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November 6, 2012

How A&M's offense can cause trouble for Alabama

Alabama is your typical Southeastern Conference football team except that they do the things that SEC teams do better than anyone else. They live to run the ball, stop the run, and win turnover margin. Their offensive and defensive styles cater to that philosophy because they don't take risks on offense, force you into taking them on defense, and eventually win the turnover battle and the ballgame.

However, what happens when those things don't go according to plan? We got a glimpse of it Saturday in A&M's last two wins over Auburn and Mississippi State. When those teams could not run the ball early on, that essentially meant that they could not throw it either. That's because their passing games are based on play action so that they can catch you with your linebackers and safeties in run support and your corners having to cover down the field in man situations. They require tall, drop back quarterbacks who can see the field, have strong arms to deliver the ball down the field, but may not be the most mobile guys in the world. When you stop their running games and put them into long yardage situations, the lack of mobility puts them in harm's way against the pass rush. Their offensive lines are not accustomed to pass pro in such situations either.

In other words, when you shut down a SEC team's running game, they have nothing else to fall back on and so their offense totally grinds to a halt. They get put in predictable situations and either start turning it over or go three and out.

I wrote yesterday about Alabama's defense and their coverage scheme of "pattern reading" or "man match" where the corners basically man up on the outside receivers and safeties and linebackers combine to cover inside receivers. It allows Alabama to anticipate routes, keep one safety in the middle to take that part of the field away from opponents, and play as many people up as close as possible to the line of scrimmage to stop the run.

The weakness of this defense is very simple: it puts an enormous strain on the cornerbacks because they essentially have the outside receivers in man coverage all the way down the field. They do get help on the inside routes because if a slot goes elsewhere, the seam defender on that side (safety or nickel back) will move outside to take away the curl and of course the free safety is always available in the middle of the field (and most quarterbacks are taught if they see a safety in the middle of the field not to go there).

In addition, no matter what, Nick Saban's teams are going to stop the run and with essentially eight personnel in the box at all times, they are always going to have numbers (plus some of the finest athletes in the country to boot).

But essentially, the vulnerable spot in this defense is along the sidelines and downfield against the cornerbacks, not just with vertical routes but also on shorter, run after the catch routes. That's where you beat this defense…with big plays along the sidelines…and that's how you beat Alabama.

In looking back at the Tide's losses since late in the 2008 season when Saban and his philosophy became established in Tuscaloosa, Bama has lost to Florida, Utah, South Carolina, LSU (twice), and Auburn. There's generally two common themes among those losses (LSU being an outlier).

First, with the exception of the two LSU games, Alabama held opponents under four yards per carry in the running game. They contained Auburn and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton as they gained just 108 yards on 40 carries. They held Tim Tebow and the Gators to 142 yards on 42 carries.

In other words, unless you have LSU-size up front to go with great running backs, you are not going to run the ball on Bama with their size and scheme.

However, those teams did take advantage of Alabama's philosophy in the passing game. They held the ball, protected, and hit big plays down the field. Beginning with Florida in 2008, the Gators hit three passes of over 20 yards and Utah (in the Sugar Bowl) hit five passes of over 19 yards. In 2010, South Carolina's Ashton Jeffrey averaged 18.1 yards on his seven receptions. LSU had five plays over 16 yards, and Auburn had five catches of over 15 yards.

Even in the 2009 national championship game against a backup quarterback who has since transferred, Texas managed to come back by hitting a couple of long passing plays down the field. In fact, even though Texas turned the ball over five times and was outrushed 205 yards to 81 yards, they were four points down with under four minutes to play and had the ball.

Thus, no matter how well you run the ball, you are going to get shots down the field at Alabama and you've got to take advantage of them. A&M is well equipped to do this in three ways. First, A&M's offensive line has progressed during the season and tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews are getting better in pass pro. Second, quarterback Johnny Manziel is an atypical SEC quarterback. He's mobile, has great vision, and can extend plays which gives him a better chance to hit people down the field. Three, outside receiver Mike Evans is dangerous after the catch and can generate those types of gains if the first tackler misses him.

The other thing is this: Alabama depends on its defense and special teams to set up its offense via turnovers and big plays of their own. The Tide is fourth in the country in turnover margin this season and is forcing about 2.5 turnovers per game.

However, what if you protect the ball, maybe take a sack or two, or throw the ball away? Suddenly -- and like most SEC teams -- Alabama doesn't score nearly as many points because their offense is not built to sustain 80 yard drives. They depend on a short field to score points. The Tide was -2 last weekend in Baton Rouge because LSU didn't turn it over and found itself in the fight of its life. Otherwise, they haven't just been on the plus side of the ledger…they've been +3 or better in multiple games this year.

In fact, in those six losses dating back to 2008, the opposing quarterbacks haven't thrown a pick while averaging at least 8.5 yards per attempt and 9.0 or better most of the time. When you are generating those yardage per attempt figures, you are buying time and for all of its fearsome defensive reputation, Bama does not generate nearly as many sacks as you would expect. They are fifth in the SEC this year, fourth last year, and sixth the year before that…solid but nowhere near elite. Spread teams feast on defenses who leave their corners on an island for long stretches and can't generate a pass rush that doesn't allow you to hold the football.

In the last two games, A&M has faced teams that played two high safeties and couldn't keep enough defenders in the box. As a result, A&M ran the ball exceedingly well and wasn't pressured enough to make them turn over the ball. Alabama probably won't make that mistake. They played a two high look against Texas in the 2009 national title game because Texas didn't run the ball that well, but earlier this year against Denard Robinson of Michigan (a multi-talented threat like Manziel), Alabama stayed in a one high safety look and manned up the Wolverines in the secondary.

In all likelihood, A&M won't be able to run the ball with its backs or even Manziel (a trend that would manifested itself against other top defenses like Florida and LSU), or employ an effective short passing game for that matter. Nonetheless, what they can do is protect, buy time, and throw the ball down the field to the outside receivers. In they can do that and not turn it over, then Bama (like most SEC teams) scores in the 20's and it essentially becomes a one possession game into the fourth quarter.

Also, keep in mind that because of Alabama's defensive style, they are most prone to being beaten by spread teams because these types of offenses are most capable of taking advantage of the weakness in their scheme with good execution. The Tide has lost to five different programs since 2007 and Florida, Utah, and Auburn all ran the spread or some form of it. They got good quarterback play, protected him, and hit some shots down the field or generated yards after catch without turning it over. In addition, Texas scored 20 points in spite of five turnovers running the spread and playing a freshman quarterback which doesn't sound like much until you realize that no BCS team has scored 20 plus points against Bama since late in the 2010 season (Auburn).

On the surface, most people would say that a spread team has no chance to beat Alabama and that would be true if you examined them in the light of their annual clashes with LSU. However, Alabama is equipped to stop your typical SEC or Big 10 team that can't figure out what to do when it's running game doesn't work. With Johnny Manziel at the helm and a scheme that matches up with Alabama's weaknesses as indicated by past results, A&M figures to be Alabama's most dangerous opponent of the 2012 season outside of the Tigers.

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