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Previewing Alabama vs. Texas A&M: The Aggie defense

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A perennial defensive bottom-dweller in the SEC since joining the conference, the Aggies got themselves a coach...and the results are rolling in.

Myles Garrett can be lethal off the edge if not doubled.
Myles Garrett can be lethal off the edge if not doubled.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

We've seen this movie before, right? A sans-Johnny Football Texas A&M team comes into the game against Alabama highly-regarded...an offensive powerhouse that threatens to dismantle the vaunted Crimson Tide defense with flash-and-slash aerial fireworks. Never you mind the defense in maroon, as the Aggies can outscore anyone in the nation.

In 2014, that particular showing ended in a 59-0 demolition of Texas A&M at the hands of Alabama, as the Tide defense stifled the potent passing attack while Blake Sims and Company victimized the perennial soft underbelly of the Aggie team: namely, the defense.

While that victory marked yet another obstacle overcome on the Tide's path to a SEC Championship, it also marked a turning point for the Aggie football program. Coach Kevin Sumlin has made no bones about the fact that 2014 taught him a tough lesson regarding his football team and his philosophy: specifically, he needed to find some way to increase the efficiency of his defense, or else the Aggies would never be able to compete for an SEC title regardless of his team's offensive firepower.

Enter the $1.5 Million Dollar Man, former LSU and Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis. In a coup of sorts, Sumlin was able to lure Chavis, who many proposed had become disgruntled in Baton Rouge, to College Station from LSU. Upon arriving, Chavis' task was clear-cut: improve the Aggie defense to SEC standards using his tried-and-true formula of a focus on fundamentals, three-and-outs, turnovers and multiple looks from multiple sets.

Though only five games into the season, the early returns are encouraging for the Aggie defense, leading to a renewed faith in Sumlin's program as a national contender. Consider a few metrics to that effect: where the Aggies averaged 1.7 sacks per game in '14, thus far, the men in maroon are averaging 4.3 sacks per game. Defensive ends Myles Garrett (6-5, 262 pounds) and Daeshown Hall (6-6, 260 pounds) have 12.5 sacks between them, which is impressive to say the least. Red zone defense has improved dramatically, as the Aggies this season are allowing offenses to score touchdowns on 60 percent of their trips into the red zone, as opposed to last year's 90 percent. Last season, the Aggies averaged 505.3 yards allowed per game (255.3 rushing and 250.0 passing) compared with 383.3 yards per game (172 yards per game rushing, 211.3 passing) to this point in 2015.

It's clear that the Aggies have an improved defensive unit in Chavis' first year as defensive coordinator...but has the improvement been great enough to help Texas A&M unseat traditional pro-style powerhouses like Alabama and LSU? After all, no matter who is coaching the defense, when paired with Sumlin's fast-break offense, any defense will be called upon to play eleventy-billion snaps. In other words, fatigue and depth on defense may always be a bit of a problem. Texas A&M has recruited at a high level in Sumlin's tenure, but will high school defenders flock to a school that prides itself on offense? Chavis may help in that regard, as he carries a great deal of cache' as one of the SEC's elite coordinators.

Will the defense finally be able to get the Aggies over the hump in 2015 to reach the SEC Championship Promised Land? That narrative will play out as the season crawls by. But first, they must get past the old guard, a task which begins this Saturday versus Alabama. Will the revamped defense be able to hem in the Tide's sometimes-sputtering offense under first-year starter Jake Coker? Will they be able to stop Bama's running game that features Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake? Let's take a closer look...

The Roster

While aTm is perceived as an offensive juggernaut, Sumlin and staff have worked hard to stock the cupboard with defensive talent to match (with varying degrees of success). While the Aggies' starting roster has been elevated in regard to the SEC defensive talent standard, there is still work to be done for Chavis to get the kinds of players he covets within the confines of his scheme. Specifically, as was the case at LSU, Chavis likes to employ larger-framed defensive backs in the defensive backfield, such as physical corners over six feet in height who can run to the ball like springbok. He treats his safeties like linebackers with mad coverage skills, asking them to play a variety of coverages (Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover any-other-damn-number-you-can-think-of, Man, Zone, Press...he runs the gamut) while utilizing them as proxy linebackers against the run. His linebackers are the quarterbacks of the offense, while his defensive line is broken into two units: ends who aggressively rush upfield in man-on-man situations on the edges, and tackles who eat space and snarl interior running lanes.

