W2W4 – Alabama vs Tennessee

As I drive into work each morning, I get to listen to the talking heads pontificating about the “upcoming” 2015 playoffs.  And then the show’s callers dial into the program and they add to the madness and mayhem by coming up with as many wild ass scenarios as they possibly can.  So, if you see some fool yelling at his car radio while sitting in traffic, that’s me and I’m telling these people there are still FIVE games left PLUS a championship game to play.  The playoffs aren’t around the corner – heck, they aren’t even up the next block!

Ahh – then there’s the local sports radio.  I do love me some Round Table (honestly, it’s the best sports talk show around – locally or nationally) but the interviews and the callers all seem to be focusing on Alabama’s “pending” matchup with LSU.  Folks, the LSU game isn’t the next game on the schedule!  The next game on the schedule is the Tennessee game and, rivalry game or not, it’s still a mighty big game.  Don’t think so?  Then contemplate the scenarios if Alabama loses to Tennessee and see how big the LSU game is then.  Don’t think Tennessee (3-3) is a good team?  Consider the fact that they should be, at worst, 5-1 right now.  Epic fourth quarter meltdowns snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Oklahoma and Florida but the fact remains they were ahead of those two quality teams by 14 points in the fourth quarter.

I know.  I still don’t have your attention, do I?  Ok, let’s play a game.  You tell me if Alabama is Team A or Team B.  FYI – Tennessee the other team shown.  Ready?  Here we go…

Stat Team A Ranking Team B Ranking
Third down conversion offense 46 117
Third down conversion defense 15 17
Penalties per game 14 75
Red zone defense 25 88
Red zone offense 36 42
Net punting 19 101
Punt return avg 16 54
KO return avg 1 107
Passing Efficiency 62 67
Rushing Offense 19 34
Total Offense 44 47

 

Key points:  Team A is better at….everything on this list.  Look at third down conversions, red zone defense and penalties per game – Team A is significantly better in those three key areas.  So, which team is Alabama?  A or B?

Team A is Tennessee.  Take a moment and absorb these national stats.  Tennessee is a pretty good team and is better (and sometimes significantly better) than Alabama in a number of critical categories.  I know – mind…blown…

Ok, have you all gotten the point yet?  Alabama must be focused in order to win this game.  And, Alabama must win this game first before the next game will have any significance.  Get it? Got it?  Good.  Here’s what to watch for….

Alabama on Offense

Ok, so we admit that we were a bit selective in picking the categories that were displayed in the chart above.  Astute observers will notice that there are only two defensive stats listed – 3rd down defense and Red Zone defense.  What we didn’t tell you is that Tennessee’s defense is nationally ranked 87th in overall defense – 72nd against the run and 90th against the pass.  Alabama’s defense will be challenged at times but we suspect they will be able to control the Vols’ offensive attack.  Where the game will have to be won is on the offensive side of the football and the woeful Tennessee defensive statistics should tell you that winning the day on offense should be more than doable.

Our crack staff watched Tennessee versus Florida and Tennessee versus Arkansas in preparation for the W2W4 and a few things stood out immediately.  First, the Vols love to blitz their safeties and linebackers any time they can.  Second, their coverages are soft as Charmin and they often match up their lead footed linebackers against fleet-footed wide receivers.  And third, Tennessee always, always, always wilts in the fourth quarter.  Here’s what else we learned…

Beat It:  For some inexplicable reason, Tennessee prefers to match up their linebacker (#34 Darrin Kirkland) against slot receivers rather than using their safeties to cover them.  Both Arkansas and Florida made huge plays when they matched up their #1 receivers against this poor hapless dude.  Bama’s slot receivers should have a field day – in particular, this guy should blow up….

Jukebox Hero:  OJ Howard will get lined up in the slot many, many times and it’s imperative that he win these one on one matches as he should.  The Vols’ linebacker can easily be juked and there is always a ton of space whenever he’s isolated in coverage.  Look for crossers and out patterns against the Vol linebackers who are in coverage – OJ Howard should have a HUGE day.

Cushion for the Pushin’:  When the Hogs or Gators sent receivers to the wide side of the field, the corner on that side either lined up 12 yards off or they played a “bail” technique prior to the snap.  A bail technique is the opposite of press man coverage – the goal is to not get beat deep so the defender plays way off the receiver.  Florida completed no less than SEVEN curl routes against this coverage.  It’s like a 7/11 – it’s open all day.

