Alabama's 2013 defensive unit has been called by some the best of the Saban era. It certainly fit that description in their opener against Virginia Tech when they held the Hokies to ten points, seven first downs, and gave up just 59 yards passing.
The personnel on this unit continues to be built around Saban's core philosophy of playing corners in man coverage all the way down the field if necessary to provide as many people in the box as possible to stuff the run. However, the Tide has changed up some ways of doing business from last season as a concession to the increasing number of teams that operate from the gun or in the spread and without a tight end.
Last week the Hokies primarily stayed in the gun although on many plays they motioned or aligned a second back to the backfield. Even with three wideouts in the game, they reduced their formations rather than spreading them out across the field like many spread teams do…one receiver was flexed just outside where a tight end would normally be. In addition, Virginia ran a significant amount of option and zone read from these formations. As a result, the Hokies wound up running plays into the heart of Alabama's defense more often than not. Even though freshman runner Trey Edmunds broke a 77 yard touchdown run, the Hokies averaged just 2.4 yards per attempt on their other 32 carries.
To counter this alignment, Alabama strayed from its traditional 3-4 alignment and used a 3-3 or 2-4 grouping with four men down and a nickel back. For example, on first down the Tide put outside backer Adrian Hubbard's hand on the ground at a five technique with ends Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson and nosetackle Brandon Ivory. Pagan or Stinson would slide inside over a guard and so Alabama's front looked more like what you see from a traditional 4-3. In passing situations, Ivory would leave and the Tide would put Pagan and Stinson inside and insert Xzavier Dickson or Denzell Devall as another edge rusher. Inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest stayed in the game and the nickel back who went with one of the slots was a 210 pound safety, Jarrick Williams.
However, Bama's best player in the game was Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, whose lack of footwork and decision making resulted in him hitting just five of 26 passes. In addition, his reads on the option in the run game were usually the wrong ones and resulted in tackles for loss.
Ivory doesn't appear to be at the same level as some of Alabama's past nosetackles. He doesn't stay low enough versus the run and doesn't get sufficient push in the pass rush. Backup defensive end Darren Lake (a sophomore) is 324 pounds and may play more this week, especially with backup Dalvin Tomlinson out for the season with a knee injury. Pagan and Stinson play with good leverage and can run. Mosley and DePriest move well laterally and don't get caught up in traffic. Mosley is better in coverage than DePriest. However, it's a front four that gets pressure by blitzing because there's not a lot of first step pass rush personnel among the outside linebackers.
In the secondary, the return of Geno Smith from injury will give them a different look. Williams is a 210 pound safety while Smith is more of a cover corner and a better matchup for slots like Malcolme Kennedy. However, the Tide want their corners to be physical at the line of scrimmage and all the way down the field. The Tide want you to default to throwing the fade which is a low percentage pass that many teams automatically go to against press coverage.
Because Alabama's corners are so physical and so technically sound, they not only push receivers out of their routes but they also stalemate their blocks at the line of scrimmage. Thus, it's hard to move the ball on the perimeter versus the Tide either via the outside run game or bubble screens. In addition, their linebackers flow well and even the big people on that defense run to the ball. It's very difficult to make a living outside the hashes on them.
It's a different story inside the hashes. This is where A&M made a living throwing the football last season because A&M's slots, especially Ryan Swope, were able to take advantage of Alabama's lack of coverage ability at safety and inside linebacker. Alabama wants its safeties to roam and its backers to take away routes. Interestingly enough, although Alabama plays aggressively on the perimeter, they'll give up the stick route to a slot by playing off of him (one reason Swope had 11 catches in that game). In addition, by playing routes, they often allow inside receivers free access into the secondary to adjust their routes and if the pass rush doesn't get there, you have people running into space down the field. The biggest challenge for A&M's interior receivers will be to adjust their routes and catch the ball, something Virginia Tech's receivers had issues with last week.
Although the Aggies offensive line features two first round picks in tackles Jake Matthews and Ced Ogbuehi, it's been center Mike Matthews that has really stood out the first two games of the season. He's a physical player who releases on double teams quickly to get out on linebackers and maintains a high tempo (87 plays in 31 minutes of possession last week). If guards Jarvis Harrison and Germain Ifedi can single block Alabama's interior, then Harrison can get single blocks on their inside linebackers. The Tide demonstrated some vulnerability up the middle last week both against the run and pass but Virginia Tech lacked the personnel to take advantage of it.
That won't be a problem this week with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Although Manziel is given a great deal of credit for last year's win per his free lancing style, he's got more help this season in terms of the running game. A&M has used inside zone/bubble and draw/stick to great effect this season and these plays should help put Alabama in more of a inside/outside bind than what they are used to dealing with.
Basically, A&M's ability to move the ball on offense boils down the a few things, namely their ability to work over Alabama's defense between the hashes in both the run game and passing game. The most underrated aspect of A&M's win over the Tide last season was Swope who caught 11 passes and Malcolm Kennedy and Ricky Seals-Jones must replace part of his production. In addition, Alabama isn't used to being blocked in the interior run game and if the Aggies can do this it will open both the downfield and perimeter passing game. Alabama played disciplined football up front and tried to contain Manziel last season; they may well bring pressure and attempt to take away space for him to operate and speed up his decision making process. The problem with that strategy is if you don't get him, he's allowed to roam free and make big plays which is how you beat Alabama in the first place.
Finally, A&M receiver Mike Evans was not a huge factor last year versus Alabama as A&M tried to get the ball to him down the field but couldn't complete any of those passes. If Evans wins his one on one battles this year much like South Carolina's Ashton Jeffrey did in Alabama's 2010 defeat, that totally changes the complexion of the game. The Tide count on winning those battles and have won them even when they have lost football games; losing to Evans would be akin to having their entire defensive philosophy turned upside down.
A&M scored 29 points last season and Georgia (which also has a high octane offense) dropped 30 on the Tide in a loss. If the Aggies can meet or exceed 30 points, then Alabama will be asking a lot of its offense -- and that's a game that Alabama doesn't want to play.