For reasons we went over just before the season started, Alabama's early date against Texas A&M proved to be an important struggle between two seemingly unstoppable yet opposed forces in the college football landscape: Johnny Football and the rising spread offense versus the smashmouth Alabama Crimson Tide in search of their third consecutive BCS Championship.
As it turned out, both forces moved ahead without seriously altering either's trajectory. Alabama's overall team effort "processed" the Fightin' Texas Aggies, while Johnny Manziel put in a performance against Saban's famous defense that was even more dominant than the Heisman-winning feat that gave the Crimson Tide their sole loss of 2012.
Saban-ball has moved forward inexorably because it consists of more than than just stifling defense. This has proven to be essential since said defense has not demonstrated the ability to shut down elite spread offenses. You can explain Alabama's offensive dominance over A&M with the simple notation that the Aggies DL was completely mauled by the Tide OL and TE's. Despite coming into the game with a number of different fronts designed to outnumber the run, the Aggies kept having to bring additional resources to try and reach T.J. Yeldon before he had already followed blockers halfway to the first down marker.
A.J. McCarron's call to insert the dagger on Alabama's final drive demonstrated the ultimate futility of A&M to stuff the run when it mattered:
In that moment it was impossible for the Aggies to dedicate the needed resources to stop the Alabama run without exposing themselves to the bootleg on the goal line.
The departures of some 2012 stars in the defensive front left A&M unable to field a squad capable of matching Bama's brute strength up front, particularly in the double-tight end sets that added big bodies like 6'6, 230-pound O.J. Howard and 6'7, 260-pound Brian Vogler against the smaller Aggie defenders.
The more interesting battle in this game was Saban's strategies for finally solving a spread offense lead by a dual-threat QB. He began by calling on his classic formula, designed to stop the NFL's balanced spread attacks in the 90's, his pattern-reading Cover-3 defenses with their eight-man fronts and ability to account for vertical pass routes.
For the first two drives, this was Saban's main approach. Ideally it would allow him to play both Trey Depriest and C.J. Mosley on the field and in the box, with extra help from a late-dropping safety to cover inside receivers and support the run.
Right off the bat, A&M attacked with a Counter Trey running play with a devastating wrinkle: running back Ben Malena became a blocker and Johnny Football was the featured back. The misdirection of the play neutralized the DL, caught Depriest and Mosley flowing the wrong way and cut off by the pulling blockers, and then gave the Aggies an extra blocker to account for the safety Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix.
Were it not for Vinnie Sunseri's timely arrival and Alabama's ever-consistent fundamentals in team pursuit, the play might have gone for a TD. Saban's eight man front was outnumbered at the point of attack on the first play. Then, Kevin Sumlin and Manziel coldly dispatched another of Saban's treasured defensive strategies on the next play:
John Fulton's press coverage against Mike Evans was chewed up and spat out as the 6'5 receiver dropped a seven catch, 279 yard bomb on the honored tradition of Crimson Tide defensive backs. On this play, Alabama attempted one of Saban's preferred man blitzes, which left Vinnie Sunseri deep to cover the middle of the field.
Because Saban despises soft cushions on the outside and the possibility of giving up easy yardage, even his man and zone blitzes often involve tight coverage on the outside receivers. Against quick-triggered Johnny Football and his massive henchman Mike Evans, it wasn't possible.
Saban's first adjustment was to remove Depriest from the game and relegate him to the bench in favor of dimeback Landon Collins. He also moved Cyrus Jones over to attempt to account for Evans on the edge.
On the first play of A&M's second drive, the Crimson Tide bring another man blitz that fails to contain Johnny and allows a first down scamper. Then, Evans destroys Jones' attempt at press coverage and puts the Aggies on the goal line again. Saban stuck Belue on Evans and yielded a 40-yard pass to Evans to kick off the next drive as well.
So, after these two devastatingly quick and easy touchdown drives by the Aggies against these strategies, and the failure of all available personnel, Saban pulled out his notebook labeled "100 ways to beat A&M" that he wrote over the summer and instituted an entirely different approach.
First, there was a return to the Cover-2 defenses that Saban attempted in 2012. Alabama is in dime personnel here. The Tide have their Nickel (or Star in Saban lingo) Jarrick Williams split wide over the number two receiver, and the middle linebacker spot is occupied by the dime (Money backer) Landon Collins. The corner is eight yards off the line of scrimmage and about 10 yards away from Mike Evans.
Field-side safety Vinne Sunseri is responsible for helping over the top of the two outermost defenders while leveraging receiver number three over to Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix.
Ha-Ha has the hardest job here, and his performance over the course of the game was a very quiet but solid case for All-American recognition at the end of the year. On running plays, such as the QB Counter-trey, he needs to get downhill and force Manziel inside to the pursuing linebackers. After Alabama initially struggled, the Cover-2 defense and Haha's reactions allowed the Tide to limit the play to 5-7 yard gains until Mosley was able to recognize the play by the end of the game and stuff it:
Unfortunately, Jarrick Williams needlessly horse-collared Manziel and gifted the Aggies 15 yards anyways.
