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Previewing Alabama vs. Mississippi State: The Bulldog defense

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While Mississippi State may not pose the challenge of some of the Tide's other opponents in 2015, they are big and physical

Linebacker Richie Brown has emerged as one of the Bulldogs' leading defenders in 2015
Linebacker Richie Brown has emerged as one of the Bulldogs' leading defenders in 2015
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Facing the threat of a Manny Diaz defense sounds almost like a contradiction in terms, given the former Texas defensive coordinator's maligned reputation following a disastrous flame-out in Austin in the waning days of the Mac Brown Era of Longhorn football. Granted, Diaz has seen struggles in some of his major college stops (the aforementioned Longhorns program as well as his short stint with the Arkansas Razorbacks), but one could argue that it wasn't the coordinator at fault in both of those situations, based on Diaz' relative success at other stops during his career, namely Mississippi State and Louisiana Tech.

After serving as the Bulldog defensive coordinator earlier in his career, Diaz has returned to Starkville in 2015, replacing former Mississippi State defensive coordinator (and current Florida coordinator) Geoff Collins, who was hired away by Jim McIlwain when he took the reins in Gainesville. While the Bulldogs had the unenviable task of replacing several key pieces from their previous incarnation, Diaz and the Dogs are well on their way to once again becoming a stubborn bend-but-don't-break unit in the ever-competitive SEC West.

The fact of the matter is that for all of the positive momentum the Bulldogs are dredging up, they are not a statistically imposing defense...at least not yet. But with large defensive backs, solid defensive line talent and dynamic linebackers playing in an aggression-loaded scheme, will the Bulldogs be able to knock the Tide off its stride this weekend on their own home (CLANGA) field?

Time will tell. Let's take a closer look...

Roster

For a defensive scheme that pivots on the performances of an attacking, havoc-causing front seven and the all-important safety positions, the Bulldog defense came into 2015 a little short on experienced personnel. After all, the Bulldogs were replacing not only freak-style linebacker (and second-round NFL Draft pick) Bernardrick McKinney, but they lost both defensive tackles and safeties from the starting lineup to boot.

That being the case, it was obvious the Bulldogs would see some drop-off in experienced talent and depth, and that has definitely been the case in 2015. While the players who stepped up have performed admirably, let's face it: McKinney is a once a decade defensive athlete for Mississippi State, and the role of safety in Diaz' two-read scheme is not a place one wants to see a lack of experience.

However, throughout the season, players have bounded into the fray for the Bulldogs, relative unknowns who have taken to their new roles with gusto. For example, former five-star recruit and junior tackle Chris Jones (6-6, 308 pounds) has leapt into action, and he has become the kind of block-occupying, havoc-causing run-plugger the Bulldogs needed to anchor their defensive front. Jones has been joined by another relative newcomer in junior Nelson Adams (6-3, 310 pounds), and together, the duo has been excellent in wadding up the interior running lanes while absorbing double teams that free the ends.

Speaking of ends, the Bulldogs have a pair of able, rangy athletes attacking the edges of opposing offenses. Junior A.J. Jefferson (6-3, 277 pounds) has been a pleasant surprise for a Bulldog defense that ranks eighth nationally in tackles for loss, as the big, physical end has himself accounted for 12.5 tackles for loss to lead the team in that regard (5.5 five of those tfls were sacks, good for second on the team). At the other end position, senior Ryan Brown (6-6, 266 pounds) has been steady if not spectacular, giving Diaz two very capable bookends who are good against the run and adept in the pass rush.

(Though that first line is solid, it is worth noting that the defensive line depth behind the starters is somewhat suspect, a factor that could come into play in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game, given what's expected to be a Bama offensive attack that leans heavily on bruising tailback Derrick Henry.)

The linebackers are tremendously active in Diaz' defense, as they are often called upon to play coverage, stuff the run, force the edge and rush the passer on zone blitz calls.  Though replacing McKinney is a tall task, junior linebacker Richie Brown (6-2, 245 pounds) has performed admirably, leading the team in tackles (73) and sacks (5.5) along with eight tackles for loss and an interception. Another standout returning ‘backer for the Bulldogs, junior Beniquez Brown (6-1, 238 pounds), is having a stellar year as well, accounting for 59 tackles, 6.5 tfls and an interception. Joining the Browns in the 4-3 linebacking corps is senior Zach Jackson (6-2, 212 pounds), a smalliash safety-linebacker hybrid who has tremendous speed and versatility.

The Bulldogs started the season with one of the premier cornerback tandems in the conference, with seniors Will Redmond and Tavese Calhoun (6-1, 180 pounds) firmly atop the depth chart. In the early going, both were fairly effective, together accounting for four of the Bulldogs' 10 total interceptions. However, in mid-October, Redmond (easily the Bulldogs' highest potential NFL Draft pick) was sidelined for the remainder of the season with an ACL injury suffered in practice. Calhoun has been a steady presence in the Bulldog backfield, but Diaz has had to count on junior Tolando Cleveland (6-0, 190 pounds) to fill in for the injured Redmond. While Cleveland has been workmanlike, he's no Will Redmond, and the Bulldog pass defense has suffered as a result.

