Alabama versus Arkansas – Game Review

I’m sure every painting Picasso painted wasn’t a masterpiece.  Surely there were some sketches that he spent 3.5 hours on and then decided they weren’t quite worthy of display in the Louvre, right?  Saturday night’s visit with the Hogs produced finger paintings from an art class full of four year olds on offense but it saw the makings of a masterpiece on defense.

After the huge win against Georgia, all eyes turned towards the Alabama schedule and circled the A&M game as the next big test on the schedule.  An Arkansas team that was defeated by former Alabama quarterback Phillip Ely and his Toledo Rockets surely couldn’t present much more than a scrimmage to a Tide team that seemed have found their way against the “mighty” Georgia Bulldogs, right?  Well, the offensive line issues that have shown up periodically this season were once again on display, prohibiting the offense from getting untracked until late in the third quarter.  So, the Tide defense picked up the mantle of responsibility and dropped it on squarely on Alex Collins and the rest of the Razorback offense.  Doctor, doctor, gimme the news – I got a bad case of lovin’ barbecue!  Once again, Bielema’s little piggies cried wee, wee, wee all the way home…

Alabama on Offense

After watching Arkansas’ defense against Tennessee and Texas A&M, it was evident that the way to attack the Hogs was by working the flanks of their defense.  The Tide did so with five wide receiver screens and a huge number of fly sweeps and flip passes to the wide receivers.  Unfortunately, untimely penalties, blocking breakdowns and interceptions derailed the Tide’s offense until Jake Coker finally connected with Calvin Ridley on a huge bomb for the second week in a row and then the route was on.  But, even on that play, many may not know that Coker was leveled by a Razorback defensive end – it was just that kind of night for the offensive line.

Still, the Bama offense created nearly 400 yards of offense with Derrick Henry slamming for 95 yards and Calvin Ridley grabbing 140 yards worth of catches.  If the line can become more consistent (a constant refrain on this site since the departure of line coach Jeff Stoutland – now with the Philadelphia Eagles), then Alabama has enough skill players to make things happen. But, for the Tide to continue their winning ways, the line will be the key.

Do Run, Run, Run:  Alabama QB Jake Coker continues to show in impressive ability to run the football.  On a critical 2nd & 9 in Arkansas territory, the offensive line broke down and Coker was flushed out of the pocket.  Instead of taking a 10 yard sack, Coker managed to run for 15 yards and a critical first down.  Earlier, Coker was a decisive runner on two bootlegs where he eschewed the pass and used his legs to convert a first down.  This is an attribute of Coker’s that many didn’t know existed.

Do Pass, Pass, Pass:  But, Alabama quarterbacks aren’t asked to be running backs.  We have Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake to tote the rock.  Now that Alabama has culled their receivers down to a regular three man rotation and now that Coker has been given the starting QB position, you are beginning to see better routes, better timing and better connections.  Look for this to continue to get even better.

When I Move, You Move:  The double move by Calvin Ridley was outstanding – especially when you consider that Ridley is a true freshman.  Coker gave a subtle pump fake on the post route and that caused the Arkansas defender to bite.  Ridley quickly shifted from post route to go route and the Pigs rout was on.

Can’t Feel My Face:  There’s a good chance that Jake Coker and Derrick Henry are currently sitting in the hot tub together, discussing which missed block left the biggest impression on their bodies.  Frankly, at times Saturday night was disastrous all across the line – each lineman and tight end showed up on film with at least two egregious whiffs.  Here are just a few of the breakdowns that we noticed:

