Each week on From The Couch I will run down each position grouping and make some overall comments. Here's what I saw in the Virginia Tech game.
Despite a below-par stat line (10-23, 110 yards, 1 TD, 1 pick), AJ's passing was strong and accurate, including the deep ball, and he consistently looked comfortable in the pocket. Many of his problems weren't particularly of his making, as Nussmeier and/or Saban kept going back to dry wells in our passing game and our running backs were atrocious at blitz pick-up.
AJ lost his cool and timing during the middle of the game, and had trouble finding open men. I wasn't charmed when he scolded DeAndrew White on the field after the pick: that one was on you, AJ.
He had no visible limp.
The offense totally changed when Blake Sims came in. I want to trust the coaches and all, but it's hard for me to watch that with perfect equanimity.
Yeldon's 17 for 75 is a pretty good performance considering how crowded things were in his running lanes. He got plenty of yards after first contact, although once he was thrown down by a hand on the shoulder. It was a balance issue - balance is his one semi-weakness, not surprising for a tall running back.
None of the backups particularly impressed. Hart doesn't have the quickness he showed back in the 2011 A-Day game which, sadly, was the last time we got to see that particular aspect of his game, and Fowler with the ball in his hands could be described as "lumbering." Whether or not it was a mobility issue, Fowler had a lot of trouble getting in place to block. I saw him flunking blitz pick-up at least three times, and Yeldon whiffed on a pair of blitzers as well.
I'm fairly confident we'll get better backup performance as the season comes on. Neither Hart nor Fowler has had the full time needed to recover from an ACL, so hopefully they will improve as the season goes on, just as Dant'a Hightower did in 2011. Alternatively, it's an odds-on bet that at least one of the freshmen will blossom.
Out of AJ's 23 passes, 11 went to Cooper and gained 38 yards, 5 went to running backs and tight ends, for 0 yards, and 7 went to other wideouts and gained 72 yards. The only excuse for throwing half your passes to one guy is great success. In this case, we didn't have that excuse: by my count, only 2 of our 6 unqualifiedly successful pass plays were to Cooper. As loaded as we are with quality wides, this should not happen again.
It wasn't that Cooper played poorly: it's that he was well-covered, usually with more than one guy, including Tech's best DB, Kyle Fuller. But he wasn't great.
Two of the six successful passes went to Christion Jones, who was only targeted three times.
Breaking news: this was our problem, and the strong buzz about the offensive line during spring drills was more than likely a simple smoke screen.
What was surprising is that the problems came primarily from the left and middle of the line, and not from our supposed weak link Austin Shephard. I had Shephard making important blocks that were involved in springing successful runs 3 times, with Vogler and the Kouandjio brothers each ringing up 2, and 1 each for Kelly and Fowler. Shephard did get beat badly inside on a pass rush, but had a nice double pickup on another pass play, where he pushed a rushing lineman into the wrong side of the scrum and then snagged a blitzing linebacker.
The good news about Cyrus Kouandjio is that we might get to have him for his senior year after all. Cyrus struggled, simple as that. He was called for holding twice, got beaten inside on a pass rush once, and let his man into the backfield on running plays no less than four times, including twice when he double-teamed his brother's man while an unopposed Gobbler gobbled straight into the backfield. It's true enough that there were other times that he showed impressive physical dominance, but it was a rough day overall.
Ryan Kelly lost his man a couple of times, too, including once when he got shoved straight back about 4 yards.
Generally, the line struggled on running plays, but did a pretty good job on pass blocking. Most of the pressure came from failed blitz pickups. In fact, several stoned running plays came when blitzers sprinted into the backfield as well, including three runs stopped cold by blitzers very early in the game.
A happy perspective is that young offensive lines often gel at some point during the season. The other side of that coin, though, is that our next game may be the toughest of the year.
On watching the game live, I was only middlingly impressed with the defensive line, but after going back to take a more careful look, I am officially changing my tune. The low number of sacks and official "pressures" doesn't mean Logan Thomas was getting all day.
