11 September 2009
After taking a look at the offense and defense for the week, it's now time to take a look at what Bama needs to improve on the most from week one to week two. You have probably noticed that I didn't do a special teams breakdown, but I feel pretty certain that will be covered here.
#5 - Get more players involved
That's not always going to be possible, especially when you are playing a top ten team. But Bama spent a great deal of time with the first unit on the field on both sides of the ball. That caused things like Mark Ingram having to carry the ball 26 times, which you would ultimately like to avoid.
Coach Saban indicated on his Thursday night call-in show "Hey Coach!" that he expected true freshman running back Trent Richardson to be more involved.
No doubt he'll play more Saturday
That's pretty direct, folks. Expect to see lots of Richardson, especially when you consider that Ingram has missed time this week with the flu. He was back at practice today, but I would imagine the coaches would like to cap his carries this week somewhere around 15.
Running back isn't the only place, either. Across the board Bama was limited in the number of guys that got to play. When you have to come from behind to win the fourth quarter, that's going to happen.
Regardless of the opponent, you would like to get ahead by a couple of scores early enough to allow some guys to get on the field in game situations. That's even more important early in the season. Whether the score of Saturday's game remains closer than most would like, Bama must get more guys involved in the game.
#4 - Get Julio Jones more involved
Yes, this contradicts what you read above. But Alabama's offense needs Julio Jones to have more than five touches in a game. It is important that other receivers make an impact, but Bama has to get their top playmaker more involved in the offense.
I'm not advocating throwing him into the quarterback spot in the wildcat offense, or trying to force the ball into his hands 20 times. Virginia Tech did a great job of bracketing coverage around Julio. Now the Bama staff needs to come up with ways to defeat that type of coverage.
His last catch in Saturday's game came on a play where he moved from left to right in a pre-snap motion. As soon as the ball was snapped, he cut up field about three yards and towards the sidelines. Greg McElroy hit him with a quick pass that went for a small gain. This type of play served the purpose of getting Julio involved, and because of the design of the route, it also got him out of bounds without having to take a hit. That's a bonus.
It is worth noting that the big drop that Julio had last Saturday saw him lineup in a bunched formation, almost as a tight end. That's another wrinkle, and should have sufficed to get him the ball.
I'm not terribly concerned with Julio getting a lot of touches early in the season, and I would certainly like for the coaching staff to keep some things close to the vest. But Julio needs more than five touches. In fact, considering the fact that he hasn't scored a touchdown since Bama's win at Athens in 2008, I'd say he needs a touchdown.
#3 - Improve on first down
Glenn55 pointed out in his game review that the Tide was extremely predictable, and extremely ineffective, on first down last Saturday. Bama ran the ball on 20 of its 26 first down plays, and continually put Greg McElroy in 2nd and long situations. as Glen pointed out, Bama was in 2nd and 9 (or longer) 19 times during the game.
That's not acceptable.
A lot of the blame for that goes to the ineffectiveness of the wildcat formation. If I had extended this feature to six areas of improvement, the wildcat would have been there. It was simply bad, folks. That happens sometimes when you're trying something new on offense. It also happens sometimes when you're facing a good defense.
The wildcat isn't going anywhere, though, so get used to it. All of Bama's plays from the wildcat came with Mark Ingram at quarterback, except one play where Roy Upchurch took the snap. Expect to see a few other guys get involved this week. Also, don't be surprised to see Bama in the "bobcat" formation, where Greg McElroy actually leaves the field.
Getting back on task, though... Bama simply must get better on first down. McElroy and co. did a great job of moving the chains despite the ineffectiveness on first down. Imagine what they can do if they are continually looking at second down and short situations.
Bama's rushing attack is solid enough that I don't expect to see a lot of short runs this year, but seeing a few passes on first down would also be nice. McElroy only hit on 50% of his passes on Saturday (area of improvement #7), and that could have been part of the reason for conservative play calling.
