23 September 2008
At first glance it would be easy to be a little down on the Tide defense after they gave up 309 yards and 14 points in Saturday's 49-14 win at Arkansas. But when you consider that half of the points came against the Tide's second and third unit defense, things start to look a little better.
The first Arkansas score came after the Alabama defense had been on the field for all but 1:22 of an 18:10 stretch in the first and second quarter. During that stretch the Tide returned an Arkansas pass for a touchdown and Glen Coffee had an 87 yard touchdown run. Throw that in with a Bama 3-and-out offensive possession, and the defense played almost a solid quarter without a break.
That drive, a nine play, 47 yard drive was plagued by poor tackling and missed assignments by the Bama defense, much of which could be attributed to the amount of time that they were on the field. Even still the Hogs were stopped short of first down at the Bama 12 yard line, which should have ended the drive with an Arkansas field goal. My guess is that Bobby Petrino already had the notion that his defense was not going to stop the Bama offense enough to get back in the game, so he went for it on fourth down.
I'll tip my cap to Petrino, he called a great play that was executed flawlessly, taking advantage of Bama's (and Don'ta Hightower in specific) aggressiveness. They did catch quite a break on the play as the Hogs' left tackle was already a half step into his pass coverage prior to the snap of the ball, and should have been called for illegal procedure. Even still, great call and execution. Arkansas wouldn't get much else the rest of the game.
The Hogs totalled 224 yards of offense in the first half, a half in which they dominated the time of possession 21:52-8:08, thanks in large part to Bama's two INT returns for touchdowns and the Coffee long run. The Arkansas offense used a lot of misdirection and took advantage of the limited film that Bama had on the new Bobby Petrino offense.
After the half, once Bama had time to adjust, even with the second and third units playing a large portion of the time, the Hogs managed just 85 yards of total offense. A lot of credit goes to the coaching staff for the adjustments made at the half that allowed Bama to take away many of the things that were successful for Arkansas in the first half.
Lots of guys contributed to an end of the first half goal line stand, so I'll mention it before going into position breakdowns. The Hogs tried three runs and a pass from inside the Bama three yard line, with three of those plays coming from the one yard line. And they never really got close. On the final play, a run at right tackle there were so many players involved in bringing down the ball carrier that I'm not sure who did what. Officially Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain were credited with the tackle, but Brandon Deaderick and Prince Hall were both a major part of that play - a huge momentum killer for the Hogs that ended all realistic hope of a comeback.
A lot of focus was placed on the match up in the middle between Arkansas center Jonathan Luigs and Bama's two big nose guards Terrence Cody and Josh Chapman. While the Hogs did run for 92 yards, most of it came outside of the tackle box. Cody and Chapman were not dominant, but they did neutralize Luigs. Without the Hogs being able to run behind their best offensive lineman, they were stuck rushing the ball outside.
While the 92 yards rushing was a season high for the Tide defense, the fact that Arkansas managed just three yards per attempt is a testament to how well the line forced things to the outside. Better tackling by the linebackers would have limited the rushing total considerably more.
Bobby Greenwood, Brandon Deaderick and Josh Chapman were each credited with a quarterback hurry, and overall the Tide lineman were a part of two tackles for a loss - one each for Chapman and Luther Davis. Davis, by the way, is beginning to see more and more playing time. In total the line recorded eight tackles, which is not bad considering how few times Arkansas tried the middle.
This could easily become an analysis that breaks things down into the good, the bad, and the ugly. There was a mix of all three as these guys made some spectacular plays, blew some assignments, and missed some tackles.
Once again Rolando McClain led the Tide in tackles with eight. He had his typical, solid game, making plays when the Hogs decided to come over the middle. He spent a great deal of time covering Arkansas' talented tight end DJ Williams, who had five receptions, but failed to be a major factor in the game.
For the first time in the Nick Saban era Bama actually got very good production from the jack linebacker. Brandon Fanney had easily his best game with seven total tackles, including two for a loss of seven yards. His best play was the complete obliteration of an Arkansas shovel pass that went for a loss of five yards. Fanney has been very steady and solid for the Tide this year. He still lacks the explosive play making ability that Alabama will eventually get from this position, but he has produced far more this season already than Bama got from Keith Saunders in 2007.
The two other guys that got time at the position, Courtney Upshaw and Eryk Anders, also had solid games. Anders has been the chief backup most of the season, and he has been similar to Fanney in that he is solid, but not spectacular. He ended up with two tackles and a QB pressure.
Upshaw has been one of the bright spots for the Tide in the last two weeks. He had a big showing against WKU and backed it up with another very solid game against Arkansas. The final stat shows him with two tackles, one for a loss, and a pass broken up. The PBU was especially impressive, as he tipped a pass that was well over his head, intended for a running back who was open on the sideline. He is still learning the position, and pass coverage is one of the hardest parts of it. While he is still a little bit away from being ready to take over the position, he has the potential to be the type of explosive play maker that Coach Saban looks for at the jack.
