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Auburn From The Couch

The good news is that the Crimson Tide can lay down some really awesome and dominant college football when they're in synch, good enough to be the last team you want to play if you're a contender. The bad news? They aren't always in synch, and they can stink up the field when they're not. We got to see both versions Saturday night.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

And that means that what happens going forward is literally anybody's guess.  Alabama is the only playoff contender that could actually lose to Florida State, but they're also the only contender that has it in them to trash Oregon (especially after a much-needed month to get healthy).  But speaking of playoffs, don't count that W over Missouri yet.  I've got a feeling the drama isn't done with this regular season.

As for the game, I have a lot of the same stuff I had to say last year this time, so let me quote myself from a sadder time a year ago:

[Alabama's defensive size and scheme] create[] the possibility of what happened yesterday: a team that plays a running game that attacks every part of the field can spread the Bama monsters out so that it becomes possible to get skill players into one-on-one situations in the largish in-between area that is neither up the middle nor on the sideline. If your skill players can beat the guys they will encounter in that area - usually Alabama's large linebackers - Alabama has no schematic answer for that.

If the Bama D is in the process of adjusting to a sleeker version that can handle this type of offense, the adjustment has not been dramatic so far.  Our difficulties in stopping the Auburn running game meant that their run game and play-action got our safeties' attention and left Eddie Jackson and company on their lonely little islands with Sammie Coates and Duke Williams.  One might have expected a little more Rashaan Evans and Tim Williams than what we actually got: I think that duo saw more action against Texas A&M, the other spread attack Bama has faced, and was effective.

Of course part of it had nothing to do with Alabama's scheme and everything to do with Auburn's standout receivers and Nick Marshall's almost surreal accuracy with the deep ball.  But if it hadn't been quite so difficult to stop Auburn's run game, the Tide safeties might've been able to play a little deeper and cut that over-the-top stuff at least back a bit.  That side of the ball might not have been so much of a mess.

Nick Marshall yesterday was a nice little preview of Marcus Mariota - should the Tide wind up confronting that gentleman.  Mariota is every bit the running threat that Marshall is, if not even more of one, and he throws it that accurately nearly every game, not just once in a blue moon.  His receivers might not quite parallel Williams and Coates, but they can sure beat you deep, and Oregon's offense is as comparable to Auburn's (and vice versa) as you will find. Alabama will have to get better pressure on Mariota than it got on Marshall or that could be a very long game.

Quarterback

Sorry, Blake, but we start with the picks, because avoiding them is your #1 job.

The first was an accurate throw; Sims just didn't see the safety lurking, as he absolutely must.  The second was an ugly overthrown attempt to fit one into a tight window with several defenders lurking to take advantage of any mistake.  The third was the closest of the three to being excusable - not that it was excusable, just closer.  Sims had two receivers to the left and wanted to go to Amari Cooper but the Auburn DB was sitting on the route and when Blake went to the second receiver, Christion Jones, he didn't see that another Auburn corner was already breaking on the ball before he released it.  Sims should've just eaten the ball (probably his only option), but you have to give AU some credit for the artful way they played both potential receivers.

Other than the three ugly picks, Sims was outstanding, and for the entire game, not just the comeback part.  On the first touchdown pass to Cooper, Amari was covered but Sims put it high and on the back shoulder where only the Tide had a shot at it. Sims also had an elusive scramble and throw to DeAndrew White in a narrow space in the back of the end-zone to give the Tide a two-score lead mid-way through the 4th, and his nifty 11-yard touchdown run at the beginning of the 4th to put the Tide in the lead for good.

And then there were the bombs to Cooper.  Sims missed one, but he missed it on the safe side, and the other two were right on the money.  And did you say Sims has a weak arm?  The toss to Cooper for the 75-yard TD was 59 yards in the air and hit Sims' man right in stride.

Overall, the word is that Alabama's offense is absolutely unstoppable when Sims is on.  The word also is that Sims isn't always on.  That's not cause for despair, but it is cause for worry.  Again, we just don't know what's going to happen in these next few games.  Could be almost anything.

