"Do your job" is a big Bill Belichick constant used by coaches all over the country. Nick Saban, who coached under the NFL's legendary name for some time and credited him as one of the reasons he has had so much success himself Saturday on ESPN, emphasizes the same. Heading into Alabama's matchup with No. 6 Texas A&M, there were many jobs and matchups we were very curious to see play out.
None bigger (or better) than All-Americans and likely first round NFL Draft picks Cameron Robinson and Myles Garrett squaring off in this one. We will dig into it later, but the winner of this matchup would win the game and that is how it played out in a 33-14 Crimson Tide victory.
Like with the tough assignment Robinson had, it wasn't pretty for UA at times, but it indeed got the job done to stay undefeated and atop every college football poll at this point with a bye week ahead of the annually hyped LSU game.
The key sequence in the game was a continuation of what we've seen from the UA team all year long -- it bounces back from adversity very well. We saw it opening night against USC, saw it to a much larger degree against Ole Miss and in smaller scenarios in between, trailing at brief times throughout 2016. It happened again Saturday, as the Aggies engineered a great second-half drive to take a 14-13 lead. Both sides of the ball for 'Bama responded, as the offense answered during a 14-play drive that chewed up nearly half of the third quarter, ending in the end zone with an easy passing play from Jalen Hurts to Calvin Ridley in one of Lane Kiffin's better play-calls of the season. The defense then took the next step and forced A&M to fail to gain yardage on three of the next four plays after retaking the lead, never looking back.
Let's take a closer look.
Upon Second Look, Kiffin was on A-Game
Watching UA-A&M live Saturday, like many of you I'm sure, it seemed like Kiffin avoided the running game at critical times in the red zone after UA made it there rather easily on each of its first three drives. Looking a bit deeper, there was clearly some miscommunication between he and Hurts at least twice in the back-to-back drives that ended up in field goals. The first one was on the coaching staff, seemingly willing to lose a down instead of burning an early timeout. The result was a pass in the direction of two receivers who were looking to engage their defenders for a perimeter running play. The next play, now third-and-goal, Hurts was late with the snap and the defense was able to create some pressure, thwarting the drive as the freshman quarterback took what he could get on the ground. Aside from those two plays, Kiffin mixed the run and the pass well near pay dirt. UA ran the football on nine of 14 red zone plays on the first three drives, the third resulting in an the O.J. Howard score to put the team up 13-0.
In non red-zone scenarios, I wondered why Alabama didn't hit the edge and/or many big-hitting designed runs as we'd seen over the course of the season. Two reasons, one word is the answer here -- John Chavis. The TAMU defensive coordinator, who has been in the SEC forever, was very good in the second quarter and he adjusted to Kiffin after the score, giving A&M's offense time to begin their come back and preventing the game to get broken open early. As you'd recall, Kiffin had been using wide receivers in cross-motion aplenty this year, for handoffs, touch passes and even some option or quick screen looks. Those motions have resulted in linebackers vacating their alignment, opening huge gaps for the UA backs and Hurts up/near the middle of the defense. Well, it was different on Saturday. Kiffin deployed many of the same cross-motions with receivers, but the A&M linebackers stayed home. They used their sure-tackling safeties to provide contain, and their 'backers stayed home and did a good enough job save a pair of long Damien Harris runs.
But much to my surprise, Kiffin later adjusted to the adjustment, and began challenging the edge not with Hurts, or his speedy wideouts or even his running backs, but with Howard. Quick screens, designed roll-outs and quick hitters began to expose the Aggie secondary in one-on-one scenarios and Howard racked up some volume for the first time this season in his eight catches for 69 yards including the aforementioned score. Howard had just 14 grabs over the previous seven games of the season, combined. It was as fun a duel to track Saturday as the Robinson vs. Garrett matchup (more on that immediately below).
Kudos to Cam-Rob
Two former Scout five-stars, two former high school All-Americans, two college All-Americans and two likely top NFL Draft picks. What more could anyone have wanted in the Robinson vs. Garrett matchup? These two have tangled aplenty over the last four years and we likely saw it for the last time in the SEC on Saturday.
Let's be honest, going into the matchup, No. 15 had the advantage and expectations over No. 74. He was getting healthier and had a bye week of extra rest just to be sure while Robinson has had an up-and-down season compared to his own standards, fresh off of some glaring mistakes just last week against one of the defensive ends in the SEC ranked behind Garrett in most categories and certainly in perception. But he overcame, and it started with Kiffin not running much his way as 'Bama got out to its lead. Eventually that changed and Robinson was able to use straight-up force against Garrett, initially as a run-blocker, to win well more reps than not. The only early defeat against him, in a one-on-one blocking scenario, was actually what most coaches would call a split rep. Robinson had good position and won at the point of attack, but didn't move laterally enough to hold the block as Garrett got in on the tackle. Robinson would lose just once more, from what we saw, against the elite prospect, as he over-extended on a reach block attempt and the Texan was able to knife underneath with speed. That was it.
