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September 12, 2013

A look at Alabama's offense against A&M's defense

The matchup of Texas A&M's offense versus Alabama's defense is described by many as the irresistible force meets the immovable object. However, that phrase doesn't apply to the matchup of A&M's defense and Alabama's offense, both of which have been less than stellar during the opening weeks of the season. The Aggies' defense gave up 546 yards rushing to Rice and FCS program Sam Houston State while Alabama scored just two offensive touchdowns against Virginia Tech. Both teams rank in the 100's nationally in multiple categories.

There are mitigating circumstances behind each set of performances. Alabama lost three offensive linemen and running back Eddie Lacy to the NFL. Last year, the Tide used it's big, veteran offensive line to pound people up front and set them up for play action to generate long plays. The Aggies played its first two games without several key players who were suspended and as a result true freshman inundated the its lineup. But in addition, both teams counted on key veterans to perform at a certain level to help the newcomers and that did not happen.

There's no question that both teams have adjustments to make this weekend in order to be more effective than what they have been. The question is who is more likely to make those adjustments work?

Alabama's revamped offensive line is taller than last year's which could get leverage, especially in the run game. The 2013 line is more likely to play high and try to cut off penetration rather than get any push. Thus, they are more effective at outside than inside zone, especially as running T.J. Yeldon is not the power runner that Lacy was. This is also only their second game together and it's in a hostile environment where the noise levels could exceed the output from a 747 aircraft.

Tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and Austin Shepard had issues Saturday working against both defensive ends and linebackers. They played tall and didn't get great push in the running game. Both struggled to move laterally staying with pass rushers while Kouandjio didn't get his hands up quickly enough and let opposing players get their hands inside them. Both of them were provided help from backs and tight ends in pass protection. Kouandjio is the returning starter at left tackle and was supposed to be this season's D.J. Fluker in terms of being a mauler in the run game but he didn't play like it in the spring or in the opener. Guards Anthony Steen (the other returning starter) Arie Kouandjio (Cyrus' brother) played okay at times as did center Ryan Kelly. Virginia Tech's defensive front is a quality unit with great quickness and they ranked in the top 32 nationally in most major statistical categories. They're low slung and had the Tide at a disadvantage in that regard.

However, they will be working against an A&M front seven that due to the suspensions will be trotting its third different lineup in as many weeks. The return of starting nosetackle Kirby Ennis helped the Aggies' run defense as his bulk and quickness tend to command a double team and free up inside linebackers. They also help keep the opposite defensive tackle, Alonzo Williams, from being doubled. Even so, Williams has displayed a tendency to play tall himself. Defensive end Julien Obioha has a nice first step but needs to use his hands better. The other starting end, Gavin Stansbury, is something of a run stopper but not a pass rusher. Freshmen Jay Arnold, Isaiah Golden, Hardreck Walker, and Daeshon Hall have actually been productive in limited minutes and as a group are more athletic than the starters. In particular, they have 3.5 of the team's 18 tackles for loss.

The Aggies also heavily revamped their linebacker corps this week and have put more size on the field. Donnie Baggs is the new starter at Mike after starting at Will during the first two weeks of the season but he has made too many plays on A&M's side of the ball and at times too many yards down the field. Freshman Jordan Mastrogiovanni was productive last week and cut down sharply on his mistakes. He also proved to be a physical player. Senior Steven Jenkins is back after being suspended for two games and he's capable of stepping up into holes and knowing where to drop into coverage. Even so, the Aggies' most productive linebackers during the season have been juco transfer Tommy Sanders and freshman Darian Claiborne. Both lack size relative to this week's starting group but it was quickness, not size, that gave Alabama's offensive line fits on opening weekend.

A&M's linemen must work at playing with leverage and using their hands and the linebackers must work to fill gaps, be more physical, and not overrun plays. If they do not do these things, then the Tide will be able to run zone and have Yeldon cut back behind the flow for big gains (which is what happened in the first two games). In addition, A&M's safeties have given up multiple big plays due to their lack of run fits and being sucked in on play action.

Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron has displayed the same general tendencies as last year: when he's operating out of play action and the rush is slowed, he's at his best in terms of his delivery and footwork. When he's having to scan the field as a drop back quarterback and there's pass rushers coming, he'll force the ball into places it shouldn't go or his footwork will deteriorate and the pass will be inaccurate. Two weeks ago, he wasn't helped by a receiving corps that had trouble getting separation either and he had defenders in his face more often than not.

A&M's secondary is a lot better when corner Deshazor Everett is on the field. He's a physical presence who can bang receivers up and down the field and plays with great technique with his hands and feet. It's no coincidence that A&M has forced four turnovers with him on the field in just two halves of football. He's a shutdown corner who can also play the run. With the other starting corner, Devante Harris (undersized but great hips and ball skills), back in the fold, A&M's corners may have an advantage in their matchup with Alabama's outside receivers who struggled with Virginia Tech's secondary (seven catches for just 63 yards). It's an experienced group that is capable of playing much better but also didn't do much in Alabama's spring game either.

As noted earlier, A&M has given up a number of big plays this season (85th in total plays over 20 yards allowed). Part of that was due to a depleted front seven being gashed versus the run and not getting much pressure on passers. Too often, they were asked to do too much in space where the offensive player has the advantage. Even so, run fits, tackling, and keeping people in front of them must improve significantly. Nickel Toney Hurd is a great tackler and zone defender who will have a real challenge with slot Christion Jones; it could be argued that Jones (who accounted for three touchdowns in Bama's opener) was the deciding factor in the game.

Alabama has tried some new tricks this season in order to highlight a veteran skill corps by using more four and even receiver formations. However, the Tide appear to be out of their comfort zone when attempting them because their linemen weren't great in pass pro and their receivers seem to be used to beating man coverage off of play fakes. They appear to be more unsure of themselves when reading coverages and then attempting to get separation. A&M hasn't gotten much of a pass rush so far and will count moreso on defensive coordinator Mark Synder's blitz and coverage packages to confuse McCarron and his receivers.

Overall, it's never a good thing to have a porous run defense because if you can't stop the run, then all areas of the field become open to the offense. Red zone and short yardage situations become problematic. So far, A&M has missed people like linemen Spencer Nealy and Damontre Moore and linebackers Sean Porter and Johnathan Stewart who were physical players and didn't make mistakes. They controlled the running games of opposing teams and put them in predictable sitiuations.

However, Alabama's offensive line is still learning to play together and play with technique itself. If anything, their losses were even more severe than A&M's. Their inability to run the ball two weeks ago resulted in McCarron and the offensive line having to deal with predictable long yardage situations and minimal help downfield from their receiving corps.

In short, both units have to make significant strides and they have to do it now. A&M will probably give up some rushing yardage but the trick for the Aggies is not to give up the big play that has plagued them so often this year and eluded Alabama. That may boil down to safety play on A&M's end as much as anything else. Even so, the unit that wins this particular war will be the unit that wins the battle of first down because they can dictate their style to the opposing team.

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