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Previewing Alabama vs. Mississippi State: The Bulldog defense

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While working with its third defensive coordinator in as many years, the MSU defense has crafty veterans at key positions

Texas A&M v Mississippi State
Johnathan Calvin creates havoc as the MSU “Viper” hybrid LB/ DE.
Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

Geoff Collins jumped ship to join Jim McElwain at Florida. Many Diaz saw greener pastures with Mark Richt at Miami. Now, with Oregon alum and former Tennessee linebackers coach Peter Sirmon taking the helm of the Bulldog defense, Mississippi State is only now developing a feel for the new system after a revolving door at the defensive coordinator position in Starkville.

Sirmon arrived at Mississippi State with a tall task ahead of him. First, he had the chore of finding a way to replace some of the best talent on the Bulldog defensive roster, such as former defensive lineman Chris Jones, linebacker Beniquez Brown, and defensive back Will Redmond. That difficulty has been compounded as Sirmon moved away from the legacy system used by previous coordinators (with Diaz, it was the 3-4) in favor of a more multiple, ever-changing, situational style of defensive scheme. (Sirmon has actually been quoted as saying he will align his defense in any way that helps them succeed.)

To that effect, opposing offenses are just as likely to see four down linemen with hands in the dirt as they are a traditional 3-4 front. Watch much MSU film and you may see two down linemen, an upright linebacker at end, three linebackers behind the line, and five defensive backs. They’ll run standard nickel, they’ll run nickel with three safeties, they’ll run dime. It’s about as multiple a defense as one can imagine, and with that variety comes a great deal of difficulty for players who have been asked to learn three different schemes in as many years. Sirmon’s is a system with a lot of moving parts, and through most of the year, Bulldog defenders have had some degree of trouble fitting the run perfectly, diagnosing offenses and executing assignments in the secondary, and playing cohesively on a consistent basis.

Mississippi State’s defensive stats indicate that in many ways, the Bulldogs have a long way to go to compete with the elite defenses in the SEC. They have had their struggles against the run, and their pass defense is among the worst in the country no matter which way one qualifies it. But such was to be expected, to an extent, for a defensive that has lacked coaching continuity, and that had to install a complex read-based defense in a single season while replacing core talent. Familiarity breed success over time, and one can only imagine that the Bulldogs can hope to trend upward as their grasp of Sirmon’s system increases.

In the meantime, the Bulldogs will have the unenviable task of dealing with the Tide’s savage offensive machine on Saturday night. The Tide had probably its most disjointed offensive performance of the season against an LSU defense that had Alabama’s number, and may have uncovered the Kryptonite to Lane Kiffin’s zone read super-offense. LSU flushed the edges and focused on Hurts, forcing him to remain in the pocket, which is not his strength. Though Alabama eventually broke the stalemate upon Hurts’ legs, the Tigers provided future Tide opponents with a recipe for stopping Bama’s running game, if only temporarily.

Can the Bulldogs use that information to their benefit? Clearly, Mississippi State is not packing the defensive talent enjoyed by LSU…it’s not even close. But can they strategically do some of the things LSU did to give Alabama fits? Will their multiple scheme combined with opponent-gleaned knowledge allow them to hold Alabama’s offense in check and keep the score close? Or will Alabama road-grade a defense that has struggled to contain much lesser opponents this season? These and other questions will be answered soon enough...let’s take a closer look.

The Roster

Even though Mississippi State may not be considered the elite of the SEC, they’ve done a decent job in recent years of recruiting defensive talent to Starkville. Recently, talents such as the aforementioned Jones, Brown, and Redmond have vied for NFL rosters, and linebacker/ defensive end Benardrick McKinney has been a solid performer for the Houston Texans for several seasons now.

However, this season, the Bulldogs don’t have that standout future NFL star on the roster: a McKinney or Jones that can dominate the line of scrimmage. Sirmon has attempted to inject some spark into a defensive front that has struggled of late, namely through his Viper hybrid backer/ defensive end position, but that has largely been unspectacular to date.

