Two weeks into the season, Alabama's offense has had highlights and low points, as the Tide dominated a Wisconsin defense renowned for its hard-nosed play before struggling against mid-major Middle Tennessee State at home. Such inconsistency could come back to bite Alabama this weekend in Tuscaloosa, as the Tide hosts easily the best defense it will face in the first two-thirds of the season, namely the Ole Miss Rebel Black Bears.
The Ole Miss "Landshark" defense represents a formidable foe for any offense, let alone a Tide unit that showed a somewhat anemic attack versus the less-than-stellar Blue Raider D in week two of the season. The Blue Raiders fielded a defense that didn't finish in the top 100 in 2014, and the 2015 unit didn't look demonstrably better. Compare that to an Ole Miss defense that finished first in the nation in scoring defense last season, and it's easy to see that offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and the offense will have a tall task before them this Saturday.
In many ways, Ole Miss mirrors Alabama's own vaunted defense, bringing a roster full of seniors across the defensive unit, a shut-down attack and four- and five-star talent throughout the starting 11. Like Alabama, Ole Miss sports a deep, talented defensive line, and defensive coordinator Dave Wommack believes in rotating the big men up front regularly to keep them fresh and fast. Another similarity lies in Wommack's philosophy regarding defensive line packages: thanks to his quality depth, he can put a heavy package on the field to attack lumbering pro-style offenses, or deploy a light, athletic front seven to battle the uptempo spread offenses that have come to favor in the SEC.
Despite these similarities, the two powerful defenses go about achieving these ends in very different ways. While Alabama works from a base 3-4 (with a heavy nickel/ dime influence on obvious passing downs and a fair amount of 4-3), the Rebel Black Bears work primarily out of the 4-2-5 base formation. While Alabama uses the nickel versus the pass, Ole Miss uses it all of the time. This puts an emphasis on the secondary, and fortunately for Wommack, that unit continues to be stacked in Oxford, even after the departure of stalwarts Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson.
Alabama better have worked out the offensive kinks before kickoff at 8:15 p.m. CST Saturday night. Otherwise, the Tide could well see a repeat of its regular season loss to Ole Miss in Oxford last season. Let's take a closer look...
As previously stated, Ole Miss has done well to recruit defensive talent, despite head coach Hugh Freeze's reputation as an offensive guru. Sure, he runs his own brand of uptempo, aggressive offense, but he is one of the few HUNH coaches who has leveraged that brand of offense alongside a defense that can compete with any in the SEC.
The Rebel Black Bears are seeing the fruit of the recruiting process in 2015, with a load of talented juniors and seniors making their impact felt for the defense. Though the secondary is imminently important for the Rebel defense due to the scheme, the 4-2-5 also depends on stellar defensive line play. Fortunately for Ole Miss, they are indeed loaded across the defensive front. Robert Nkemdiche (27 tackles, three tfl, two sacks in 2014) is the super-star, a former number one-ranked recruit who selected Ole Miss over other defensive powerhouses LSU, Georgia and Alabama. The 6'4", 293 pound tackle is a physical freak with the athleticism of a man half his size. So versatile is Nkemdiche that Freeze has actually lined him up at fullback in the Rebel offense this season. While listed as a defensive tackle, Wommack is fond of shifting Nkemdiche around, moving the tackle outside to end in the defense's "heavy" packages (in which the defensive line brings in the beef to average more than 300 pounds at the point of attack.)
The Rebels took a bit of a blow earlier this season with the loss of smaller-framed nose Isaac Gross, an athletic juggernaut in the middle of the Ole Miss attack up front. The 6'1, 240 pound tackle was a terror for opposing offensive lines despite his rather diminutive size for the position, as he was able to outmaneuver lumbering offensive linemen while often serving the traditional nose role by tying up multiple linemen in double-teams. With Gross out for the season, the Rebels will depend on behemoth senior Woodrow Hamilton (14 tackles, half a sack), a 6'3", 319 pound mountain of a man and NFL prospect. Much like Alabama's traditional nose tackles, Hamilton's primary role is that of space eater: he soaks up blockers and frees space for the Rebels' aggressive linebackers versus the run.
While few teams boast the talent the Rebels have in the interior of the defensive line, their defensive ends are equally as diverse and dynamic. Junior Fadol Brown (38 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, half a sack) is athletic and physically gifted at 6'4", 280 pounds. His role in the scheme is to primarily seal the edges, as he is powerful and quick enough to blow up tight ends or outmaneuver tackles with his speed and agility. On the other side, the Rebels have speed demon sophomore Marquis Haynes (31 tackles, nine tfls, 7.5 sacks), who at 6'3" and 220 pounds, personifies the Rebels' "lighter is better" defensive philosophy. In his first season in 2014, Haynes was dynamic in terrorizing bulky tackles with his speed and length. Haynes is the returning sack leader for the Ole Miss unit in 2015.
