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

Once the laughing stock of the SEC West, the influence of defensive guru John Chavis and a stockpiling of talent has turned the Aggie’s former weak spot into a strength

Texas A&M v Auburn
Myles Garrett is almost unblockable...just ask Auburn.
Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

When Texas A&M made it their business to lure legendary former LSU defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis away from the Bayou, they made a statement that resonated throughout the conference. Once the whipping boy of their fellow SEC counterparts, a team that prided itself on enough explosive offensive production to account for the horrific defensive play of the Aggie D, aTm wanted to prove that as members of the SEC West, they were making it their business to become a more whole football team.

Two years into the Chavis experiment in College Station, and the returns are beginning to roll in. Everyone knows about the Aggies’ stellar pair of future NFL defensive ends in Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. But few know that midway through the season, the Aggies are improving. While not a worst-to-first scenario by any stretch of the imagination, the Texas A&M defense is ranked 22nd in the nation in scoring defense, fourth in red zone defense, third in tackles for loss and 13th in sacks. If advanced metrics are your thing, recognize that the Aggie defense is currently 25th in defensive S&P+, and an impressive fourth nationally in the “Havoc” metric. There are still some areas of improvement to be sure (pass defense being the most glaring), but this aTm defense that recently was a joke has become more fearsome in Chavis’ second year.

For all of the improvement, however, does anyone expect them to dismantle the Crimson Tide’s seemingly unstoppable, multi-faceted offensive attack? After all, Josh Dobbs and the Tennessee Volunteers (an offense Alabama held to a mere 163 yards of total offense) shredded the Aggies for 684 yards despite losing to A&M on the road. That’s an awful lot of yards for an offense that was seemingly inept on their home field versus the Crimson Tide, and that disparity in performance against a common opponent at least begs the question of whether the Aggies are really better, or rather just the beneficiaries of statistical smoke-and-mirrors.

The Aggies have the benefit of being fairly healthy at this point in the season, a luxury the Volunteers did not enjoy when they met Alabama last weekend. Kevin Sumlin, known as an offensive guru who prizes wide receivers more highly than platinum, has made an obvious, overt effort to draw top-shelf defensive talent to College Station. In that respect, Chavis’ hiring was not just of tactical benefit for this defense: his hiring represented a commitment to defense, a recruiting coup that will help the Aggies draw top-flite defensive talent away from other regional hot spots like LSU.

But back to the issue at hand: Alabama’s offense has morphed into a thing of rapid-fire, zone read-option, explosive-play beauty. The running attack has become nearly unstoppable. Those interior running lanes which were clogged all too often last season with Jake Coker at the helm of the offense have become sieve-like with deadly running QB Jalen Hurts running the show. No team has figured out how to rob Alabama of its myriad offensive options. Key on any of the Tide’s trio of big-play backs, and Hurts will take it to the house. Try to spy Hurts, and that commitment will result in your dispatching through the wave-behind-pounding-wave zone-blocked running game. Load the box, and ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley will make you wish you’d stuck the edges.

There are many ways to stop one of the Tide’s methods of attack, but there are no ways to stop them all. Texas A&M, improved or not, will have a difficult time dealing with what the Tide brings to the table this week. They will bring the pressure, and they will attempt to stop the run through unconventional sets. But will the result be any different from the results of games with other teams who figured they could stop Alabama’s offense? We will have to see. Until then, 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 talent standard, there is still work to be done for Chavis to get the specific kinds of players he leverages within the confines of his scheme. As was the case at LSU, Chavis likes to employ larger-framed defensive backs at the corners, physical corners over 6’ feet in height who can run. He treats his safeties as 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 as quarterback hunters, 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 (6-5, 270 pounds) and Hall (6-6, 270 pounds) 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, lumbering offensive tackles, bypassing them with speed and technique, and cinching the pocket to pressure the quarterback relentlessly. 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 and option pitch, which is impressive for a man of Garrett’s height and breadth.

