Pretender? Or contender? That is the question. Is Texas A&M’s undefeated record and #6 ranking in the country warranted ? Are they actually that good? Or, is this yet another Aggie season built on smoke & mirrors, soon to be wrecked once again in Nick Saban’s Bryant-Denny house of horrors?
Pretender? Or contender? That’s this week’s Nancy “Red” Drew’s mystery of the week. Let’s get out our notepad, magnifying glass and tweezers and take an in depth look at the Texas A&M Aggies. This week’s W2W4 features intel from A&M’s games against Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina so we’ve gathered a ton of clues for you this week…
Alabama on Offense
Texas A&M’s “much improved” defense comes into this game ranked 98th in total defense! We aren’t sure how that constitutes “much improved” but that’s what you’ll hear during Saturday’s broadcast. Yes, this Aggie defensive group is so good they allowed 684 yards to the same Tennessee team that the Tide held to just 163 yards last week. So, they have improved over what, exactly? A speed bump?
Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis employs a high risk, high reward strategy as the play caller for the Aggies’ defense. A&M’s defense is small and fast. Chavis uses their speed to attack the passer and he uses run blitzes along with 7, 8 and 9 man fronts in order to outnumber the blockers and shut down the running game.
To the good, the Aggies’ blitz heavy defense ranks second in the country in forcing turnovers, generating 17 this season (seven of them came in one game against Tennessee). Additionally, the Aggies are ranked 16th in the country in sacks – averaging 3.3 per game (Bama is #1 with 3.86 per game). These Aggies want to disrupt the line of scrimmage and just last year they recorded 15 tackles for loss against Alabama.
When you blitz consistently, you put your defenders at risk of giving up the big play and that’s exactly what has happened to Chavis this season. Texas A&M’s aggressive defense has generated sacks, picks and tackles for loss, but they are extremely susceptible to giving up the big play. The Aggies rank 13th in the SEC in giving up plays of 10 yards or longer. Chavis’ charges have given up a staggering 105 plays over 10 yards. Yowza.
We suspect you’ll see more tackles for loss than you want to see during this game but you should also see some long runs and huge plays in the passing game. Here’s what to watch for when Alabama has the ball…
Here Comes the Boom: Look out Jalen Hurts, the nation’s career leader in sacks will be coming through Cam Robinson’s neighborhood this week. Myles Garrett (#15) is a sure fire NFL first rounder at defensive end. He has size, speed and length, and the week off should have done wonders for his bum ankle. Garrett is a game changer and he’ll have to be neutralized in order for Bama to move the ball. Garrett still relies primarily on his speed rush around the edges and doesn’t have quite the toolbox that Tim Williams has.
System Overload: So how does one neutralize Garrett and combat the numbers that Chavis will throw at the line of scrimmage? Look for Alabama to continue to use multiple tight ends this week in an effort to out-physical the smaller Aggies at the line of scrimmage. The beauty of guys like OJ Howard and Miller Forristall is that they both have the ability to split out wide as receivers, as well. We think tight ends will be a huge key to this game as they will have to help against Garrett and help against the blitzing safeties, corners, linebackers and team waterboys, as well.
Like Butter: Tennessee actually went the opposite way, using an empty backfield and spreading the Aggies out by using five wide receivers. With the defense spread across the field, the Aggies weren’t able to disguise any blitzes and they played way, way, way off in coverage. UT quarterback Josh Dobbs was able to hit a huge number of quick passes against the off coverage and this completely eliminated the fierce Aggie pass rush. If Alabama does spread the Aggies out wide, they should be able to successfully play pitch and catch against the off coverage.
It’s Tricky: Throughout his tenure at Alabama, Lane Kiffin has done the complete opposite of what you’d think he’s going to do (on and off the field). When Alabama lines up with multiple tight ends, he’s looked to throw the ball down the field off of play action. When Alabama has spread the defense out, he’s tried to gash the opponent with an interior run. It’s going to be fun to see how Lane attacks the speed & quickness of this smaller Aggies defense.
Shot, Shot, Shot: Chavis will be asking his corners and safeties to lock up Bama’s receivers in man to man all game long. The Aggies will be hell bent on stopping the run since Alabama rushed for over 700 yards in the last two games. If I were Chavis, I’d make Jalen Hurts prove he can beat me thru the air so I would crowd the line of scrimmage with bodies. This means there should be huge opportunities in the passing game for the Tide. Look for Kiffin to keep his tight ends and backs in to block on first down and challenge the Aggies down the field.
Slot, Slot, Slot: Kiffin will have to play a chess game with Chavis with his slot receivers. Chavis blitzes from the slot on nearly every play so it will be fun to see how Kiffin aligns his receivers to defeat this. Bunch formations could be called upon to confuse the coverages and allow the hot receivers an easy out route against the blitz. If you see an Aggie defender in the slot, more times than not he’s coming (and the safety jumps the hot route).
Play Action: Against Tennessee and Arkansas, the Aggie linebackers and safeties were extremely aggressive on early downs as they tried to fill gaps and stuff the running game. This really opens up the middle of the defense and all three opponents we watched took advantage.