It's not that the Bulldog roster is devoid of talent by any means. In fact, there are some solid players in the front seven to be sure, starting with the Viper, senior Johnathan Calvin (6-3, 272 pounds). The Viper is Sirmon’s name for a standard hybrid linebacker/ defensive end position, though he uses it differently than, say, Alabama uses the Jack linebacker. The Viper is just as likely to drop into coverage as rush the passer or set the edge versus the run, and it requires a special type of athlete. Calvin is the perfect combination of size, speed, and athleticism, and he has leveraged those measurables and his new position to a pretty solid stat line: 48 tackles, nine tackles for loss, five sacks, an interception, two quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and one blocked kick. When Calvin needs a break, he is spelled by the capable freshman Marquiss Spencer (6-3, 270 pounds), who has 14 tackles, three tackles for loss, and a sack.

Across the defensive line, Sirmon uses an end, a tackle and a nose to complement the Viper and provide the maximum number of schematic variations to match opposing offenses. When the Bulldogs go to a pseudo 3-4 look, the nose tackle becomes quite important as the anchor of the front. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, they have a good one in senior Nelson Adams (6-3, 305 pounds), a veteran of SEC wars past who could be a late-round draft pick in the spring. Adams’ doesn’t put up startling stats, but no nose tackle does. He’s accounted for 19 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two passes broken up, two passes defended, and a quarterback hurry, but his impact goes beyond the stat line. He’s a block-eater inside who occupies space and snarls traffic in the middle, as any good nose tackle does. Adams is backed up by another gigantic senior in Nick James (6-5, 320 pounds), and James has done well in an expanded role this season, accounting for 17 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a sack.

At defensive tackle, the Bulldogs have solid size and strength in sophomore Cory Thomas (6-5, 313 pounds). Thomas plays a traditional run-stuffing role on the Bulldog defense, as his job is to hold the point (or penetrate) against opposing run games. Thomas has been responsible for 20 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one pass broken up, one pass defended and two quarterback hurries. Spelling Thomas is senior Torrey Dale (6-6, 277 pounds), who has had a nice year in relief duty with 14 tackles and a forced fumble.

At the traditional end role, the Bulldogs have another potential future NFL’er in senior A.J. Jefferson (6-3, 280 pounds). Jefferson has everything a defensive line coach wants in an end: he’s quick-footed, athletic, agile, technical, and strong. Jefferson has been a monster for opposing lines to block through much of the year, as he is highly disruptive to both running and passing attacks. He uses power and technique to gain penetration, and is as sure a tackler as the Bulldogs have when it comes to fundamentals. Jefferson has accounted for 27 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, two quarterback hurries, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Jefferson is clearly the kind of player who can cause problems for Bama’s offense, as his ability to gain penetration from the edge will disrupt the timing of the Tide option game, and as was obvious with LSU, when a player like Jefferson can harass the quarterback at the mesh point, the offense struggles. Backing up Jefferson is able freshman Fletcher Adams (6-2, 274 pounds), who has recorded 10 tackles on the season.

Because of the multiplicity of schemes Sirmon will put on the field, the personnel designation can get a little hairy. For example, in some circumstances, Calvin (the Viper) plays as an end, and sometimes he plays as a linebacker. Sometimes the Dogs go five defensive backs, sometimes they use only four. That said, there are two true starting linebackers for Mississippi State (a Mike and a Will), though at times Sirmon will elect to put four linebackers on the field, or rather three true linebackers and the Viper playing as a LB.

At the Mike spot, senior Richie Brown (6-2, 240 pounds) gets the start, and he has distinguished himself as a leader on the MSU defense. Brown is big, fast, and aggressive, and his playing style meshes well with what’s asked of him as a run-plugger and blitzer in Sirmon’s defensive game plan. Brown currently leads the Bulldogs in tackles (and it’s not even close) with 76, in addition to 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one pass broken up, one pass defended, and three quarterback hurries. Brown will be all over the place Saturday, and while Bama may have faced better pure linebackers this season, Brown is as gritty and tough as they come. Junior Dezmond Harris comes on in relief when needed, and he’s had a productive season with 24 tackles and a tackle for loss.

