To be fair, the Tide's defensive letdown was probably more of a result of a gameplan that didn't account for Joshua Dobbs. You could say the Tide got suckered on that one, as Butch Jones and his staff kept Justin Worley's game readiness under heavy wraps until shortly before game time.
But Nick Saban is a known master of the halftime adjustment, so it's less understandable that Bama still had troubles with Dobbs after halftime, as he led the Vols on a 15-play, 84-yard touchdown march on their first second half possession. Thankfully, the Tide defense kicked in at that point, holding Tennessee to just 51 yards on 19 plays, with one turnover, for the rest of the game.
Truthfully, it wasn't just a matter of gameplan. Dobbs was difficult to stop. He ran elusively and with power, threw accurately, and consistently made veteran decisions to help stop first downs. Worley has certainly never played that well against the Tide, and it says right here that Tennessee is a different and better team with Dobbs in.
As for the schizophrenic offense, it's still schizophrenic, but perhaps the malady is injury-related. Big Cam Robinson's ankle sprain took some steam out of the Tide O - he left on a 2nd-and-1, and Bama then lost seven yards on the next two plays - but I think an unannounced Amari Cooper injury hurt even more. Coop was clearly not the same man after the first quarter, and I don't think it's any coincidence that Bama got 14 points in an entire game against Arkansas, and 14 points in three quarters against Tennessee, when #9 did not have his explosive game.
Whatever Cooper's injury was, it wasn't serious enough to keep him off the field, so it's reasonable to hope that he will be back in stride for the brutal back stretch of the schedule. If he isn't, Alabama won't win out. The Tide would find a Blake Sims injury easier to deal with than a Cooper injury, and that is not meant as an insult to Sims.
Speaking of injury, the Tide appears to be banged up across the board, a fair bit more than the injury announcements let on. It's a good time for an off week.
In fact, the best news from Saturday was the performance of Blake Sims at quarterback. Sims showed the doubters - us doubters - that he can play the same game in a deafening road venue that he plays in the friendly confines of Bryant-Denny. Sims threw accurately for the most part, ran seemingly at will, and made good decisions with the ball.
Speaking of running, I'm of the unshakable opinion that the most important thing a quarterback can do is direct a successful passing attack, but you could scarcely watch that game last night and fail to realize how important a quarterback's wheels can be. Alabama never fully solved Dobbs' running, and it was a crucial factor in the Vols' ability to put 20 points on the board while he was in.
Tennessee couldn't stop Sims, either, and this was his second straight week for a long touchdown run, this one a 28-yarder. #6 showed good acceleration to jet past A.J. Johnson at the line, and then he just picked his spot and ran fast and hard to get in. But perhaps his most important run came after Tennessee had closed to 27-17 and was threatening to make an actual game of it. Sims took off down the right sideline on a 3rd-and-9 scramble, and although two UT defenders tried to shut it down short of the sticks, he angled away from them and dove across the first-down line in a play that took the starch out of the Vols and their crowd. Sims also made a great scramble away from serious pressure to find Cooper for a 30-yard gain to the 1 that led to a touchdown making it 20-0, and used his speed to scramble for another first down on a third-and-5 4th-quarter play.
Blake did allow a sack when he perhaps had a chance to spot the rusher in time, but Tennessee's Curt Maggitt was closing on him fast and Sims was looking downfield when Maggitt came free. But he nicely avoided a sack earlier with a smart throwaway when a Vol DB came in on him untouched.
Sims does get half the blame on the botched exchange with Derrick Henry. While he broke his three-game streak of throwing balls that should've been picked easily, the high bullet over the middle that Cooper climbed the ladder to snag was a dangerous ball, like anything high and hard over the middle, and another toss to Cooper would've been pickable by a great play. Sims also struggled to snap the ball before the clock ran down on the 4th-quarter clock-burner drive, twice necessitating timeouts from the sideline. And while most of his throws were accurate, he missed Yeldon downfield on the first pass of the second drive when #4 was covered by a linebacker and had broken past him. Unless a Vol safety was in good position further downfield, Sims might've started the game off 2-2 for 159 yards and 2 TDs if he had laid that one in.
