Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson was sacked twice and Duke was credited with three quarterback hurries in Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night. Generally speaking, sacks and pressures come from the blitz. A simple explanation of the blitz is the defense sending more rushers than the offensive line can block. It is complicated by where the blitz comes from, linebacker and/or defensive back.
There may be some conventional wisdom in having a blitz package against a young quarterback. Wilson is in his first year as a college starter at quarterback. So far he and his teammates seem to have handled the pressure well with Wilson passing for over 200 yards in all six Alabama games this year.
Against Duke, Wilson completed 18 of 30 passes for 220 yards with two touchdowns.
The reasonable expectation for offensive linemen is to block one man, and for the most part that seemed to get done Saturday night. But, Shula said, "We have to be better in the line and with our backs in protection." He said the offensive line overall "did better in the second half. We were just off a little on those early drives. We had a couple of things we need to get cleaned up."
Shula said against Duke, "I think the backs did a great job on blitz pick-ups. We practiced a lot on the blitz and duke mostly gave us the ones we'd seen. There were a few changes. Duke did a good job with their package and we missed a couple early when we should have executed better."
The Tide coach noted that tailback Kenneth Darby, best known for his running ability, is probably the best pass blocker among running backs in the Southeastern Conference.
The blockers aren't the only ones with special responsibilities to beat the blitz. Receivers have to be aware of the type coverage they are getting and respond to it. The quarterback has to make the same read and be prepared to take advantage of gaps in the defense left by the blitz.
In answer to a question, Shula said that the quarterback can beat the blitz by getting rid of the ball more quickly, provided, he explained, the defensive backs aren't playing "soft." He said, "Then you probably have an interception." If the cornerback is tight on the receiver, the quick pass can be successful.
Duke, Shula said, was soft in the middle of the field, more aggressive close to the goalline.
Even when the blitz doesn't disrupt the pass play, it can have a long term effect on the quarterback. Although quarterbacks are protected from unnecessary roughness, the only time the quarterback is immune from contact is in team practices.
Even if he's not sacked, the quarterback often takes a late and legal hit from a pass rusher.
Shula said that Wilson is sometimes going to take hits. "He's still taking too many," the coach said. "A couple of times in our first drive he took hits he didn't need to take. We have to be better in line- and backs-protection. Sometimes the quarterback has to hold the ball for a little longer to allow a receiver to get open. On the touchdown pass to D.J. Hall, John Parker got hit probably five or six seconds after the play should have developed."
That was a play in which Wilson went out to his right and, under pressure, lofted a high across-the-field pass to Hall, who was alone in the end zone and made the grab for a touchdown. It was officially a four-yard play and the pass covered perhaps 40 yards.
Wilson was also hit after releasing his second touchdown pass of the game, a nine-yard strike to Keith Brown that gave Bama the lead for good.
Overall, Shula said, "After reviewing the tape, it was about what we saw Saturday night. We won the football game and we played better in the second half. We didn't look too good at times."
He said the "bad news and good news" was that Alabama had too many plays where one or two things went wrong to keep a play from being good. "That's the bad news," he said. "The good news is that we can (do the right things and have a good play)." Generally, he said Bama needs to stop the run better and run better."
But, he said, "We got our fourth win, and we should feel better about that. Now we need to get ready for Ole Miss."
Alabama, 4-2 overall and 1-2 in SEC play, will host the Ole Miss Rebels at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The game will be telecast by CBS. Mississippi is 2-4 overall and 1-2 in conference play.
Shula said there may be some bumps and bruises, but that he expects the Tide to be in good physical shape for preparation this week. Strongside linebacker Terrence Jones appeared to have a re-injury to his shoulder and Shula said that would be monitored in practice this week.
Shula said, "We're real close to making some good things happen. Whether it's Keith Brown stepping out of bounds [negating] a 70- or 80-yard pass play or an offensive lineman allowing too much penetration." He said there was second half improvement "and some of those two- and three-yard runs turned into 17- and 18-yard runs."
One problem with the offense was a handful of illegal procedure penalties as the Tide was flagged 10 times for 68 yards. Shula said they all seemed to be for different reasons by different players, adding "We have to do better. Pre-snap penalties are ones you can control."
The pre-game story had been Alabama's lack of production in the Red Zone, those 20 yards going into the end zone. Against Duke, Bama had five Red Zone opportunities and scored on four of them, two touchdowns and two field goals. The failure was a missed 31-yard field goal at the end of the first half.
Shula said, "The first time we got down there we had three bad plays, including a penalty and a sack, and had to kick a field goal. The next time we had the scramble for the touchdown pass to D.J. Just before the half we were handcuffed a little working with no timeouts; we couldn't afford a completion in bounds or we wouldn't have time to kick a field goal. I did like the way we got down to kick for the field goal. And then the last time we got in."
The drive just before halftime was nice except for the little matter of no points. Starting at the Bama 30 with only 37 seconds, Wilson hit back-to-back 21-yard passes to Hall and Brown and a short pass to Brown to get out of bounds and stop the clock. A holding penalty on Duke put the ball at the Duke 14. Two quick pass tries were incomplete, and then Jamie Christensen missed a 31-yard field goal as time expired, leaving Duke with a 14-10 halftime lead.
The Tide's final drive was in complete contrast. With Bama leading 16-14, the Tide got the ball at its 46 with 8:11 to play. With Darby doing most of the damage with very good runs, Alabama drove the 54 yards in nine plays, taking a nine-point lead and taking 4:03 off the clock.
Shula was asked about Darby's seeming improvement since early in the season. The coach said, "From what I've observed, he's been real close in other games. Last night he broke a lot of tackles. Earlier he broke tackles, too, but didn't get long runs. I think he's been a little more disciplined in running to the right area. He did slip a little last night, which had been a problem earlier in the year. K.D.'s motor always runs in practice, too. Hard work pays off, and it did last night.
Alabama's final score came on a 50-yard touchdown return of an intercepted pass by Lionel Mitchell. Shula said that Mitchell is progressing much as Jeffrey Dukes did. "He got beat on one play (a Duke touchdown pass), but came back. Teams tend to go after a young corner, and when that happens he's got a chance and he's made some plays. With experience he'll get even better at being in the right place at the right time.
Shula expects his team to be motivated for this week's game against Ole Miss. And he knows that in the SEC "Each week you have to come ready to play. It's such a tough league. There is talent everywhere. People win games in so many ways. Sometimes they don't have a lot of first downs. Sometimes they do it with special teams. Sometimes they do it by scoring a lot of points. This is a competitive league."