Arkansas From The Couch

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

How good is Alabama? How bad is Arkansas? Whichever team was most responsible for the margin, it looked like 52 points is a relatively fair measurement of the relative strength of the two squads at this point in the season. Let's talk about how it happened.

We knew before this game started that Alabama is really good and Arkansas is really bad. We still know those two things, but not all that much more. Arkansas didn't bring much to the table on day 1 of the 2013 season - and now? On the tail end of a brutal stretch against Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Bama, and having shown serious signs of "quit" last week in the 52-7 loss to South Carolina? 52-0 may not be that difficult to achieve.

On the other hand, it's a challenging week to find criticisms of Alabama. Just like last week, the Tide had the petal to the metal on offense and defense from the get-go, with even the subs - I hesitate to call them second-teamers because many of them are not - rising up at the end both to make a big stop and preserve a shutout and then to tack on an 80-yard flavor TD go create the final score.

Gone were last week's fumbles and dropped passes. Gone were penalties, too, a very nice thing to see as coming in this team had been penalized more than has been typical for Nick Saban teams.

Quarterback

Once again, AJ piled up solid stats, 15-21 for 180 yards with 3 TDs and no picks. Once again, it was dead easy, as the line kept the pressure off him very consistently.

McCarron overthrew his deepest pass of the game, to Bell, and was off a bit on a pair of incompletions to Cooper, but generally his passes were right on the money, as you would expect, and on most of his 3rd-down completions he threw for enough yards to get the first.

It's a pleasure watching a 5th-year senior look almost bored picking an SEC foe apart. At least against a foe like Arkansas, the game is slow to AJ and he is unlikely to make a serious mistake. He didn't.

Running Backs

It's not surprising to see that Kenyan Drake is averaging 8.2 yards a carry to T.J. Yeldon's 6.6, as Drake obviously has a burst that Yeldon lacks. I don't think Yeldon has any appreciable edge on Drake in blocking - the only time AJ was rushed yesterday came when Yeldon whiffed on a blitz pickup, and there's nothing new about that - so I wouldn't be surprised to see Drake get a few more carries going forward, perhaps approaching 50-50 with Yeldon, perhaps even more than 50-50 by the end of the season if current trends remain in place.

Maybe not, though - Yeldon hits a pile harder, and Saban and the old school Alabama philosophy of running a big, tough guy at you until you're tired of seeing him seem to fit together naturally. But is that philosophy perhaps growing a bit outmoded? Running backs are probably 20% bigger than they were 50 years ago - but linemen are 40% bigger. These days perhaps it's really the running backs who get punished, not the defenders - I mean just look at the length of running back careers in the NFL.

Anyway, #17 is no Jalston Fowler to pound into the line but he doesn't shy from contact, either, and he's hard to square up on. He has been quite effective in short-yardage this year, as the fact that he leads the team with 8 TDs attests. As for yesterday, he showed an outstanding jiggle at the line and burst to the outside downfield on his 46-yard TD run, along with a somewhat pattycake-looking (but effective) stiffarm on the last guy. I was perhaps even more impressed on an earlier 9-yard run where Cyrus Kouandjio whiffed on the defensive end but Drake still managed to turn the corner with sheer acceleration.

Speaking of Fowler, he didn't look quite ballerina-like on his TD reception yesterday (and by the way, it looks like we could run that play for a TD at any time when we're inside the 5). But he was impressive road-grading in front of Drake on a short TD run.

Don't take my speculation about Drake getting more carries as criticism of Yeldon, unless it's criticism to say that he might not be delivering quite the multiple-Heisman 2013 that has been widely assumed around here. Yeldon runs like a bull, and he has some quicks, but he doesn't shake loose nearly as often as Drake. Is it possible he put on a pound or two more than the ideal over the off-season? That's sheer speculation, but here's definitely such a thing as too muscular for a home-run-hitting tailback.

Anyhow, T.J. looked very comfortable hauling in 4 flat passes for 45 yards, including a nice catch on the first drive, and almost made a sensational TD catch, only to have a diving Hogs DB rake it out of his hands as he fell. Yeldon also had a nifty cutback on a 26-yard run in the first half.

You gotta like the flat-out speed on Henry's 80-yard run. I'm not sure how fast the guys chasing him were in the absolute sense, but in the relative sense I can state with some certainty that they were slower than him. All three of Henry's most successful runs this year have been calls up the middle where Henry cut to the sideline. That move is often effective, and will continue to work as long as he is an occasional 4th-string back, but you need more than one good move in the bag to be a starter. Not saying he doesn't have them, just that I've only seen one, so far.

Receivers

There wasn't a tremendous amount of action for Bama's wideouts yesterday, with only 8 catches for 103 yards between them.

