennessee, do you know how many sacks the Tide registered?  You, gentle reader, had as many sacks as the entire Tide defense had.  ZERO.  In 43 pass attempts, the Tide registered zero sacks.  Why?  Well, when the QB is getting the ball out quickly then there’s very little the defensive line can do.  I love the fact that Bama is swatting down pass attempts as easy as Hillary Clinton deletes emails and that’s what you have to do to combat the quick passing attacks.

I also loved seeing the Tide sub in defenders any time the play came to the Alabama bench.  Players shuffled on and off purely as subs for guys who were tired.  This time we didn’t see the scheming and sometimes maddening Chinese fire drill that goes along with strategically subbing players into the lineup.  This is, as they say, progress.  Bama is so deep and so talented that whenever an opportunity presents itself to get a fresh set of pass rushers onto the field then they need to do it as quickly as possible.  They did so against the Blue Raiders and they’ll do it again against the Rebels this week.

There was a lot to like defensively but there were a few glaring issues as well – here’s what else we saw when Middle Tennessee had the ball…

The Humphrey Dance:  Marlon Humphrey is Alabama’s newest NFL first round cover corner.  Humphrey has been outstanding in pass coverage and in run support and he simply couldn’t be more impressive.  This week he nearly had two picks and just for giggles he ripped a ball out of a receiver’s hands.  If you see me going buck wild when Marlon snags his first interception, tell folks to “step off, I’m doing the Hump!”  The Humphrey Dance – I kinda like it!

Three is the Magic Number:  For the second week in a row, I’ve seen Alabama using a ton of 3 man fronts against the spread.  Typically, teams play a 4-2 with four linemen and two linebackers.  Early on, MT was gashing our four man line with interior runs but once Alabama shifted to the 3 man look, the gashing stopped.  Kirby Smart alternated his four man and three man fronts (and tightened the splits of the 3 man front) but the three man d-line was by far the most effective against the run once again.

Watch Me:  I’m a Houston Texans fan so when Houston is on defense, I can’t take my eyes off of JJ Watt – I mean, he just destroys people.  When Alabama is on defense, I’d suggest you pay close attention to A’Shawn Robinson.  Offenses be livin’ in Mr Robinson’s neighborhood and Saturday’s word is always “Landlord.”  As in, offensive lines need to be paying Robinson rent because he absolutely, positively owns them!

Cheerleader:  I’m a huge cheerleader of Reuben Foster now that he’s getting a chance to flourish in nickel and dime sets.  While we all know that each time he delivers a blow there’s a good chance that a stretcher is coming out (either for him or for the dude he hit), he’s actually a VERY instinctive pass defender.  He’s shown extremely well in zone coverage against Wisconsin and Middle Tennessee, especially near the goal line.  Pass defense is something that you either have or you don’t have and Foster definitely appears to have it.

How You Like Me Now:  Remember the days when we hated seeing Cyrus Jones in pass coverage?  Well, he’s turned out to be one of the best cover corners we’ve had.  At 5’9, he still has some issues with run support and being physical but when you just talk about his ability as a pure cover corner, he’s outstanding.

Where Ya At?:  For as long as Nick Saban has been at Alabama, the Tide’s defense has absolutely owned any kind of screens.  Tunnel screens, wide receiver screens, running back screens and quick screens – the Tide drowned them out with ease.  However, over the last two games we’ve given up quite a bit of yardage on wide receiver screens – this week in particular.  It’s usually a combination of failures, too.  Minkah Fitzpatrick gets overly aggressive and eliminates himself from the play.  The linebacker on that side overruns the play.  The corner doesn’t hold up the edge and allows the receiver to get outside.  This week the guys I noted who needed to improve their techniques against the screens were: Foster (overruns the play), Fitzpatrick, Ragland (overruns), Jackson and Jones.  As you can see, it takes a village to defend this play and right now we look like the village idiots trying to defend it.

Tidebits

  • Look for more quarterback draws against our defense as the Blue Raiders had some success with it this week.
  • Like Wisconsin, MT isolated their backs and tight ends against our linebackers and safeties with success.  This coming week, you’ll likely hear the name of Evan Engram quite a bit if this continues.
  • Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Geno Smith are all former corners who should excel in pass coverage against tight ends and backs but thus far, they are struggling.
  • If you are wondering why Humphrey is ahead of Tony Brown, look no further than the fourth quarter when Brown tried to come up and make a tackle.  He whiffed bigger than a Houston Astros slugger (he may not have wanted to expose his injured shoulder to a hit, though).

Alabama on Special Teams

JK Scott had a better game this week by posting a 40.2 average.  His punts were: 35, 37, 42 and 44 yards.  We are still looking for the Great Scott from last year but perhaps this is a sign he’s getting it together.

The guy who is not getting it together is Adam Griffith and I think it’s now time for a full blown panic.  His kickoffs have been solid, as have his extra points.  However, when it comes to kicking a field goal something between his ears seems to be prohibiting him from putting a good swing on the ball.  The 49 yard field goal attempt landed 10 yards short and the short chip-shot field goal never, ever had a chance.  Unless Griffith is a god or demigod in practice then it’s time to begin considering other options.

The bright spots on special teams were the coverage teams, kick returns, punt returns and the blocked punt for a safety.  Alabama has so much stinkin’ talent on the roster that you’d expect a decisive advantage in their coverage and return teams and right now you are seeing that come to fruition.  BTW, I think it’s just a matter of time before Cyrus Jones houses a punt.

Final Thoughts

There was a lot to like about this game but there was a lot to dislike, as well, and Coach Saban said as much afterwards.  Jake Coker continues to be miles ahead of Cooper Bateman and at times it looks like Coker could play in the NFL (yes, as a QB!).  But, then there are other times where you question what the kid is thinking.  That’s got to be maddening to Saban and Kiffin but they will have to continue to work the kinks out of Coker until they have what they want at the QB position.  The running game seems to be there when we want it so the staff smartly used this game to sharpen up the passing game.  It looks like we are still holding a butter knife but at least it looks like it’s a serrated one.

Defensively, there was some good and bad, as well.  When you own the line of scrimmage, you probably expect at least one sack, right?  Well, that’s the danger of these short, quick passing games – they completely negate a pass rush.  When that happens, the game turns to a 7 on 7 contest where the angles, coverage and tackling have to be top notch.  With Ole Miss hanging 70+ on their two opponents thus far, the Tide defense should be thrilled they had the Middle Tennessee walk thru to help them prepare for the coming week.  The Ole Miss game should be quite a doozy!

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