When the Rebels use their "heavy" defensive line package, expect to see freshman Breeland Speaks (6'3", 313 pounds) and junior college transfer D.J. Jones (6', 324 pounds) rotate into the fray. With Breeland, Jones, the younger Nkemdiche and Hamilton on the field, the defensive front averages a whopping 313 pounds. Despite the increase in size, with Nkemdiche at end, the pass rush still has a legitimate speed option around end...a frightening prospect for opposing offenses. Ole Miss sometimes inserts other linemen into the above package situationally, and the Rebels are one of few teams (like Alabama) with the depth and versatility to rotate defensive line packages without a falloff in talent.
While small in number, the Ole Miss linebackers are incredibly important to both run and pass defense. While called upon at times as slippery pass rushers who use instinct and intuition to root through blocking schemes, they are also an important part of the underneath zone pass coverage in Ole Miss' patented "fire zone" tactic.
Senior Denzel Nkemdiche (36 tackles, 4.5 tfls, one sack) is a team leader who hopes to return to form after years of unfortunate injuries. The elder Nkemdiche, who is listed as a linebacker, is more of a safety/ linebacker hybrid at 5'11" and 208 pounds. Nkemdiche mans the "Stinger" linebacker role for the Rebels, and his responsibilities include both the pass rush and coverage, a task for which he is ideally suited. Joining him will be a rotation of converted (Wommack says he will actually play both positions) senior defensive end C.J. Johnson (38 tackles, eight tfls, four sacks) and senior Christian Russell (23 tackles, half a sack) at the Mike linebacker position. Both men compliment Nkemdiche well, as Johnson (6'3", 225 pounds) and Russell (6', 232 pounds) bring heavier physiques to support the run and provide power on the pass rush.
The all-important Ole Miss secondary is loaded with talent, despite the aforementioned loss of Golson and Prewitt from 2014's unit. Don't underestimate the retooled secondary, however, as their replacements are equally as adept at locking down opposing receivers, supporting the run and providing a disruptive influence in opposing backfields. Nickel back (or "Husky" in the Ole Miss defensive parlance) is manned by no other than junior Tony Conner (69 tackles, nine tfls, one interception), a 6' 217 pound former five-star recruit recruited heavily by Saban. As was the case with Bama's former strong safety Landon Collins, it should be illegal for a player to possess both the size and speed of Conner, as he is a solid option in coverage and is a savage hitter who is called upon to step into the box in run support routinely.
Joining Connor in the secondary are fellow head-hunter Trae Elston (59 tackles, three tfls, one INT, one fumble recovery) at free safety and former corner Mike Hilton (71 tackles, four tfls, three INT) at rover. Elston, another senior, is savvy and nasty in run support, using anticipation and great size (6', 195 pounds) to inflict pain on opposing receivers and backs. Hilton, while undersized at 5'9" and 184 pounds, provides a physical presence, and is the leading returning tackler for the Ole Miss defense.
How Ole Miss Can Stop Alabama
In a nutshell, the Rebels are one of a handful of teams across the nation who have a number of ways to keep the Crimson Tide offense in check. While many defenses hope to make the Tide one-dimensional, thus limiting the myriad weapons Kiffin has at his disposal, the Ole Miss defense can stay within its base scheme, matching Alabama talented athlete for talented athlete.
Wommack is somewhat underrated as a defensive mastermind, spending most of his career at mid-majors before joining the Ole Miss staff under Freeze. However, in his fourth year at Ole Miss, Wommack has made a name for himself (he was a Broyles Award nominee last season as one of the best assistant coaches in the nation) through his innovative use of the 4-2-5 scheme and aggressive play-calling.
This is where the Rebels' similarity to their crimson counterparts takes an abrupt turn. While Saban would rather, given a perfect HUNH-free world, play big man-on-big man power defense, Wommack not only uses lighter-framed players to good effect, but he actually prefers more athletic defenders who bring versatility and speed to his fast-flowing scheme. Both defenses are aggressive, but rather than the thudding heavyweight slugfest preferred by Saban and Alabama, the Ole Miss defensive attack is a welterweight flurry of speed and precision.