But the other word is that Sims gets it done when it has to get done.  His time could be coming.

Running Backs

T.J. Yeldon was about 95% - not full "house anything" explosiveness but plenty to accelerate away from linebackers and linemen.  He was healthy enough to at least show his full hand: power, vision, burst, and the ability to follow blocks.

You had a feeling T.J. was on a pitch count in the first half because Bama wanted him fresh in the late game and his injury problems have kept him from racking up workhorse-type carry numbers the last several games.  Whatever the strategy, it worked.  Yeldon had 127 yards on 19 carries, with two TDs, but perhaps his best run was on a first-half carry where he was stuffed up the middle, then cut multiple times to get in a position 3 or 4 yards downfield where he could square his shoulders and burrow ahead into a crack in the wall, turning nothing into an 8-yard gain.

I've been telling y'all that Henry is a home-run hitter.  And what happened in this game is his bag: give him some late totes against a beaten-down defense and he will put the game away for you.  But his first-half carries continued to create the impression that he is not the man you'd want running against a stout run D.  It says here that Bama needs to either find another starter by 2015 or Henry needs to change his style, and the latter may not be possible.

Jalston Fowler whiffed on a block on the 2nd possession, leading to a 4-yard loss on a Christion Jones end-around, but we didn't see much of that.  Fowler had a big block on the first Yeldon TD, opened a hold up the middle for a 16-yard Yeldon run when Bama was trailing 33-21 in the third, and had another big block on the Henry TD run.  He also caught a 15-yard pass and ran for a pair of first downs.

Receivers

Amari Cooper just makes it look so easy that it's hard to appreciate what a great one we have.  He's got speed, hands, and strength, but his route-running technique may be his greatest strength.  He can turn on a dime and runs routes with precision.  Cooper, when healthy, gets wide open and he did it a lot Saturday night.

The numbers speak for themselves.  Cooper is already 440 yards ahead of Julio Jones' Alabama single-season receiving record, with as many as three games still to be played.  If Amari averages 142.3 yards per game for three games, he will rack up 2000 yards receiving in a single season.  It was only 7 years ago that D.J. Hall became the first Tider to top 1000 in a season.

SEC records are in sight, too.  Another 167 yards puts him past Josh Reed for the SEC record for receiving yards in a season.  150.3 yards per game for three games will put him ahead of Jordan Matthews for most receiving yards in a career.  Three more TD catches will put him ahead of Chris Doering for most touchdowns in a career.  The only major SEC receiving mark that isn't square in his sights is Matthews' 262 catches: Amari needs 56 more grabs to pass that one, and I don't think even Kiffin can scheme that many throws in his direction.  (Of course Matthews played four seasons.)

The bad part about Amari Cooper?  We're going to have to live without him next year.  In that regard, it was good to see big O.J. Howard's leaping catch on Bama's 2nd possession, showcasing his potential as a big target.  The fanbase soured on Howard after a couple of drops early this season, but the fanbase tends to only know how to either ignore or over-react:  Howard got the latter treatment for his drops and the former for the good catches he has made since.  #88 will likely be Bama's leading returning receiver next year.

Offensive Line

Auburn's run defense was not as stout as some Bama has seen lately, and the offensive line looked solid across the board.  The Tide mostly ran sweeps left behind Cam Robinson and, frequently, a pulling Arie Kouandjio or else middle dives between Ryan Kelley and Leon Brown.  Bama didn't run right much, but the left-side sweep blocking didn't miss a beat when Robinson left the field with an undisclosed shoulder ailment and Austin Shepherd moved to his position.

The student body left for Alabama's first touchdown was a real pleasure for the eyes.  T.J. Yeldon was basically out for a pleasant little stroll with several of his friends.  Big Cam blocked two guys, shoving one Auburn defensive back into another to create the lane at the goalline.  His little namesake, Cam Sims, was there in case the big guy missed either.  He didn't.  Auburn was no threat at all to stop Yeldon on that play.

