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West Virginia From The Couch

The good news is that was only the first game. The bad news is that it's not easy to see a solution to some of the problems that were apparent.

Kevin C. Cox

It was clear from the first few plays - if indeed, from before the opening kickoff - that Alabama did not come out with the same fire in its eyes that we have become accustomed to seeing in Bama's opening games under Saban.  This looked a lot like a game our guys just wanted to get through.

Add deficient cornerback and linebacker play and a quarterback who couldn't get the downfield game going, and "get through" the game is about all we did.  If it hadn't been for several crucial Mountaineer dropped passes/overthrows, and at least a couple of outright gifts from the zebras, we might not have.

Let's look at the positions, and I have a few words on the new OC's performance, as well.

Lane Kiffin

I think Lane got off to an excellent start.  Our schemes were very solid.  He matched Nussmeier in the part of the game I thought Nuss was strong at, designing pass patterns that get people open.  We had open guys all afternoon.  Play calling was solid, keeping WVU off balance and leading to 30 first downs and nearly 38 minutes of possession time.

There was a notable adjustment at halftime, too.  According to my notes, in the first half Sims threw 18 non-throwaway passes and the target was 5.2 yards past the line on average.  With all of Alabama's plays, pass or run, taking place near the line of scrimmage, West Virginia swarmed, frequently outnumbering our blockers at the point of attack.  Bama rushed for 98 yards, averaging 4.9 ypc in the half, and if you take out the 21-yard Sims scramble late in the half than it's only 77 yards and 4.0 ypc.

In the second half the Tide unleashed an entirely different passing philosophy.  On Sims' first 12 passes of the second half, the target was an average of 19.2 yards past the line of scrimmage.  Even though the long-passing game was not very successful, it still opened up the line of scrimmage area for the running game.  In the second half, Bama rushed for 190 yards and averaged 6.6 ypc.


Reality: when Jake Coker gets zero non-garbage-time snaps in a game against an 8-loss team while Sims isn't setting the world on fire, that says something about the coaches' confidence in Coker's ability to run the offense.  Reality part 2:  59 minutes of serious playing time for Sims and 0 for Coker is not the way to reduce the gap between the two players.

In other words - at least unless the faint rumors that Coker was injured are true - the fears of some of us have been realized, and this is the beginning of the Blake Sims era.  Where does that put this team's national championship chances?

Not in a very good place, I'm afraid, even though Sims was serviceable or better yesterday.  Fact is, he was serviceable-or-better against a team whose opponents averaged exactly 40 points a game against it over its previous nine games.

Sims certainly did a number of things well.  For starters, he displayed a pocket escapability that we haven't seen from an Alabama quarterback in quite a while.  You can count up easily escaping from end-zone pressure, a 22-yard scramble on 3rd and 9 to set up the field goal that ended the first half, and a nice 13-yard completion to Amari Cooper after escaping a blitzer who ran at him absolutely free.  That's an important dimension, one it's nice to see Alabama enjoy for a change, and not just Alabama's opponents.

Obviously, Blake threw two or three wildly inaccurate passes, but a good 25-ish of his 33 throws were right on the money, and most of the rest were in the neighborhood.  Bama got a lot of yards after the catch, and you can credit Sims for much of that because he frequently led his guys well on crossing and swing patterns.

But then there were those bloopers downfield.  In fact, pretty much every ball that went more than 20 yards in the air was a blooper.  If anything longer than 20 is a blooper, then the 12-to-15-yard out pattern, the staple of many good offenses, simply cannot be in our playbook.  Plus those rainbows set your receivers up to get hurt.  Ask DeAndrew White, and I fear he won't be the last one.

With our running game, explosive receivers, smart pass patterns, and the stout D I believe will likely develop as we go forward, we could probably get by with a true game manager who can't throw the long ball.  All he has to do is avoid mistakes and hit the underneath guys and we're still very much in the championship picture.

But there's the rub.  Sims' interception was a clear mental error, and he had made another such a few plays before, although WVU's Nick Kwiatkowski couldn't hold on to the ball #6 presented him with.  And this was against a 40-points-a-game D that mounted very little pass rush.

The reason I have been so pessimistic about Sims goes back to the 2013 A-Day game.  While I'm as big a believer as anybody in not putting too much stock in scrimmages, the Sims I saw in that game completely lost his stuff under pressure.  Every play danced on the precipice of disaster, and several of ‘em danced right on over it.