Regarding the defensive line, Chavis has exactly what he wants at defensive end. The aforementioned Garrett and Hall are as adept as pass rushers as a coach could want, combining speed with physicality and tremendous length, a staple of Chavis' defensive personnel. Against spread teams, that additional length helps shrink the gaps created by offensive formations. Against pro-style defenses, players like Garrett and Hall can take advantage of huge offensive tackles, bypassing them with speed and power while cinching the pocket closed like a croaker-sack. Of Garrett, Chavis said he's one of the few ends he's coached in nearly 30 years who can rush the passer and track down an option pitch to make a plan, which is impressive for a man of Garrett's height and breadth.

The defensive tackles are also typical 4-3 interior pluggers, with senior Alonzo Williams (6-4, 305 pounds) paired with senior Julien Obioha (6-4, 280 pounds). Williams is a monster who plays in a style similar to a traditional nose tackle in a 3-4 alignment. He is a big body who is difficult to move off of the ball, plain and simple. When the Aggie defense goes into Chavis' patented "Mustang" defensive set, Williams becomes a proxy nose as the sole tackle in the defensive scheme, lining up directly over center. Obioha is a more athletic tackle who has good length for the interior and plays strong against the run.

The linebacking corps also fits the mold of player that Chavis traditionally casts in his brand of 4-3. Junior Shaan Washington (6-3, 235 pounds) starts at the Sam position, with sophomore A.J. Hilliard (6-2, 245 pounds) at the Mike position. One question mark for this Saturday revolves around whether or not sophomore Will ‘backer Otara Alaka (6-3, 231 pounds) will be able to go, as he missed the Aggies last game for an undisclosed reason. If Alaka cannot go, expect to see junior Claude George (6-2, 235 pounds) get the nod. This could be a problem for the Aggies, as given the role the linebackers play versus the run in Chavis' defense (and the relative thinness of the Aggie front seven in regard to seasoned depth), Alabama may be able to take advantage of George with the run.

The secondary has talent, and in time, Chavis will no doubt develop the players he needs to run his complex pass defense scheme. Free safety Armani Watts (5-11, 200 pounds) was one of the jewels of the 2014 Aggie recruiting class, and he is already showing signs of being a top-flight defensive back. Tutelage under Chavis, who coached a bevy of future NFL defensive backs in his time at LSU, will only assist in his development. At strong safety, the Aggies are starting another sophomore, Justin Evans (6-1, 195 pounds.) Evans has the size Chavis likes in his corners, as he requires them to play physically in a variety of roles from pass coverage to run support.

At corner, the Aggies have seasoned seniors who are called upon to play a substantial amount of man coverage. Brandon Williams (6-0, 205 pounds) has the measurables Chavis covets in defensive backs, with adequate speed to go along with his large frame. De'Vante Harris (5-11, 185 pounds) is slightly smaller than the ideal for the position, but as a veteran defensive back, his contributions can't be underestimated.

The Aggies also have a "Honey Badger 2.0" in nickel back Donovan Wilson (6-1, 205 pounds), the proven big-play specialist in the aTm secondary. Wilson is a prototypical Chavis DB, with the perfect combination of size, speed, intuition and physicality. Wilson has the coverage skills to play soft zone underneath and still rapidly close on the line of scrimmage when opposing offenses use run-pass options. Wilson is, in large part, responsible for the Aggies' +2 turnover margin, as he has accounted for five forced turnovers this season while serving as a catalyst for havoc against opposing offenses.

In time, the defensive roster will evolve to fit Chavis' specific preferences by position. However, for the moment, the defensive coordinator seems to have a unit that is, in large part, capable of executing his defensive philosophy (which, as he has claimed in the past, is not so much about the players as the way the players play.)

How the Texas A&M Defense Can Stop Alabama

If John Chavis knows anything, he knows what to expect when he matches his defense up against the Alabama Crimson Tide. At LSU, the Tigers and Tide were involved in countless, high-stakes grudge matches which featured physical defensive play and pounding pro-style offense peppered with game-changing big plays. Despite the introduction of Lane Kiffin's particular brand of offense, Alabama still does what Alabama has always done: run the ball, set up the play-action, take what defenses are giving and play field-control football.

To that end, don't expect Chavis to go changing his game plan, either. Regardless of any apparent talent disparities of pre-game rankings, Chavis' defenses have given Alabama a test. While Texas A&M's defensive talent level in 2015 can't match the rosters of LSU teams in their prime, there's no doubt this year's Aggie squad will be (to at least some degree) better able to defend what Alabama does best, starting with the run.

That said, aTm's run defense couldn't have been much worse than it was in 2014. A combination of poor tackling, mental errors and schematic limitations doomed the Aggies against Alabama last year, and though Bama had its share of explosive passing plays, there was little the Aggies could do to stop the run.