Garrett is having a money-making season in preparation for the NFL Draft, as he has 14 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks and six quarterback hurries halfway through the season. While Garrett has cemented himself as a top-round draft pick next spring, Hall may actually be having the better season. Hall has accounted for 24 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and 10.5 quarterback hurries. Together, Garrett and Hall form the toughest pair of ends the Tide will face this season, and after Cam Robinson struggled last week with the Vols’ Derek Barnett, he’ll definitely get no rest this week with Hall and Garrett lining up across from him.

The defensive tackles are also typical 4-3 interior pluggers, with two newcomers this season in junior Zaycoven Henderson (6-3, 300 pounds) and senior Hardreck Walker (6-2, 290 pounds). Henderson is a monster who plays in a style similar to that played by the traditional nose tackle in a 3-4 alignment. When the Aggie defense goes into Chavis’ patented “Mustang” defensive set, Henderson becomes a proxy nose as the sole tackle in the defensive scheme, lining up in a zero technique. Henderson is a critical part of the Aggie defensive interior, as he has accounted for 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a couple of quarterback hurries. Walker is a more athletic tackle who has good length for the interior and plays strong against the run. He has recorded eight tackles this season.

Behind Henderson is spectacular redshirt freshman Kingsley Keke (6-4, 310 pounds), another behemoth who is more than a mere block-soaker in the middle. The aggressive young player has 13 tackles on the season with a sack, and will see time against Alabama. Supporting Walker is sophomore Daylon Mack (6-1, 320 pounds), a fireplug of a tackle with a mean streak and a hard-to-move big body. Mack has nine tackles, one of which was for a loss, in 2016.

The linebacking corps also fits the mold of player that Chavis traditionally casts in his brand of multiple 4-3 scheme. Senior Shaan Washington (6-3, 240 pounds) lines up at Will, and he has been a force through the first half of the season. Washington is second on the team in tackles with 45, along with 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, five passes broken up, six quarterback hurries, and two forced fumbles. Washington is definitely the Alpha dog amongst the Aggie linebacking corps, providing a steadying effect that the unit has lacked in past season. Behind Washington is uber-talented redshirt sophomore Cullen Gillaspia (6-2, 230 pounds), who has accounted for eight tackles in limited playing time to date.

Sophomore Otara Alaka (6-3, 240 pounds) is the starter at the Mike position, as after an injury-riddled 2015 campaign, the linebacker is back up to speed in the first half of 2016. Alaka has been steady in run defense, with 29 tackles and three tackles for loss. Expect to see senior Claude George (6-2, 240 pounds) on the field in relief of Alaka at times, providing excellent depth. George was trampled by Alabama’s running game last year, but this year, he’s shown improvement, accounting for 26 tackles, six tackles for loss, and two sacks.

At Sam, the Aggies are starting sophomore Richard Moore (6-1, 218 pounds), a newcomer to the Aggie starting lineup who has demonstrated his ability to contribute in the early going. Moore’s stat line isn’t spectacular with only 12 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack, but he is adapting to the learning curve and has the benefit of two more experienced linebackers across the starting trio. Spelling Moore is sophomore Dwaine Thomas, who in scant playing time has recorded two tackles.

The secondary has talent, and in time, Chavis will no doubt continue to 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 has evolved into a top-flight defensive back. To date, Watts has been responsible for 36 tackles, two interceptions, 4.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. Continued tutelage under Chavis, who coached a bevy of future NFL defensive backs in his time at LSU, will only assist in his development. Behind Watts is redshirt freshman Larry Pryor (6-0, 205 pounds), who has picked up six tackles this season.

At strong safety, the Aggies are starting another sophomore, Justin Evans (6-1, 200 pounds.) Evans has the size Chavis likes in his safeties, as he requires them to play a variety of roles from pass coverage to run support. Evans leads the Aggies in interceptions this season with three to go along with a team-leading 48 tackles, three tackles for loss, and six passes broken up.

At corner, the Aggies have two newcomers to the starting rotation in a pair of juniors who are called upon to play a substantial amount of man coverage. On the left side, junior Priest Willis (6-2, 200 pounds) has the measurables Chavis covets in defensive backs, with adequate speed to go along with his large frame. Willis has accounted for 24 tackles, seven passes broken up, and an interception. Behind Willis is sophomore DeShawn Capers-Smith (6-0, 190 pounds), who has made five tackles in limited play.