The Will linebacker is one spot where the Bulldogs don’t have much in the way of depth, and after a battle for the position, freshman Leo Lewis (6-2, 230 pounds) won out. Lewis is quick and instinctual, and while still learning the ropes, he has acquitted himself well with 60 tackles and two tackles for loss. If there’s one criticism of Lewis, it’s his penchant for missed tackles, but then again, that can be said about more senior players on the Bulldog roster as well. Behind Lewis is sophomore Gerri Green (6-1, 248 pounds), a versatile linebacker who also saw time in the Viper position in the spring. Green has 29 tackles and half a sack this year as a journeyman linebacker, as when the Bulldogs need three true linebackers on the field, it is either Green or Harris that gets the call.

The much-maligned Bulldog secondary is not without talent, though they do trend to the small side of the SEC spectrum at corner. Both junior Jamoral Graham (5-10, 183 pounds) and senior Cedric Jiles (5-10, 186) are smallish for SEC defensive backs, and offenses have taken advantage of height mismatches this season. But what they lack in height they make up for in technique and ferocity, as Graham and Jiles are fearless competitors. Graham has recorded 20 tackles, an interception, five passes broken up, and six passes defended. Jiles has a more modest stat line, with 19 tackles, a tackle for loss, a pass broken up, and a pass defended. The Bulldogs rotate their corners a good bit, with sophomore Jamal Peters (6-2, 217 pounds) spelling Graham and junior Lashard Durr (5-11, 197 pounds) backing up Jiles. Peters has eight tackles and a TFL on the season, while Durr has accounted for 19 tackles.

The Bulldogs are a little better equipped at safety, as they have two ball-hawking, hard-hitting starters and good depth behind them. At free safety, senior Kivon Coman (6-3, 205) has fantastic size and speed, and he has put it to good use for the Bulldogs this season. Coman is an explosive play-maker in the secondary, as he’s recorded two interceptions this season, along with 29 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a pass broken up, and three passes defended. Coman routinely rotates with another explosive free safety in sophomore Mark McLaurin (6-2, 218 pounds), another headhunter with solid coverage skills and a mean streak. McLaurin has 38 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, six passes defended, four passes broken up, and two interceptions. The duo is extremely active, and the Bulldogs are safe at free safety no matter which one gets the bulk of the playing time. It’s also interesting to note that when the Bulldogs go to nickel, many times they use three safeties rather than three corners. When that configuration is on the field, McLaurin is usually the third safety.

At strong safety, the Bulldogs field young gun sophomore Brandon Bryant (6-0, 215 pounds), another heavy-hitter who contributes in run support. Bryant has 42 tackles to his credit this season, along with an interception, two passes broken up, and three passes defended. Bryant is spelled by the talented freshman Maurice Smitherman (5-9, 185 pounds), a somewhat undersized-yet-aggressive safety prospect who has seen limited action this season (four tackles and an interception).

How the Mississippi State defense will attack the Alabama offense

Trying to forecast how Peter Sirmon will attack a given defense is a bit akin to staring into a shattered crystal ball, hoping for a clear answer. The picture is fragmented, inconsistent, difficult to discern. With so many multiple looks at his disposal, there is no telling what an offense will see when they line up across from the Bulldog defense.

The only constant with Sirmon’s defense this season has been change. He is a PAC-10 player with an NFL and SEC coaching pedigree, so one can expect to see a little bit of everything. Let’s take a brief look at what Mississippi State does defensively, and go from there.

