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September 25, 2013

A&M's offense vs. Arkansas' defense

On paper, it's a matchup of strength versus strength on Saturday when Texas A&M's offense faces off against Arkansas' defense. The Aggies' offense…well, they scored 27 touchdowns in their first 49 possessions of the 2013 season, put up 628 yards against Alabama, and have the returning Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel. Enough said there.

Arkansas' defense ranked near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in most categories last season but under new defensive coordinator Chris Ash (who followed Bret Bielema from Wisconsin), the Razorbacks have certainly reversed those numbers so far in 2013. They rank in the top five in all major defensive categories but have compiled those numbers against the likes of Louisiana Lafayatte, FCS program Samford, and Southern Miss before facing off versus Rutgers last week. Although the Hogs failed to hold on to a 17 point lead in a 28-24 loss, the defense held the Scarlet Knights to just 3.0 yards per rush and recorded five sacks.

Arkansas' 4-3 defense starts with a front four that ranks up there with the best in the Southeastern Conference, a unit that is big, athletic, and starts three seniors. Unlike a lot of teams, Arkansas doesn't flip weak/strong or line up with a nose or three technique. They look like a traditional pro 4-3 defense with a linebacker set down over the tight end.

Last Saturday, Rutgers didn't run a lot of spread formations like Arkansas' first three opponents as they used a tight end and so the Hogs didn't get into a lot of nickel packages or three man fronts unless it was third and long. Like A&M, when Arkansas does go to a three man front, they will take an inside linebacker and move him down like an outside linebacker in a nine technique and bring him off the edge. In addition, they will use three defensive ends for pass rush purposes in those situations since they don't fear a running play. You'll probably see a lot more three man fronts versus the Aggies like they used versus their first three opponents.

Arkansas is capable of running both two deep looks and a three deep look. In the two deep look, they'll play a corner deep to one side with a safety rolled up to that side and a corner rolled up to the other side (better known as a quarter/quarter/halves look) or just simply maintain a traditional two deep safety look. They'll also use a three deep look with a safety or corner walked up into the box. However, you'll probably see less of the latter against A&M with the Aggies' use of one back sets with multiple receivers.

Left defensive end Chris Smith (6 foot 3, 266 pounds) has 5.5 sacks. He looks like he's a sprinter in his stance as he's got a great first step, good lateral mobility, and a nice spin move. In Arkansas' 4-3, Smith will normally play a five technique as the Hogs like to walk a linebacker down over the tight end. The other end, Trey Flowers (6 foot 4, 256 pounds) has four sacks himself and shares many of Smith's attributes. Both are athletic enough to drop into coverage on zone blitzes and you can't leave them unblocked on run fakes in play action.

Right tackle Byran Jones and left tackle Robert Thomas are both 310 pounds or better. In particular, Thomas is quick off the ball and uses his hands well to shed guards immediately after the snap (he has four tackles for loss and leads all defensive linemen in tackles). Both get push because they get their hands inside of those of the lineman's and are just massive. In addition, Arkansas plays its backups at all four spots and they are productive players. Redshirt freshman ends Deatrich Wise and Brandon Lewis and tackles DeMarcus Hodge and Darius Philon are relatively athletic. At 340 pounds Hodge is very difficult to move around and Philon can beat people straight up with his get off.

Arkansas poses a different challenge for A&M than even Alabama did with its front four due to their athleticism and size. The Aggies have become more of an inside zone team between the 20's and guards Germain Ifedi and Jarvis Harrison have to be able cut off penetration and allow center Mike Matthews to get to the second level against Arkansas' inside linebackers. In particular, A&M must control Thomas who moves well laterally for someone his size in order to establish anything on the interior. In pass protection, Jake Matthews will face off versus Smith who is much quicker than anyone Alabama used on the perimeter but Flowers will pose similar issues for Ogbuehi. Rutgers was unable to block Arkansas' front on slow developing running or play action pass plays so things must happen quickly for A&M.

The Hogs' back seven is a different story when you get time to throw. Rutgers' tight end Tyler Kroft had six catches for 133 yards working over Arkansas' linebackers and he's nowhere near the player that A&M slot Malcolm Kennedy is (who essentially fulfills that same role for A&M). They don't move well laterally and have difficultly running with people down the field. In addition, they really count on protection from that front four in order to make plays in the running game and when it happens they can fill holes on inside zone and power with a pulling guard. They have trouble getting to the exterior on outside zone. It's no coincidence that backups Otha Peters at Mike linebacker and Rohan Gaines at safety should have an increase in playing time for the Aggies as both represent an upgrade in athleticism. In particular, Peters did a much better job of coverage in the middle against slots. Run fakes tend to create significant gaps between the safeties and linebackers with the backers stepping up too quickly versus the run and the safeties not reading receivers coming downfield at them quickly enough.

Corners Will Hines and Tevin Mitchel are probably the strength of the secondary. Both have good size and Arkansas predominantly uses a two deep look they are capable of pressing people at the line of scrimmage or turning and running with them. Arkansas' safeties struggled in coverage on quick routes and longer ones when the front four didn't get to the quarterback.

Arkansas' defense is built around a quality front four that makes everyone in back of them better. They get good push and command double teams in the run game or simply make plays behind the line of scrimmage themselves. Their technique is good because they rep the same things over and over on the same side of the ball. They had five sacks against Rutgers because an undersized Scarlet Knights front struggled to block a much bigger team but also because quarterback Gary Nova isn't that mobile and they ran slow developing plays in the run and play action games.

However, if you are able to block Arkansas in pass protection, then you can hit big plays between the hashes against linebackers and safeties that struggle in coverage. Also, A&M's passing and running plays should be much quicker developing than those of Rutgers and thus not allow the Hogs the time to get as much penetration from the back side of a formation. In the run game, A&M has to be able to cut off interior penetration and center Mike Matthews must be able to get to the second level to block Arkansas' linebackers.

Finally, the Hogs haven't seen a quarterback like Johnny Manziel who can buy time to deliver the ball down the field and they haven't seen an offensive line that matches them or exceeds them in quality like A&M's. If the game isn't played in A&M's backfield, then the Aggies are going to be able to generate explosive plays early and eventually wear down a very good Arkansas front late.

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