Right side corner Nick Harvey (5-10, 185 pounds) is slightly smaller than the ideal for the position, but he is quick and agile. Harvey has been a tackling machine despite his smallish frame, recording 37 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, six passes broken up, and a fumble recovery. With some depth issues in the secondary’s two-deep, the Aggies are relying on redshirt freshman Roney Elam (6-2, 180 pounds) as the second man up at the right corner.

The Aggies also have a “Honey Badger-lite” in nickel back Donovan Wilson (6-1, 205 pounds), the big-play specialist in the aTm secondary. Wilson is a prototypical Chavis DB, with the perfect combination of 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 having yet another great season, with 29 tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack, two passes broken up, and two quarterback hurries. A&M is stacked at the position, with junior Noel Ellis (5-10, 185 pounds) serving as the back-up. Ellis, a physical hitter with good instincts, has an interception and two tackles to his credit this year.

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 capable of implanting 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 Attack the Alabama Offense

If John Chavis knows anything, he knows what to expect when he matches up his defense 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 big plays. Despite the introduction of Lane Kiffin’s particular brand of hybridized offense, Alabama still does what Alabama has always done: run the ball, set up the pass off the success of the run, take what defenses are giving, and play field-control football. They just do it from different vectors than they’ve traditionally used, working a lot of zone read option looks with inside/ outside zone blocking to create confusion, mismatches and overloads for opposing defenses.

To that end, don’t expect Chavis to go changing his game plan, either. And, it’s important to mention that while many teams have struggled with Alabama’s more to a more fast-paced, option-laden offensive run with spread concepts, Chavis made his living at LSU with a defense designed to negate some of the benefits of those same spread, zone read schemes. When no one could stop Johnny Manziel and A&M’s offense in 2012, Chavis proved it could be done. LSU’s defenses under Chavis were always well-equipped against spread, hurry-up teams, and Alabama’s offensive shift will create an interesting dynamic when the two old foes meet once again.

Regardless of any apparent talent disparities or tweaks to the Alabama offense to make it more dynamic, Chavis’ defenses have given Alabama a test. While Texas A&M’s defensive talent level in 2016 can’t yet match the rosters of Chavis’ LSU teams in their prime, there’s no doubt this year’s Aggie squad will be able (in theory) to defend what Alabama does best, starting with the run.

Given the eyeball test this season, Texas A&M would seem to have an improved run defense, with aggressive play up front and solid linebackers with another year under their respective belts at two of the three positions. And while the Aggie run defense may have improved over the unit fielded prior to Chavis’ arrival, it’s still not of the caliber of the one that will be on the opposite sideline Saturday. The Aggies have a run defense that is tied for 68th nationally, giving up an average of 159.3 yards per game on the ground. Viewing the advanced metrics, the Aggie run defense is a woeful 109th nationally. There are some pretty serious problems with the output of the aTm run defense, and the stats give somewhat of an inkling as to why Tennessee was able to have such great success on the ground against the Aggies two weeks ago.

Traditionally speaking, when playing pro-style, run-based offenses, Chavis takes a rather straight-forward approach against the run, 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. Ends apply pressure while acting as contain for outside runs, tackles take on doubles 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 usually makes Chavis’ packages so effective is the way he masks his schemes with a variety of fronts, as well as the versatility of defensive tactics 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 (including a heavy DT playing a traditional nose role) and two linebackers.

From that set, defensive backs can drop and play a variety of coverages, or he can use the dime, for example, to apply a quick-sting of pressure to the quarterback unblocked, a tactic amplified by the size and speed of his defensive backs. This set will likely be sued against Alabama’s offense, which is actually a hybridized offense which uses spread formations and zone read action to move defenders while maintaining the smash-mouth, physical inside/ outside zone blocking up front to physically dominate opposing fronts. This scheme can help neutralize some of the inherent benefit of space created by spread formations, and it can allow players from several positions to potentially penetrate and disrupt the mesh point on zone read/ veer plays.