But the only way to avoid mistakes is to kneel on the ball every play; that's a very reasonable list of them from somebody who is touching it every play in a hostile house. Keep the mistakes down and this guy is a real quarterback. We know damned well he can move the team.
Yeldon came out running hard and successfully, but didn't look himself in the third quarter and didn't play in the 4th. The early-third quarter play where Cam Robinson got hurt was very well-blocked, and I have to think a healthy Yeldon would've gotten more than the nine yards he actually got, and also that he wouldn't have been hemmed up for a 6-yard loss two plays later. T.J. did some good hard running on the bounceback drive after UT cut it to 10, but he slipped down twice in the third quarter and was seen in a boot after the game.
Although he got away with it this time, Yeldon fumbled inside the opponents' five yard line again, as he has done multiple times in his career. He recovered the ball for a touchdown that was neither called nor reviewed, and although it wound up not mattering, you have to wonder whether the guys in the booth were even watching the replay, as it was quite obvious that the ball was on the line - if not all the way over it - by the time Yeldon secured it. Anybody can miss a call, but a failure to review an obviously-questionable call is inexcusable.
He also dropped a wide-open, well-thrown and well-blocked screen pass that very well might have converted on a 3rd-and-21.
If Derrick Henry were a baseball player, he would be a home-run hitter with a mediocre-to-decent batting average. He is hell on wheels when he gets space, where arm tackles don't even slow him down, and we saw his quick acceleration on the 28-yard TD. But Henry runs tentatively when he doesn't have room and doesn't do a great job of avoiding contact early in a run.
He also showed his inexperience as a receiver by not looking back on a wheel route until he was six to eight yards downfield. That could've been a big play, as #27 had plenty of running room.
Henry wasn't, to my mind, an ideal guy to have in when the Tide was trying to ice it by running against a stacked D and space was not plentiful. I would like to have seen Tyren Jones get a few touches in that 4th-quarter drive, because he is a whirling dervish in traffic. I suspect the reason he didn't see the field in the 4th had to do with ball security and that heavy wrap on his left hand, but the hand should be healthier before LSU. If so, Bama can afford to take a few touches away from Yeldon and give them to Jones if Yeldon is less than full speed. Full speed is really essential to Yeldon's success, as we've had plenty of opportunity to see by now, and I think Jones is ready for prime time.
And Jalston, oh Jalston. How much money did you cost Bama fans, my good friend?
If you've got this game on tape, watch Amari Cooper run on that initial 80-yard touchdown - and then watch the way he ran after the first quarter - or just notice that the camera caught him limping after plays a couple of times. Cooper was healthy in the first quarter this week and healthy all last week. His health obviously makes a huge difference to this team.
In the first 10 minutes of the ball game, Cooper was targeted five times and caught five passes for five first downs, two touchdowns and 185 yards. Alabama's offense racked up 239 yards and scored 20 points over that stretch. 60 minutes like that and Cooper catches 30 passes for 1,110 yards and 12 TDs, while Bama cruises 120-0 with 1,434 yards of O. I could live with that, but in the actual event I lived with something very, very different.
Instead, in the final 50 minutes of the game, Cooper was targeted eight times, caught four passes for 39 yards, and ran once for a nine-yard loss. He did get a step on his man once in the third quarter when he unsuccessfully tried to one-hand a Sims throw, but while that throw looked a bit overthrown on first glance, I think Sims actually put it exactly where he intended to. He just expected Cooper to run under it, and if #9 had been healthy, he would've done so and it would've been another long TD. But #9 wasn't healthy, and that's a big reason, probably the biggest, that the Tide attack only got 230 yards and 14 points in that last 50 minutes instead of all those purty numbers up a paragraph. Each of 230 yards and 14 points is less than what Bama got in the first 10 minutes while #9 was wheeling and dealing full speed.
DeAndrew White looks like he is running in knee-high water compared to healthy Cooper, and has ever since he sprained the toe in the Florida game. Still, though, the crafty veteran manages to get open, and hangs on to the ball when it's thrown to him, and he had a solid game. He also had the big downfield block on the 80-yard touchdown that allowed Cooper to score.