The DL in the base set was generally made up of Pagan, Stinson and Ivory. Tomlinson saw a good bit of playing time, mostly in place of Pagan and sometimes spelling Ivory. On standard downs Hubbard mostly played up on the line in the jack position and we didn't play a jack. On passing downs we swapped it up a bit, but most often ran with Devall, Tomlinson, Stinson and Hubbard on the line. Dickson didn't see as much time as Devall, but he was very effective in pass rush to the extent I wouldn't be surprised if we see more of him against A&M. Stinson was the most visible.
On almost every passing down, at least one lineman would relatively quickly get free or push his man back toward the QB to force the pass. By my count I had Dickson, Stinson and Hubbard rushing Thomas twice - Hubbard was held both times or may have had two sacks - and Devall, Tomlinson, A-Shawn Robinson, C.J. Mosley and Jarrick Williams each forced a quick pass once. Many of the rushed passes were inaccurate.
It's not the kind of pass rush that throws rockets at the quarterback but was a solid performance from an Alabama line doing the standard Saban thing of rushing in lanes so as to contain the passer and stay solid against the run, which is exactly what we did yesterday. At least partially because our guys stayed in their lanes, the Tech running game only averaged 2.3 yards per carry outside the big run. Give credit to Brandon Ivory, who held his ground consistently.
Although we are still officially a 3-4 team, we only had 4 linebackers on the field on some passing downs, and then two of the linebackers would be playing on the line of scrimmage. In fact, on most plays we only had two real linebackers, Depriest and Mosley, as we went without a jack for most standard plays and Hubbard played mostly on the line, a jack by another name. #33 and #32 were on the field pretty much every play.
Mosley, who led the team with 7 tackles, has to have shaken any rep he ever had as a non-physical linebacker. On one play he stood the Virginia Tech guard up and pushed him straight back into the quarterback.
Depriest flashed excellent sideline-to-sideline speed for a man his size, but the speed Mosley showed getting downfield to block on Jones' kickoff return TD was astonishing for a middle linebacker.
Even without Geno Smith - possibly our best cornerback - we got solid play from the defensive backfield. The DBs were a pre-season worry of many fans, but come on, Saban coaches these guys himself!
John Fulton did get beat deep once, and a perfect throw would've been a TD, but he didn't get beaten so badly that a mediocre throw was good enough, so we got away with that one for an incomplete. Otherwise, nobody ever really got burned in coverage, as Tech's only big completion, a 34-yarder in the first quarter, came when Thomas got time and found a guy crossing in the seam of the deep zone.
Five DBs - Fulton, Deion Belue, Jarrick Williams, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri - were on the field almost the entire game. Landon Collins showed up on most passing downs.
Sunseri made a nice, decisive play on the pick six, but give lots of love to D.J. Coles for a hideously lackluster short-arming "effort." Generally, you can't complain about the DBs too much when the opposing QB is 5-26 for 59 yards with a pick, but you have to give the whole Tech receiving corps love on this one: they were bad, and Thomas was no better than middling.
Belue and Clinton-Dix missed easy picks, especially Clinton-Dix.
The Big Run - What Went Wrong
One problem with this TV-based play autopsy is that Clinton-Dix didn't show up on the screen in any angle they showed until Edmunds was well off to the races, and it appeared he was probably the safety with contain. How he lost it I just couldn't tell you.
But a few things went wrong. First, we were guessing pass on first down, with a pass-rushing line -- Tomlinson, Ivory, Pagan and Devall, nor our normal play line - all crashing to the right on the snap to free up the left for Williams and Mosley to blitz. We had 9 guys in the box, pressure on the wideouts, and only the two safeties back. It was a good D for a surprise pass rush, but a risky D for a run up the gut.
You can see that from the start, when the line crashing to the right took Ivory, Pagan and Devall out of the play. It brought Tomlinson right in front of the play, but the right tackle caught him solid from the left as he was moving and used Tomlinson's momentum to bull-rush him all the way across the line.
Williams and Mosley blitzed, Williams coming around the left end (left from the defensive perspective) and Mosley up the left middle. Williams did not recognize the hand-off in time and ran by the play. Mosley got sealed to the left by the fullback and spun off the block but not in time.
