A few thoughts from the early aftermath of the 62-13 victory over Duke:
Dont'a Hightower is one of our better pass rushers and is stout against the run, but it's hard to overlook the harsh reality that he is a major liability right now in pass coverage. He looks a good 20 pounds heavier than he did a year ago, and whether it's related to the knee injury or not it's clear that his mobility is nowhere near what it once was. It's one thing to not be able to take tight ends and tailbacks in man coverage, but Hightower looked bad today even in zone coverage trying to chase down plays near him. He may be playing the Mike position, but he is moving like a Jack linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end. From a personnel perspective, this all presents a very harsh dilemma for our coaching staff right now. You want him on the field at all times for obvious reasons, but even so it's relatively clear now that he can shoulder almost no pass coverage responsibilities. How we handle this one moving forward I do not know, but clearly he will be the one that opposing offensive coordinators are looking to attack.
Speaking of personnel issues, I think we should all realize that the struggles we have had defensively in the first quarter of the season means that the pecking order on the defensive side of the ball is going to be especially fluid. We've rotated a lot of players in and out with the starters, including but not limited to Undra Billingsley, Brandon Moore, Damion Square, and Brandon Lewis on the defensive line, Chris Jordan, Ed Stinson, Nico Johnson, and C.J. Mosley at linebacker, as well as Jarrick Williams, Nick Perry, B.J. Scott, and John Fulton at defensive back. If the struggles continue, rest assured that you will see some personnel changes on the defensive side of the ball, with some of those rotational players being moved into the starting line-up with the current starters being demoted. We're not going to have struggles under Saban with the starters getting job security in return, not with the kind of quality depth we have.
Julio Jones had a big afternoon, and clearly Duke had no one in the defensive backfield who could match up with him physically. That said, his body language was all off yesterday, and we took him out of the game a bit earlier than we did most starters. The medical staff kept trying to shove Gatorate bottles in his face -- at one point a trainer was standing right by him with five Gatorades in hand -- and he just looked a bit off kilter. Saban mentioned earlier in the week that we had a stomach bug going around the team, so I imagine Jones was feeling a bit under the weather on Saturday.
The running back rotation gets all of the attention, and for good reason, but the quality of the wide receiver corps should not go unnoticed. Aside from Jones, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks have both looked very good early, and the rest of the rotation -- whether it be Kevin Norwood, Brandon Gibson, Earl Alexander, or Kenny Bell -- have all made some plays when given the opportunity.
Phelon Jones started in the place of DeMarcus Milliner, who was apparently limited in pre-game warm-ups. That said, some felt that him coming out against Penn State was the result of both his performance and his hamstring injury, but if Milliner did temporarily lose his job to Phelon, he quickly earned it back. Phelon gave up a long pass play after being completely turned around on a simple slant in the first quarter, and he followed that up by dropping an interception in the end zone. Milliner returned to the field the following drive, and Phelon didn't return until the second half. Not hard to figure that one out.
Regarding the pass defense, want another alarmist consideration? By my count, Duke wide receivers dropped no fewer than seven passes. Say what you will, but it could have been worse had the Dukies been able to hang onto the football.
Jalston Fowler saw time today as the fourth tailback, instead of Demetrius Goode. I imagine that has more to do with the need to get Fowler some reps than it does with Goode, but even so Fowler played well and his long-term position is still up in the air. This one may ultimately come down to the recruiting trails. If we can sign another stud recruit back like Crowell, I imagine Fowler goes back to linebacker, but if we swing and miss then don't be surprised if he sticks on offense.
Cade Foster has looked good on kick-offs and in kick coverage, but it's still a queasy feeling on field goal attempts. He hit both field goal attempts today, but even so the ball comes off his foot like a knuckleball and has almost unpredictable movement once it goes into the air. It has been generally effective to date, but pretty it is not, nor reassuring.
Cody Mandell with another solid day punting. In the pleasant surprises category, the production at punter may take the cake.