But we saw Cooper separate from his man deep twice, once when AJ laid it right in for a TD and another time when McCarron didn't throw it to him because the safety helped. On that same play Cooper smartly came back upfield and worked to the sideline as McCarron scrambled away from (eventual) pressure, and was rewarded with a first-down reception. Cooper also made a nice downfield block on a Yeldon TD run that was noticed by the TV announcers.

We only went to Norwood once, but on his one chance he hauled in a short 3rd-down pass and showed great desire in driving and laying out to get past the sticks. Christion Jones is looking like AJ's favorite short-yardage option: he doesn't mind taking a hit, and twice he also twisted for first downs after hauling in short passes in traffic.

O.J. Howard flashed some non-tight-endish speed on his first of many Bama TDs. Brandon Greene made a very nice driving power block on a lineman to clear the way for Fowler's lead block on the linebacker that allowed Drake to reach the end zone unopposed on his short TD run.

Offensive Line

The interesting story to follow with Alabama's offensive line this year has been run-blocking, as there has been a clear progression since the problematic early games. Since we usually start there, for once let's start with pass-blocking.

There hasn't nearly as much of a progression at pass-blocking, because the Tide OL was pretty doggoned good at that from the start. Virginia Tech rang up 4 sacks, but all 4 were from blitzers who weren't picked up by the backs or tight ends. On the season, the Tide is only giving up 1 sack a game, tied for 15th in the nation, and since the opening game the average has only been ½ sack per game, which would be tied for 2nd in the nation.

Saturday marked the third straight game in which not a single defensive lineman got in AJ McCarron's face the entire game. During that three-game stretch there have been zero sacks and the only two passes AJ has had to rush have come when running backs did not pick up a blitz. In short, Bama's pass blocking has been sensational.

I'm not ready to come full out and call the run-blocking sensational quite yet, but Arkansas' run D is mediocre, not horrible - or at least they're not horrible when they're not on the tail end of a 4-game stretch against ranked opponents - and Bama gashed ‘em for 352 yards and 9.5 yards a carry. After weathering the slow start to the season, the Tide running game has come on and is now 25th in the nation at 211.7 yards per game. The 6.0 yards per carry average is the nation's 8th-best.

The Tide continues to run primarily to the right side, between Anthony Steen and Austin Shepherd, although Bama backs bounced off tackle between Shepherd and Brian Vogler on at least three successful runs Saturday, including twice on power-running situations.

Steen was an artist - I saw him block two guys on a play three different times. Once he peeled off a double-team to engage an open linebacker, and the other two times he ran into an area with two open defenders, chipped the first guy, and engaged the other guy. It was impressive work.

Yeldon must like Lindsay, who led the way on T.J.'s short run up the middle and also pushed his man out of the way to get Yeldon started on his 24-yard TD run. However, Yeldon was stacked up at the line when Lindsay was driven back by the Arkansas nose tackle on the opening series. I'm not really on either side of the Lindsay vs. Kelly debate. They look like much of the sameness to me.

Grant Hill was the first 2nd-stringer off the bench, replacing Shepherd mid-way through the 3rd quarter, with the score 35-0. He played the rest of the way and run-blocked effectively. I don't believe Kelly saw action with the 2nd-string line; Williams was in at center.

Defensive Line

The defensive line continues to be solid against the run, and may even be slowly developing a pass rush push behind exciting young players. Yes, Arkansas got 165 yards on the ground, but for one thing that was well below their average, for another thing most of it came against Bama's 2nd-string D in garbage time, and for a third thing Alex Collins is a warrior (even if it's kind of a shame he is wasting his talents in hopeless efforts).

On the Hogs' very first play from scrimmage, Ed Stinson had three guys on him but strung out and congested the sweep anyway, getting in on the tackle near the line. With Jonathan Allen in for Stinson on the 2nd play from scrimmage, Allen shoved the tight end into the backfield and threw the runner down for no gain. On a later pass play, Bama DL Allen beat his man almost off the step and flushed Arkansas QB Allen out of the pocket without a chance to look downfield - only to see Arky's Allen scramble for a first down. However, I spotted Bama's Allen coasting in pursuit of a rolling quarterback later, starting to accelerate only when that other Allen stopped to look downfield. That's lap fuel.

Again, I didn't notice a lot of Darren Lake. Ivory takes the nose on standard downs, but on passing downs Robinson plays inside along with Pagan or Ivory, while Stinson and Devall, Dickson or Hubbard hold down the outside slots.

Linebackers

I should get some good C.J. Mosley praise embossed into a rubber stamp to lead out the "Linebackers" part of this column every week. For what it's worth, Mosley dominated the game yesterday. 10 tackles, a tipped ball that turned into a pick, another near-pick, and a passel of hard knocks delivered.

I'm less impressed with Trey Depriest. Depriest is a solid run defender who is difficult to block out of a hole, but he stands right there next to Mosley and has basically the same opportunities but only has 24 tackles to Mosley's 58. Ed Stinson, who plays a position that delivers way less tackle opportunities than does Depriest, also has 24. I'm not calling Depriest out for mistakes, because he is a solid fundamental player, but I don't think his position spot is set in stone, not even if he comes back next year.