To counter what Chavis and the Aggies do with fronts and coverage-masking against more spread-oriented teams, Alabama’s greatest weapon could be its ever-increasing usage of RPO plays that give Hurts the ability to read specific defenders after the snap within a set of packaged plays and choose the best play for the defense. 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, an option run look complete with a pulling guard or tight end lead blocker. The quarterback can still elect to pass, 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 burgeoning confidence of the Aggie run defense with a healthy helping of the ground game, the RPOs will offer the Tide big-play opportunities against an aTm unit that is still learning the mental 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. The ends in Chavis’ defense get upfield so fast that they often bracket the run, forcing it inside into the thick of the Aggie front. Against Alabama, though, doing so could create seams that can be exploited by Alabama’s blocking schemes and running backs, especially if some sort of delay or timing call is used to allow time for the space to open. For example, Alabama has of late let Hurts and Damien Harris/ Josh Jacobs run a lot of zone read and inverted veer option packages that stress the defense on the edge as well as the interior. Hurts reads either the backside (zone read) or play side (veer) in order to make a decision on whether to hand the ball at the mesh point or keep it. On such plays, Alabama has developed a tendency to draw a pulling tight end from one side of the formation to the other on an arc block, getting out to seal the edge by kicking the edge defender (maybe a linebacker or defensive back) out to the sideline while the ball carrier (Hurts or the back) only has to beat the end on the play side.

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 overpursuit that allows Bama to attack the edges with slightly-delayed option reads and inverted veers, for example. Alabama has two choices in dealing with the Aggie ends in the run game: either block them straight up (with a double-team on the end to the play side) and hope a recently-struggling CamRob and a true freshman in Jonah Williams can hold the line against future NFL pass rushers, or let the ends over-penetrate purposefully in a rope-a-dope and run to the gaps they vacated.

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 Ridley and Stewart. Ridley has an advantage over any Aggie DB, and Stewart’s electric speed and high-point ability will give him a chance to make plays over the middle. It would be a calculated risk for the Aggies, but given Hurts’ accuracy of late, it may be one their willing to test.

The Aggies could take a note from the Tide’s defensive playbook against the zone read by having designated defenders (specifically, the “read” defender on a given option play…the one the quarterback will key off of) “slow-play” the option. The option pivots off of the aggressive reaction of the defender that is being read. The more aggressively that defenders reacts to the initial look, the more decisive Hurts’ read can be, and the more dramatic the effect of the subterfuge will be. If the A&M defenders can be disciplined and mute their reactions while staying in a position to make a play, it will minimize the effect of the zone read’s trickery. That said, such a tactic is easier said than done against running threats the likes of which Alabama wields in the back field. Play it too slow, and you leave yourself open to getting burned.

As was the case in the previous match-up with the Aggies, Wilson will be a huge part of the aTm game plan, as his versatile skills allow him to fill in wherever necessary. He is a 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, and his free license to roam sideline to sideline can create problems for some of Bama’s secret weapons. He can take advantage of Hurts’ passing struggles, and he could be used as an option-wrecking torpedo if he is designated to collapse down to the edge on the play side where he can penetrate and disrupt the outside running lanes Alabama loves so much.

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 Hurts an extra second or two to diagnose the defense. The quarterback has shown a penchant for making poor (or slow) reads on passing downs from time to time, and against this Aggie defense, he will pay. Wilson and Watts have turnover ability, and in the scheme, they will be prime to rob passing routes and create havoc, especially if Hurts is as inaccurate as he was against Tennessee. The stats indicate that the Aggie pass rush (13th nationally with 20 sacks) and overall pass defense (109th in pass defense with 278.2 yards per game, but 35th in pass efficiency defense) have improved under Chavis, and Alabama will have to find a way to maintain success against a more efficient Aggie defensive unit.

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 defenses recorded a sack, tackle for loss, interception, forced fumble or pass broken up.) In 2014, the Aggies’ overall Havoc rating was 103rd…in 2015, it was 12th. It is now fourth, right behind Alabama. The Havoc rating for the front seven was 105th in 2014 when Chavis arrived, and now it is 15th. The defensive back Havoc rating was 93rd, and in 2016 it is fifth. See a trend here? Those rankings show marked improvement in a key defensive metric. Another advanced stat used to evaluate performance, the defensive S&P+ rankings, have Texas A&M tracking from 58th in 2014 to 25th this season. The Aggie defense is doing something right, though the raw statistical data for the season to date may lead one to believe otherwise.

