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November 27, 2013
Aggies need to get physical with Missouri's defense
Missouri's spread offense has gotten much if not all of the attention during the Tigers' run of success in the Big 12 which included a couple of division titles. However, what's gone virtually unnoticed during that time is Missouri's play on defense. Contrary to what most people believe, the Tigers haven't necessarily relied on being an offensive juggernaut during head coach Gary Pinkel's tenure. They ranked no worse than third in the Big 12 in scoring defense during four of their last five years in the conference (no mean feat) and this season rank second in the SEC in that same category even though they've made the transition from a passing conference to a running conference.
The Tigers have essentially utilized a bend but don't break scheme throughout Pinkel's time at the school. They play a 4-3 defense with a nickel back versus spread offenses and employ two deep coverages in the secondary. Their goal is not to give up the big play and force the offense to work its way down the field and get a stop via turnovers, penalties, or ineffective offensive execution. Missouri is not located in a recruiting hot bed like the Texas, Florida, or California schools. In the Big 12, it made its living recruiting Texas but rarely got the four star caliber prospects that went to Texas, Oklahoma, or A&M on that side of the ball. Instead, the Tigers recruited undersized but fast defensive ends out of the state and bulked them up to rush the passer or three star guys in the secondary that could run. They combined them with bigger guys from the Midwest but always made sure that even if they were undersized on defense that all 11 guys could get upfield or run to the ball.
While that meant that Missouri occasionally didn't fare well against bigger teams that could run the ball right at them, most of the time their defensive linemen could beat down and reach blocks and produce tackles for losses. In addition, they could command double teams which meant that their linebackers were protected, could run east/west, and drop back to cover the passing lanes. If you got behind, they turned their edge rushers loose which led to sacks and then interceptions.
This year's unit may well be the best such unit that defensive coordinator Dave Steckel has ever had in his fifth year at the school because not only is he playing those types of personnel mentioned above, all but one starter has a redshirt year under their belts. In addition, all but one starter is an upperclassmen. Thus, the Tigers are playing ten starters who have three years or more experience in both a strength and conditioning program and on the field. They're both physically and mentally mature and in contrast A&M's defense is the exact opposite, especially in the front seven.
Weakside defensive end Michael Sam is considered to be the catalyst of the unit and rightfully so. Sam was a three star coming out of Hitchcock, Texas as a 220 pound end running a 4.6 forty. Now, four years later, he's 255 pounds and still is as quick as ever. Sam has the best first step I've seen from a defensive end all year and not only that, he brings it play after play. Teams have to game plan for him and they do it by trying to slow him down by chipping him with a back or receiver, running to his side, or double teaming him but it really doesn't work much. He recognizes everything and gets his hands up quickly to get them inside those of the blocker. He leads the SEC in sacks (10.0) and tackles for loss (17.0). Strongside end Kony Ealy is bigger than Sam and was a four star coming out of high school and he also has a good first step. Ealy has five sacks and eight tackles for loss. Backups Marcus Golden and Shane Ray rotate in and Golden may be Missouri's most productive player per snap because he has great change of direction (he leads the defensive linemen in tackles as a backup).
Defensive tackles Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent are typical tackles for the Pinkel era they're a little undersized at 295 pounds but both play low with great pad level and are active (Hoch was a tight end in high school and is more of a run down three tech than a first step guy). As a result, they command double teams and free up the linebackers to make plays. The Tigers also rotate redshirt freshmen Josh Augusta and Harold Brantley into contest as well.
Look for Missouri to be in nickel throughout the game which means that Mike Andrew Wilson and Will Kentrell Brothers will see most of the snaps. Wilson is a smart linebacker who can cover ground and leads Missouri in tackles due to the great protection he gets. Brothers is not as consistent but he's more active and better in coverage. Because of the great play of the front four, these guys don't blitz a lot.
Cornerbacks Randy Ponder and E.J. Gaines are seniors and although only 5 foot 10 ware physical in coverage, can play man when necessary, and can break on the ball. As with most cover two corners, they play off of the receivers, keep people in front of them, and are pretty good tacklers in man on man situations. They can disguise coverages by pressing you and bailing out. They're helped out immensely by the pressure Missouri's front four gets and have combined for six interceptions. Ian Simon is the nickel and he has four pass breakups on the year. Safeties Matt White and Braylon Webb are experienced cover two safeties who typically align eight to ten yards off the ball. Missouri looks like that it plays more quarters or combination coverage this season and these guys can handle some man coverage. In addition, they are very good tacklers.
A&M faces a myriad of challenges that it hasn't seen this season. For one thing, Sam, Ealy, and Golden are the best defensive ends that A&M has faced all season. They get upfield and don't give you a lot of time to operate in the pocket and force quarterbacks into bad decisions. Because of this, they lead the SEC in sacks and interceptions and are fifth in red zone defense. In addition, their overall athleticism enables them to run to the ball and the ends don't let you break containment due to their quickness. As a result, they allow just 3.41 yards per rush which is second in the league behind Alabama. Even though they are not the biggest defense in the world, they play with great technique and are very physical.
A&M's game against LSU was an anomaly relative to their past 17 games in terms of putting points on the board. However, it WAS the continuation of a trend that started in the Ole Miss game where someone puts the game in the hands of Johnny Manziel and everything revolves around him. That's worked in terms of the downfield passing game but the running game has steadily deteriorated to the point that A&M backs carried the ball just six times last week. In the last four games and outside of the Vanderbilt game in which Manziel was coming off of an injury versus Auburn, the Aggies' rushing totals have steadily declined from 133 yards against Auburn all the way down to 75 yards this past weekend versus LSU. In addition, the Aggies had another turnover in the red zone and still have more of those than field goals.
Overall, the Aggies need tackles Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi to play like the first round draft picks that they are and control the Tigers' ends. They need a commitment to the running game that characterized the Arkansas and Vanderbilt games and success with it, especially if the Tigers play the same type of run friendly box as LSU. Johnny Manziel needs to be able to take what a cover two scheme gives him like he did earlier in the year and hit enough plays underneath to get the ball into the red zone and give the running game opportunities to score touchdowns.
Manziel is still the best player in the country and Mike Evans is still the best receiver going in college football. He and the coaching staff need to allow their supporting cast to be an active component of the offense. Most of all, A&M needs to play a more physical brand of football that we saw earlier in the season. If they can do that and work the intermediate passing game underneath the safeties without turning it over, then there's no reason to think that the Aggies can't put up a lot of points versus Missouri.
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