While the health status of Garrett was somewhat in question, Robinson still found a way to defeat arguably the best football player in America when UA needed him the most. He did it against the run as well as the pass, showcasing his athleticism and punch while creating some tape that will be broadcasted upon his NFL selection next spring. To reiterate how good Robinson was, Garrett was an absolute force when UA elected to use a tight end or a back on him, even as a chip-block, leading to seven tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a QB hurry, credited on a play in which Harris was blocking him and Robinson executed a combination block with Ross Pierschbacher (it was a pancake, in case you were wondering).
The Robinson wins, while not as important as the team's, was critical on many fronts for this Alabama offensive line. For one, the SEC has no shortage of elite rushers and Robinson will face maybe the quickest not named Tim Williams two Saturday's from now in LSU's Arden Key. His confidence will also be reignited, with good timing as UA heads into a bye week of its own. Unluckily for Robinson, that means more reps against Williams in a few intensified practices this week before some time off. 'Bama will need the best out of Robinson if it is to successfully defend its crown, and if Saturday was any indication, folks should begin checking flights and hotels in the Tampa Bay area.
We Say it Every Week, but Wow
In case you don't watch football, Alabama has a pretty good front-seven. The starting defensive line is even better than that. Jonathan Allen, Williams, Ryan Anderson, Daron Payne and even rotational guys like Dalvin Tomlinson and Da'Shawn Hand each deserve a considerable amount of credit in 2016. They come after offenses in waves, no matter the scheme or scenario and have afforded defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt some luxuries in the meantime.
It was again the case Saturday versus A&M and it wasn't just in the big plays everyone is still talking about Monday morning, like yet another non-offensive score from Allen following an Anderson forced fumble. It's in the smaller plays, like Allen ending the first drive of the afternoon in what is probably the best individual play he's made wearing the crimson and white, which is saying a lot. If you're on Twitter, you've seen fans, analysts and even recruits marvel at Allen's body in the air sacking Trevor Knight, but that was actually the least impressive part of one of the plays of the game and maybe the season. First, Allen was aligned over the left guard and got a great jump off the ball. With the newfound leverage, he was able to get his hands up on the guard's first, making for an easy slap-and-club technique to get around the obstacle. Seeing this, the running back adjusted his front-side protection as Knight dropped back, and attempted to chop Allen at his knees to try and get him on the ground. Allen, now on a b-line for Knight, recognized the smaller back heading low and not only attempted to get over the blocker, which we often see defenders go vertical, but he dove for depth and it was enough to land his near 300 pounds on Knight for the first of five UA sacks on the afternoon. He had a clinic-type game, again, with six tackles, including another for loss on a third-down rush attempt, along with three additional QB hurries. Are he and Garrett the top two picks in the upcoming NFL Draft?
But Allen wasn't alone, again, as per usual. Williams had a pair of sacks, using speed over power this time, but again, he was just as important on forcing Knight to step up and rush a throw or to collapse the backside on a rushing play to the point where the back has to try and string plays wide against UA's front-seven, which seemingly never works. Williams is rounding out his game, something Anderson completed about a year ago. The former Daphne Trojan was his usual self and contributed a trio of tackles for loss in addition to the big forced fumble
The only time this front-seven seemed out of place, and perhaps this was an adjustment by Kevin Sumlin and company, was against the read-option when Trayveon Williams wasn't in the game. When he was, 'Bama was all over him and the SEC's leading rusher coming into the matchup ended up with just 23 yards on nine carries. But when backup Keith Ford was in, I wonder if the defense was told to shift its key to the running QB, Knight, who has gashed defenses all season long. On two big plays, each on eventual TAMU scoring drives, Knight didn't keep the ball and Ford ended up not being touched until the secondary arrived. It extended drives and made UA counter-adjust tot the point Knight eventually pulled the ball on the often-used play and got big yardage, including on a key second-quarter fourth-down conversion ahead of A&M's first score to put them right back into the game.