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, create a lethal amalgam for opponents. Even a stellar defense will wilt over the duration if asked to play 100 snaps due to an ineffectual offense that continually goes three-and-out. Such puts pressure on Alabama’s defense, and as is well known, pressure bursts pipes. 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, which again, is easier said than done.

The Result

While on the surface, many expect this game to be a high-scoring affair, with the Aggies’ traditionally-lackadaisical defense unable to stop Alabama’s new zone read running game while the aTm offense gets its fair share of explosive plays thanks to an ungodly wealth of skill position talent and the play of seasoned transfer Trevor Knight at quarterback. That, however, may not be in the cards. Alabama’s offense (shockingly) still isn’t hitting on all cylinders, as the passing game continues to struggle, and while a performance like the one Bama had against the Volunteers is certainly possible, one can expect some sort of regression to the norm for the Tide (though that norm is still probably better than every other team in the nation.)

This Aggie defense has the ability to give Alabama trouble, especially if there continues to be breakdowns along the offensive line in pass protection (as we saw with Cameron Robinson last week against Derek Barnett) and if Hurts can’t develop additional polish in the passing game. As hard as it may be to imagine, the threat of a consistent downfield passing game would make this offense nearly unstoppable.

But don’t make the mistake of lumping the Texas A&M D in with the unit that the Tide played last weekend. Where Tennessee didn’t have star power on its defensive line outside of Barnett, the Aggies have two legitimate NFL prospects in Hall and Garrett. Garrett is first-round type talent, and Hall isn’t far behind. Bama’s tackles will need to be on their A game both mentally and physically to keep the ends from terrorizing Hurts and disrupting the all-important mesh point in Alabama’s moving-parts back field. The Vols were without their defensive star power at every level of the defense, and the Aggies are a healthy unit with key players at D line, the linebacking corps and the secondary all present and accounted for. This opponent will test Alabama’s offense like no other team since the Ole Miss game, and the Tide will have to avoid turnovers, stay away from negative plays on first down, and extend drives by converting third down conversions consistently.

Alabama should be able to move the ball, especially if there’s a heaping helping of RPOs in the game plan to give Hurts some latitude at the snap and allow him to use his God-given ability on the edges. As the game wears on, Alabama should have success moving the ball on the ground in much the same way that they caused Tennessee to wilt last weekend, as despite a solid first-string (and second string depending on the position), there isn’t much seasoned depth in the front seven for the Aggies.

When Alabama does elect to pass, expect Kiffin to attack the Aggies’ soft zone underneath, taking short, safe passes to get the ball out of Hurts’ 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 that put opponents behind the chains. Inside the red zone, unlike previous Aggie squads, this year’s team has stiffened, limiting red zone production for opponents (the Aggies are fourth nationally in red zone defense, allowing conversions on 64.5 percent of scoring attempts inside the 20). Such could create a frustrating result for the Tide offense, and with the talent and size the Aggies have in their wide receiver corps, they can’t afford to squander opportunities to move the ball, burn clock, and score points.

If the Aggies can stifle Bama on first down (especially by hemming in the run), there will be trouble for the Tide. With a struggling air attack, Alabama is not built to consistently thrive on second-and-long and third-and-long situations. 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. Such scenarios will allow Hall and Garrett to play with abandon, and with a freshman on one side and a struggling Cam Rob on the other, that is an unsavory prospect for the Tide. As previously stated, routine three-and-outs will put the Tide defense in a pressure-cooker scoring race against the prolific Aggie offense.

While the Aggie defense looks to be following a steady arc of improvement since Chavis’ arrival, Alabama will offer aTm its first real test against top-flight competition. The converse is also true, as outside of Ole Miss, the Tide hasn’t faced a defense with as many weapons on the defensive line and secondary. 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 a lethal passing game will indicate the Tide may in fact be headed for a return trip to the College Football Playoffs.