Chris Black also had a downfield block on that play, although it was less crucial. But he dropped a low but catchable pass on 2nd-and-10 on Bama's second possession, and was not targeted again. Other than that pass, Cooper and White were the only receivers thrown to. Period.
Overall, it was a pretty good game for this unit. The Tide running game didn't make high gear, but with Yeldon banged up, Drake gone and big Cam leaving at the start of the second half, you shouldn't expect too much against a run D that was averaging less than 4.0 per opponent carry coming into the game.
To the line's credit, Robinson's absence didn't make as dramatic a difference as Ryan Kelly's departure against Ole Miss did. Leon Brown was no Cam Robinson, but he filled in more than adequately, and the same could be said of Brent Bozeman, who was no Leon Brown at right guard but didn't let the team down. Bama ran successful plays behind both Brown and Bozeman after Robinson's departure.
Still, though, it clearly wasn't a positive to see #74 limping off the field, and coincidence or not, most of the Tide's most negative offensive plays - the sack, a six-yard-loss on a running play, and two fumbles - came after Robinson's departure.
As per usual, the Tide ran successfully behind Robinson on multiple plays before his departure, including on the play where he got injured after taking his man out. He did allow his man to peel off and make stops for short gainers a time or two.
Austin Shepard did the same thing a couple of times on the other side. He had a good block on a power sweep for the first successful run on the crucial 3rd-quarter bounceback drive after Tennessee cut it to 27-17, but it seems the Tide is not running behind him this year as much as it did in 2013. Shepard also lost his man on a wheel rush that led to the only sack Bama gave up, on a third-and-five play, and while it's hard for a tackle to stop his man from eventually getting around him on a deep wheel rush, when the guy doesn't have to go any deeper than the quarterback to get free, that's a blown block.
I've got Shepard down for his two worst game of the last two seasons in the last three contests. I hate to keep harping on injury like a whining loser, but it's hard to believe that #79 is regressing this much. I think he's not full speed.
Leon Brown had a couple of nice run blocks from the right guard spot, but also missed a safety blitz when Bama had first and goal at the one early in the second quarter, instead doubling on A.J. Johnson while the safety blew by him to nail Henry at the 4.
Bama continues to run up the middle more than it did last year or in the first few games this season, and with good success behind the blocking of Ryan Kelly and Arie Kouandjio, each of whom had an excellent game.
Overall, it was another solid performance from the defensive line, at least once you recognize what the gameplan called on them to do. Yes, Bama gave up 181 rushing yards and 4.2 yards per carry to a team that came in averaging less than 100 and 3.0, respectively, but that's where you've got to step back and look at what the DL was supposed to do.
You really couldn't rightfully ask these big bruisers to tackle Dobbs in space one-on-one - he was just too fast and too shifty for that. Nor could you expect them to keep up with Marlin Lane on the 44-yard run down the sideline - that task was for linebackers and defensive backs. What you could ask them to do was stop the rest of the Tennessee run game, and that they did: but for Dobbs and the Lane sweep, UT got 62 yards on 23 carries, 2.7 per.
The same thing goes for the pass rush, which only got two sacks after nailing Kenny Hill six times the week before. Time and time again they flushed Dobbs out of the pocket, but he just outran them to the sidelines and there was no spy to make him pay.
A'Shawn Robinson stuffed the middle in fine fashion. We aren't seeing much Brandon Ivory, who has only three tackles on the season, and I haven't heard anything about injury as the cause. Ivory's absence is partially because we are transitioning into a quicker defensive line to increase quarterback pressure and get better matchups against spread teams, but when #86 can middle-stuff with the best of them and also have the mobility to chase quarterbacks around, it's a no-brainer to give him the time. He had seven tackles Saturday and was very physical.
Xzavier Dickson got a nice early sack off a double move, but his most spectacular play came when he actually ran down a Tennessee running back from behind 44 yards downfield. It wasn't even one of those plays where the back jukes around to give the trailers a chance to catch up, it was a straight-line race and Dickson was just flat faster than the dude.
