FAYETTEVILLE - SEPTEMBER 25: Robert Lester #37 of the Alabama Crimson Tide returns an interception to set up the game winning score against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on September 25 2010 in Fayetteville Arkansas. Alabama won 24-20. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
The second half performance of the Alabama defense was discussed at length earlier in the week, and with that in mind I wanted to take a second look back at the game, do a bit of charting, and see what stood out in hindsight . Fortunately, Arkansas only had four drives in the second half, so that makes this all a bit more manageable. It's still quite lengthy, but in any event I'll recap those four drives, in order, below, and then move on to address a few points after further review.
Arkansas opens the second half in the offset-I and fakes a toss to the left to Broderick Green. Alabama is in the nickel and both Nico Johnson and Dont'a Hightower bite hard on the run. D.J. Williams runs the crossing route behind the linebackers, and while Hightower retreats well in coverage he never actually turns to find the football. He basically has the best seat in the house to watch the strike from Mallett, which picks up 18 for the Hogs. After the first down, Arkansas tries to run off left tackle behind a blocking tight end against a seven man 'Bama front, but Nico Johnson brings down Broderick Green in the open field with no issue.
Facing second and long, Arkansas lines up trips right and then goes empty back by motioning the tailback to the left, who moves to the same side as tight end D.J. Williams. The four man rush for Alabama gets no pressure, and there is a blown assignment somewhere in the defensive backfield. Hightower and Johnson played man on Williams and the back, and the middle of the field was left completely uncovered. Jarius Wright runs a simple hook into the deserted area, Mallett makes a softball toss, and Wright runs for 18 more on the blown assignment.
Fortunately for the Tide, Arkansas then starts to self-destruct. A false start penalty makes it 1st and 15, and in the obvious passing situation Alabama rushes the front four and brings corner Dre Kirkpatrick on a blitz. D.J. Williams, though, picks up the wrong rusher -- i.e. the outside rusher -- thus allowing Upshaw to dart in untouched. Unfortunately, somehow Upshaw whiffs on Mallett in the open field, allowing Mallett to turn what should have been a big loss into a minor loss of one yard. 2nd and 16 follows, and once again Arkansas makes a mistake up front, this time allowing Marcell Dareus to knife into the backfield after both the right guard and the right tackle suddenly, and inexplicably, turn all attention to Damion Square, who had stunted inside. Mallett quickly checks down to Broderick Green in the right flat, who makes a nifty one-handed grab on a bad throw to pick up three yards.
Facing a 3rd and 13, Alabama shows blitz by bringing nine defenders to the line of scrimmage and creeping safety Will Lowery into the box, despite Arkansas spreading the field with three receivers. We ultimately rush five, stunting the three inside lineman and blitzing linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Chris Jordan off the edge, but it's all to no avail as the Arkansas offensive line picks up the blitz with ease. Mark Barron is isolated in man coverage against D.J. Williams, who gets separation on a ten-yard out route, and Mallett hits him in stride. No blown coverages or anything of the sort, Williams just beat Barron one-on-one.
The completion to Williams sets up a 4th and 2, and Petrino does not hesitate to keep the offense on the field. Arkansas fakes the handoff left to Broderick Green, but it's a fake the entire way, and the Alabama defense bites badly on it. Meanwhile, Arkansas slips Joe Adams down the line of scrimmage to the offensive right -- he was in motion pre-snap -- and he's wide open in the flat. Damion Square likely had responsibility for him given that he was the end man on the line of scrimmage, but once Square reads the run fake he immediately takes off in pursuit of Mallett. Adams slips in behind him, and Mallett makes an easy lob over Square's head to the wide open Adams, who rumbles 18 yards to convert on fourth down, juking Mark Barron in the open field for additional yardage.
With new life, Arkansas tries to run left with Broderick Green, but DeQuan Menzie was blitzing from his star position and he makes the tackle for the gain of a yard. And facing 2nd and 9, once again, the Arkansas offensive line decides to self-destruct. With trips left for the Hogs, Alabama shows a four man front, but bring both Dont'a Hightower and Mark Barron on a late blitz, while Jack linebacker Ed Stinson backs out to cover D.J. Williams.