Bunches of Problems:  Arkansas and Florida exploited the Tennessee secondary with bunches of bunch formations.  Frankly, the Vols have no understanding as to how to defend this play.  In particular, whoever is running a crossing route or an out route ends up wide open.  Florida had a seam route wide open off of this as well.  Cue the circus music when the Vols line up to defend this…

Tackling Woes:  Arkansas completed a curl route to a wide receiver at the Vols 20 yard line where he was surrounded by 4 defenders.  He then went into the end zone untouched.  Florida’s game winning touchdown was simply a 15 yard curl on 4th & 13.  The receiver caught it at the Vols 40 yard line and was immediately surrounded by 3 defenders but he, too, went into the end zone untouched.  Hogs RB Alex Collins found daylight in a phone booth just by wiggling his shoulders when he was met at the line of scrimmage.  Tennessee tackles as though they are ranked 87th in the country in total defense.  Oh wait, they are.

Spread Em:  Arkansas and Florida had much more success on the ground when they used spread formations.  Tennessee appeared to be pretty salty when they lined up against multiple tight ends and fullbacks.

Blitzen:  Tennessee’s blitzes mostly seemed to happen on run downs and the stats seem to confirm this.  During the film session, we saw more than eight blitzes against Arkansas and we saw several more against Florida. But, for all the blitzing, Tennessee has generated just 9 sacks on the season (Bama has 22 for reference).  Derrick Barnett was supposed to be an All SEC performer at defensive end but he’s only generated two sacks this season.  Tennessee has a linebacker with three sacks and a linebacker with two sacks which leads the team so this tells us basically they have to blitz in order to generate any pressure (and they still don’t usually get home).

Tidebits

  • Arkansas abused the Vols with play action bootleg passes to wide receivers crossing against the flow. Basically this means you show a run to the right, getting the defense to flow going that way.  Then, you bootleg left and have a wide receiver working back with you moving from right to left.  Wide open.
  • Fly sweeps seemed to be more effective against the Vols than most teams.
  • Screens were readily available against the Vols, particularly when they get caught in a blitz.
  • Tennessee typically overloads their defense to the strength of the formation, leaving them vulnerable to weak side runs, counters and reverses.

Alabama on Defense

Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd are a pretty formidable duo at quarterback and running back.  I’d guesstimate that approximately 65% of their plays are of the zone read variety where one of them threatens the middle of the defense while the other threatens the perimeter.  They pretty much run some variety of the zone read all day long.  Another 30% of their offense is a variety of wide receiver screen passes and swing passes to their running backs.  The last 5% of the Vols’ game plan is when they have no other choice but to close their eyes and ask Dobbs to throw the ball beyond the line of scrimmage.  Yeah, it’s that bad.

Dobbs is primarily asked to complete easy perimeter passes because that’s really all the staff trusts him to do.  And, even with all the short passes, Dobbs’ completion percentage is just 58%!  When he is asked to throw the ball down the field it’s just ugly.  It’s kinda like watching Mark Wholers come in and close out a game – you just never knew where the ball is going to end up.  If Alabama can shut down the Vols running attack (ranked 19th in the NCAA) then Tennessee will have no choice but to try and win the game with a passing attack that is ranked 80th in the country.  Advantage Tide.  Here’s what to watch for when Tennessee has the ball…

Space Dobbs:  No, seriously, Tennessee doesn’t want Dobbs throwing the football down the field.  The reason they went conservative against Oklahoma and Florida was because they simply didn’t trust their QB. During the Arkansas game they showed a graphic that stated Dobbs was 3 of 11 on passes of over 20 yards for the season.  Heck, Kiffin makes Coker sling 11 passes of over 20 yards in a half (kidding)!  FYI – Dobbs completed his first mid-range pass against Arkansas at the 7:00 mark of the third quarter!  Most of his misses are high and wide and many of them seemed to leave the playing field entirely.  So….

Third Down for What:  Since the staff doesn’t trust Dobbs to throw, they ask him to keep the football on the ground on third downs.  Options, zone reads and QB draws are the three plays they call when facing third and six or less.  They did this 8 times on third and manageable against Florida (yeah, I counted – it got to be monotonous so it stood out) with Dobbs carrying the mail every time.