Depriest had the middle of the field, but the right guard came straight through the line untouched and Depriest allowed himself to be sealed to the same side of the field with the safeties, the left side (from the D perspective). This allowed the back to veer to his left away from Depriest's dive and burst through the linebacker level untouched and pointing downfield and toward the sideline. Belue and Sunseri were on the wrong side of the field, and Fulton was up playing jam defense. Sunseri and Fulton recognized the play quickly, but they were already behind and Edmunds is a burner.
Obviously we won this game, or at least made it seem like a blowout, on special teams. I won't belabor the two TDs too much, except to say that Jones showed a very nice ability to veer in the right direction (a la Javy Arenas) on the punt return TD. The kickoff return TD was one of those plays where the other team quit and the runner didn't.
I will say that Christion should remember, the next time he is tempted to field a punt and then dipsy-doodle backpedal 10 or 15 yards deep into his own territory, that the two TDs came when he ran straight to daylight.
Return TDs weren't the only good thing about our special teams yesterday. Cody Mandell averaged a stellar 46.4 on 9 punts and on the only kick of the day where Tech got off a good return, Cody showed excellent closing speed on his way to making a physical (and legal) tackle on the sidelines. That was not an easy stop to make, and not the first outstanding tackle of #29's career. Otherwise, he didn't get many tackling chances, largely thanks to human anti-punt returner missile Landon Collins.
Perhaps the prettiest play of the game if you are an old-time rock ‘em-sock ‘em fan (especially a neutral one) was the play where Collins got blown up by a crushing block on punt coverage, but before he even hit the ground Denzel Devall blew up the punt returner just as savagely. Boom-boom indeed!
But what I really, really really loved watching was our kickoff coverage. As y'all know, there has been one and exactly one aspect of Alabama's game during the Nick Saban era that has been almost undeniably below-par: kickoff coverage. And while I'm not about to stop worrying about somebody busting a long one just from one good game, the kickoff coverage Saturday in Atlanta was better than good: it was great. Virginia Tech returned six kickoffs to, respectively, the 17, the 16, the 23, the 20, the 14 and the 24, with five different guys bringing the hurt: Landon Collins (twice), Dee Hart, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Reggie Ragland and Vinnie Sunseri. The only reason they made it out to the 24 that one time was because Sunseri missed a tackle.
I'm not ready to say that Christion Jones is suddenly our most explosive player, but I sure ain't ready to say that he ain't. And I'll tell you one thing: if the Heisman competition - which in reality shouldn't be mentioned until mid-October - were based solely on performance in 2013, I do believe #22 would be your early leader.
There were TWENTY-TWO PUNTS in this game.
Color man Chris Spielman kept talking about how Alabama needed to open it up and throw more on first down, and I thought he was pretty convincing until I pulled out the box score and saw what actually happened. Alabama passed more on first down than it ran [brain fart corrected post publication - ed.] until late in the game, when the Tide turned to a ground attack to salt the win.
For the game, Alabama ran 12 times on first down for 77 yards, including the two longest runs of the day, Yeldon's 27-yarder and Tenpenny's 20-yarder. First-down passing, however, was a complete disaster: AJ was 1 for 8 for zero yards and took a 6-yard sack. That's right, 9 first-down passes, -6 yards, zero successful plays.
Wow. A couple of take-aways: (1) We have to figure out what's going on there and deal with it. Running on every first-down play is NOT the solution. (2) We can't surprise teams by coming out throwing on first down any more. People have realized that is our tendency early in games.
I've already mentioned my problem with our receiver targeting. Go to Cooper half as often and he'll be twice as effective.
As for the defensive plan, it's hard to argue with. For one reason, the defensive game planner has a certain air of authority, a'ight? For another, we frickin' stoned ‘em.
There was a surprising scarcity of stud freshmen on the field. Guys I never noticed include Reuben Foster (who shows up in the stats with an assist), Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner, Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster. OJ Howard saw some time, as did A-Shawn Robinson.