Arkansas right guard Alvin Bailey, however, for some reason, decides he just wants wants to be a spectator on this play. As he retreats from his stance, he's looking solely at left defensive end Marcell Dareus -- though he never actually touches Dareus, who didn't even rush the passer on his bad ankle, he's just looking at him -- and never notices both Hightower and Barron racing right by him through the A-gap. Both players dart through untouched, Hightower has a kill shot lined up on Mallett, which misses badly, but fortunately Barron is able to clean up the mess and drag Mallett to the ground for a seven yard loss. Immediately, Mallett jumps down the throat of his right guard, for fairly obvious reasons. If the guard can even get a piece of Hightower then Mallett will likely be able to exploit the huge mismatch between Williams and Stinson, but Bailey whiffs and Mallett goes down.
With that debacle in the history books, staring down the barrel of 3rd and 16, much to the delight of those who bleed crimson, Arkansas goes conservative. The Hogs set up a screen to the right to Ronnie Wingo, but practically the entire Alabama defense saw it coming from a mile away. Dre Kirkpatrick gets the tackle, but realistically several others were there as well. The only interesting note on this play is the dirty cheapshot that Arkansas left guard Wade Grayson takes on an already hobbled Marcell Dareus. You stay classy, Hogs.
With Alabama having cut the lead to 20-14, Arkansas begins their second drive of the half performing much like they did on the first drive, i.e. moving the ball with relative ease. Arkansas starts out with trips right with the tight end to the offensive right to boot. For some reason, though, Alabama is aligned to the offensive left, and when Arkansas runs off tackle to the strong side with Knile Davis, he finds plenty of running room. Arkansas easily seals the edge, and two Arkansas blockers easily move out to the second level to cut Hightower and Johnson. Davis picks up nine yards with ease. Then, on second and short, Arkansas once again secures the nose and has blockers quickly out to the second level to engage the linebackers. Five more yards ensue for Davis, the first down is picked up, and with that the third quarter comes to a close.
When the fourth quarter starts, Alabama shows a 5-2 front in response to Arkansas lining up two tight ends and a tailback to the offensive left. Arkansas sends Joe Adams in motion to the left, snapping the ball and then handing it to the wide receiver on the end-around. Alabama really isn't fooled and the defense strings out the play quite well. Adams, for his part, probably does as well as can reasonably be expected and picks up four (note: this is the play of the off-setting personal foul penalties).
On 2nd and 6, Alabama plays the nickel but brings both linebackers (Hightower and Johnson) and a safety (Mark Barron) into the box to give the look of a seven man front. We rush five, with Nico Johnson and Courtney Upshaw dropping into coverage, but Arkansas picks up the blitz with no problem. Mallett looks to Greg Childs running the slant route and delivers a strike, but fortunately for Alabama the Arkansas receiver does not secure the ball cleanly and when Nico Johnson comes over to deliver the blow the football pops up into the air for an incomplete pass. This becomes the first of three key drops for the Hogs in the fourth quarter.
With 3rd and 6, it's a variation on a theme. Alabama once again shows the seven man front, but upon seeing it Ryan Mallett checks to something else, and Alabama goes back to its normal nickel package. 'Bama rushes with the front four, initially to no avail, but eventually Nick Gentry spins his way free and chases Mallett. The throw is rushed, but Mallett still makes a good throw over the middle to Joe Adams. DeQuan Menzie is dripped over the Arkansas receiver and breaks up the pass at the first down marker. It's a physical play with some contact and the Arkansas offense petitions for a pass interference penalty, but no flag is thrown and the Hogs punter trots on the field. Mallett finally gets popped after three quarters of play, and is noticeably slow to get up.