The strength of the 4-2-5 is that it allows a coach to use a standard, even-numbered four-man front, a benefit that cannot be underestimated. The four-man front simplifies things for the defensive linemen, allowing them to attack their assignments aggressively without the hesitation of a complex read off the snap. In contrast, Alabama's three-man front involves a great deal of two-gapping, a tactic which forces the linemen to make reads before (and sometimes at) the snap and respond by picking the right gap to attack given the offensive set. While Bama has made a habit of recruiting the type of lineman who can thrive in the 3-4 defense, Ole Miss' four-man front makes it easy for the defensive linemen to succeed, even if only tying up blockers so that the speedy linebackers can make things happen in the back field.
That brings us to the linebackers. While Bama tends to use a diversity of linebackers with specialized roles (i.e. the defensive end-like pass-rushing Jack, the inside-gapping Sam, the roving sideline-to-sideline Will, the run-stopping Mike), the two backers employed by the Rebels have to do a little of everything. The "Stinger" role involves pass rush and coverage in the flats of tight ends and running backs, while the traditional Mike role is responsible for run-stopping and containment. Wommack uses sometimes confusing looks which overload offensive lines unknowingly, creating opportunities for the athletic linebackers to work their way through to the point of attack like flour through a sieve.
Take for example the way the Stinger is used on a blitz package to lethal effect against the run. The opponent is in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end). While Bama hasn't run a great deal of two-back this season with the departure of 2014 fullback Jalston Fowler, you get an idea how Wommack uses the speed of his personnel to get the job done. The four down linemen do their jobs by locking up the blockers, with one end going head-to-head with the tight end, a tackle drawing a double from the left tackle and guard, the nose drawing the attention of the center and right guard, and the speed end edge-rushing around the right tackle. That accounts for all five linemen and the tight end, right? While those players are mostly stoned at the point of attack, the Rebels have four potential blitzers still left unblocked, with the uber-talented corners in man on the two receivers. The Mike, safety and free safety all feign a blitz to varying extents, while still putting themselves in position to contain the running play at or near the line given the fact that the blockers are all occupied, with the exception of the second back. One back, however, can't account for three athletic rushers.
The real assassin is the Stinger, who after a brief delay, uses his instinct to pick his way through the gap created by the double-team by the center and right guard, emerging from behind his nose and right into the running lane, where the ball carrier was headed. The result is often a tackle for loss, or at best, a play for no gain. After all, if the stinger manages to choose the wrong gap, the rover safety and Mike are still in position to contain the play in most cases.
Wommack isn't afraid to leave his corners on Man Island, either, and uses them in his blitz schemes quite often. Likewise, the defensive backs are just as responsible for defending the run as they are the pass, with safeties (regardless of their nicknames) being called upon to infiltrate the box regularly to stack the odds against the offense and create confusing and unexpected vectors of penetration.
Here's an example of how the Ole Miss corners react and adapt in run support, which they can do without hesitation given the ability of the safeties to defend the pass at a high level. Here, against four wides, the Rebels line up in a Cover-3 look. The offense gives them three wides to the left side, with a single receiver on the right wing of the offense. The formation is straight pass, but the offense gets tricky with a run-pass option, opting in this case to go pitch to the back on a speed option. The edge receivers (X and Z) are covered by the corners, the Rover covers up the Y and the Husky has responsibility for the H. The free safety floats over the top towards the field side, while the Stinger has responsibility for the flat on the weak side. The defensive linemen rush according to responsibility, while the Mike brings soft pressure in the middle gap to seal the inside.
As you can see, the pass options are covered schematically, and given there are no blown coverages or mental lapses, the Rebel defensive backs are in position to defend all legitimate passing options. The quarterback opts for the speed option pitch, with the back scooting out towards the space between the Y and H receivers, who, undoubtedly, are doing their best to tie up the nickel and Husky to create a running lane. However, that plan is stymied when the boundary corner reads the speed option and breaks off of coverage, streaking down to overload the gap with athleticism to make a play on the ball. Such a play could result in considerable yardage if the corner simply stays with his coverage assignment, but Wommack gives his corners not only the flexibility, but the accountability, for playing to stop the run. He trusts the instincts and reads of his playmakers, and it has paid dividends for a Rebel defense that has seen meteoric improvement under Wommack's leadership.
Ole Miss' ability to flex on a dime and create workable defensive efforts regardless of formation will be key against Alabama. The Tide likes to count on its offensive line to overload defenses and create space with zone blocking. This, however, could work against Bama versus Ole Miss, as the Rebel linebackers themselves thrive off of space, oftentimes sensing a gap, slashing through it horizontally and appearing out of nowhere to make a play. Alabama won't be able to "big boy" the Ole Miss defensive front, and will instead have to count on some degree of subterfuge to use the Rebels speed and aggressiveness against them. If there was ever a time for a solid screen attack, this would be it.