- Safeties – The Aggie safeties are uber aggressive. Alabama will take several shots at them via play action on first down. This will happen early and often.
- Zone Read – Both South Carolina and Tennessee had success in running the zone read at A&M. When the Aggies do not stack the line of scrimmage and get their numbers into the running lanes, they tend to get pushed around. If you see A&M in a standard 4-2 look, think zone read. Both the USC and UT quarterbacks had huge gainers in the zone read as the Aggie ends were dazed and confused.
- Cushion – We said it above but A&M is leery about getting beaten over the top so, therefore, their corners play way off of wide receivers. This opens up bubble screens and hitches (and should allow Hurts to get the ball out quickly).
- Snap Count – Against USC, the Aggies jumped offsides several times. We’re not sure the young true freshman QB is ready to vary the snap count but we bet it’s been talked about this week.
- Interior Runs – The speed of the A&M defense sure makes it hard to get to the edges. However, aside from Daylan Mack (#5), the middle of the Aggies defense can be brutalized. Tennessee ran for the majority of their 282 yards between their offensive tackles.
- Backfield in Motion: The Aggies blew coverage after coverage on Alvin Kamara out of the backfield so there should be opportunities in the passing game for Bama’s backs. Slip screens were especially deadly against the Aggies.
- Goal Line: Against Arkansas, A&M put 11 men on the line of scrimmage and stuffed them on 10 plays inside the two yard line. Alabama will have to spread the Aggies out around the goal line in order to get favorable numbers. Attacking off the tackles would be the best option.
- Pass Interference: Look for the Aggie corners and safeties to get called for multiple PIs this week. They will be locked up in one on one situations and Bama’s receivers will have the upper hand in this matchup.
- OJ Howard: Tennessee, Arkansas and USC found a ton of room with their 3-star tight ends. OJ should have a huge day in the passing game this week. Arkansas’ tight end would chip on Garrett and then release late into the open middle of the field.
- Key Defenders: Edge rushers Myles Garrett and Dashon Hall are disruptive and big Daylon Mack is a load at defensive tackle. However, their best playmaker is #6, Justin Evans. He’s asked to do everything for the Aggies and NFL.com actually named him as the defensive player of the midyear in college football.
- Josh Dobbs: Dobbs passed for 402 yards against the Aggies. I mean…
Final Offensive Thoughts
John Chavis will be bringing the house this week but his blitzes will be designed to stuff the running lanes with Aggie jerseys. Lane Kiffin will be challenged to find a way to attack this but not in a way that puts the game squarely on Jalen Hurts’ shoulders. The Aggies force a ton of turnovers so Bama must attack the defense but try to limit the risk. Look for play action on first down and then zone reads whenever Bama can get Chavis into a regular 4-2 look on defense. Bama’s OL should consistently win at the point of attack when A&M’s numbers do not overwhelm them.
Alabama on Defense
Alabama’s defense is coming off a victory that saw them absolutely thrash the Tennessee Vol offense. The Vols had an exceptional running back, a running quarterback who could throw it just well enough to make some plays and they had a couple of playmakers on the outside and Alabama completed dominated each one of them.
Well, this week Alabama faces an exceptional running back, a running quarterback who can throw it just well enough to make some plays and numerous playmakers on the outside. The key difference between UT and Texas A&M is, of course, their offensive lines.
The Tennessee line was just a line drawn in the sand and the Tide easily swept it away. The Aggies’ line is much more stout and they’ve been able to move opposing defenders in such a way that’s allowed A&M to lead the conference in rushing.
Gone are the days of the “Chuck N Duck” Sumlin offenses. Today’s offense features a nice, balanced attack that emphasizes an outstanding running back in Trayveon Williams and a very good running quarterback in Trevor Knight. Williams and Knight are running the zone read offense about as well as it can be done and the Aggies are currently ranked 7th in the country in rushing offense.
However, a closer look at the Aggies’ opponents reveals that the top ranked rushing defense they have faced is South Carolina, who checks in as the 50th ranked rush defense in the country. Alabama, of course, has the #1 rushing defense in the country. Toto, we’re not playing Kansas anymore…
When Trevor Knight is asked to pass, that’s when things get a little wonky for the 5th year senior. He’s completing just 53.5% of his passes and is the 10th rated passer in the SEC. Comparatively, Jalen Hurts is completing 63.5% of his passes as a true freshman. All of this suggests that if the Tide can force Knight to throw, then Bama stands a good chance of winning on Saturday. Here’s how they can do it…
When I Move, You Move: I’m an avid watcher of ESPN Film Room and this week they did a great piece on Trevor Knight’s issues as a passer. When you come into the game completing only 53% of your passes, you have issues and Mr Knight certainly does. If Knight sets his feet and fires to his primary target on time and in rhythm, it’s a beautiful thing to see. However, as soon as Knight becomes antsy and starts patting the ball and nervously moving his feet, all bets (and passes) are off. Look for Jeremy Pruitt to blitz throughout the day with the intent to move Knight from his spot and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Pruitt will be adding a fifth and sixth rusher consistently this week.