Georgia:  All this being said, Dobbs’ best game came when the Vols trailed the Bulldogs 24-3 – they had no other choice but to let him get after it.  So, by letting Dobbs off the leash he threw for 312 yards (3 TDs) and rushed for another 118.  FYI – Dobbs had just seven rushes for seven yards against Arkansas so you can kind of see the change in philosophy there when they got behind.

Hurd is the Word:  My word, if you thought Derrick Henry was big, then wait until you get a load of Jalen Hurd.  Hurd is a big, big man and is fairly elusive for a dude his size.  You don’t see a lot of long runs from him so Henry’s long speed is much better but Hurd is a very durable and very good back who must be contained.

Targeting:  Tennessee’s top receiver is Josh Malone with 17 grabs.  Their tight end, Ethan Wolf and running back Alvin Kamara are second with 15 catches apiece.  The vast majority of the catches by Malone and Kamara are on screens and swings to the perimeter with Wolf’s catches being the only ones caught down the field (Wolf leads the team with 213 yards receiving).  Note:  Bama has four players with more catches than Tennessee’s top receiver.

Perimeter:  No one is containing the edge these days better than the university of Alabama and Saturday will be just the day to show that off to the world.  Tennessee uses fly sweeps, toss plays, zone reads, wide receiver screens, regular screens and swing passes to the perimeter.  Virtually everything they do is on the edges.  It’s all they know.

Tidebits

  • Tennessee runs the hurry up no huddle and will try to use that to their advantage. Alabama’s defense has found ways to substitute on the run, rotating troops on the fly and that has stunted the effect of the HUNH offenses.
  • The Vols like to leave the defensive end unblocked and the Tide has been wrecking this particular blocking scheme lately. Look for a bunch of negative plays from unblocked Bama ends.
  • Quarterback draws. Alabama will have to be prepared to contain Dobbs’ legs whenever he drops back to pass.
  • The interior of the UT line gave up quite a bit of pressure to Arkansas and to Florida. Also, Florida employed a delayed blitz that had deadly results against the Vols.   Stunts worked, as well – particularly against the Guards.
  • Dobbs has had a few passes batted down so look for that to happen quite a bit on Saturday.
  • In both games I watched, Tennessee asked #15 Jauan Jennings to throw a pass off a flea flicker.

Alabama on Special Teams

The stats we provided at the top pretty much tell the tale of special teams.  Tennessee is ranked #1 in kickoff returns and #16 in punt returns so if they pull off the upset, you can probably look no further than special teams for being the reason.  Tennessee holds the statistical edge in net punting but methinks that was before JK Scott was recently found.

Thankfully, if you think Adam Griffith is struggling this season, then you should meet Aaron Medley.  Griffith is 8 of 14 this season, hitting just 1 of 4 over 39 yards.  However, Medley is just 9 of 14, also hitting 1 of 4 over 39 yards.  Basically, instead of going for “The Block” again, Bama would be advised to just let him swing away and see what happens if the kick is over 40 yards.

Final Thoughts

Next week is Bama’s long awaited and much-needed BYE week.  The week after that is the much publicized and highly anticipated LSU game.  Unfortunately, neither of those things are happening THIS week so keeping the minds of 18-22 year olds focused on the Vols is going to be quite a challenge.  Tennessee is pretty good and stacks up very well statistically against Alabama.  The Tide will need to devote their undivided attention on the Vols this Saturday.

If Bama comes out flat, then the Tide should still win, even if it’s just by a slim margin.  However, if there is passion and juice flowing thru those Crimson jerseys then it should be a rout.  A one dimensional Tennessee team is not the type of offense that usually gives the Bama defense fits so yards and points should be really hard to come by for the Vols.  Sure, UT plays up tempo and they have a running QB and that’s supposed to be a double dose of death to the Tide.  But, when the QB can’t throw then it’s still a one-dimensional attack and this Tide should turn the Vol Navy into an underwater man-made reef.

On the flipside, Derrick Henry had 33 touches last week and backup Kenyan Drake once again got dinged in the leg.  We will be interested to see if Saban/Kiffin will entrust anyone besides Henry (Harris or Scarborough) to be in the backfield.  Honestly, the staff may choose to lighten Henry’s load by asking Coker to pass but there should be plenty of open throws available so Jake should have a nice day.

Prediction:  Alabama 27        Tennessee 13

 

 

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