Both Bulldog safeties were first-time starters at the beginning of the season, and they have enjoyed quite a steep learning curve given the importance of the safety position in the two-read, 4-3 defense. Junior free safety Kivon Coman (6-3, 196 pounds) has great size for the position and is efficient in playing the over-the-top type of coverage expected of him in Diaz' defense. The Bulldogs have had to go with a redshirt freshman at strong, with Brandon Bryant (5-11, 205 pounds) learning the ropes on-the-job with varying results.

How Mississippi State can stop the Alabama offense

Stopping the confident Alabama offense will be a tall task indeed for a defense that is fair-to-middlin' in almost every major category. The Tide's offensive scheme leaves little mystery: it's ground and pound with Henry (and occasionally Kenyan Drake) behind a massive offensive line while Jake Coker manages the game and picks his play-action spots with uber-talented receivers. While the Bulldogs could certainly frustrate Alabama (particularly when it comes to making plays behind the line of scrimmage), there seems to be a mismatch at nearly every focal point when comparing the Tide O and MSU D.

The Bulldog defense is the traditional bend-but-don't-break variety, which reveals itself statistically as a team that gives up a lot of yards while keeping scoring to a minimum. Case in point: the Bulldogs are ranked only 48th in total defense, giving up 369.4 per game. However, they rank 11th in scoring defense, 25th in third down efficiency and 29th in red zone defense. Those numbers are telling of a defense that is willing to take chances while attacking the offense, ceding the short gain and a great many yards between the 20s in hopes of creating havoc in the form of turnovers, third-and-longs and stalled scoring drives.

Diaz' scheme is one that is aggressive if nothing else. The defensive coordinator likes to have his cake and eat it too, and his preferred two-read scheme allows him to do that...but only so far as his safeties will let him. The defense is designed to allow the front seven to attack with reckless abandon with coverage coming in variations of cover-two or cover-four. In this scheme, five defensive backs are on the field a lot of the time, with the nickel and Will linebacker covering slot receivers, corners taking the X and Z on the edges and the safeties playing back deep. Against four wides, the nickel and Will can drop into coverage in the slots, or they can blitz while leaving the deep safety to take up the coverage assignment. On run plays, the Will and nickel are counted upon to force the run inside, where the defensive line and physical linebackers are responsible for snarling running lanes, and the safeties can crash the gaps. Or, the defense can bring five rushers with safeties either rotating over into coverage, or bearing down to fill gaps in run support.

While it is a pretty versatile system (particularly adept at defending spread teams that like to run the ball), it does have inherent weaknesses. The system pivots on the ability of the safeties to make reads, then follow through with the proper course of action. With corners in man on the edges, the safeties are relied upon to provide help and cover errors in coverage. When the defense throws a corner blitz, it is the safety who fills the gap in coverage, and if he should hesitate, a big play can ensue. If the front seven can't penetrate and cause havoc in the back field, man coverages are bound to break down eventually, thus leading to big play potential. This scheme of defense carries a high risk-reward quotient, to be sure. If all goes as planned, this defense limits big plays, allowing teams to move the ball but ultimately killing drives by creating second and longs and third and long, which create punts and forced turnovers on third-and-long conversion attempts. When any component fails to execute its assigned task, however, the breakdowns can be disastrous and offenses that can take advantage make hay.

There are lots of moving parts that make this defense successful if executed properly...but those same moving parts become a liability when execution is sub-par. A defense designed to limit big plays can go the other way if the reads aren't correct, or if the defensive line is routinely stoned at the point of attack and quarterbacks have the ability to read progressions and accurately deliver the ball.

The question of the week is whether any of this will work against the potent Alabama offense? One thing the Bulldog defense will have going for it is the fact that physically, they are a larger defense that retains a good degree of athleticism. The tackles are massive, the ends are long and rangy. Both Browns at linebacker are 235 pounds-plus. The corners and safeties (with the exception of Bryant) are all over six feet in height. Against an Alabama offense coming off of its most physical game of the year, this could give the Bulldogs an edge, at least early on.

Alabama's running game has gained momentum as the season has unfolded, and despite the ever-present missed assignments and periodic flaws in execution that erratically plague the Tide in run blocking, Alabama is a force to be reckoned with on the ground. Henry has been phenomenal and has only gotten better, posting 1,254 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2015. He will grind on the Bulldog front seven and wear them down, and without much depth to back up the first-stringers, the fourth quarter will likely see a steady diet of physical Henry runs through the MSU front. Even when fresh, the Bulldogs aren't elite run-stoppers, giving up 167.7 yards per game, good only for 69th in the nation. In other words, Henry shouldn't have much trouble getting to the century mark this weekend.

While Alabama's MO will be to attack the Bulldog defense with the armored column that is Henry, passing against the MSU defense is a different proposition. Granted, the secondary was dramatically better with Redmond in the line-up, but the Bulldogs have still managed to give up only 201.7 yards per game through the air, good for 43rd nationally. The Bulldogs have shown their bend-but-don't-break propensity in the passing game, giving up only five touchdowns all season long. At home, where the game will be played this weekend, the Bulldog secondary has been even better, allowing only 177.4 yards per game through the air with a measly two touchdowns. While one can expect an offense as loaded with skill position talent as Alabama to make plays, success in the passing game will be the product of solid play-calling and flawless execution from Coker (once the run has been established, of course.)

