It's hard complain too awful much about the 'Bama offense this season, it really is. Oh sure, it's had a couple of bad games, but as a whole it has been pretty good and we've certainly done much, much better than we did a year ago.
Point production has gone up dramatically. In our first six conference games last year, we put up a mere 102 points, good for only 17 points per game. In that stretch, we did not score more than 20 points in regulation play a single time despite playing terrible defenses. Fast-forward a year to 2007 and against that same line-up (substituting the rotational SEC East game, Georgia in 2007 instead of Florida) we have put up 190 points, good for over 31 points per game. Three times we've put up over 30 points, and twice we've put up over 40 points. All in all, point production has almost doubled from this point a year ago. It's fairly easy to tell that Shula took his fruitless offense with him when he left.
Still though, all is not well, and we have some serious problems.
The running game is just non-existent against quality opponents. I really thought that the rushing attack would improve a good deal over a year ago, but that really has not come to fruition. The LSU game, of course, was the most obvious realization of that, but it wasn't just against the Bayou Bengals. We ran the ball relatively well against Tennessee, but we were only able to do so when the Vols were clearly expecting the pass. Even Coach Saban, in post-game interviews, was very open about the fact that the coaching staff did not think we could run on the Vols, and that's troubling considering they aren't exactly a great defensive team. Sufficed to say, as any UT will admit, the days of Henderson and Haynesworth have long since passed. Florida State, too, completely shut down our running game, and Georgia faired pretty well against it, particularly early on.
So what's the problem? Honestly, it's seemingly pretty simple: the tailbacks and the offensive line.
None of the tailbacks on the roster are anything special. Terry Grant is a fan favorite, but he has spent time in Coach Saban's doghouse, and with good reason. He has nice, though certainly not great, speed, but he's small and he tries to break everything to the outside, not allowing time for the blocks to develop. Glenn Coffee doesn't have great speed, and is really more of a grinder, three yards and a cloud of dust type guy. But he's under 200 pounds, so it's not like he's a true physical runner. And he's had fumble issues and is currently suspended. Roy Upchurch is probably the most talented guy on the roster at tailback, but it just hasn't come together for him for whatever reason. Jimmy Johns is physically talented, but a very poor pure runner, and even so he's not doing what Saban wants.
The struggles at tailback are apparent to the coaching staff. They went out and landed Demetrius Goode, and made it very clear they wanted him to show up ready to play, but bad luck hit us early with Goode, as he tore his ACL in the first practice of the Fall. And we aren't exactly sitting idly by waiting on the current roster to develop. We've currently got two tailback commitments -- Ivan Matchett and Jermaine Preyear -- and we're actively pursuing a third with guys like Chris Jordan and others.
Saban and co. are obviously looking for upgrades at the tailback position -- you don't sign three tailbacks in one class when you have already have four tailbacks on scholarship on the roster if you're at all pleased with the existing group -- and given the way our backs have played the past few weeks, those guys cannot get here fast enough.
The offensive line, too, has struggled. Andre Smith has looked good in run blocking, and Mike Johnson has held his own as well. But the centers and guards have struggled, and that is where the running game is dictated. We've seen in the NFL the past couple of years huge money spent on free agent guards, plus more of an emphasis on centers, and the reason is very simple: GM's have realized that the success of the running game is mainly dependent on the center and the two guards. Now that's not meant to diminish the importance of the tackles in run blocking, or the defensive ends in run support, mind you, but those guys are recruited / paid mainly to protect the passer and rush the passer, just ask Dwight Freeney. And we see the exact same thing at the collegiate level. The tackles need to hold their own, but the success of your running game is going to be mainly dependent on how well your center and your guards fare against the opposing defense's interior linemen and inside linebackers. If your guys consistently win that battle, you're going to be able to run the football, and if not, well, you're not. Simple as that. I don't care if you have John Hannah at left tackle and Anthony Munoz at right tackle, if your interior linemen are getting knocked around, you can forget running the football.
And honestly, our interior linemen have struggled in the run game. Opposing interior defensive linemen have generally been able to win the battles up front, and the sight of an Alabama interior lineman jumping out to the second level to successfully battle inside linebackers has been rare at best. The suspension of Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis didn't help on that front, but honestly they were struggling in their own right.
Again, it's just pretty simple. If you don't have great tailbacks, and your interior offensive line is not playing well, you are going to struggle greatly to run the football against good opposing defenses, and that has been the case this year. And unfortunately, those struggles are most likely going to continue against Mississippi State and Auburn.
The coaching staff sees those struggles, too. I believe another year in the S&C program will help a lot in that sense, but again, the coaches aren't sitting on their hands on this one. We are going to take at least four offensive linemen in this class, and we could take five. Those guys won't be able to contribute immediately, but their presence alone is an implicit admission that we need to upgrade the talent and conditioning level of the offensive line.
The passing game has been good at times, and terrible at others. We've got some struggles there, as well.
John Parker Wilson, in particular, is a very frustrating player. He obviously has ability, but his play is simply so inconsistent, and he struggles to do some of the most basic things. He seemed to be making some progress, and then had a relapse in the LSU game. All in all, he just struggles to deliver the football quickly and to protect the football.
Against LSU, often times we were in a four wide set with a single back -- i.e. a six man protection scheme -- and LSU would respond by bringing seven on a blitz. Now you do the math on that one, six blockers against seven rushers. Obviously, you need a quick throw on a hot route to one of your four receivers isolated in man coverage. Pretty simple stuff, right? Apparently not. All too often, Wilson just broke down in his progression and the play ended either in a sack, fumble, batted ball on a belated throw, or a desperation throw-away. To be certain, we had some definite pass protection problems -- in particular Mike Johnson's whiff on Tyson Jackson right before Caddell's overturned catch -- but you simply cannot ignore the fact that a lot of our problems come from the simple fact that Wilson isn't getting the ball out quick enough. Opposing defenses can force quick throws, and when they try to do so by bringing a lot of pressure, the quarterback has to compensate by getting the ball out quickly, and Wilson continues to struggle with that.
Ball protection, too, remains a major concern for Wilson. First and foremost, above and beyond anything else, a quarterback must protect the football, and that continues to be a major problem for Wilson. The final sack was bad, but it's okay, just hold onto the ball, punt it away and let your defense force overtime. As it was, Wilson lets the ball pop out and it turns into an easy touchdown. Ideally you make your opponent march sixty yards, not three. And I wish I could say that was an isolated incident, but it's not. His fumble inside the five was the back-breaker against Florida State, and a fumbled snap and terrible interception is what really let Arkansas storm back. That's, of course, not to mention the interception against Houston that almost gave us a loss against the Cougars. And it's not counting all of the costly turnovers he had in 2006. The bottom line is that the quarterback must protect the football, and Wilson -- despite having 22 starts under his belt -- is still very poor in terms of being able to do that.
Again, it's frustrating with Wilson because at times he can play extremely well -- his performance against Tennessee is easily one of the best ever from an Alabama quarterback -- but the great play is all too often a mere aberration in the general theme of uneven, inconsistent play marked by frequently costly turnovers. Despite flashes of brilliance, much like other aspects of our team, Wilson's play still leaves a lot to be desired, and it is something that must be improved in the future.
All in all, it's hard to complain an extreme amount about the offense. Point production -- though a lot of credit should go to the defense and the special teams, too -- has almost doubled in the past year, and the red zone problems have for the most part gone away. But at the same time, we simply cannot run the football against better defenses, and the passing game -- while possessing great receivers and sporadically great play -- still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of consistency. Costly turnovers, unfortunately, remain a major problem on a consistent basis.
Things are getting better, but we're not where we need to be just yet.