I have never been as impressed with Kouandjio as a run-blocker as I was Saturday.  He was mobile, effective, pulled effectively, and put his man on the ground several times.

It's not news any more when the Tide line gives Blake Sims excellent protection.  The only sack came from a late blitzer who came in long after the line was engaged.  It was a pure coverage sack and hard to put on the line at all.

Defensive Line

It was the goal line defense that kept Alabama in this game, and not down 49-21 in the third quarter.  Although Auburn had good success running on first downs and 2nd and long plays, it was a different story on running downs.  Time and again, either on goal line plays or after Auburn got 7 or 8 with a well-designed first-down run play and then tried to power ahead on second down, there was nothing there at all.  Multiple such plays were dropped for a loss, including multiple tackles in the backfield inside the 10-yard line.

Tide fans are a bit pre-occupied currently with things like SEC Championships Games and potential appearances in the first ever College Fooball Playoff, but when they think ahead to 2015 it's hard not to start with the defensive line, the 2014 version of which is both very good and very young.  But one guy Bama will miss is Xzavier Dickson.  The development of A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Jarran Reed have gotten the headlines, but #47 is quietly leading the team in sacks and is a force in the run game.  

He showed his speed and pursuit Saturday on the first play after Bama cut it to 36-34, when he didn't make the tackle but forced Cameron Artis-Payne to take such a deep circle route around him that the rest of the defense arrived and held Payne to a 2-yard gain.  Two plays later, Dickson did the exact same thing around the other end, this time making the stop for the 2-yard gain himself.  Two plays later he came up the middle, forcing Marshall to abandon the pocket and chasing him into A'Shawn Robinson's turf, where Robinson kept up the pressure and forced the errant throw that Nick Perry picked, the one that opened the dam.

Still, though, this wasn't as satisfying a performance as the defensive line has delivered in several games recently.  Likely it was because the Tide was rushing carefully to contain him, but Nick Marshall had plenty of time for most of the game, a huge factor in the success of Auburn's aerial attack.  And, as mentioned above, Auburn did a good job of creating and finding holes for early-down runs.  Alabama denied Auburn's power running game, but the misdirection and open spaces part of the Tigers' ground attack functioned relatively well.

D.J. Pettway got good pressure once and swatted away another pass (that was nearly a lateral and could've been called one).  Robinson got the pressure alluded to above that led to the pick, but was nailed with a borderline hands-to-the-face call that helped get Auburn started on its first drive, taking away a nice Nick Perry ankle tackle of Cameron Payne at the line.

Perhaps the biggest play of the day from a lineman came from Jarran Reed, who stuffed Payne on 1st-and-goal from the 1 in the waning seconds of the first half, forcing a field goal.

Linebackers

Trey Depriest was in on 14 tackles, including sharing one of those behind-the-line stops inside the Bama 10, but most of his tackles were downfield.  He got blocked out of position and blazed by on at least three runs up the middle.

With the Tide playing a lot of nickel and dime, and giving a little time to other guys, Reggie Ragland wasn't always out there, and when he was he wasn't at his most visible.  Ragland had only three tackles.

Ryan Anderson was seen playing middle linebacker: and failing to cut the corner on an 11-yard Nick Marshall carry.  However, he got great penetration from the jack position on a big 3rd-and-2 play from the Bama 5 early in the second quarter, catching Artis-Payne for a two-yard loss.

Tim Williams was only out there infrequently, perhaps a bit surprising considering the apparent need for a speed package against Auburn.  Rumors have had him in Saban's doghouse, so that may be the explanation.  Williams chased Marshall out of the pocket and into Jonathan Allen's arms on one of his few sightings.

Defensive Backs

Auburn was really the first team to test Eddie Jackson by repeatedly going up top against him, and he repeatedly flunked.  Jackson was beaten deep three times, and could have given up another bomb and another short touchdown pass if Auburn hadn't misfired on both opportunities.  It's nice to have a big guy like Jackson on the corner for run defense - and maybe he's not fully recovered from the knee injury and might get a step back next year - but Saturday night was a big f-a-i-l for Eddie.  Here's hoping Jackson takes it as a challenge; he could still have a big future with this team.  It just might be at safety.

