Where do we begin?
I'm not sure.
This review took twice as long as the first two in our now weekly series.
However, while we won't drive you crazy and go in chronological order, we'll hit on key points as Alabama overcame one of its only recent funks by beating Mississippi for the first time in three years.
OL Shuffle Pays Off
Without a doubt, the top matchup I was glued to throughout this game, both watching it live and again this morning, was the OM D-line against UA's offensive front. While the Rebels flashed and made some big plays, the Tide group surprised me in a good way.
Most importantly, the running game is back. Yes, Jalen Hurts' running ability is a big reason defenses will be a tad more hesitant, but early on the frosh wasn't toting it and there was still a considerable push. Man, it's amazing how much more comfortable Ross Pierschbacher looked at left guard versus right guard the last two weeks. He was a different guy, Bradley Bozeman was much more settled and Alphonse Taylor was in his natural element as a run blocker. Looking back at his high school tape in Iowa, Ross P. was a rock solid left tackle at the prep level (top 100 overall prospect) and of course he was on the left side. I have to admit, my assumption that sliding from left guard to right not being a big deal was incorrect. Even his stance was much more comfortable. Ask any big man how important comfort is and you'll realize how big it was in this game.
We knew UA would be rock solid in pass protection, as it has been very good this season, and it was again the case Saturday. The lone exception was in containing Marquis Haynes. The former 2-star recruit (wait, what?!) did everything against the Tide line. He and Cameron Robinson had some epic battles and there were extremes within them, including a Haynes explosion that put the junior on his back. He also did it on the other side, and it was the play of the first half. Yes, he probably should have been flagged for targeting, but he was a bullet off the edge and made the play that Rebel fans would have remembered forever should they have made it three wins in a row over UA. On the play, he was initially looking like he was going to play in coverage, but he walked up to the edge slowly and accelerated at the snap, as Jonah Williams correctly took the first threat he saw inside as the defensive tackle challenged his gap. That player lined up over Taylor, whose next responsibility would have been to glance outside at a potential free rusher. He did, and Haynes was it, but he was much too fast for Shank.
But other than that crazy play, the 'Bama offensive line held up. Williams may have been the best of the bunch but Robinson had his moments, Pierschbacher was a beast in the run game and Bozeman is settling in nicely at center. UA didn't go shotgun quite as much as the WKU game but it was easily the majority of plays, and he was on target just about every time, too. 'Bama went to the pistol on critical run downs, including on the final drive to run out the clock, and he was good pre and post snap there as well.
Like Hurts, Harris is Bama's Guy
I'll admit I've been skeptical of Damien Harris (pictured above) and his game since high school and last year he didn't wow me in his limited action. But each game in 2016 he has shown a bit more this and that and it's added up to one clear and important notion: he is the running back for this year's squad. At first, it was clear he earned the starts because of his pass-protection. Nobody gets the majority of time in a Burton Burns backfield without showing consistency as an edge-chipper and blitz pickup talent and Harris has been much better than every other UA back through three games. But he also has shown improvement as a runner. Sure, the line was better as we detailed and some of the holes were gaping against the "Landshark" defense, but both in crunch time and on short yardage-to-go carries, he showed a very nice combination of grit, power and fluidity with his cuts.
Harris hit the long ball late in what looked like a game-sealing play (before the onside kick, Hail-Mary heave sequence) and again the hole was there, but he broke tackles late in the run and powered through a defender towards the end zone though his knee was down a bit short. But he was more impressive earlier in the game, using his excellent vision to set up blocks, accelerate when it broke open and then make a man miss. For years I have wanted to invent the stat of ball carriers able to make the first man miss. Every great running back should be able to do this well more times than not. and Harris didn't do it last year and didn't do it much against USC. But the last two weeks it has changed and what is most impressive is that he did it as a runner and also as a receiver in open spaces, opportunities he figures to get more and more with the threat of UA's wide receiver corps and growing threat of Hurts as a runner. Improved ability and trust goes a long way with Saban so like we have said with Hurts, Harris has to be the guy going forward. Especially after Bo Scarbrough fumbled on the final drive, recovered by a heady Williams though CBS will tell you 675 times it was someone else, and Bama went right back to Harris to close it out.
