It Takes Team To Tug Superman's Cape
Alabama, the Southeastern Conference leader in points allowed (12.8 per game), faces its toughest test attempting to stymie Auburn, the league's top scoring offense (42.8 points per game), led by quarterback Cameron Newton.
A glance to the Southwest may prove valuable as Wade Griffin devised a scheme contributing to the solo defeat of the Blinn College Cam Newton led team, 23-20. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is hoping to duplicate his Navarro College counterpart. Two undefeated junior college conference foes, ranked number one and two nationally, were pitted against each other in the last regular season game of 2009.
"We knew we had our hands full but were pretty talented," Griffin said. "We had six Division 1 defensive linemen. We knew we would be able to get after him. We thought we were better than they were up front.
"The key was trying to get a push from our defensive tackles and keep him corralled with the defensive ends."
Commitment to containment from the outside rushers is mandatory according to Griffin. The primary defensive alignment utilized included a middle linebacker spying the quarterback and six defensive backs in coverage. "We had a really good linebacker who tackled him around his ankles," Griffin said. "The last drive of the first half, he (Newton) had a high ankle sprain so he was hobbled the second half." said
, Griffin presently the defensive coordinator at Georgetown (Texas) High School said, "We did a pretty decent job of keeping him under wraps in the first half."
Aggressive tackling produced a defensive strip of Newton nullifying one drive. Running downs necessitated seven defenders in the box. Other defensive schemes were devised to counter specific offensive formations. Griffin said, "When they had no one else in the backfield, we brought more than they could block. If they had five, we brought six and played man coverage. We tried to change tempo and change pressure on him while keeping defensive lineman in his face."
Surprisingly Griffin has not been contacted by any coaching staff to share the successful plan he constructed to defend Newton.
Griffin said, "I knew he was talented but I didn't know he would do it at that level. Our kids did a good job defending him. I am amazed at what he has done."
Even the most sophisticated attempt to suppress a sensational talent has limitations. "We just tried to keep him in the pocket and make him a pocket passer and not allow him to get out on the edge where he is really good," Griffin said. "You have to push to him and not past him. Some of the big plays he did have, we had a defensive end that tried to come with the inside rush and allowed him to get outside in space."
Griffin feels the Crimson Tide may have a winning combination to thwart the Heisman favored candidate. "I think Alabama has a great chance with the athletes they have on defense to shut him down," said Griffin an admirer of Nick Saban's defensive schemes. "With all his blitzes, he will employ things Cam has not seen before."
The man unleashing the totality of Superman's talents onto the SEC and college football was reluctant to divulge any inkling of vulnerability during a recent SEC football coaches media teleconference. "It's really hard for me to say," replied Auburn's Gene Chizik pondering the SEC defense who presented the most difficult challenge. "Everybody in this league has played us really, really well. Some guys have had the same idea and some guys have had a little different idea, but everybody has played us well. Everybody has got great athletes on defense so it's really hard to say who and I don't think I could accurately say who has defended us the best."
Mississippi State is the lone foe to hold the SEC team total yardage leader (505.2 yards per game) under 20 points. Newton recorded a season low 206 total yards (70 rushing, 136 passing) in the 17-14 Bulldog loss in Starkville. "We just played our defense," said Bulldogs Coach Dan Mullen. "What you have to do is play sound. You look at the game and the reason we were successful is we didn't give up a lot of big plays, didn't have tons of missed tackles and kind of contained them and forced them to have to execute their way down the entire field."
Duel threat quarterbacks with size and speed are rare but Chizik's tenure as the Texas defensive coordinator during the Vince Young era allows for a unique perspective. "The similarities are they are two very competitive guys," Chizik said. "They love having the ball in their hands with the game on the line. Both of them are very productive in their own ways. Cameron (6-6, 250) is a little bit bigger. That is probably the only difference between the two. They are very similar in just about every other regard."
Dallas Allen, Newton's head coach at Westlake High School in Atlanta, is not surprised by the success. "Nobody ever really stopped Cameron," Allen said. "When we lost to a team, we lost because it was something we did to ourselves."
Allen believes Newton is faster than Vince Young. "When I saw Cameron play against LSU the other week, he changed gears which is something I had not seen before," he said.
Allen, now at Frederick Douglas High School in Atlanta, offered an opinion about game planning for the star pupil. "I would probably put eight in the box and play man defense," he said.
Newton's emergence as a star signal caller has tipped the pre-season betting scale odds. Auburn was listed as an 11 point underdog to the Crimson Tide prior to the first game kicked-off in September. If the Heisman Trophy favorite was absent from the Tigers line-up Friday, Alabama would be a prohibitive favorite ranging from 7 to 10 points said renowned sports analyst and handicapper Danny Sheridan. He has set the early line with Alabama as a four point favorite and carefully noted the point spread is designed to attract equal betting on both sides of the contest, not a prediction of the outcome. "It is the betting public's perception of how two teams match up," he said "The key to the game is Alabama's offense has to produce. To beat this guy you have to blitz a lot and take your chances. Alabama does have a good blitz package and the athletes to do it. You have a halfback built like a fullback and he runs like a battering ram. He can throw the ball too."