Alabama's offense must be patient, above all, and understand the task ahead of it. Typically, the Tide jumps out to an early lead, then uses attrition and superior athletes to build upon said lead over four quarters. That tactic will result in a maelstrom against Ole Miss. The Tide will not score on every series, and shouldn't hold that as a reasonable expectation. Without a legitimate deep passing game - and let's face it, no one wants to see either of Bama's quarterbacks putting much air under the ball against this secondary, given the field-stretching failings of the offense over the last two weeks - Alabama's offense must rely on a "death by a thousand cuts" approach. Alabama probably still holds a hair of a talent advantage over Ole Miss offense versus offense (especially if the Rebels' all-star tackle Laremy Tunsil sits once again), and the Tide will need to leverage that with confidence over four quarters to win a slugfest in Bryant Denny.
Honestly, this is one of the scariest games on Bama's schedule this year, and for good reason. While the Rebel running game does not inspire trepidation, Ole Miss has a legitimate passing attack, which matched against Alabama's still-gelling secondary, could have success. Given that, it will be crucial for Alabama to find the weaknesses in the Rebel defense and exploit them to the fullest extent.
Speaking of exploiting weaknesses, how will the Tide do that? One has to expect that Ole Miss will get a heavy dose of the running game. Derrick Henry is the Tide's best bet of frustrating the Rebel defense, but that won't be an easy task against the salty seniors. Of particular concern for Alabama will be the right side of the offensive line. While right tackle Dominick Jackson and right guard Alphonse Taylor looked workable in the opener, last week against the lowly Blue Raider D, Jackson was routinely victimized. He was beaten inside and out by a guy who would likely be on the scout team at Ole Miss given the Rebel's depth at end. Whether it's Brown, Haynes or Nkemdiche (or one of the linebackers, for that matter) applying the pressure on the right side, it's hard to imagine Ole Miss not winning half of those battles against Bama's O line weak link in Jackson (and that's a conservative estimate).
To offset that, Bama may elect to run more to the left side (as counter-intuitive as it may seem) behind the solid tandem of left tackle Cam Robinson and left guard Ross Pierschbacher. Center Ryan Kelly has looked dominant in both games this season, but he'll be battling a different caliber of athlete this week against Hamilton and Nkemdiche. If he holds his own, it will allow Bama to bang Henry between the tackles. If there's success there, Bama's win probability increases dramatically. If Alabama can win that grind, then the rest of the offensive options will open up a little.
Expect Drake to be involved in the game plan heavily as well, maybe not as much as a back as in the passing game. As illustrated above, Ole Miss has excellent schemes for creating underneath zone coverage with as many as four defenders, a tactic which takes away an opponent's short passing game and hot reads (especially versus an inconsistent, under-confident passer.) With little confidence that Coker or Cooper Bateman can stretch the field with accuracy, expect the underneath routes to be clogged with defenders willing to gamble that successful deep passes will be few and far between. Ole Miss will be able to trust their corners against Bama's passing game until Cker and Company prove otherwise, as inaccuracy haunted the Bama signal caller to a great degree against the Blue Raiders last week.
The screen game, while typically used against aggressive, attacking defenses like the one Ole Miss employs, may not be Bama's best avenue for attack, either. With five defensive backs pinching the line (given the lack of the deep pass threat), it will be tough for Bama to execute the slow-evolving screens the Tide has used in the first two weeks of the season. In fact, given the execution (or lack thereof), sloppy screens could result in ugly consequences of the INT variety. At the very least, their effectiveness could be limited. Bama will need quick-developing, high-percentage, low-risk plays to give Coker confidence and move the ball. And Coker will simply have to get the ball out more quickly, there is little question about that. With the Rebels' explosive offense, the best defense will be to keep them off the field. The Bama offense has the task of chipping away at the Ole Miss D, working the clock and scoring when the opportunity presents itself.
Simply put, to be successful against the Ole Miss defense, Alabama must be simple, flawless and smart. Long drives (whether buoyed by the running game or short gains through the air) will be the letter of the day. There can be no mistakes against a senior-laden defense like the one that's coming to T-town this weekend. Simply put, the Tide will need its best offensive performance of the season to salt away a victory against the visiting Rebels. The Landshark defense is as good as you've heard, and they offer this developing Alabama offense a Master's level exam this Saturday night.