  • First drive, second and goal from the 5, Taylor allows a blitzing linebacker to crash in for a tackle for loss.
  • On the next play, Cam Robinson allowed pressure around the edge that forced an incompletion.  Robinson also allowed a sack and had a false start and a holding call later in the game.
  • Coker was hit on consecutive passes – one he should have just taken the sack but instead heaved the ball towards OJ Howard which was intercepted.  On his next attempt, Coker was once again hit, this time with Ridley coming back to the ball but dropping it for an incompletion.
  • OJ Howard missed a block that let Coker get killed on the touchdown pass to Ridley.  He later teamed with Hale Hentges to allow a sack.
  • True freshman tight end Hale Hentges shouldn’t be asked to block.  Ever.  He was rag dolled consistently.  I mean, this was bad.
  • Ross Pierschbacher struggled several times with picking up blitzing linebackers, holding once and getting away with holding a couple of other times.  It was his worst game to date.
  • When Alphonse Taylor pulled, he looked really good Saturday night.  However, he was guilty of a false start and whiffed on a couple of individual match ups.
  • Even center Ryan Kelly was shown getting blown up at the point of attack.  Overall, it was a very below average performance by this group.

Good for You:  The design and execution on the touchdown pass to Richard Mullaney was awesome (and borderline offensive pass interference but, hey, we’ll take it)!  With Stewart and Ridley flanked out wide to the left, Bama ran a play action fake to Drake and snuck Mullaney behind him and into the flat behind Ridley and Stewart.  Ridley and Stewart didn’t run patters and instead looked for defenders to block while Coker found Mullaney wide open for a touchdown.

Tidebits

Alabama’s offense can be very, very good when given a chance to execute it.  Skill players like Ridley, Mullaney, Howard, Henry and Drake can be downright lethal.  However, for the Tide to get the ball into the hands of these playmakers, the offensive line is going to have to become more consistent.

Alabama on Defense

If Alabama’s offense was, at times, looking like a finger painting from my 4 year old nephew, then the Alabama defense took the form of one of my mom’s award winning quilts (what can I say – she does amazing work).  Going into the last Arkansas drive, Bama’s defense had given up only 154 yards of offense.  Running back Alex Collins had totaled 151 and 154 yards by himself against A&M and Tennessee but in this game he was limited to a stunning 26 yards on 12 carries.  Folks, that is complete and total domination.

As we stated in the W2W4, the Hogs’ line is big but they are also very tall and this allowed the Tide’s defensive line to get up underneath them and destroy them on every snap.  For Collins, there was nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide, so the game rested squarely on the shoulders of Brandon Allen.  The result was game, set and match to Alabama’s defense as they patiently waited on the Tide’s offense to find it’s way.

Tighten Up:  This was the best game of the year for the Tide’s secondary coverage.  We counted at least five passes broken up and with only a couple of exceptions, the coverage was very tight on the Piggy’s receivers.  In the W2W4, we mentioned that the only playmaker on the Hogs’ roster was Alex Collins so it was no surprise that there was little to no separation against Bama’s 5 star secondary.

Jumpman:  The key to the Alabama game plan might surprise you but, in our eyes, it was Eddie Jackson.  If you still have the game on tape, go back and watch #4 as he creeps in towards the line to form an 8 man front.  Jackson hasn’t fully adapted to his new position at safety but during the game against Arkansas you could see how his size and his coverage ability could morph into becoming a complete player at the safety position.  While he’ll never be Landon Collins, Jackson is starting to show promise both as an in the box safety and as an outstanding rover in the secondary.  His three interceptions lead the team..

Worth It:  I love to see Rashaan Evans and Tim Williams lined up at the defensive end positions together because their speed rush has got to be terrifying to a QB.  They are undersized at the DE position but taking that risk is totally and completely worth it.  We are seeing Evans be utilized both as a defensive end and as a linebacker and his game day production is certainly on the rise.  Meanwhile, if you’ve read this blog for a while, you know we have been praising Williams for two years now so seeing him get the time he’s earned is gratifying.  He’s even added a pretty strong bullrush to his outside rush, making him the complete pass rushing package.