Geno Smith made two very nice 1-on-1 tackles in the flat behind the line, but he was probably the second-toastiest guy after Jackson, getting beat downfield twice and giving up a touchdown throw.

Landon Collins may indeed turn out to be the best Bama DB of recent years, as Jesse Palmer suggested, but he ain't there yet.  Collins is almost certainly the most athletic Tide defensive back of recent years, with a rare blend of speed, strength, leaping ability and ball skills.  But he needs to improve his coverage: when he's dancing solo with a receiver, there is usually some space between them.  Collins was blitzing and overran the quarterback in the first quarter when Marshall got free for a 28-yard run to set up Auburn's first field goal.  He was in great position on the trick play toss-back to Marshall, deep throw to Coates, but didn't turn and pick up the ball in time to make a play.  As always, Collins made some solid tackles, but he didn't particularly distinguish himself during a poor day from the defensive backfield.

One guy did, which leads me to a couple of reasonable questions about Alabama's defensive backfield: (1) Was Nick Perry abducted by aliens at the end of October and replaced by a cyborg from the future?  (2) Did they whup out the ouija board to summon Bradley Sylve from the great abyss after Jackson ran into his tough times, or has he actually been living and drawing breath since the West Virginia game?

As recently as mid-way through this season, 5th-year senior Perry seemed to be as much a roster-filler as anyone else, but suddenly he is all over the field, making physical plays behind the line, giving decent coverage, making a solo stop short of the first on a 4th-quarter, 4th-down play, and throwing in a huge pick for good measure.  About as abruptly and unexpectedly as it gets, Nick Perry has blossomed into being one of the stars of the Tide defense, and his 3rd-quarter pick was probably the biggest play of the game.  Alabama had already seized the momentum, but suddenly the momentum was a Tidal wave.

Sylve was a blast from the past, and although he only was in on a few pass defense plays, so looks can be deceiving, he looked like a significant upgrade.  Certainly, he should've had the interception in the 3rd quarter when he and Quan Bray had (at best, from Auburn's perspective) simultaneous possession and Sylve's foot clearly came down in-bounds before Bray's foot.  Apparently the replay refs were not familiar with Completed Pass, Article 6, rule 7-3-6, section 2, which governs this specific situation: Two opposing players receive a legal forward pass while both are off the ground, and one payer returns to the ground inbounds before the other.  Ruling: No simultaneous catch. The legal forward pass is completed or intercepted by the player who first returned to the ground.

Doesn't 34-0 over a 20-minute period, which is what it would've been but for that call, sound better than 34-3 over a 20-minute period?  No?  Eh, I guess you're right, it ain't that big a deal.

Special Teams

What happened on the opening kickoff?  It looked like a poorly-kicked onside attempt, but as Jesse Palmer noted, that side of Bama's cover team was just running down the field and not looking for the football.

Later, Xzavier Dickson screwed up trying to haul a short kickoff in that would've landed out of bounds.  He didn't execute the tough over-the-shoulder catch he was going for and the ball bounced out of bounds at the 19 instead of Bama getting it at the 35.  Have you ever wondered why he is one of our guys who is in position to field short kickoffs?

More wow stuff from J.K. Scott.  His 70-yarder tied his career long, and would've been a 79-yarder if the field had been long enough.  Two 70-yarders ain't bad for your freshman season, anyway.

The trajectory on the blocked extra point trajectory was low, but not that low:  the defender got both penetration and elevation.  Which makes you thinks extra points aren't really a tremendous problem with Gunnar Rayborn kicking.  But then again . . . why did Alabama go for 2 leading 40-36 with 14:33 left?  That situation ain't in the 2-point conversion book, folks, and kind of makes you think that Saban had become a little skeptical about scoring 1.