Secondary to Meet Microscope
As we suspected at times over the last week, Alabama was going to pressure the TAMU running game with several blitzes on early downs, potentially opening up the secondary to more one-on-one matchups. But it held its own and was seemingly always in position. It doesn't mean the rock solid Aggie wide receivers didn't manage to make plays anyway, like on the back-shoulder score to Reynolds, but Anthony Averett was in great position. He saw the ball and played it but Knight made a great throw and Reynolds adjusted and used his body to shield the defender. It was similar in Knight's hookup with Christian Kirk in the third quarter. You have to credit Knight, who saw perhaps the top slot wide receiver in America matched up one-on-one with Ronnie Harrison. The A&M duo took advantage and made a play though Harrison was in about as good position as anyone could have hoped for against the former five-star.
Other than the two scores, and to a large degree even during them, UA held up in the back end. The star of the show Saturday was Marlon Humphrey. The physical cornerback played like it and got involved on a pair of stops at or behind the line of scrimmage on quick screen attempts and made a big momentum-swinging play on his second interception of 2016. UA was in cover-two and once again the front-four got solid pressure on Knight, who saw Humphrey sit initially, as coached to do in the coverage, and he thought the window behind Humphrey and in front of the safety would be there on the corner route. It was, but only for a split second as Humphrey executed the front-end of his responsibility in getting as wide as the short wide receiver before sinking underneath the deeper route and making a play on the football. He is more of a man-to-man defender because he has great physical traits and instincts, but the UA legacy put on a zone coverage clinic on that all-important play as A&M was looking for the lead one play after intercepting Hurts.
The group is often talked about in Tuscaloosa but it will uptick even more over the next two weeks and beyond, as its leader went down with a tough injury. Eddie Jackson, the senior and punt returner, suffered a broken leg on his last return attempt Saturday and will be out for the remainder of the 2016 season. This will up the onice on rotational safety Laurence Jones, who had a great Saturday in coverage including a late pass-breakup, as well as reserves Tony Brown and Deionte Thompson. It could also call for Harrison to be used as more of a free safety than his skill-set suggests, depending on the personnell the offense rolls out on a given play. While I expect to see a rotation, with Jones perhaps getting the bulk of the 'center field' responsibility, it will have to be a community effort to replace he steady Jackson. One step further, the communication and responsiblity of getting the secondary lined up pre-snap, as well as any adjustments, will be that much more difficult without No. 4 suited up. This, of course, will be a major bye week storyline.
A Little Luck
'Bama was the better team Saturday, something I'd think the Lone Star State's residents would actually agree upon. But UA had some good fortune in the victory as well. And no, I'm not going to get into the targeting vs. not targeting thing, the rule flat-out stinks no matter when it is called and when it is somehow not even addressed.
But 'Bama had some luck on the play Aggie fans probably began searching for what else is on television because of...as Hurts scramble in the fourth quarter that resulted in a 37-yard, seal-the-deal type touchdown.
First, Kiffin showed some aggression with a first-down deep pass play called up 12 points with the ball in the fourth quarter. Three wideouts headed towards the end zone, which caught the A&M secondary off guard to the point players began to bail, vacating the middle of the field. On top of that, Chavis had a rush-contain on with his defensive ends Garrett and Hall, meaning they were to rush wide and deep to keep Hurts in the pocket in the case of a read-option or designed quarterback run. This allowed both UA tackles Robinson and Williams to aid each end by pushing on their front-side hip, creating a bigger funnel-line pocket for Hurts to step up. Upon doing so, and seeing the secondary bail backwards, there was just one defender in the box -- a linebacker. Once Hurts saw this, his step-up to throw turned into a run and he put a nice move on the lone defender who would have prevented a first down, much less a long score. After that it was off to the races and both Ridley and Stewart cycled back enough to get good blocks on TAMU defensive backs to enable Hurts the last 10 or so yards of the run, finding the end zone untouched.
'Bama was better on this day, but a little luck combined with aggressive play-calling sealed the deal in a monstrous SEC win.
* Hurts had a good game as a runner, but this may have been his most pedestrian passing game. He was inaccurate down the field save for the Stewart hookup and he panicked on the interception that nearly swung all the momentum A&M's way. He never saw the backside linebacker slide underneath the frontside because he rushed the throw and didn't consider the backside in his passing progression, to which he would have seen the interceptor stunt play-side. Early in the game he didn't execute the short game, something he has been very good with this year. Even his cadence became routine and it allowed for two easy penetrations by the A&M D-line, one of which was so quick the defender forced a Bo Scarbrough fumble.
* Scarbrough had his left thumb taped and seemed to run a bit more tentative, including on his fumble.
* Tony Brown, who may see an increased role on defense with Jackson out, deserves some credit for each of the big Mack Wilson hits, as he took out blockers to help create the path for the freshman's big plays.