When one looks at the Bulldog defense on the All-22, some formations look for all the world like a traditional 4-3 Over set. And sometimes, that is exactly what Sirmon is doing. But at other times, despite the 4-3 appearance, the front seven will technically be a 3-4 with the Viper up on the line of scrimmage…sometimes his hand is in the dirt like an end, sometimes he’s upright like a ‘backer.

A lot of the time, especially against spread offenses like the one Alabama runs, the Bulldogs will shape-shift in the front seven while staying steady in the back field with a nickel scheme. Sometimes that nickel fits the traditional mold, with two safeties and a trio of corners, especially against pass-happy spread teams. However, against spread running teams, though Sirmon will use a lot of nickel, more often that nickel includes two corners who play man, a safety back deep to help over the top, and two safeties who pinch the box to support the run and provide athleticism in the box. When in this sort of nickel, up front the Bulldogs may offer a 3-4 with the Viper setting one edge and three linebackers filling interior gaps. Or, on passing downs, they may try to create pressure by bringing the Viper in pass rush and a linebacker on a blitz, with a big-bodied safety rolling down into the spot vacated by the linebacker to keep everything copacetic. Then there are looks that are in effect “fire” zone blitzes (similar to those pioneered by Dick Lebeau with the Bengals in the late ‘80s and Steelers in the mid- ‘90s), where Sirmon will use a standard alignment like the 3-4, but then bring a safety and/ or linebacker blitz while dropping the Viper into coverage.

The sheer diversity of the defense is maddening, even when it doesn’t work perfectly. However, it’s also maddening for a group of defenders trying to learn yet another defensive scheme that varies widely from the one in which they previously played, which is at least partially to blame for the hesitancy and lack of execution among the Bulldog defense.

In terms of coverages, Sirmon likes to play a lot of man and quarters coverage, with a little bit of Cover-1/2/3 thrown in the mix depending on the circumstance. For a defensive coordinator with two 5-10 corners, one would think man would be a risky proposition (and it is, to an extent.) Sure, Jiles and Graham are aggressive, but aggressiveness can only do so much to offset a six-inch height differential. The safer play is the quarters/ Cover-1/2/3 stuff, as it gives those corners a little help on the back end, with a safety generally tucked deep for just that reason. It also confines the realm of responsibility for his defensive backs, as they have defined areas of the field for which they are responsible, and can play aggressively with a higher degree of confidence.

Where previous coordinator Manny Diaz’s defense was all about attacking and aggressiveness, Sirmon’s approach is a little more cerebral. It’s less about pure chaos and more about putting a unit on the field that best matches what an offense is doing, even when it uses a little obfuscation in coverages of blitz assignments. It’s highly adaptable, but still match-up-oriented. The knock against Sirmon’s approach is the old “jack of all trades, master of none” maxim, as that seems to carry some weight with the way the defense has performed to date. It’s almost like they’re doing too much to be great at any one facet. They’ve been decent at some things, but neither their pass defense nor run defense is particularly awe-inspiring. And to date, with an offense that has struggled to find its way, what the defense has done has not necessarily set the stage for success.

Let’s look at some numbers. Mississippi State is ranked 75th in total defense in unadjusted stats, allowing a whopping 414.6 yards per game of offense. The scoring defense is ranked 82nd, as the Dogs give up an average of 29.8 points per game. Looking at the advanced metrics, MSU is ranked 70th in defensive S&P+, and 69th in the Havoc metric (which is created by combining tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total number of plays.)

It appears the main weakness for Mississippi State is the pass defense, if the numbers are to be believed. In terms of raw data, the Bulldogs have the 104th ranked pass defense in all of college football, allowing 264 yards per game through the air. Their team passing efficiency defense is 77th, which can’t be incredibly encouraging to the Bulldog faithful. Their pass rush is, at best, fair-to-middlin’ with 19 sacks on the season, good for 66th nationally. The picture doesn’t get much brighter when one injects the advanced metrics, either, as even with garbage time and other data-influencers sifted out, the Bulldogs still have the 102nd ranked pass defense S&P+ rating in the nation. Their defensive back Havoc rating is 124th…nearly at the bottom of all of college football.