Lefty, Lefty, Lefty: For a fifth year senior, Knight makes several true freshmen mistakes. For one, he stares down his primary receiver on every pass attempt and he refuses to work thru his progressions. This means he stares down the route until gives up on it and then tucks and runs. Knight is most comfortable staring (and throwing) to his left, as that’s where the vast majority of his successful throws go. Therefore, look for Alabama to load up numbers against the right tackle and blitz off of Knight’s left side. This should force him to his right and into some uncomfortable throws.
Land of Confusion: Knight has difficulty throwing the ball between the hashmarks. I don’t know if it’s just too much traffic or that he just can’t see very well but, either way, he isn’t good at throwing down the middle of the field.
Baby Got Back: Boy, Trayveon Williams (#5) is outstanding. He’s got a ton of speed and is waaay more physical than he looks. I like him a lot and he’s the shifty kind of back that can get big yardage if he finds a crease. Da’Ron Payne and Dalvin Tomlinson will need to control the middle of the line and we think they should fare pretty well. A&M’s left guard and center appeared to get pushed around a few times on film.
Captain Kirk: Christian Kirk (#3) is the primary weapon in the passing game. They typically throw him a ton of bubble screens and then work him out of the slot in an effort to get him lined up on a linebacker. He’s a handful but most of his catches are within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Goal Line: Look for A&M to stay in the shotgun and run the zone read in short yardage and goal line situations. This should allow Alabama to get penetration into the backfield. Alabama should bring some pressure off of Knight’s left as that’s where he usually goes around the goal line.
Edge Containment: Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson will continue to be asked to contain the edge in a big, big way this week. A&M loves to leave defensive ends unblocked and the Tide has countered this by sending their ends on heat seeking missions. Look for Bama’s unblocked ends to disrupt a number of plays this week.
Shots, Shots, Shots: Marlon Humphrey, Anthony Averett and others will have to do a much better this week in defending the one-on-one deep balls. Arkansas and Ole Miss took advantage of the Tide in on-on-one situations and A&M will most certainly do the same. The Tide will be bringing pressure so it will be up to the DBs to hold up in man coverage.
- Knight throws mostly to his left and almost 100% of his throws are outside of either hash. He made big mistakes against UT and USC when he threw down the middle of the field.
- When A&M lines up trips (three wide receivers) to one side, look for Knight to throw towards the other side to his single receiver. When he throws to the trips formations, he’s usually targeting Christian Kirk (#3) in the slot.
- When they go deep, look for #11 – Josh Reynolds. They like to line him up as the single wide receiver and have him attack man coverage with a deep route.
- At the goal line, look for Trevor Knight to fake a handoff up the middle and then run to his left. He’s much stronger than he looks and has crashed in for several touchdowns off of this play.
- A&M’s backs are horrible at picking up a blitz. Yet another reason to, you know, blitz.
- The Aggies throw an incredible amount of bubble screens out wide. Bama usually shuts these down easily but their tackling will be tested on Saturday.
- The Aggies show a ton of fly sweep action. Any time you see Reuben Foster or Shon Dion-Hamilton by himself as a single linebacker then look for the zone read. A&M checks the numbers game and they love getting a 5-on-5 situation with their offensive line. Of course, Pruitt will be reinforcing his numbers with his safeties so it should be a helluva chess match.
- Delayed blitzes seemed to be effective against the Aggies.
- Alabama’s defense has allowed 63.9 rushing yards, which leads the nation by more than 20 yards per game.
Final Defensive Thoughts
Unlike Alabama defenses of the past, Jeremy Pruitt is going to bring pressure against the Texas A&M offense. The broadcast will talk about the day young Trevor Knight lit up the Alabama defense. In that game, Knight was 32-of-44 for 348 yards and four touchdowns. However, that was the most maddening defensive effort the Tide has put forth in a long time. Instead of switching up coverages and blitz looks, Smart just blitzed CJ Mosley up the middle on every play. Knight then just rolled away from the pressure and took advantage of man to man coverage down the field. Rest assured that will most certainly not be the game plan this week.
Alabama on Special Teams
As usual, the Tide should own a considerable advantage in field position this week. JK Scott is the second ranked punter in the conference while A&M checks in 7th in the SEC in average yards per punt.
Meanwhile, Christian Kirk is ranked second in the conference in punt return average but, unfortunately for him, he ranks behind Alabama’s Eddie Jackson and Xavian Marks. Kirk is a dynamic weapon, though, so we’d be very happy to see him not get a chance to make a return.
The Aggies do hold a considerable advantage at place kicker. The Aggies have hit 12 of 16 kicks, three of which were over 40 yards. With his bad miss against Tennessee, Adam Griffith is now ranked 11th in the SEC by hitting just 66.7% of his kicks this year.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
The statistical analysis we posted last night (thanks to the Notorious PAB) is proof positive that these two teams are very, very different. While the Aggies struggled mightily against Arkansas and Tennessee, Alabama had no real issues dispatching them quickly. A&M features a well balanced offense this time around but if their running game gets stuffed (as it should), then the game will fall squarely on the shoulders of a quarterback completing just over 50% of his passes. Folks, that ain’t good enough to beat this Bama team.
Final Score: Bama 42 Texas A&M 20