In this Cover-2 call, Clinton-Dix also has to be able to help over the top of the boundary receiver who is being pressed by the boundary corner, keep his eyes open to defend a vertical route by the number three receiver to the other side of the field, and offer run support. The boundary corner's job here is difficult as well, since he is in press coverage but may or may not have Clinton-Dix there to help him.
Another key ingredient to this approach for the Crimson Tide is the play of the nose-tackle, who has to 2-gap very effectively to help the linebackers navigate the distances between the spread-out receivers and inside runs.
The 310-pound nose tackle, Brandon Ivory, stands up the guard and draws the double team from the center to open up the A gap for the offense. He holds his ground while eventually allowing the center to push him over into the B gap. At this point, the A and B gaps are now all occupied by either Aggie OL or Ivory. One Tide defender, two gaps defended.
Aggie running backs who don't go by the moniker Johnny Football managed 66 rushing yards on 18 carries, a total of 3.7 yards per carry, despite Alabama routinely employing five-man fronts, dime personnel, and 2-deep coverages.
The second major adjustment by Saban was to ditch the man-blitzes and use Fire Zones instead with the added security of six defenders in pass coverage, hopefully mitigating the risk for the Tide. Initially this was successful and instrumental in ending Aggie drives.
Saban had one Fire Zone ready that was particularly effective:
This type of Fire Zone, a Pittsburgh Steeler staple, is often ideal for handling dual-threat QBs in spread offenses. The inside linebackers cross paths and head up the middle while the defensive linemen spread wide. The ideal result, almost captured in the first clip, is for the QB to be flushed outside, where he is accustomed to making Sportscenter highlight plays, only to find a defensive linemen lying in wait.
In the first instance, that's a first down completion because ... Johnny Football. In the second clip, the QB actually manages to find an interior escape route, but the lane discipline of the Bama pass-rushers allows them to corral him. Saban prefers tighter coverage outside here, and while defenses typically have a defender drop into the shallow middle, inside defender Jarrick Williams sticks to the number three receiver to better take away the easy hot read over the middle.
That's not a textbook Fire Zone, that's a Saban-altered approach to defending anticipated Aggie responses to a blitz read.
Alabama built their lead while playing mostly Cover-2 and mixing such zone blitzes as well as some Cover-3 again (on Manziel's pick-six to Sunseri). In that instance, they were able to stick with the Aggie receivers, and Jarrick Williams made a late and rather fortuitous recovery after getting beaten off the line to stick his helmet in the way of the ball's trajectory. Credit to Sunseri for breaking on the ball, which forced Manziel to throw behind the receiver, landing in position to make a play, and then finishing his return.
However, ultimately Fire Zones were nearly the demise of the Bama defense. While they are a safer call than a six-man blitz, they still leave corners on islands down the sidelines.
After Yeldon's fumble on the goal line, Saban attempted to dial up the pressure with three consecutive blitz attempts. The last one proved to be one too many:
God help him, Saban can't resist playing press coverage on his blitzes for fear of easy short gains on hot reads. They bring another inside linebacker blitz designed to flush Manziel, but the deliberate lane discipline of the Bama rushers allows time for Manziel to pick on Cyrus Jones again with a final deep strike to Mike Evans.
In the midst of these varying looks and pressures by Alabama, Johnny Manziel went 28-for-39 on the day for 464 passing yards, a total of 12.2 yards per pass attempt. He added another 98 rushing yards on 14 carries for seven yards per carry. All told, 562 yards on the day at 10.6 yards per play when Johnny had the ball in his hands.
Also worth noting is that Alabama's Cover-2 approach, while executed well, was protected by A&M's need to look vertical and play from behind. Without the ability to get to Manziel before he surveyed the Tide coverages for weaknesses, and with their complete inability to play their normal coverage techniques against Mike Evans, the Alabama defense was exposed in this game.
Despite having an excellent defensive line and linebacker in C.J. Mosley, and despite having great safeties in Sunseri, Clinton-Dix, Collins, and Williams, Sumlin's spread machine found weaknesses at the Alabama corner positions, and they were able to use them to blow open the whole defense.
This is the terrifying world of spread football with a dual-threat QB and run/pass balance. The need for defenses is to have playmakers at corner and quality at every position to avoid being picked apart by mismatches.
The core of Saban-ball, which physically dominates in the trenches on both sides of the ball with large and powerful young men, proved victorious. But evolving offensive tactics combined with playmakers like Mike Evans and Johnny Football covered the Vegas spread (opened at Alabama -7.5) and nearly overcame everything. This was truly a compelling football game.
Keep an eye Alabama's Nov. 9 game against LSU and its outstanding receivers as we slowly approach the conclusion of the season. If Alabama survives and advances, let's all pray for a match up with Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks. Saban has survived a battle against the up-tempo spread, but establishing his Alabama program's place in legend may require a few more battles against this foe before he can claim to have won the war.