30 September 2009
In part one I took a look at how Alabama would look to replace Dont'a Hightower in the base 3-4 defense. Based on yesterday's practice I found out that I had not considered the idea of moving two guys to new positions in order to the fill the hole. Armed with that new information, here's how I think Alabama will look to replace Dont'a in the nickel and dime packages.
This is, I think, a little easier, simply because in the nickel and dime defenses there are fewer linebackers. One of Dont'a's strengths as a player is his explosiveness in attacking the passer, so it won't be easy to replace his exact skill-set, but finding two or three linebackers who can play is easier than finding four - even from Bama's deep talent pool at the linebacker position.
We'll start with the nickel:
What we had seen earlier this year when Bama was in the nickel defense was Rolando McClain line up inside, with Eryk Anders at the jack, and Hightower at the will. In this look Hightower would sometimes line up on the line of scrimmage, opposite Anders, and sometimes he would line up alongside McClain in the middle.
And what we might see for the remainder of the season is a different guy based on whether the will is on the line, or in the middle.
Cory Reamer is well suited to fill that role in the middle. He's played inside and outside at the linebacker position, and he's also played safety. Typically, if the will in lined up inside, he's going into pass coverage. Cory's experience at safety should make him an ideal choice to cover backs and tight ends in man coverage, and to cover a particular zone when Bama goes that route.
His experience at the sam linebacker means that the Tide can slide him outside late, and he can carry out the duties that would normally be executed by the sam linebacker. Coach Saban's decision to spend fall camp moving guys around seemed smart at the time. Now it seems like a genius move, as not only Reamer, but several other guys appear capable of playing multiple positions.
Eryk Anders locked down the jack linebacker early, but he still took some snaps at the sam in fall camp. And if Bama is going to go with the will on the line of scrimmage in the nickel look, then he's probably the guy. His strength is pass rush, and regardless of where he lines up, it's likely that he'll be coming after the quarterback.
He did demonstrate in the Arkansas game that he has the ability to run downfield with a running back, having a nice break up on a wheel route to Michael Smith. That's a part of Eryk's game that we hadn't really seen, so it was nice to know that he's capable. Doing it once and doing it reliably multiple times are different things, though.
Eryk is a guy that has developed his overall game considerably in the last two years, and I expect that while he won't be great at pass coverage, he'll be adequate. That means he likely won't be asked to cover often, but he'll be good enough at it that teams will have to account for the idea that he might not come after the quarterback.
When Anders plays the will, as with the base defense, expect to see Courtney Upshaw play the jack. He has yet to demonstrate an ability to cover anyone in pass coverage, so I think you can expect that he'll be a pass rusher 99% of the time.
One other thing to keep in mind is the versatility of Rolando McClain. If Reamer, or later Harris, can show the ability to man the middle well, it opens up the possibility of McClain shifting to the line of scrimmage late. The idea of a player of his caliber shifting to a new position just prior to the snap is one that probably terrifies a lot of defensive coordinators and quarterbacks. I don't expect we'll see this often, as Ro is just too valuable in the middle. But I expect the Alabama coaching staff to think outside the box, and use every available weapon.
The dime defense is a whole different story.
What we've seen Bama do in the dime is actually run two defensive linemen, with three linebackers, and six defensive backs. The linemen have typically been Marcell Dareus and Lorenzo Washington, with Anders and Hightower lining up outside of them as hybrid linebackers/defensive linemen. Coach Saban calls this group the rabbit rushers, and its a package that could go the way of the dodo without Hightower.
I don't expect that to be the case, though it will certainly have a different look to it. The most practical thing would be to simply insert Upshaw in at the spot that Hightower occupied, and keep putting pressure on the quarterback. Upshaw in that package eliminates a few things that Coach Saban could do from a coverage disguise standpoint, but he still has the ability to get to the quarterback.
What we could see is a complete change in philosophy, though. Instead of going with the 2-3-6 look, Bama could begin to use a more typical 3-2-6 look. That would likely entail Brandon Deaderick and Washington at the ends, with Dareus in the middle, and Anders lining up at the standard jack spot.
We could also possibly see Luther Davis or Nick Gentry used in this formation, giving Washington or Deaderick the opportunity to take a play off. The great news is that all six of these defensive linemen are capable of lining up at either end or the nose guard in this formation. That would allow the coaching staff to move them around in an attempt to confuse the blocking schemes of the opponent's offensive line.
The other person who could throw a curveball into this situation is Milton Talbert. Milton has been working with the second group at jack linebacker this week at practice, after moving back and forth from jack to defensive end throughout the fall. His ability to be both an end and a linebacker could give the coaches some flexibility in how they use him. He's certainly not as explosive as any of the other linebackers, but probably is more capable of dropping into coverage than any of the other ends.
The good news is that there are options. Obviously none of these guys are as good as Hightower, or they would have been playing instead of him. But Bama isn't dropping to the linebacker/end equivalent of Brandon Avalos or Aaron Johns. There is significant talent here, and with Harris coming back in three weeks, that talent pool will get deeper. And I haven't even mentioned Chris Jordan.
There are also four true freshmen that could emerge - Nico Johnson, Tana Patrick, Ed Stinson, and Jonathan Atchison. Only Johnson has played from this group, but there is plenty of season left to make it worthwhile for one of the other guys to "lose their redshirt" if they become the best option.
The biggest thing to keep in mind is that Nick Saban has already eluded to the fact that Alabama isn't set on doing just one thing. So whatever Alabama does do this weekend won't necessarily be the same thing that they do next weekend, or beyond that. Having that type of flexibility and talent is rare, and is truly indicative of the type of recruiting and talent development that have been done by this staff.
Bama would certainly be better with Hightower, but don't expect this defense to collapse without him.
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