But you could see why he is starting later in the game, when Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster were each seen to run themselves right out of a play on more than one occasion. Dillon Lee may be the backup linebacker to watch, and could be seeing more time right now if he had gotten more practice looks on the inside before the season started. Lee is active and physical when he is in, and we are seeing more of him as the season goes on.

I called Adrian Hubbard out last week for disappearing. This week all he had was a single assist. I am still wondering whether he is fully healthy.

Defensive Backs

In my opinion, Vinnie Sunseri has been our best safety this year. He makes disruptive plays - picks, breakups, hurries and hard hits - and he makes them often. He's not the first guy you'd choose for one-on-one coverage of a speedy wideout, but there are other jobs for a safety and he does them all.

Considering all that - and assuming the worst as the rumors are strong and unanimous - I don't expect to miss Sunseri very much. Yes, he's a coach's son, and a leader on the field, but on a defense coached by Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, and with an ex-major college DC in Chris Brown coaching the position, defensive backs will never hurt for leadership at Alabama.

Even without Sunseri, we still have Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins, Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith at safety, and if Nick Perry ever makes it out of the shoulder sling he was in Saturday, Bama will have five experienced safeties to make up the depth chart. While Sunseri deserved to be on the field, he had more physically talented guys behind him, and now those guys will get a shot at the available experience.

With Sunseri's early injury, Clinton-Dix was pressed into more action than was expected. Ha Ha got a pick, and was active in the run game, but he also showed the rust a couple of times, like when he was slow to recognize a reverse that went for a first down, and when he was sluggish rotating to a man in his zone on a third-down completion for a first down. For Tide fans, it's probably a plus that Clinton-Dix saw so much action, as he will be prepared when the late-season competition steps up a bit starting next week.

You might give a shout out to Kevin Norwood, but it says here that Deion Belue - not Adrian - is Bama's most underrated player. One of the ways you know that is that you never see him on television. Cornerbacks' should be on TV only rarely.

But you did get to see him lay out to block that field goal. (The TV announcers said Pagan blocked it - huh?) And while Deion rarely blitzes, you also got to see him come hard on Arkansas' first possession yesterday, time his blitz well, and force a throw-away. But, as should be the case, mostly you saw Belue's excellence by not seeing it.

Nice pick by Cyrus Jones who, as the announcers noted, actually broke on the sideline route before the receiver did, and the result was an object lesson in the sideline route, which only works because the receiver breaks in that direction first, at least the way it's drawn up. And nice elevation from that old dude that got up and thumped Cyrus on the head after the pick! We might need to talk to that guy if we get a cornerback injury. . . .

Maurice Smith had the big 4th-down pass breakup to preserve the shutout. Jai Miller was seen on the field, playing pass defense - mostly in what appeared to be an observational capacity.

Special Teams

It is such a pleasure watching Alabama's kickoff coverage this year, and not only because it's such a great relief from the Tide's mediocrity in that area the past few seasons, but just because it is a pleasure to watch excellence. We have multiple guys who really get down there fast and make plays when they arrive.

Yesterday, Bama's kicks were returned to the 20, 22, 10, 31, 31 (and fumbled away), 18 and the last kick was a touchback. At least three guys made great plays: Landon Collins submarined the returner at the 18 and Dee Hart cut the returner's legs out from under him at the 10, but the best play was from Derrick Henry on the second half kickoff. Henry brutalized a blocker just before the returner got to him, slinging the blocker away with his left arm and then reaching across the returner with his right arm to neatly strip the ball. The resulting fumble all but officially ended the game 29 minutes and 55 seconds early.

But the real artist is Landon Collins on punt return coverage. And especially on that deal of stopping a bouncing punt from going into the end zone. Landon did it for the 3rd straight game yesterday, and this one was just amazing, the best of the season. Collins looked like an Olympic sprinter just getting there - and perhaps I exaggerate saying that but if I just say he was really picking ‘em up and laying ‘em down then I'm not - and then laid full out to tap the ball back just before it crossed the plane. As always, one of Landon's teammates was there to back him up; this time it was C.J. Mosley who locked that ball down inches from the stripe.

It was, all in all, a mind-boggling play, so much so that I was almost disappointed when it was nullified by an Arkansas roughing-the-kicker penalty. Yeah yeah, the penalty led to Bama points, but seeing that play wiped off the boards was kinda like seeing the Nazis destroy a rare work of art. That beautiful, beautiful play no longer exists; it is to weep.

Otherwise, Cody Mandell, one punt, 51 yards, no return. Ho hum. Cade Foster, one 48-yard field goal attempt, right down the pipe. Yawn. Mere excellence, and where is the interest in that?

The Tide did give up the first down on the fake punt, though. That was interesting.

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