With a chance to knock Alabama out for good with six minutes left, Arkansas comes out throwing from their own 19-yard line. Alabama responds with a four man front, and Dont'a Hightower blitzes from his Mike linebacker position. With the Arkansas right tackle and right guard engaging Marcell Dareus and Damion Square, Hightower breaks through the line untouched. The Hogs leave tailback Knile Davis into block for precisely such a situation, but instead of picking up Hightower, for some reason Davis moves to the offensive left, where there is no real pass rush, allowing Hightower to get a clean shot on Mallett. Meanwhile, Greg Childs runs the crossing route from the slot position, and is open over the middle of the field. Mallett is hurried by Hightower and gets shoved to the ground after he releases the pass, but Mallett makes a solid throw and Childs just drops the ball. Mark Barron was in position to make the quick tackle to keep the gain relatively short, but the Childs' drop brings up 2nd and 10 instead of 2nd and 5, and Mallett must pick himself up off the turf. Another key drop for the Hogs.
On 2nd and 10, Arkansas tries to run off left tackle to create a more manageable third down, but an obvious hold draws the flag, setting up 2nd and 20. On 2nd and 20, Alabama rushes four and drops seven deep into coverage. There is no real rush, but Mallett sees that nothing will be open downfield, and he quickly checks down to Davis for a solid nine yards to at least bring up a third and semi-manageable situation.
On 3rd and 11, Arkansas puts three wide receivers on the field, and Alabama responds with a five man front. The three best pass rushers are down on the line of scrimmage -- Dareus, Square, and Upshaw -- with Chris Jordan and Dont'a Hightower looking to blitz off the edge. Arkansas keeps in seven to protect, and sends all three receivers on routes attacking deep down the field. On the defensive line, 'Bama sends Upshaw inside on a stunt, and the Hogs cannot pick it up. Arkansas center Seth Oxner holds onto Upshaw for dear life (though no flag is thrown, naturally), but Mallett is still hurried. With Alabama dropping six deep into coverage, everyone is covered, and the smart play for Mallett is clearly to either throw it away or take the sack, while living to play another day. Instead, Mallett channels his inner-Grossman and air-mails it deep on a post route to Greg Childs in double coverage, and with the throw sailing high and behind the intended receiver Robert Lester makes an easy pick. With all of the Arkansas offense either staying in to pass protect or going deep on pass routes, Lester has nothing but green grass in front of him, setting up an easy return deep into Arkansas territory that all but assures a go-ahead score.
Why Petrino and company decided to go for broke on their own end on a 3rd and 11 while they went conservative on 3rd and 16 in Alabama territory two drives earlier is still a bit of a mystery to me. Regardless of why, he ultimately paid the price.
With Alabama taking the lead for the first time, Arkansas has two timeouts and over three minutes left on the clock. On first down, the Tide isn't taking any chances, though, rushing only the front four and dropping seven into coverage. Joe Adams runs a crossing route over the middle and is wide open with plenty of running room, but he drops a ball that hits him right in the hands. With Adams' speed there is clearly the potential for a big play, but he simply tries to run with the football before he catches it. Make that three big fourth quarter drops for the Hogs.
On 2nd and 10, we again rush four, this time with stunts with three defensive lineman and a blitzing Dont'a Hightower. Once again, however, despite dropping seven defenders, there is a gaping hole in the zone coverage in the middle of the field. Joe Adams runs a quick hook route into the hole, Mallett makes the soft toss, and Arkansas moves the chains with a 10-yard gain.
With a fresh set of downs, the typically bad SEC officiating crew gives Arkansas a freebie. We surprise Arkansas by rushing five, and they don't pick up Chris Jordan coming off the edge. Mallett is forced to make a quick throw to the flats and throws an uncatchable ball, but inexplicably the ever-so-competent SEC officiating crew somehow throws a flag for pass interference on Will Lowery for touching the intended receiver as the ball went bouncing by. Fortunately, the penalty only moves the ball to the spot of the foul, so the Hogs effectively gain only a yard, but the penalty does once again give Arkansas another fresh set of downs.
