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Finding Ways For Alabama To Improve

Where can Alabama improve heading into their showdown with Ohio State?

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Bowl practice is one of the best times for a team to improve. This is especially true for younger players, who get a chance to take a deep breath and work on everything they’ve learned over the course of the season. We saw this last year with Derrick Henry, who was a totally different player in the Sugar Bowl than during the regular season.

This also holds true from a team standpoint. With game planning concerns lessened in the early stages of bowl practices, it’s a great opportunity for a team to improve on things they were just getting the hang of late in the season. So with that being said, let's explore a few areas that Alabama may focus on during the next few weeks.

Big Plays

Alabama hasn’t hit a lot of home runs this year, largely because they don’t have a ton of explosive players outside of Amari Cooper. That problem was exacerbated following Kenyan Drake’s season ending injury. Further, as great as Cooper is, if teams are so determined, they can limit his big play ability by way of bracket coverage. We saw this against Ole Miss and Missouri, in particular. Cooper is the best player in the country, but trying to beat bracket coverage over the top, no matter who is on the receiving end, is just asking for trouble.

The upshot is that bracketing Cooper opens up space on the field for other players to make big plays, even if they aren’t the most explosive players. The best way to do this is by way of the "anchor concept". Simply put, the anchor concept involves running a deep route (9, 8, 7, post-corner, corner-post, etc.) over the top of an intermediate route (6, 5, 4, 3, etc.). The intermediate route acts as the anchor, baiting a deeper defender to take a step in, opening up space behind him for the deep route. This concept is most effective when you have a great player to run the intermediate route, one who you know the defense will key on.

This worked to perfection in the SEC Championship Game, on DeAndrew White’s long touchdown. Missouri, who runs a Tampa 2 defense, was in their base Cover 2 defense. Cooper lined up at the X and White lined up at the Z. Cooper ran a 4, an intermediate in-breaking route. Meanwhile, White ran a corner-post. When the backside safety, the one nearest to Cooper, saw him break inside he took one step in, enough to leave White one on one with the play-side safety.

At that point the play design worked. It put White in a position where he simply had to beat one defender in space, which he did with ease. The safety bit on the nod to corner, Lane threw his hands up, and the band started playing.

The best part about this passing concept is that it allows players who normally aren’t big play threats to make big plays. White, after multiple surgeries, isn’t a guy who you would normally expect to win in the deep part of the field. But put him one on one with a safety in space and he can do it. The key, of course, is Cooper. If teams play him straight up, then let him run a full route tree and win the game by himself. But if they bracket him, the best way to take full advantage is to use him as a decoy. Let him get his catches in the short and intermediate parts of the field, while setting up his teammates to hit home runs. This means opportunities down the field, not just for White, but also for Christion Jones, ArDarius Stewart, and maybe even OJ Howard.

And this probably goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway … there are hundreds of different route combinations that can be used within the anchor concept. Get creative, Lane.

STAR

Geno Smith is a good player, but right now he’s struggling to play the ball in the air. Of course, this hurts the most on balls thrown down the field. We saw this both against Auburn and Missouri. The good news is that, coming off two subpar performances, you can bet that this will be a point of emphasis in practice over the next three weeks.

The bad news is twofold. One, Ohio State is a team very capable of running vertical concepts out of the slot. You can be sure that they will try this plenty against Alabama. Two, as far as other slot corners on the roster go, no one is going to supplant Geno. Jarrick Williams isn’t playing anymore because of his issues in pass coverage and Maurice Smith probably didn’t do enough when given the opportunity early in the season to have a serious shot at passing Geno on the depth chart.

So that leaves Alabama with two options. One, keep Geno there and hope he plays better. Two, give someone else a chance to practice at STAR, preferably a superior talent, and let him and Geno compete leading up to the Sugar Bowl. I’m a fan of option two, and I think that player needs to be Tony Brown. To the best of my knowledge, Brown has only practiced outside this year. But he’s a more talented player than Geno and he has the size to hold up against the run as an extra box defender, unlike most of the other corners on the roster.

Now, there’s no guarantee that Brown can handle learning a new position in a relatively short period of time. But there’s also no reason not to give him a shot. With Bradley Sylve playing well against Auburn, Brown is no longer the next man up should something happen to Cyrus Jones or Eddie Jackson. Worst case, Brown doesn’t take well to the temporary position change and they have to go with Geno, which isn’t such a bad thing. Best case, Brown does take well to the position and Alabama fields a more talented defense on January 1 than they have at any other point this season.

Freshman Moving Up The Depth Chart

This is basically about two players: Rashaan Evans and Da'Shawn Hand

As far as JACKs go, Evans really can’t move any further up the depth chart because he’s not going to pass Xzavier Dickson or Ryan Anderson. But if he plays well he should see more snaps on passing downs. Dickson and Anderson are good pass rushers, but they aren’t as explosive as Evans. If Evans can play well enough in practice to the point where he convinces the coaching staff that he deserves more opportunities, Alabama will be better off for it. As presently constructed, the defensive line does a great job affecting the passer, but it would be nice to finish off some of those rushes with a sack or two. Right now Alabama fields the best standard down defensive line in the country and it’s by a wide margin. Should Evans start getting more opportunities and taking advantage of those opportunities, " best standard down defensive line" may become "best defensive line" rather quickly.

With Hand, like it is with Evans and Brown, it’s all about getting more talent on the field. Hand is not going to play over Jonathan Allen or DJ Pettway, but with a few good weeks of practice he could move ahead of Dalvin Tomlinson, which should net him about a dozen snaps against Ohio State.

Kicking Game

Adam Griffith needs to get healthy. Eventually the fact that Alabama seems to always have the inferior kicker is going to hurt them in a big way. Or, better yet, just go full Dallas Carter. Every time you punt you leave eight points off the board. Every time you kick a field goal you leave five points off the board. And every time you kick an extra point you leave one point off the board.

Manufactured Pressure Game

I never thought I’d say this about a Nick Saban/Kirby Smart defense, but this defense really isn’t that great in the manufactured pressure game. The timing of the blitz is usually off and the coverage players rarely seem to play the hot routes properly. So they either have to improve in this area or just scrap it altogether and trust your front four to get home on passing downs, something they’re better equipped to do this year than any other year under Saban. I’m not even going to bother to speculate which route they should go … this one is above my pay grade.

Miscellaneous Stuff

I do think Eddie Jackson should continue to start. Sylve played well against Auburn but Jackson has been solid all season, and he continued to be solid against Missouri. So I don’t think the coaching staff should look to make a change there, or even make it into some sort of competition like it appeared to be heading into the SECCG.

TJ Yeldon needs to get healthy. Derrick Henry needs to make better decisions in terms of when and where to get up-field on both inside and outside zone running plays. And the offensive line needs to block up the inside zone plays better.

And maybe, just maybe, Jake Coker can finally pass Blake on the depth chart.