Don'ta Hightower struggled. That's the easiest way to put it. He ended up with five tackles, but that could have easily been eight or ten if he had wrapped up better. Glen55 might have a better count of missed tackles from a review of the game, but I counted at least three watching it live. He also stuggled in pass protection, leaving his zone completely on Arkansas' first touchdown, along with numerous other times where he simply wasn't in the right place.
Pass coverage is one of the toughest things for a linebacker to learn at the college level. So many of these guys dominated so thouroughly at the high school level as pass rushers that they were never asked to drop back and cover anyone, or any zone. Rolando McClain struggled with this last year, with the Georgia game being his low point, so Don'ta is in good company there. He'll need to make a huge adjustment before next Saturday, because Georgia will come right after him, challenging him to see if he has made any improvement.
Don't take that criticism to mean too much. Don'ta is an extremely gifted player who earned his spot in the starting lineup. Prince Hall has been active for two full weeks in practice and has yet to take the starting job away. He hasn't even really challenged him for playing time yet. And Prince isn't exactly the world's best cover linebacker either. Don'ta has plenty of time to develop, and his struggles are indicative of what you expect from most true freshmen.
He wasn't alone in poor coverage, either. Arkansas' second touchdown came on a very, very poor decision by Chavis Williams. Chavis left his man in the end zone to come up and keep Casey Dick from running the ball. The problem is that no one was behind Chavis to cover the man he left, and Dick had an easy throw for a 4th down coversion and a meaningless touchdown.
Getting back to Prince Hall, after only two plays against WKU, he saw much more extensive playing time Saturday. And he was the same Prince Hall that we've seen for two years now. He's not always in the right place, but when he is, he hits a ton and makes plays. He ended the game with six tackles, including half of a sack and a quarterback hurry. Expect to see more and more of Prince if he stays out of the doghouse.
Four interceptions, two for touchdowns (with a third resulting in a TD), 1.5 sacks, and four passes broken up. The two passing touchdowns, and most of the Arkansas passing yards, are on the linebackers, as this group had an outstanding
Javier Arenas just gets better and better as a defensive back every week. His interception was a matter of properly executing the play and forcing the receiver out of the zone that the quarterback wanted to throw to. We talked in the preseason about Javy using his strength and intelligence to make up for his lack of size, and this was a perfect example of it. Casey Dick was helpless to stop him on the return.
Justin Woodall had a big game against WKU, leading me to say that he might have already equalled the career production of Marcus Carter. After Saturday I think he has easily surpassed it. It wasn't just his interception return for a touchdown, he added four tackles and a pass broken up. More than that, though, he actually strikes fear into the opponent who thinks about coming over the middle. It's been great to see him develop since the bowl period last year, and I think we're only going to see more from him as he gets more confident.
Speaking of confidence, Marquis Johnson must be filled with it. This kid has played fantastic football this year, and his interception to start the second half was 50% preparation and 50% execution. He knew the route, jumped, and made the play. He's becoming a solid run supporter also, and could have a very bright future ahead of him, especially considering the amount of nickel that Bama figures to play.
Chris Rogers made a spectacular play on his first career interception. By that point in the game things were well decided, but it is nice to see a guy who busts his butt on special teams get the chance to make plays on defense. Chris has struggled to find a home in the secondary, moving from corner to safety and back, and it's nice to see him make a play. He is still way behind Johnson and Green at corner, so don't expect to see him make a push for massive playing time anywhere but special teams, but he did show a flash of the talent that had him highly recruited out of high school. And sometimes making one play in a game can change the confidence level of a player to the point that it wakes him up.
The fact that I'm this far down in the secondary section without mentioning either Rashad Johnson or Kareem Jackson speaks volumes about how well the group played. Jackson has reached a point where teams have basically quit throwing the ball his way. That should be tested this week by Georgia, but the Hogs pretty much surrendered his half of the field.
Rashad continues to have a solid year despite some mis-plays. He took a poor angle to a Hog receiver that allowed him to turn a short pass into a third down conversion, but that was really his only mis-step. I'll take four tackles, a pass broken up, and no long pass plays from my safety any day.
Mark Barron showed his play making skills when he got fourth quarter playing time. He looked like a linebackers on his two safety blitzes that accounted for a sack and a half, including on bone jarring hit. His cover skills are still a little behind, but this guy is electric when he squares up a ball carrier. With Kirby Smart and Nick Saban teaching him how to cover I have little doubt that this kid will be a terror, possibly as soon as next season.
Ali Sharrief, Tyrone King and Robby Green each got playing time as well, combining for eight tackles and a forced fumble. It was Green's first substantial time on defense, and he looked solid, especially when Bama pinned its ears back and blitzed late in the game.
Next provides a whole new challenge for the Tide defense, facing a complex offense that has playmakers at quarterback, wide receiver, and running back. The effort we saw in the Clemson game will be needed if the Tide expects to win in Athens. I'm not talking about specific statistics, though I would love to see a zero in the rushing column. Instead I am talking about execution. The Bama defense played an almost flawless game in the Georgia Dome, and that needs to be there again.