The picture is a little brighter when one considers the run defense data points. The Bulldogs have the 49th ranked run defense in terms of raw stats, allowing 150.6 yards per game. They are 33rd in team tackles for loss with 60 (6.7 per game), which bodes well for the front seven’s ability to penetrate. In regard to run defense S&P+, Mississippi State is ranked 20th, their highest placing advanced metric data point.

Clearly, the MSU pass defense leaves something to be desired, and the run defense is middle of the road at best. But there’s a bigger picture. They are not strong on third downs (69th nationally, allowing a conversion 39.4 percent of the time), though they do well enough on standard downs (ranked 44th). They struggle significantly with explosive plays, as the Bulldogs have an IsoPPP (a metric that considers number of 20+ yard plays allowed) that is ranked 70th. A team that lets offenses run and pass up and down the field, gives up big plays regularly, and can’t get off the field on third down is a team that will struggle mightily in the SEC. MSU is guilty as charged.

All of this reeks of a defense that has not fully adjusted to a new system, that is playing at times with their feet in concrete. The assignments are necessarily the difficult part, as a lot of the diversity in Sirmon’s defense comes from personnel groupings and superficial looks. However, there are lots of quirks that must be mastered, and at this point in the season, it appears the MSU defenders are still struggling to get a firm grasp on those finer points.

At times, the Bulldogs also seem to have an issue with fundamentals, particularly tackling. Look back to the loss to South Alabama earlier in the season. The Bulldogs had the game won, had South Alabama pinned within their own one. Everything went right for the Bulldogs on the play: the quarterback, running a zone read option, misread the defender, who had collapsed into the line. Instead of the keep, which is the correct read, the QB handed it off to the inside back. The read defender was in perfect position to make a tackle (in the end zone for a safety no less)…but he whiffed. Two other defenders read the play and converged to stop the back short of a first down, which would have forced a punt. Both of them missed their tackles, and the back rumbled out past the 30 on a drive that ultimately sealed the Bulldogs’ fate in that game.

It doesn’t matter what scheme a defense runs, if it doesn’t tackle, that defense isn’t stopping anyone. That said, the Bulldogs may have turned the corner last weekend with their performance against an explosive Texas A&M offense that can score through the air and on the ground. Though starting QB Trevor Knight was knocked from the game in the second quarter after a somewhat pedestrian performance, the Bulldogs shut down pretty much everything the Aggies usually do well. Most impressive was the Bulldogs’ performance against the Aggie rush, as they held A&M to a mere 117 yards on the ground, and Knight, who played less than a half, led all rushers with 54 of those yards.

Can Mississippi State replicate that kind of performance against Alabama at Bryant Denny this weekend? Who knows? After all, this is the same team that lost to South Alabama, BYU, and Kentucky, and there’s no reason to believe that they’ll be able to stop Alabama unless Alabama stops themselves.

The Result

Lane Kiffin has a lot of soul-searching to do after the Tide’s offensive performance against a gritty, game defense in Baton Rouge last weekend. Alabama, for the first time this season, was unable to do what they wanted to do on offense…specifically, they couldn’t manipulate LSU to play into their game plan and open up the running game. The Tiger coordinator Dave Aranda sold out to contain Alabama’s edge rush, and the defense executed it to the letter. Where Alabama likes to keep defenses guessing, stretching them out and choosing holes for the runners, LSU forced the issue by aggressively bookending Jalen Hurts play after play, keeping him in the pocket where he could do the least amount of damage. LSU forced the Tide to pass, and Hurts wasn’t up to the task more times than not. He was the hero of the day, as the Tide finally found a weak spot in the Tigers’ armor on the ground, but the passing game was a bit of a debacle for Hurts, truth be told.