Statistically speaking, the Aggie have seen dramatic improvement versus the run thus far in 2015, at least when playing Power 5 conference teams. In three such games this season, the Aggies are averaging 172 yards per game allowed on the ground, compared to 255.3 yards per game allowed to Power 5 teams in 2014. That impressive improvement comes with a caveat, however. The Aggies held Arizona State to a mere 92 yards rushing in the opener, but against the two SEC opponents the defense has not fared so well (Arkansas had 228 rushing yards, Mississippi State had 196 rushing yards). Though the statistics indicate the Aggies are better at defending the run, it's clear to see from their performances versus the Hogs and Dogs that they still have work to do.

Traditionally speaking, when playing pro-style, run-based offenses, Chavis takes a rather straight-forward approach, at least in regard to execution. While his fronts are multiple and offer confusing looks for quarterbacks and offensive linemen, at heart, the scheme is the typical 4-3 base. Ends apply pressure while acting as contain for outside runs, tackles take on doubles inside to free ends while clogging interior running lanes, linebackers flow into the gaps after making reads on the action at the snap, and at least one safety plays close to the box as a run-stopper while taking away the underneath middle passing lanes.

What makes Chavis' packages so effective is the way he masks his schemes with a variety of fronts, as well as the plenitude of defensive attacks he can run out of each front. For example, take his spread-killing "Mustang" defense. Chavis uses this package against spread teams, or when other offenses go into four- or five-receiver sets. This defense becomes a hybrid, with six defensive backs (including a nickel and dime), three defensive linemen and two linebackers. Though there are only three down linemen, there is always a minimum four-man pass rush, with the dime, nickel, strong safety or a linebacker taking on roles in the pass rush. From that set, defensive backs can drop and play a variety of coverages with six defensive backs, or he can use the dime, for example, to apply a quick-sting of pressure to the quarterback unblocked after lining up on a receiver pre-snap, given the size and speed of his defensive backs.

These multiple looks could give Coker problems if Kiffin doesn't give him a healthy helping of run-play option calls against Texas A&M. The RPOs give offenses a way of neutralizing a bit of the advantage offered by defenses like Chavis' by luring them post-snap into, say, a run look complete with a pulling guard or tight end lead blocker. The quarterback can still elect to pass from this formation that reads pure run to defenses, thus extending the subterfuge to increase the chances for a successful play against an aggressive defense. While one can expect to see Alabama test the new-found confidence in the Aggie run defense with a healthy helping of the ground game, the RPOs will offer the Tide big-play opportunities against an aTm that is still learning the discipline required to execute the Chavis attack.

Regarding the running game, Alabama will have its share of success running at the spaces vacated by the fast, aggressive pass-rush of Garrett and Hall. The Tide was able to execute that game plan to the letter last year, and had success on the ground. While Chavis may not be an advocate of the "mush rush," one must expect him to find a balance between rattling Alabama's still-green signal caller with the rush and the over-pursuit that will allow Bama to attack the edges. The Aggie defense may be able to take chances using their defensive backs (particularly safeties) to fill gaps vacated by the ends, but that will require man coverage from their corners against the likes of Calvin Ridley and Richard Mullaney. Ridley has an advantage over any Aggie DB, and Mullaney's height and high-point ability will give him a chance to make plays over the middle.

That said, Wilson will be a huge part of the aTm game plan, as his versatile skills allow him to fill in wherever necessary and play boundary to boundary. He is a turnover machine and big play catalyst, and he is solid in coverage, run defense and the pass rush when called upon to apply pressure from the edges. Wilson will make plays against an Alabama team with an unfortunate penchant for turnovers, and his free license to roam sideline to sideline can create problems for some of Bama's secret weapons.

If Alabama's tackles can't handle the edge rush created by Garrett and Hall, the Tide may be forced to move the pocket to give Coker an extra second or two to diagnose the defense. The quarterback has shown a tendency for making poor reads from time to time while forcing the ball into double- and triple-coverages. At times, he completely fails to see a lurking safety over the middle.  Against this Aggie defense, he will pay for such indiscretions. Wilson and Watts have ability, and in the scheme, they will be primed to rob passing routes and create havoc.  The stats indicate that the Aggie pass rush and overall pass defense have tightened under the new leadership, and Alabama will have to find a way to create success against a more efficient Aggie defensive unit with a less efficient Tide offensive unit.