Speaking of Hurts, he was very impressive as a runner. He missed some routine throws in this game, should have thrown two interceptions (one was a drop by former UA pledge Montrell Custis and the other slipped out his of hands as a fumble) and continues to underthrow the deep ball (though for some reason everyone is raving about his downfield attempts) but he settled as the game went on and continued to show great toughness and poise, making his best throw on an over-the-middle strike to Calvin Ridley the first play he was on the field after being blasted by the aforementioned Haynes on that fumble the Rebs took to the house. But that is somewhat to be expected as the legend of Hurts grows. While his passing was average this time around, his running was about as good as it gets. He's not a burner, but he's a smart and savvy runner and he makes incredible decisions with the ball in his hands. He knows how to manipulate his body to avoid taking a big hit, he gets out of bounds when the risk outweighs the potential gain and he holds onto the football when he does decide to tuck it. Hurts isn't the biggest, doesn't have great top-end speed and doesn't try to force anything, but he uses his head as well as any quarterback in America when he's on the move. It was a big part of the game plan and a big reason why UA won this big game.
Hurts was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week for the effort on Monday.
Secondary Better than Believed
Again, re-watching the game with the power of the "rewind" button does wonders for perception no matter what one is looking at. The Alabama secondary was a big benefiiciary of this technology in my view as I thought they looked only slightly above average in watching the game live. The second glance changed my mind. The unit, one of the best in America, was actually in position well times more than not although two big mental errors in the first half were magnified because Ole Miss converted long throws, leading to 10 points, as a result.
We'll start with Marlon Humphrey. The standout was actually pretty great on Saturday. Did he lose out on a TD to AJ Brown? Yes. Did he give up a long play that set up a field goal? Yes. But he was right in position every time and he again made plays against the run and the pass in the victory. Humphrey wasn't perfect, as he got out-jumped on each play, but he used physicality each time and made each play highly contested. I didn't list the third play, one that led to another field goal later in the game because a perfect throw beats perfect coverage. Every time. And Chad Kelly had two perfect throws down the field in this game. But Humphrey was there every time and just as importantly, as we revert back to the trust conversation with Saban, he didn't make a clear mental error like at least two of his secondary-mates did on Saturday. His cornerback mate Anthony Averett continues to settle on the other side, too. He simply looks better every game out and he continues to be one of the best stories on this roster.
The rest of the secondary was up and down both physically and mentally. While Eddie Jackson continues to look like an All-American at one safety (and how about that punt return? Saban must have listened to the CABC podcast), Ronnie Harrison had a day he'd like to forget. As a run supporter, he missed his share of tackles, including one on the first touchdown allowed by the starting Tide defense this season. But after easily his best game in a UA jersey last week, he was flat-out bad in coverage. His versatility has him on the field for both man and zone situations but he was burned on both. Rebel tight end Evan Engram worked him in one-on-one routes for several first downs and Engram also beat him for a massive second-quarter play in what looked like a cover-2 or cover-2 man look. This means while underneath defenders are encouraged to at least get hands on receivers for a re-route if not to trail them throughout their routes, and Shaun Hamilton did not touch Engram, Harrison was supposed to remain in his deep half. Like Hamilton, he had his eyes in the backfield and was more concerned with a potential pitch as opposed to the best Ole Miss has to offer on the outside and it was the easiest and probably longest TD Engram has had in his long SEC career.
Minkah Fitzpatrick had another good day in run support, including the play that knocked him out of the game with a head injury, and he flashed in the passing game as well. But he was responsible for not helping Humphrey on the first deep completion of the day from Kelly. It was good play design from the Rebels as it motioned a receiver over from the short side of the field to the wide, changing the dynamic of the set. With more receivers to the wide side, Jackson went from center field to on the edge of the box. Typically, especially with one less receiver on the short side of the field, that coverage is "rolled" and the backside cornerback or down safety (Fitzpatrick) would assume Jackson's responsibility while he moved down on the wide side. Instead, Fitzpatrick drifted back at the snap and was nowhere near where he needed to be in what should have been double coverage on the man who beat Humphrey at the high point. Kelly may have still chucked it, but Bama's odds at stopping the play would have increased as well. Saban let the super soph. know after the drive. But that was it with the secondary as far as the mental errors, something that surprised me upon checking again. Shyheim Carter and Deionte Thompson saw increased playing time with Fitzpatrick out and each made a couple of late tackles in the win.