Guys who have games like that tend to have ‘em again eventually, and I didn't see anything yesterday that gives me any comfort about what will happen against teams that put a real defense on the field.  You can win games with a mediocre quarterback who doesn't make mistakes, but have no doubts that a bad quarterback can easily lose a game with no help at all.

Running Back

The news gets a lot better here.  Yeldon looked half a step quicker than he did for most of 2013, and as always, ran hard and stylishly, rambling for 132 yards.  If he hadn't had a 25-yard 4th quarter ramble called back for a senseless block in the back by Amari Cooper he would've matched Derrick Henry with a 6.5 average.

If Henry had not been having such great success, I would've had my doubts about a big guy who runs with his upright, rumbling style.  But there it is; the young man was spectacular in brief playing time in 2013, and yesterday he responded to his first chance to tote the rock over 10 times by rambling for 113 yards on 17 carries, averaging over 8 per tote until 4 carries for 12 yards in clock-killing time brought the overall average down to 6.6.

Good things for Yeldon and Henry were pretty much expected, but I didn't expect the ferocious blocking of Jalston Fowler, who missed a lot of blocks in 2013.  Time and again Fowler had the key block on big plays, including the block that gave Yeldon a chance to dive into the corner on his 15-yard first half TD run, the sealing block that allowed Henry's 19-yard touchdown, a key block to spring Yeldon for 25-yard run in the 4th quarter, the corner block that set DeAndrew White loose on his 38-yard run on a bubble screen, and more.  He also made a nice catch on a ball that was already on him when he turned around, his only touch.  His play was very good news.

Henry and Drake each had one successful blitz pickup, but Yeldon was a disconcerting one for three on his pickup opportunities.  Hurrah, nobody fumbled!

Wide Receiver

The unit turned in excellent play overall, but most of the good play was confined to two guys.  The on-field presence of Bama's lauded wideout depth was not notable, to put it lightly, and Christion Jones had a couple of drops, including a damaging one on a wide-open deep ball.

Amari Cooper looked fully healthy.  You'll never see him at his best unless you have a quarterback who can serve him the deep ball, but he can shake and bake on the quick out and we saw plenty of that.  His 12 catches were only one short of D.J. Hall's team-record 13 against Tennessee in 2007.  It was the fifth time in Tide history a Bama receiver has caught 12 or more, but Cooper is the first guy to do it against anybody other than the Vols.

DeAndrew White also looked good, turning in Bama's biggest play of the day on a nifty 38-yard scamper off a bubble screen.  White did most of it on his own, faking out four or five Mountaineer tacklers.

Chris Black flashed a power surge when he muscled for the first down after catching a six-yard pass on a 3rd and 7 4th-quarter play.  With only 4:44 left in the game, the play was a knife to the heart.  Otherwise, not much depth.  I didn't see Robert Foster or Raheem Falkins on the field, although there were a couple of ArDarius Stewart sightings, including one nice block by #13.  (Falkins does show on the participation chart.)

Offensive Line

Overall, it was a stellar performance from the OL, starting with pass protection that carried Bama's 2013 excellence (at least once you forget the Sugar Bowl) into 2014.  West Virginia got little pressure, and almost all of it came from blitzes that were not picked up.

The only pressure that came from faulty O-line play came when Cam Robinson blocked his guy in the second quarter but then was beaten cleanly when his man made a second move, forcing Sims to scramble out of the end zone.  He also allowed his man to shoot the gap on a run play once, leaving Henry to struggle to a one-yard gain, but had several effective blocks in the run game.  He gets off the block with quickness you don't expect from a guy his size.

Kouandjio had a couple of nice springing blocks on linebackers at the second level, but whiffed on another linebacker who held Henry to 3.

It was an unblocked run blitzer who nailed Yeldon for a 4-yard loss in the first half, but if T.J. had gotten past that guy he would've had to deal with the lineman who beat Ryan Kelly on the same play.  Kelly also couldn't prevent penetration that stopped Yeldon on the 3rd-and-2 run in the red zone, but we ran behind him with success on 2 or 3 other plays.

While Leon Brown did get nailed for two holding penalties and a false start, one of the holding penalties was fictional.  Brown had several good run blocks, including the sealing block for Yeldon's 25-yard run in the 4th quarter, and held his own in pass blocking, as did the entire center of the line.

Unsurprisingly, Austin Shepherd was the keystone.  He gave up no pass pressure and got a very nice first-quarter block that helped Yeldon escape the backfield and get a four-yard gain.  Alphonse Taylor didn't play much, but got a key block on Yeldon's 7-yard run on 1st-and-goal from the 8, which led to a TD.