Ryan Anderson made a nice early play to blow up a bubble screen 4 yards behind the line, and Jonathan Allen had a TFL on a running play. The one guy Dobbs couldn't outrun was Da'Shawn Hand, who registered his second sack of the season in the 4th quarter by chasing Dobbs to the sideline.
Reggie Ragland gave up the corner for a 12-yard first-down run on the first play from scrimmage, but settled down after that and played the rest of the game at the All-American level he has consistently displayed from the Florida contest on. He made plays in run defense, pass defense and on the quarterback.
Ragland had good coverage to pull the receiver's hand off the ball on an accurate throw to the tight end across the middle, just after Dobbs came in. Later his big hit on Dobbs caused a fumble after the UT soph QB had shaken free from ferocious pressure. Ragland had the first big hit on the 3rd and 1 A.J. Johnson run late in the first half, and while it took a team effort to bring Johnson down on that big play, it was Ragland's initial hit that made it possible. Ragland had another big hit on a Dobbs run early in the third quarter, and held the corner to run a Vol wideout across the boundary after a short gain in the 4th quarter.
I'm becoming increasingly convinced that this is the only season we will see Reggie Ragland as a starter. He has NFL size and NFL skills, and that is where he will be next year.
Like Alabama's big linemen, Trey Depriest had problems with Joshua Dobbs in space. A couple of early missed tackles against Dobbs, including a miss in the backfield on Dobbs' early 30-yard run, set the tone. Later, Depriest looked a little silly launching himself into the air to "block" a fake pass, leading to Dobbs running right around him for a 15-yard gain to set up a touchdown, but he was in a tough spot because he knew he had to leave the tight end open to get Dobbs, and probably the reason he bit so greedily on the pass fake was that he knew the tight end was open for the first. But while a good pass would have made a first, could Dobbs have made the accurate pass running at full speed? #33 had time to stick with his guy another step or two and still stop Dobbs before he got to the stick instead of rushing up to get him at the line, so chalk that one down as a mental error. Depriest did make a couple of solid run stops near the line, but this wasn't his best game.
I wouldn't have minded seeing a little more Tim Williams in there. I don't think Dobbs could've beaten him to the corner quite so easily.
Alabama's defensive backfield got pretty good pass coverage, but they also made some key mistakes on big plays. You have to put some of Dobbs' scrambling success on the defensive backfield as well, although as stated above I'm as much inclined to put that on game-planning as on the players.
Jarvis Janet Jameis Jarrick Williams had his best game of the year when we needed just the kind of contribution he can give. He missed an ankle tackle on a wide receiver sweep on a first down at the beginning of Tennessee's first touchdown drive, but otherwise was solid. He batted the ball high into the air on UT's fourth play from scrimmage, the first good defensive play for the Tide, leading to a punt. His nice open-field one-on-one ankle tackle stopped Dobbs' 30-yard run early in the second quarter, and he stopped Dobbs one-on-one again in the third quarter, when he threw him out-of-bounds for a short gain. I'm not going to ding him for giving up a 20-yard gainer to Marquez North when Williams had excellent coverage, looked back, and threw his arms up, only to see the ball miraculously fall right in between those arms and into the hands of North (who showed excellent concentration to make the snag).
After Williams' early deflection, it was Landon Collins who came flying out of nowhere on the next play to take the cut lane away from Nathan Peterman on second down. Collins made another flying stop to keep the Vols from making a first down on their next possession, and a good stop on a third-down swing pass forced another first-quarter punt. Collins was in position for the pick on the ball that Cyrus Jones intercepted, but almost denied Cyrus before pulling back just in time. Apparently it was just cramps that caused him to miss a fair bit of the second half; it is worth nothing that UT's 84-yard third-quarter touchdown drive came with Collins off the field.