Speaking of the pass rush, once again, the stats for the Aggie defense are somewhat misleading. Though they have recorded 19 sacks, nine of those came against Arizona State in the opener. That leaves ten sacks total over two games against lesser opponents and two SEC games. In other words, take away the sacks against ASU, and he Aggies are averaging only 2.5 sacks per game (which isn't bad, but is considerably less intimidating.) Still, if one views the "havoc" rating for the Aggies thus far in the season, the numbers are impressive, even if skewed. (Havoc ratings include the percentage of downs the defense recorded a sack, tackle for loss, interception, forced fumble or pass broken up.) In 2014, the Aggies' overall havoc rating was 103rd...now it is 12th. The havoc rating for the front seven was 105th, and now it is sixth. The defensive back havoc rating was 93rd, and in 2015, it is 19th.  Those rankings show marked improvement (though the improvement to date may indeed be a factor of limited sample size,) Conversely, according to another advanced stat used to evaluate performance, the defensive S&P+ rankings, have Texas A&M back-tracking from 58th in 2014 to 59th this season.

Regardless of the methodology, the Aggie defense will do whatever it can to limit the Tide to third-and-long attempts, where they have also seen some improvement this season. Three-and-outs are the bread and butter of Chavis defenses, and paired with Sumlin's offensive philosophy, such a tactic can be lethal for opponents. Even a stellar defense like the one wielded by Alabama will wilt over the duration if asked to play 100 snaps due to an ineffectual offense that continually goes three-and-out. Such a circumstance puts pressure on a defense, and as is well known, "pressure bursts pipes." In other words, the aTm defense doesn't have to shut the Tide offense down completely to give the Aggies a chance of winning the game. They must simply be disruptive, take advantage of turnovers when luck strikes and keep the Tide from converting third downs (as the Aggies did against Mississippi State, when they held the Bulldogs to 5-of-16 on third down conversions.)

The Result

On the surface, many may expect this game to be a high scoring affair, with the Aggies' traditionally lackadaisical defense unable to stop Alabama's running game while the aTm offense gets its fair share of explosive plays thanks to an ungodly wealth of skill position talent. That, however, may not be in the cards. Alabama's offense still isn't consistently hitting on all cylinders, and while a performance like the one Bama had against Georgia is certainly possible, one can expect some sort of regression to this season's norm for the Tide (especially in light of the Tide's somewhat sluggish and staccato offensive performance against Arkansas.) It is not a given that the Aggie offense will be able to have its way with the Tide defense, for what it's worth. Alabama's defense is historically elite in regard to talent, and they are playing to a standard 'Bama hasn't seen since 2012.

Moreover, this Aggie defense has the ability to give Alabama trouble, especially if there continue to be breakdowns along the offensive line in pass protection and run-blocking. Where Georgia didn't have star power on its defensive line to take advantage of the very few offensive miscues in Athens, the Aggies have two legitimate NFL prospects in Hall and Garrett, with more talent in the secondary than the Aggies have had during their SEC tenure. (Garrett is first-round type talent, FWIW.) Alabaama tackles Cam Robinson and Dominick Jackson will need to be on their A game both mentally and physically to keep the ends from terrorizing Coker, and Ryan Kelly will need to hold his own against big, athletic talent at defensive tackle.

Alabama should be able to move the ball between the 20s, especially if there's a heaping helping of RPOs in the game plan to give Coker some latitude at the snap. As the game wears on, Alabama should have success moving the ball on the ground, as despite a solid first-string, there isn't much seasoned depth in the front seven for the Aggies. The question is whether or not Bama's offense will be able to do enough to match pace with the uptempo Aggie offense, as such a task will be more difficult in 2015 than in the past three meetings of the two teams.

Expect Kiffin to attack the Aggies' soft zone underneath, taking short passes to get the ball out of Coker's hands quickly and to exploit the Aggie coverage. Chavis has shown that with this defense, he is content to let offenses chip away with short gains while waiting for big play opportunities. And inside the red zone, unlike previous Aggie squads, this year's team has stiffened, limiting red zone production for opponents. Such could create a frustrating result for the Tide offense not unlike that which was seen versus Arkansas last week ala a Tide offense that dominates the stat ledger but is unable to put meaningful points on the board when it has a chance.

If the Aggies can stifle Bama on first down (especially by hemming in the run), there will be trouble for the Tide. While Alabama has done an adequate job of converting third downs to date, a steady diet of third-and-longs will be problematic if the offense is already misfiring. As previously stated, routine three-and-outs will put the Tide defense in a pressure cooker against the prolific Aggie offense, as this year's Bama offense hasn't proved it can win a shootout with the Aggies as it did 2013.

While the Aggie defense looks good on the stat sheet five games into 2015, Alabama will offer the aTm defense its first real test against top-flight competition. A good performance against Alabama will put the conference on notice that the Aggie star is on the rise. An Alabama win that features not only the run, but success with the play-action pass, will indicate the Aggies still have work to do.