On 1st and 10 following the penalty, Alabama once again goes to the base nickel formation. The Rabbit package goes into the game as the four down lineman, with Alabama dropping seven into coverage. Arkansas protects with six and Mallett has all day to throw, eventually making a great throw on a post route to Greg Childs. DeQuan Menzie had good coverage out of the slot, but Mallett positioned the throw low and away from the corner to ensure that only his man could get the football, and to that end Childs makes a great grab.
With the completion, Arkansas is suddenly sitting pretty, with a first down in Alabama territory with two timeouts and 2:40 remaining in the game. Fortunately for Alabama, Arkansas makes another mental mistake with D.J. Williams jumping before the snap, setting up 1st and 15.
At this point, Alabama moves out of the vanilla defensive look. Now the Tide moves to a three-man line, but gives a blitz look with two defenders on both edges. The two defenders to the offensive left drop into coverage, but both Robert Lester and Dequan Menzie come on the blitz from the offensive right. The five man rush, however, does no good for the Tide. Arkansas picks it up with ease, and Mallett stares right into it and quickly delivers a long bullet across the field to hit Greg Childs on a slant. Dre Kirkpatrick jumps the route and almost gets there in time for the interception, but ultimately Childs wrestles the football away for a six-yard gain.
With 2nd and 9 coming up, Alabama again returns to the four man rush while dropping seven into coverage. Arkansas leaves in six to protect, and that gives Mallett effectively all day to throw. He initially looks down the middle of the field looking to hit the slot receiver on a deep post, but DeQuan Menzie has inside leverage and safety help over the top, so Mallett looks to the deep left for Joe Adams. However, DeMarcus Milliner also has inside leverage and safety help on the deep sideline route, so Mallett then turns attention to tight end D.J. Williams, who is running a crossing route against Chris Jordan.
At this point, after giving Mallett roughly four seconds to find a receiver, the pass rush finally breaks free and Damion Square forces Mallett to scramble. By now Williams has made it so far across the field on his crossing route that a throw in that direction will be at a tough angle, so Mallett decides to throw it away. On that sideline, however, Dre Kirkpatrick was covering the deep go route, and Mallett just lofts the ball up in the air. He doesn't throw it far enough and puts entirely too much air underneath it. With the ball hanging in the air, Kirkpatrick peels back to chase it down, and secures the interception just before going out of bounds. Game over for the Hogs.
A Few Post-Review Thoughts
Based on the film review, we can dismiss a few erroneous notions thrown around the past couple of days, first and foremost that the defense suddenly played much better when Nick Saban dialed up heavy doses of blitz packages. Saban and company never actually did that. At no time in the second half did we ever rush more than five defenders, and at no time did we ever drop fewer than six defenders into coverage. And, in fact, on the final three Arkansas possessions, we only brought five defenders a total of three times, once on each drive. On all other passing attempts on those three Arkansas drives, we rushed only four. Moreover, blitzes from defensive backs were a relative rarity down the stretch. Whatever we were doing to shut down the Hogs on those final three drives, an increase in blitzing clearly was not it.
Second, contrary to what I wrote on Sunday morning, Mallett didn't just fall apart after that blow by Nick Gentry. He made a very bad decision on the Lester interception, but while your mileage may vary to me that was more of a stereotypical situation where a strong-armed quarterback thinks his arm can bail him out of any situation, I don't really think it had a lot to do with being rattled, no matter how you define that. Mallett made an accurate throw on the play that resulted in the Gentry hit, and was generally accurate the rest of the way. He followed that hit with five completions, two incompletions that were the result of drops by his receivers, one throwaway gone horribly wrong, and one really dumb decision. Basically he made seven good throws on the nine passing attempts after that hit. Stated simply, I was wrong in my criticism of him in the initial impressions piece.