But when you consider that he was 9 of 12 in the second half, the coaches have to have developed greater trust for him. And with that trust will hopefully come more passing plays on early downs. The best of both worlds is the rushing attack getting established early, so that you can work off of play-action on early downs.
#2 - Kick off coverage
You probably thought this would be #1, didn't you? It's pretty close to being #1A, because it was bad at times. You do have to take into consideration that Virginia Tech is constantly among the nation's best return teams, but Bama allowed two big returns - one for a touchdown, and one that set up a touchdown.
We saw a lot of new faces on kick coverage against Tech, including true freshmen Rod Woodson and Trent Richardson. Both big returns came away from the new guys, though, and right into the heart of two of Bama's better 2008 special teams guys - Mark Barron and Courtney Upshaw.
Leigh Tiffin did a nice job of getting hang time on his kicks, and placing them inside the five yard line. I know fans want to see touchbacks, but those are increasingly rare in college football now that teams kick off from the 30 yard line. Some coaches (Nick Saban included) actually prefer a well-placed, high kickoff inside the five yard line. That gives you the chance to actually get a team tackled inside the 20-yard line.
The kicked did his job Saturday, and the guys on the coverage team have to do theirs. This wasn't #1 because Bama did have several kicks that they did cover well, including the game's first. On his first collegiate play Rod Woodson was a human missle, stopping the Tech return at the 19 yard line.
This has been a bit of a problem the last two seasons, though - after not being a problem at all in Saban's first year, with Ron Middleton helming the special teams. Bobby Williams has the title of coordinator now, though Coach Saban has indicated that all of the Tide coaches help in this area.
That means that there is a lot of blame to go around. This is the area of most concern for me in the long term this season. I expect we'll see new faces on the coverage team if things don't improve quickly.
So, if this is the biggest area of concern long term, why isn't it #1? Because it wasn't the biggest problem on Saturday.
#1 - Penalties
Bama finished the game with 10 penalties for 83 yards. They gave Virginia Tech three first downs in the game. And the penalties came at terrible times.
In fact, two of the penalties (for 30 yards), came on kick returns. Both of those penalties helped Tech move the ball down field for points.
The two most remembered penalties belong to Rolando McClain, though. He is one of the nation's best defenders, and a great leader for Alabama's football team. Plain and simple... this type of thing can not happen, especially not in big games. The good thing is that no one knows this more than McClain, and I don't expect we'll see it happen again.
His weren't the only bad penalties, though. There was a silly pass interference penalty by Marquis Johnson just prior to McClain's meltdown. There were a number of silly illegal procedure penalties.
Some of that can be attributed to it being the first game. With a new quarterback and three new offensive linemen, you're going to have some cadence issues. But those need to be improved on quickly.
And while you can expect to see a few extra penalties in week one, Virginia Tech only had six for 45 yards. Bama was among the SEC's best at avoiding penalties in 2008, and the Tide needs to get back to there.
While the kick coverage was alarming, the fact is that Tech only got one score as a direct result of kick coverage. They got, in my estimation, three scores due to stupid penalties.
And that's why penalties ranked #1.
This Alabama football team is very, very good. But that doesn't mean that the Tide is ready to play for the national championship today. The good news is that no team really is.
It is typically very easy to find areas that need improvement after early season games. The good news for Alabama is that the Tide was overall very sound on both offense and defense. If you're looking to drastically improve one of those areas after week one, then you might be looking at a long season.
As it is, four of these five that I have listed should be relatively easy to fix. The kick coverage will likely be more difficult, but the sheer number of athletes on campus should make it easy enough to find ten guys who can properly cover a kick.
Te other bit of good news for Bama is that the Tide should have two weeks to work on improvement. With all due respect to both Florida International and North Texas, Bama should be able to concentrate more on "fixing Bama" the next two weeks than they will likely have the opportunity to do in conference play.
That's getting ahead of things, though. For now, the only opponent that matters is Florida International. Well, FIU... and the flu.
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