Many if not most of West Virginia's successful run defense plays came when they swamped the line with numbers, leaving guys unblocked to harass Yeldon or Henry.  As noted above, that swarming toned down considerably in the second half after Alabama opened up the field with deep passing.

Defensive Line

Sophomore Jonathan Allen, in his first start, was easily the Tide's standout player on the defensive line.  Allen had a rugged start, getting double-teamed and knocked down on one of the first running plays of the game; a few plays later, he beat his blocker on a pass play but couldn't find the quarterback and did not create pressure.  #93 didn't let the tough start keep him from making several big plays.  He was the man who clogged the middle early on for Bama's first real run stop, leading Roshel Shell to fall down in the backfield trying to cut away from the jam.  He later stood his ground on a double-team, giving Denzell Duvall room to stop a West Virginia back at the line, and he ran down another back from behind to stop a play for no gain.  He beat his man on the pass-rush no less than three times, leading to one sack.

Xzavier Dickson got the other two sacks, his only two tackles on the day.  Both sacks were the results of severe pressure when Dickson beat his man straight off the snap.  I thought Dickson was our best pass-rusher in 2013, and was a little surprised at how little playing time he got; if we are attempting to emphasize the pass rush this year, and I think we are, you can probably expect to see more #47 on the field.

Pre-season all-star candidate A'Shawn Robinson got off to a rough start at nose tackle.  He did not register on the stat sheet and was rarely visible on the field.  Jarran Reed had a nice first game in crimson, scoring a stick-the-hand-up deflection.  After the Sims pick with about 10 minutes left gave the Mountaineers the ball back trailing by only a touchdown, Reed made a heads-up play to blow up a screen and help the Tide register a key stop.

D.J. Pettway lost contain on a pass rush, leading to a 13-yard Trickett scramble, but on the 19-yard loss on the 4th-quarter snap over Trickett's head on 3rd-and-goal from the five, Pettway had beaten his man off the snap and was coming free, so that play probably wasn't going anywhere anyway.

Overall, it was a solid performance for the unit.  The Mountaineers' first-drive running success was probably more on the linebackers than the line, who consistently stacked things up inside, and the success stopped there, as West Virginia finished the game with only 28 yards rushing.  Three sacks and a couple of pressures may not sound like tremendous numbers when Trickett threw 45 times, but when you consider how many of those 45 throws were quick-release patterns - most of them - you have to say the pass rush was decent.  May it continue so.


Yeah, we lost C.J. Mosley, and that hurt, but the Trey Depriest suspension wound up being more costly than many of us, including yours truly, anticipated.  The Tide was left with two raw rookie middle linebackers leading the D against a face-paced HUNH offense.  It can be no surprise that the Tide backers looked a little befuddled early in the game.

Ragland was indecisive early on, and on at least three successful running plays he allowed himself to be engaged full-on by a penetrating West Virginia lineman by hardly stirring from his initial position.  Foster was more active, but was either half a step slow in making his break or else didn't quite break in the right direction.  Between the two of them, they did almost nothing to stop West Virginia from driving to inside the Bama 10 on its initial drive, although once they got there, Ragland made a very nice stop from behind at the line on a run blitz.

Both guys settled down as the game went on, but still made some mistakes.  Ragland had good coverage and a pass breakup on a short pass, but also got sucked inside by a ball fake, allowing a 13-yard run through his space.  Foster got a big tip on a 3rd-down pass across the middle (although the announcer said he didn't), and thumped a Mountaineer back behind the line on a well-timed run blitz, but his nicely sniffing out a swing pass led only to an 18-yard gain after he set an over-aggressive angle and got burned by a cutback move.

The game was almost entirely in Ragland's and Foster's hands from a linebacking perspective (I consider the Bama jack to be a DL, not a linebacker).  The only Dillon Lee participation I noticed was when #25 got sucked up and in on a 3rd and 7 inside screen that only he was in position to stop, leading to his being blocked, a 12-yard gain and a first down.  Lee didn't make the stat sheet.

Overall?  I was not displeased, but my expectations were not high.  Yes, the guys made plenty of mistakes, but they played hard, showed their talent, and got better as the game went on.  I expect increasingly solid play from Ragland and Foster as the season goes along, and hopefully the return of Trey Depriest will make a big difference, including by taking pressure off the two youngsters.

Defensive Backs

No mincing words, Bradley Sylve had a really awful day.  A couple of the big gains made on him can be attributed to great play by WVU, but not all by any means.  It started with a stumble on a quick out where he didn't have help, leading to a 29-yard gain.  By the second half, Sylve seemed to have become disheartened, and his play deteriorated from a level that was not very high to start with.  I'm not at all sure that he didn't avoid contact on one play where he had a chance to get in front of big Russel Shell rumbling down the sideline.  By my count, Sylve gave up 140 passing yards all by his lonesome, and that doesn't even count the 18-yard gain on that pass to Shell.