Cyrus Jones played decently, but not as well as in the previous few games. He was beat inside for a 28-yard gain on 3rd-and 13 in the second quarter, the play that woke UT up. Jones had pretty good coverage and a perfect pass was required, but the angle he took didn't give him a chance to make the tackle, giving up extra yards. Jones also appeared to have been beaten inside for what should have been a TD on third and 5 from the 6 had Dobbs thrown accurately, although he and Landon Collins then engaged in an extended conversation, so who knows what the scheme actually called for on that play. Jones also gave up yardage on a couple of plays you really can't fault him on: one was a miraculous 22-yard sideline hookup between Dobbs and North where Jones was all over North and the other was a pass interference call that appeared to be unjustified. Jones played off a block and had good coverage on a two-yard-loss on a bubble screen on 1st and goal from the 5, made a very nice play on the pick, and got his hands on another ball but did not make the great catch that would've been required to turn that into a 2nd pick.
Nick Perry had an active day, with eight solo tackles, but a lot of them were downfield. Early on he let a running back run by him on a fly pattern for a 27-yard gain, and although Perry played it as if he expected deep help, the running back was the second man into the zone so that didn't seem like a logical expectation. Later in the first quarter, he had good one-on-one coverage on a deep pass to a wideout, and also made a nice one-on-one tackle on Jalen Hurd for a one-yard gain. Twice, though, Perry set over-aggressive angles on outside runs to allow good gains. The most egregious came when he smelled out the Marlin Lane sweep nicely and in plenty of time to cut Lane off at the sideline for a 5-yard gain or less but instead tried to knife into the backfield, got caught up in the blocking, and neither touched Lane nor forced him to veer out of his path, leading to the 44-yard gain.
Tony Brown also had a shot at Lane on that play, but was effectively blocked out - he was held on the play, but not egregiously, and should have been able to at least force Lane to cut inside, where others would've had a shot at him. Brown also fell into trail position on Josh Malone on 3rd-and-goal from the 9, and when Dobbs threw an accurate back-shoulder pass, Brown didn't have a chance to stop Tennessee's first touchdown. A couple of weeks ago I asked to see more Brown over more Jackson, but I'm re-thinking that idea based on what I've seen since.
Brown was apparently in only because Eddie Jackson tweaked something on Jalen Hurd's 10-yard run early in the 2nd quarter. While he was in, Jackson had good coverage on a 3rd-and-9 out pattern to force a punt, but got lucky when Peterman threw wild toward his man earlier, when Jackson's man was open for 10 or so. He made a good play on the fumble recovery that set up the TD that put Bama up 27-0; there were several men around the ball but Jackson broke on it first, managing not only to scoop it up but to advance it 16 yards into good scoring position. The injury wasn't serious, as Jackson saw significant action subsequently, but it may have slowed him down, as he let Pig Howard get by him later for what would've been an touchdown pass if Dobbs hadn't overthrown his man.
Maurice Smith was the one getting chewed out by coaches on the third-quarter TD pass on 3rd-and-goal from the Bama 9. On the play, Tennessee bunched three receivers, and the three Tide backs grouped on only two of them. Cyrus Jones was closest to the guy who came free: will the coaches still blame Smith after film review? Well . . . best guess is that they will. Saban and Smart were both on top of #21, and I doubt they both made the same mistake.
At this point, you have to be happy that the special teams made it through a game without a major screw-up. Hurrah!
Yes, Adam Griffith, previously perfect on PATs, hit a low ugly shank that would've been blocked if it had been up the middle, but compared to the screw-ups of the last few games, that's nothing. It looked like it was all on Griffith, as the snap and hold appeared true. Griffith did have a decent game on kickoffs, putting three kicks into the end zone, with two touchbacks, and all his kicks went at least to the 6-yard-line.
Christion Jones did not play, and Cyrus Jones did not break one. And I'm fine with that, really. It was a very pleasant change to not be tensing up and holding my breath on kick returns.
Thanks to a 29-yard pooch punt to the 16-yard-line, J.K. Scott only averaged 42.8 for the day - but his net punting was actually even better than the gross, at 43.8, as Tennessee returned exactly one punt, for -4 yards. That play saw the Tennessee returner bobble it and scoop it quickly back up, only to have Landon Collins immediately knock it loose again. Unfortunately, no other Bama player was around to help Collins out by recovering the fumble: another sign that DeAndrew White is not full speed. Last year #2 & #26 were the best punt return coverage gunner duo I've ever seen in college football, but Collins is having to do more of it on his own this year.