Coker has become more measured as a passer as he's grown more confident in his role, and Lane Kiffin has devised a scheme which plays to his strengths as a quarterback. There are lots of run-pass options built into the Bama attack, and the strength of the running game translates well into play-action. While Coker is not a Johnny Football-type running threat, he's moved with enough ease that defenses must account for his rumbling athleticism, particularly on third-down plays where receivers are well-covered. Against LSU last week, Alabama went for the high-percentage plays through the air most of the time, with Coker flipping the ball out to Calvin Ridley and Richard Mullaney on the edges. The big play shots were there, to be sure, though none of them connected (most notably among those missed chances was Coker's slight overthrow of a streaking Ridley deep after Ridley scorched the coverage). Fortunately for the Tide, those plays were an afterthought, as Alabama controlled the ground game so completely that there was no need for risk-taking in the passing game.

The Bulldogs will play safeties deep against Alabama in the two-read, offering a safe alternative to the aggressive press and bump coverage Alabama has often seen this year. This will force Coker to be careful with his throws, and will once again probably force the QB to look to the edges for his most viable passing options, as the middle of the field will be crowded. Ridley has the ability to slice and dice the wounded Bulldog secondary, and if Ar'Darius Stewart can consistently hold onto the ball, he could have a big day against the Bulldogs as well.

Make no mistake, though, the lead horse will be Henry and the Tide offensive line. If they can replicate the success they had against a superior LSU front seven (in regard to the MSU unit), then there won't be much need for tossing the ball around. Alabama will impose its will, more so as the game wears on and the Bulldog front feels the effects of its lack of depth.

One area in which the Bulldogs will find daylight is penetrating the Tide offensive front, which could have effects in both the running and passing games. Henry struggles when hit behind the line of scrimmage, even with glancing blows. And with Coker's penchant for holding the ball and absorbing the sack, penetration could have the effect of stifling otherwise promising drives by creating third-and-forever situations with which the Tide has struggled in 2015.

Two stats in this regard are quite telling: Alabama is ranked 119th in the nation in tackles for loss allowed, and Mississippi State is ranked eighth nationally in tackles for loss. One of these two factors must bend to the other, and given the Tide's history throughout the season, one can count on the Bulldogs routinely penetrating the Alabama backfield. This is problematic for both the passing and running games, as Henry is at his best when he builds steam before contact, and Coker has a history of taking huge sack losses and/ or tossing interceptions when pressured (particularly on third down).

If the Bulldogs can find a way to penetrate consistently, it could make for quite the ugly offensive performance for the Tide, as MSU is content to let teams march all around the middle of the field, so long as they don't score. Diaz' defense is all about opportunity and forcing teams to abandon drives. In other words, two nice offensive gains (the kind of three and four yard runs Alabama covets, for example) can be totally undone by a third down sack. Whether that sack comes on third down or first down is immaterial for the Bulldogs in their defensive philosophy, so long as there is situational pressure on the offense, thus creating a higher turnover potential or, at worst, a stalled drive that results in a punt.

The Result

The result is fairly easy to conjure, given the success Alabama had last week against a more highly-regarded LSU front seven. Alabama will use the run early, even if there are stops and starts. Early on, in front of their cowbell-ringing home crowd, the Bulldogs will get their fair share of stops. Alabama may have several three-and-outs in the first half, or at the least, a few drives that stall before providing points. This is to be expected against a gritty, aggressive defense like the one the Bulldogs field, so there will be no reason to panic.

That dynamic will begin to shift as the defensive depth wears thin in the second half. Quite simply, even when fresh, the Bulldogs will have a difficult time holding Henry in check. Even with erratic offensive line play, Henry has proven a determined ball-carrier who thrives on contact at or beyond the line of scrimmage, and as the defense tires, his success quotient will sky-rocket.

The Tide passing game may be something of an afterthought against the Bulldogs, as Kiffin and Nick Saban know what they have in Henry: a reliable producer with a strong will and Hulk-like strength. That said, Kiffin will mix in play-action as the running game prospers, and weapons like Ridley and Mullaney are too polished to keep sheathed. Once the Tide can lull the Bulldog safeties into anticipated run response, there will be opportunities through the air. Coker will take a sack or two, may even throw an interception. But, on the other hand, he has been exceedingly crisp in the Tide's road games this season. If the game plan calls for him to sling the ball around a little to loosen the Dog defense, there's no reason to believe he can't throw those quick outs and slants against a decent but lacking Bulldog secondary.

After all, LSU's secondary was far more talented and experienced, and when called upon, Coker was able to execute against them with relative ease. If the Tide shakes off the traditional post-LSU malaise and executes to a standard in Starkville, the Alabama offense should have quite a day against an underwhelming Bulldog defense. As Saban has repeatedly said about this team, it won't be what the other team does so much as whether or not the Tide plays to its standard.