Oh Captain, My Captain:  Reggie Ragland was a beast Saturday night and he has been all season. With the emergence of Evans and Foster as stand up linebackers in the dime package, you’ve seen Ragland move to defensive end to rush the passer.  He had a whale of a game this week against the Hogs with 8 tackles and a PBU but his best play came when he ripped the ball out of Brandon Allen’s hands, short of a crucial first down.  Ragland is so fun to watch and is THE critical piece of the defense.

Shorty Get Loose:  I’ve got to take a moment and commend Cyrus Jones for his run support.  Numerous times, little #5 came up in a hurry and forced running plays back inside.  Outstanding work.

Night Moves:  I think we may have seen a glimpse of the game plan against Texas A&M next week.  On a third and long, Alabama rushed three with Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Dalvin Tominson.  Allen and Anderson provide a great pass rush, flushing Allen from the pocket.  There, standing behind the line of scrimmage, stood Reuben Foster and Rashaan Evans who quickly came up to make the play.  That’s a lot of speed on the field at one time.  They also moved Evans around to create matchup problems out of the dime package – look for this group to be used against the Aggies.

Tidebits

I’m not sure what the coverage was supposed to be on the Arkansas touchdown but what I can tell you is that there was a complete breakdown.  Cyrus Jones lined up opposite of Drew Morgan but allowed him to get a free release into the end zone while Jones peeked into the backfield.  Neither linebacker dropped and neither one seemed to think it was their responsibility.  Meanwhile, Jones was hopping mad that someone wasn’t there to help him in coverage.

Earlier in the year, the Tide defense struggled to defend WR screens but over the last two weeks it’s clear that this problem has been solved.  Texas A&M will use this a lot next week but I feel a lot better about our ability to defend it.

Coming into the game, Arkansas had given up only two sacks.  Alabama generated three sacks and 9 hurries Saturday night.

Alabama on Special Teams

Late in the third quarter, the Tide was down 10-7 and punting from their own 10.  JK Scott’s previous punt had been partially blocked but he somehow shrugged that off and delivered a huge 45 yard punt that gave the Alabama some breathing room on defense.  On his next punt, he bombed a 58 yarder and on his last punt he pinned Arkansas in at their own nine yard line.  Great Scott, we might be able to cancel that APB on our punter!

Cyrus Jones continues to be a valuable weapon as a punt returner and each week he gets a little closer to taking one to the house.  Meanwhile, if there is a team with better kickoff coverage then I’d like to see it.  Each time a kick returner is bringing the ball up the field, he’s having to dodge Bama tacklers as early as the 12 yard line.

The punt block was a little weird.  Snapper Cole Mazza bumped the punt blocker but didn’t really slow him down (obviously). Next, personal protector Dillon Lee seemed surprised that someone came up the field past the snapper and he whiffed on his subsequent block.  Given the lack of distance and the funny bounce when it hit, I do think the punt was partially blocked.

Final Thoughts

I’m really proud of the work we did on the W2W4 this week as it was pretty accurate on all most every front.  Arkansas simply wasn’t talented enough on offense to really test the Alabama defense and a 27-7 final score would have better reflected the complete and total dominance the defense enjoyed.

Alabama’s defense has evolved nicely and you’ve seen the tackling and the angles improve throughout the season.  On the other side of the ball, players like Calvin Ridley and Richard Mullaney have developed a nice timing with Jake Coker and it appears the passing game is slowly but surely evolving as well.

Alabama’s defense and offensive skill positions give Alabama an excellent chance to win every single game on the schedule.  In fact, really the only question (besides the FG kicking) that remains on the club is whether or not the offensive line will round into the kind of form that the team needs to accomplish higher goals.  All the pretties on offense at the receiver and running back positions won’t mean squat if the Tide can’t figure out how better to block for them.  This week, the Aggies’ defensive line will put Bama’s offensive line (and tight ends – they have been woeful blockers this season) to the test and this may be the biggest remaining test on the schedule.

Folks, it’s going to be an epic W2W4 this week!

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