Alabama's offense has scored 21 points in losses to South Carolina and LSU. The three touchdown figure would likely fall short of defeating their arch rival not withstanding a Herculean defensive effort by the Crimson Tide. Alabama's Jim McElwain expressed a concern plaguing the offense during a press conference after an October 25 Cellular South 1st-and-10 Club appearance in Mobile. "I want to see our guys flying around," he said. "Wherever the ball is, I want to see 11 white or crimson jerseys around the ball. I want to see us compete with a relentless attitude and I want to see us have a passion for going out and playing. When we do that we are usually successful."
Although the stated goal is to be balanced, the second year offensive coordinator professed the game plan is flexible. "Take what the defense gives you," he said. "If they are going to load the box, you have to throw it more. If they are going to play off of Julio, you have to run it more."
Regardless of the defensive formations, McElwain asserts "make sure we play with passion" as an integral tenet for success. Wins over Auburn are still an achievement closely scrutinized as part of an Alabama football player's legacy. Junior stars Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, and Marcell Dareus will likely be making their final appearances in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Senior quarterback Greg McElroy would love to cap his final home stand with consecutive wins as a starter over the Tigers, ranked 11th in SEC pass defense.
The Newton dossier assembled by an acclaimed source is bursting with superlatives. "I didn't ever think I would see anybody put on the face of this earth that can do the things he does," said Bill Oliver, the legendary defensive genius who has faced his share of Heisman Trophy winners and extraordinary athletes. "He will out run you, elude you, run over you, and he's got eyes that can see 360 degrees. He has the best stiff arm I've ever seen. I don't know of any flaws. He is a very accurate passer."
Oliver declared Newton a superior athlete to Vince Young. "If I had a chance to take one of the two, a thousand times, I'd take Cam Newton. He has a tremendous mind. He protects himself running up the middle with good body lean. He has enough leg drive to punish the people trying to tackle him." Reviewing a quarterback sweep to the left, Oliver noticed Newton gave a right limp leg on impact denying the defender a satisfying lick.
Newton, the SEC's total offense leader (303.2 yards per game), is not a one man show. Auburn's week-to-week improvement along with the supporting cast of playmakers further compounds the monumental task of caging the Tigers high-powered no-huddle spread offense. "He makes everyone so good, it's unbelievable," Oliver said. Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's complicated sets are intended to confuse the defense forcing a vanilla approach. The gridiron chess match will be entertaining as Nick Saban historically has utilized a complex system bringing pressure from alternating points. Defending the spread offense requires the alignment to include additional secondary personnel with the skill to cover in space.
Technique, responsibility and multiple sets are the keys to defending Cam Newton Oliver contends. He suggests running a scheme for several series and then changing after the quarterback has registered a view. Auburn's fast tempo offense is designed to make the opponent declare their intentions early. A base defensive set with variations may be suitable to counter the frenetic pace.
"I would have the sort of a plan that I would let him see it a couple of series and then go to something else as a theme," Oliver said. "Then go to a different look and maybe come back with whatever I had the most success with."
Pressuring the gifted quarterback is "a lot easier said than done" according to Oliver. "When you attack, gambling with pressure, someone has got a hard job."
Zone coverage actually produces more interceptions he deducted through statistical analysis. Disguising pressures should be part of the strategy. "I contend you have to play well up front. The linemen have to do a good job with their hands disengaging them. Take very good angles and make every tackle opportunity count."
Newton surpassed the SEC quarterback single-season rushing record of 1,006 established by Auburn's Jimmy Sidle in 1963. He also broke Heisman winner Pat Sullivan's 40-year mark of 26 touchdowns rushing and passing in a season. Relentless pursuit and crisp gang tackling must permeate the defense if they expect to restrain Newton. The NCAA prefers the word student to preface athlete. If there ever was a time for the Alabama student-athletes to be diligent with their assignments, Friday is the day. The operative word begins with "D" for discipline in every phase of the game.
Even a defensive guru like Oliver concedes an offensive team is the greatest ally to neutralize the dominant opposing player. Alabama's version of kryptonite consists of a dynamic ground-oriented clock killing duo, running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, complimented on the outside by the third down conversion specialist wide receiver Julio Jones.
If those elements can successfully replicate the cosmic material rendering the invincible Newton a powerless bystander, then Alabama's chances for victory will be significantly enhanced. For those Superman enthusiasts, they know the first color assigned to the fictitious substance was "krimson". Over time DC Comics changed the color to many hues, so take heed Alabama. Even the powerful material widely hailed as the single effective defense against Superman was multiple.
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