Cyrus Jones was significantly better; not all-star level but solid SEC cornerback level.  He only gave up short completions in front of him, tackled solidly, and made a good strip on a pass into the end zone, the only time the Mountaineers tested him up top.

Jarrick Williams had good coverage on a flat pass on the first play from scrimmage.  Otherwise he was not very visible except when he was getting blocked out of the play on an out that gained 15 or when he was getting blocked out of a screen that picked up 14.  Williams struggled at the end of 2013, and I wonder why we haven't seen more Geno Smith.  To be fair, Smith was only involved in one play yesterday, and that play would've been a first down pass to his man on 3rd-and-7 if it had not been overthrown.

Landon Collins was solid, but nothing about his defensive-backfield play yesterday screamed "All-American."  He gave up a 24-yard gain and two or three underneath throws, but did jar the ball loose downfield with a big hit on a critical 3rd-and-5 pass when Bama led only 30-23 in the 4th quarter.

Nick Perry was probably our second-most vulnerable guy in pass coverage, but was surprisingly physical against the run.  He didn't get credit for a forced fumble in the stats, but he was probably the guy who jarred the ball loose on the fourth-quarter play that was close as the Tide came all day to causing a turnover.  That was not his only solid hit.

Other than Geno Smith's limited time on the field, Sylve, Jones, Williams, Collins and Perry were it, which is a bit surprising considering Sylve's poor play.  Where were Maurice Smith and Tony Brown?  Can't Geno Smith play cornerback?

Don't expect Eddie Jackson to be the savior, because he had an ACL injury in the spring and simply will not be full-speed this year; he may play some late in the season, but I'm on the expect-nothing-and-don't-get-disappointed train.  But here is what I do expect.

I expect changes at Sylve's position, and it can only get better.  I expect Cyrus Jones to mature as the season goes along; it wasn't for nothing that Saban made him his player of emphasis during 2013 spring training, it was because he is talented.  I expect Tony Brown to get on the field, and maybe Marlon Humphrey as well.  Overall, I expect Alabama's cornerback play to be not great but a whole lot better by the end of the year.

The question is whether it gets enough better fast enough.  A pinch better should get us through September, but by October it better be better better.

Special Teams

I'll start with the bad: the long kickoff return.  Several things went wrong, but perhaps the most critical failure was hidden from TV replays.  I just have no way to know why, once the returner got past Bama's initial line, there was nobody at all behind that group except Adam Griffith, who got absolutely buried by a blocker.  Cyrus Jones, Kenyan Drake and Maurice Smith all came from the bottom side (TV screen-wise) of the field, which is odd because the kick was fielded above the topmost hash mark.  So what the heck was going on there?  You can also thank Jabriel Washington for whiffing on the tackle at the 15, Derrick Henry for failing to seal the sideline (which was his alone) and Rashaan Evans for setting an over-aggressive pursuit angle that got him walled off from the runner.

Everything else was good, very good.  Even subsequent kickoff coverage, where Kenyan Drake made a great gunner play to run the returner down from behind at the 9-yard-line; Kenyan didn't make the stop, but he held the guy in place for a while and made him easy to clean up on, still at the 9.  Rashaan Evans also had a big stop at the 17 on the game-opening kickoff.

J.K. Scott had a sensational start, averaging 50.5 on two booming punts that were returned for a grand total of -1 yards.  I don't think I have ever seen a punt gunner like Landon Collins.  We are going to miss him next year, along with one of the next-best punt gunners around, DeAndrew White.  Between the two of them, you'd best just fair catch anything half-way high.  My friends, enjoy their excellence while you have the chance; you may not see its like again.

And yo, how ‘bout that Adam Griffith?  Isn't he supposed to be kicking in the Pro Bowl instead of in Tuscaloosa?  OK, OK, deep breathing exercise.  It's just one game.  But 4-for-4, all of them down the middle, and all the long ones would easily have been good from 55+.  He gets ‘em up in the air fast, too.  (But it's just one game.  So don't get excited, y'all.  I'm probably excited enough for everybody.)

Biggest Hit

That would be Amari Cooper on a block on a third-quarter Blake Sims scramble.  Stickers to Rueben Foster sticking a Mountaineer back for a two-yard loss and Landon Collins preventing a big completion.