What Aranda did was provide a recipe for future opponents on how to contain Alabama’s multiple, quick-hitting offense…at least in theory. The caveat is that Aranda has elite, future NFL-quality defenders running that scheme, which is a luxury few teams enjoy. It’s one thing to try to punch the ends in on every play, disrupt the mesh, and contain Hurts…but it’s another thing to actually do it.

At first glance, one may think that the Bulldogs are well-equipped for the task. They already have an established possible edge containment unit in Jefferson and Calvin. In fact, the Viper position seems tailor-made to deal with the zone read, as it provides an athletic, long player on the edge who can string the play out, cover those pesky pop passes, or penetrate and disrupt the mesh point. Jefferson is a penetration machine, and regardless of which side of the defense Alabama works, the Bulldogs have players who can potentially be disruptive.

However, a more likely outcome is something like what happened when Alabama faced a similarly arrayed Ole Miss front-seven. Like Ole Miss, the Bulldogs have run-stuffing big men in the middle, and they depend on linebackers/ the Viper (and sometimes a safety on blitzes) to set the edge and seal the run inside. (Technically, Ole Miss used undersized blitz ends and defensive backs to set the edge, but you get the idea.) Against the Rebels, Alabama ran the ball up and down the line, wearing out the big men, running away from one of the elite ends, and doubling the other to take him out of the play. It worked like a charm, and against lesser athletes from Mississippi State, the same could be a key to victory.

The safe route to a solid offensive performance for Alabama will be to do what it has done all year: hit the short screens and edge passes to stretch the defense out, then run it off edge and through hand-hewn inside zone seams. It’s worked all year, and just because LSU figured it out to a degree last weekend doesn’t mean other teams will be able to stop it.

If Kiffin is smart, however, he knows that at some point in the current run to the playoffs, Hurts is going to have to do more than run. The Tide is going to need a passing game, if for no other reason than to take some pressure off the run and loosen the box. Kiffin has used the bubble screen, wide receiver screens, and jet sweeps to loosen defenses this season to great success. But against LSU, the defense refused to bite. They penetrated and disrupted the swing passes. They were in the backfield sitting on the screens. In short, they were everywhere the Tide didn’t want them to be. If MSU can replicate that to some degree, it will complicate things for Alabama. Even if they can’t, the Tide will face an opponent somewhere along the line who can.

Therefore, the Tide must develop a down-field passing game, plain and simple. It doesn’t have to account for 300 yards a game, it just needs to present the potential for five or six explosive plays per game. Think back to Saturday night…could LSU have continued sitting on those screens and overpenetrating the pocket if Hurts was able to draw back and fire lasers to his elite receivers against man coverage? No, they would have had to change the strategy up. Hurts would have only had to regularly complete those passes (like the long one to ArDarius Stewart) to bring LSU to bear, then they could have unleashed the zone running game and created total chaos for the defense.

Ardent Gumps posit that Alabama can win without a passing game. And maybe they will. The defense is certainly dominant enough to make that happen. But if Alabama had even a modest passing game…they would be unstoppable.

The reason for mentioning this now is that Kiffin won’t get a better chance to cipher out a workable passing strategy for Hurts than this game. Mississippi State’s secondary has players, to be sure. But for whatever reason, they are lacking when it comes to performance. Even though the Bulldogs won the game against the Aggies, they still gave up nearly 300 yards through the air to A&M (and about 225 of those yards came off the arm of a back-up quarterback who is more pocket passer than dual-threat).

Mississippi State will load the box and pressure the edges to attack Alabama’s running game. Can Hurts take the next step in his young career and pressure the second level of the Bulldog defense with his arm? If he can, even only every so often, then there’s likely nothing that Mississippi State will be able to do to hold back the Tide.

However, if the Bulldogs can penetrate, attack the mesh point, and unexpectedly force the run back inside, we may see another grinding, physical football game. It’s no unheard of for Bama to play a sluggish game against the Bulldogs after the brawl with the Bayou Bengals. Such an outcome would likely favor the Tide given the depth of the Alabama roster and the Tide’s superior defense, but it would be much less of a sure thing.