Jon Allen, Reuben Foster, Front-7 on Another Level
The Alabama defense is talented. That's of course an understatement. Even after getting gashed by Ole Miss, it made big-time plays, including a pair of defensive touchdowns on the Jonathan Allen pick-six and the Daron Payne fumble recovery. But some of the in-between plays were just as impressive. Allen is simply a force. He rushed several Kelly throws, helping to end drives and did it with power and speed at times. But it's his technique, particularly with his hands, which then drives his advances from there, that are separating him as a clear All-America type defensive lineman that will translate well to the NFL. His role is expanding along the way and with the help of the dynamic Tim Williams getting a hand on the QB, Allen dropped back in coverage and the nephew of Jim Kelly gave him a gift that looked like it put the game out of reach. The entire front group again flashed dominance against the run. The only clear lapse was the first touchdown but it was a tempo thing. Not sure why Ole Miss didn't try to speed up UA more, but it worked on that initial drive. Those guys were gassed and stood straight up on the snap.
Ryan Anderson was brilliant on the strip before Payne recovered. He was lined up on the edge and backed off towards a slot receiver pre-snap. As Jeremy Pruitt has shown, it was a disguise, and once that eligible receiver didn't go down the field, the "green dog" principle kicked in. It means your assigned player is only a threat on the move upward, should he delay or block, that defender gets the green light to blitz. Anderson followed the rule and got to Kelly without anyone seeing him. Scary. Williams was consistently great on the other side and it's becoming safer and safer to say these two edge talents are probably the best combo Saban has had at one time at Alabama. They end drives, turn the ball over and change the game two or three times each week. Each coming back this year will be so big to their pockets.
At the second-level Reuben Foster, before missing some time with an injury, continued to show such an improvement. It's to the point I think he gets drafted ahead of where his buddy Reggie Ragland was after his senior season in 2015 (No. 41 overall). He has always run to the ball well and finished upon contact well, but he's reading blockers better and that great unit in front of him is keeping the big guards and center off of his chest. A free-running senior leader is a problem and USC, WKU and OM didn't solve it much. Next to him, Hamilton continues to surprise me in coverage, playing as well as anyone could have hoped (save for the Engram leak) and he's filling the run well, too. On the Anderson strip-sack, he blitzed to get the attention of the right tackle, giving Anderson that much more space to come in free. That entire play, from design to execution and even athleticism as Payne kept his knee of the ground and stretched the ball over the plane, was probably the single most impressive play of the year within the defense.
* Hale Hentges is becoming the ideal tight end for this offense. His blocking is among the best, including offensive linemen, to the point he's taking playing time away from O.J. Howard both as an in-line guy and even on the outside when the screen game is being used frequently. Howard didn't have a great game blocking and he was penalized in the process. Yes, Hentges also should have had a first-quarter TD on his resume as well, too. You'll see more of him in this offense, much more than I would have projected should I have known the offense will be much more spread in 2016.
* As suspected, Cameron Sims' progression will have him on the field much more going forward. Saban confirmed it Monday, but he has improved as a pass-catcher on a big 6-foot-5 frame and he has been a money blocker as well. Like it or not, with the amount of screens to be used in this offense, that's a big deal. Gehrig Dieter, on the other hand, is headed in the other direction though he still saw more time than Robert Foster Saturday. Is this a drops vs. potential doghouse situation? Trevon Diggs and maybe even Raheem Falkins could potentially take advantage, too.
* The pecking order of the running back position behind Harris will be interesting. Joshua Jacobs flashed great quickness and saw early, important snaps, after fellow frosh B.J. Emmons helped close out WKU. Where could this leave Scarbrough? I'm not sure, but he has flashed some as well, though the late fumble could weigh more against him in the end. Either way, UA has four talented backs and each has had some big game touches. Hurts directing Jacobs to help block and spring him for a first down run was teaching tape. How about the high school QB picking up a pancake block three games into playing his new position, in the SEC no less?
* J.K. Scott and Adam Griffith are rock solid, but continue to have random blunders. Scott shanked a punt, Griffith missed a field goal in this game and UA still found a way to put up 48 points.