Third, the defense didn't just magically play better in the second half after some halftime adjustments and / or motivational speeches. The defense did play better in the fourth quarter, but the second half was still somewhat of a wash because the defense played so poorly in the third quarter. On the first drive of the third quarter, we bit badly on two playaction fakes, gave up three passing plays that Saban would define as "explosive" in his terminology, blew an assignment in pass coverage, whiffed on two opportunities for a major shot on Mallett, and allowed Arkansas to move the chains after forcing a 3rd and 13. Even after Arkansas stopped themselves largely with mental errors and blown assignments on the offensive line, they finished the quarter by picking our fourteen yards and a first down on two carries by Knile Davis. The dichotomy created by some between the first and second halves really does not mesh with the film review in light of the poor third quarter performance. It's more accurate to say that we played poorly in the first three quarters but that we played well in the fourth quarter.
Also, while some might not want to hear it, Arkansas did commit many key mistakes down the stretch. Again, the stop on the first drive of the second half falls almost completely on the Hogs. That point deserves being reiterated. The only reason we forced the 3rd and long in the first place was because Arkansas had a false start and two mental errors on the offensive line, and even then they still moved the chains with relative ease by picking up 30 yards on two plays when they decided to stop beating themselves. Fortunately, they went right back to beating themselves two plays later with another mental breakdown on the offensive line and a very conservative call on third down. That was arguably the chance for them to deliver the kill shot to us -- draining another two or three minutes off the clock while extending the lead to 24-7 -- but they let us slip away to fight another day.
Where we did actually stop Arkansas was over the course of the final three drives, and objectively speaking they played a role in that as well. Each of the final three Arkansas drives featured both a penalty and a key dropped pass, and it's hard to stay on the field when penalties put you being behind the chains and you start dropping catchable balls. None of that is to denigrate our performance, mind you, but it is to be objective enough to realize that Arkansas did us quite a few favors down the stretch.
Now, where Alabama did perform much better over those final three drives was, believe it or not, in the defensive backfield. The two holes-in-zones on the final drive were both on the linebackers, and every single throw that Mallett made downfield in those final three drives was heavily contested. Whether it was Menzie draped over the crossing route on 3rd and 6, the double coverage on all three deep receivers on the Lester interception on 3rd and 11, or Dre Kirkpatrick coming close to getting the interception on the slant route, the breakdowns ended and the coverage was solid all across the defensive backfield. In that vein, perhaps it was only fitting that the game ended with Mallett attempting to heave the ball out of bounds to prevent a coverage sack. Compared to the performance of the first half, the play from the defensive backs on the final three drives is a night and day difference, almost like two completely different units.
The pass rush, on the other hand, really did not not take off even on those final three drives. We did have some limited success with stunts on the defensive line, but by and large Arkansas still protected well and Mallett still had time to throw. The only really clean shot that we had on him was with the stunt by Upshaw on the Lester interception, and for the most part as long as the Arkansas offensive line was able to get a hat on a hat and not have any mental breakdowns, they handled whatever we brought at them.
The linebackers, too, probably get a bit of a middling review. Hightower, Johnson, and Jordan really didn't have any major breakdowns on those final three drives, but by the same token none of them really did anything to stand out either. They were responsible for the two holes in zones on the final drive, though fortunately Arkansas didn't full take advantage of those errors. They did make a few tackles, but they were all well down the field, and when we did use them as rushers they were neutralized unless Arkansas allowed them to come in untouched. Nothing really extraordinary either way.
So, what does all of this mean moving forward?
Hopefully it means that the defensive backfield is coming together. It's probably safe to say that we still have work to do with the pass rush as well as the linebacker corps -- the situation at linebacker is obvious given another week of position changes -- but if the defensive backfield can play as well moving forward as it did on those final three drives, then that's a significant boost to what we are trying to accomplish defensively.
Having said that, you do have to keep in mind that we are dealing with a very small sample size here -- not counting plays called back for penalties, only 10 passing attempts on those final three drives, and 13 plays in total -- and in that small of a sample size almost anything can happen. Whether or not we can display that high level of performance on a consistent basis over the next three months is obviously another story. As is usually the case, you enjoy the win and hope for the best moving forward.