In the final analysis, as was the case last week, aside from a couple of injuries there can be no complaints of the final result yesterday afternoon. With that said, however, that end result should not blind everyone from the defensive issues that we have, nor should it now be merely taken as a given that our offense can score at will when necessary moving forward. We're a great football team in some regards, but even great teams can be fallible at times, and in any event we have some serious shortcomings right now on defense. The road trip to Fayetteville next weekend will provide the stiffest competition to date, and unless we make some legitimate improvement on the defensive side of the ball, that game could easily turn into a frightening shootout where we will have to rely on the offense to be near flawless in order to return to Tuscaloosa unscathed. To reiterate what I wrote after the Penn State game, be happy with the win, but realize the shortcomings and the need for improvement.
- Now that is the offense you dream about, right? Admittedly Duke is terrible defensively, but even so 60+ points and 600+ yards of total offense is spectacular production any time you play a BCS opponent. After three games the offense is still seemingly flawless, and to date we have been able to do just about whatever we wanted to do whenever we wanted to do it. Clearly you cannot expect things to go this smoothly every week, but if the offense has to carry this team later in the year, at least the early returns indicate that it should be well equipped to do so.
- Defensively, I wish I could say the first half performance against Duke, where we allowed 13 points and gave up over 200 yards, was an anomaly, but that wouldn't be accurate. The harsh truth of the matter is that, as of right now anyway, we don't do anything particularly well on defense. We do not rush the passer consistently, we struggle to cover on the back end, we do not get penetration in the interior running game, we do not collapse the edge on outside runs, we do not tackle well, and we do not get stops on short-yardage situation. That's about all you can do on defense, and we don't do any of it particularly well right now. Saban explicitly dubbed the first half defensive performance "shit," and it's hard to argue with him over that summation. At the very least, the defense is nowhere near the level that we expected it to be at this stage, even given all of the personnel turnover in the offseason.
- After getting only one sack on 42 passing attempts against Duke -- with the lone sack coming in garbage time -- for the moment at least we can say the UA pass rush is anemic, and the coverage issues on the back end were by no means a major surprise. Perhaps more concerning -- and perplexing -- long term, however, is our struggle to stop the run. By all accounts we were expected to be stout against the run, and we haven't been close to that to date. We've been decent-at-best against the run, struggling to shut down the interior running game with opposing offensive lines consistently holding the edge on outside runs, and once again the opposing tailbacks found success against the Alabama defense. The good news, I suppose, is that we don't face very many high-end rushing attacks this year, but even so that's a minor fact of relatively little consolation. Giving up almost 150 rushing yards to Duke is particularly disheartening given their struggles in establishing the run, and you do have to wonder just what would happen right now if we happen to stumble across a good running game. Part of it, of course, is our tackling woes, but our poor tackling has nothing to do with the almost complete inability of our defensive front seven to get penetration into the backfield. Another week goes by, another week our front seven gets neutralized at the line of scrimmage, and another week where we languish near the bottom of the country in tackles for loss.
- The price of victory was high once again. Fortunately the Marcell Dareus fears were quickly put to rest, but William Vlachos injured his foot and Luther Davis sustained some sort of leg injury. The reports were that Vlachos could have returned if needed, but the injury to Davis was thought to be more severe. Let us hope that the Davis injury, much like the shoulder injury to Chris Jordan a week ago, turns out to not be near as serious as initially expected.
- Marcell Dareus played well today in his return, despite not showing up everywhere in the final box score. He was disruptive in the running game, provided some pass rush, and constantly demanded double teams. Even so, as a whole we still didn't rush the passer well and we still struggled in coverage on the back end. The takeaway point is that adding Dareus back to the lineup is obviously a major addition because it puts an elite, impact player on the field, but even so it's not going to make all of our other defensive issues magically disappear. His return is a considerable positive, but not a cure-all panacea for all that ails us defensively.
- Mark Ingram needed all of one play to establish that he was completely healthy following his knee surgery two weeks ago, and his open field cut late in the first quarter was one of the more impressive open-field moves he has made since arriving in Tuscaloosa. All in all, he showed no ill effects from the surgery, he was able to cut on a dime, the acceleration was there, and defenders continued to just slip and slide off him (showcasing all of the lower body strength). We'll likely never know for certain, but based on his quick return I would probably venture to say that the surgical team actually found no real structural damage to his knee when they operated on him, and that he could have played a week ago against Penn State had we needed him.