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Previewing Alabama vs. Texas A&M: The Aggie defense has come a long way

Generally perceived as an offense-first team, Texas A&M has seen defense come a long way under defensive coordinator John Chavis

South Carolina v Texas A&M
End Landis Durham has been a pleasant surprise for the Aggies this season.
Photo by Bob Levey/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.

Three years into the Chavis experiment in College Station, the returns are beginning to roll in. Everyone knows the Aggies’ are replacing a stellar pair of current NFL defensive ends in Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. Midway through the season in 2017, the Aggies are struggling somewhat with a defense that is statistically lacking overall in comparison to the one they fielded in 2016. While not a dumpster fire scenario by any stretch of the imagination, the Texas A&M defense is ranked 80th in the nation in scoring defense, 23rd in third-down defense, 15th in rushing defense, 21st in tackles for loss, and 4th in sacks. There are some areas ripe for improvement to be sure (pass defense being the most glaring, as the Aggies are 118th in passing yardage allowed and 97th in team pass efficiency defense), but in watching the aTm defense, it’s not hard to see that with the players in place to run Chavis’ defense, dramatic improvement is only a step away.

However, does anyone expect them to dismantle the Crimson Tide’s seemingly unstoppable, multi-faceted offensive attack? Alabama’s offense under new coordinator Brian Daboll has seemingly returned to its smashmouth roots. The running attack has become nearly unstoppable as the blocking schemes have utilized less zone and more Power and Counter tactics. Those interior running lanes which were clogged all too often in the opening weeks of the 2017 season have become sieve-like with QB Jalen Hurts running the show alongside a host of uber-talented, top-flite running backs. To date, no team has figured out how to rob Alabama of its myriad offensive options. Key on any of the Tide’s four 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 of a well-blocked running game. Load the box, and Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster 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 is no way to stop them all. Texas A&M, salty or not, will have a difficult time dealing with what the Tide brings to the table this week. The Ags 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 their talented offense (with varying degrees of success). By this point in the Chavis tenure in College Station, the coach has begun to stockpile 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 in the secondary, 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. Seniors Qualen Cunningham (6-3, 245 pounds) and Jarrett Johnson (6-3, 265 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. While the two current ends mark a step back from the duo of Hall and Garrett, they are solid SEC ends who have done their jobs well thus far this season. Against spread teams, that additional length helps shrink the gaps created by offensive formations. Against pro-style defenses, players like Cunningham and Johnson can take advantage of huge, lumbering offensive tackles, bypassing them with speed and technique, and cinching the pocket to pressure the quarterback relentlessly.

Thus far this season, Cunningham’s stats aren’t remarkable, as he has three tackles and a quarterback hurry to his credit. Johnson has been the more physical, more active player of the bookends, as he has accrued six tackles, three sacks, a pass broken up, a quarterback hurry, and a forced fumble. Junior Landis Durham (6-3, 255 pounds) has seen a great deal of time spelling Cunningham, and the end has seemingly become the Aggies’ most effective pass rusher. The powerful junior leads the team in sacks with 5.5, and he has accrued 18 tackles, three quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. Backing up Johnson is another junior, Michael Clemons (6-5, 255 pounds), and Clemons has a tackle for loss on the season.

The defensive tackles are also typical 4-3 interior pluggers, with two newcomers this season in senior Zaycoven Henderson (6-3, 305 pounds) and junior Kingsley Keke (6-4, 305 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 13 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, two passes broken up, a fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. Keke is a more athletic tackle who has good length for the interior and is strong against the run. He has recorded 12 tackles, one tackle for loss, and two fumble recoveries this season.

Behind Henderson is spectacular freshman Justin Madubuike (6-3, 305 pounds), another behemoth who is more than a mere block-soaker in the middle. The aggressive young player has two tackles on the season, and will see time against Alabama. Supporting Walker is junior Daylon Mack (6-1, 320 pounds), a fireplug of a tackle with a mean streak and a hard-to-move big body. Mack has six tackles, three of which were for a loss, one quarterback hurry, and one forced fumble.

The linebacking corps also fits the mold of player that Chavis traditionally casts in his brand of multiple 4-3 scheme. Sophomore Tyrel Dodson (6-2, 242 pounds) lines up at Will, and he has been a force through the first half of the season. Dodson is third on the team in tackles with 30, along with five tackles for loss, three sacks, four passes broken up, one quarterback hurry, and two interceptions. Behind Dodson is talented freshman Braden White (5-11, 220 pounds), who has accounted for four tackles in limited playing time to date.

Sophomore Otara Alaka (6-3, 240 pounds) is the starter at the Will position, and he has been steady in run defense, with 310 tackles, seven tackles for loss, three sacks, and two quarterback hurries. Expect to see true freshman Anthony Hines III (6-3, 220 pounds) on the field in relief of Alaka at times, providing inexperienced depth. In limited action this season, Hines has accounted for eight tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, and a forced fumble.

At Sam, the Aggies are starting former four-star freshman Devodrick “Buddy” Johnson (6-2, 220 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 three tackles and two quarterback hurries, but he is adapting to the learning curve and has the benefit of two more experienced linebackers across the starting trio. Spelling Moore is junior Cullen Gillaspia (6-2, 230 pounds), who in scant playing time has recorded three 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. Senior strong safety Armani Watts (5-11, 205 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 37 tackles, three interceptions, five tackles for loss, three passes broken up, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Behind Watts is freshman Keldrick Carper (6-2, 190 pounds), who has five tackles and a tackle for loss on his record.

At free safety, the Aggies are starting sophomore Larry Pryor (6-0, 205 pounds). Pryor has the size Chavis likes in his safeties, as he requires them to play a variety of roles from pass coverage to run support. So far this year, Pryor has been steady, accounting for 25 tackles and a pass broken up. Backing up Pryor is freshman Derrick Turner (6-1, 200 pounds), though the young payer has yet to see much action.

At corner, the Aggies have two newcomers to the starting rotation in a pair of underclassmen who are called upon to play a substantial amount of man coverage. On the left side, sophomore Charles Oliver (6-2, 193 pounds) has been workmanlike, accounting for 10 tackles, a sack, three passes broken up, and a forced fumble. Oliver is spelled by yet another true freshman in the two-deep, as Debione Renfro (6-2, 190 pounds) is the next man up on the depth chart. Renfro has been active despite his youth, with 15 tackles, two passes broken up, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery to his credit.

On the right side, lanky true freshman Myles Jones (6-4, 177 pounds) will be getting the start against Alabama. Jones has freakish measurables for the position, and despite being a newcomer to the starting lineup, he has already made a sizable impact with 18 tackles, a tackle for loss, four passes broken up, and a fumble recovery.

At nickel, junior Priest Willis (6-2, 205 pounds) has the measurables Chavis covets in defensive backs, with adequate speed to go along with his large frame. Willis has accounted for nine tackles and a quarterback hurry this season. Willis also steps in at right corner when Jones needs a breather, providing experienced depth at a thin position on the Aggie roster. Behind Willis is sophomore DeShawn Capers-Smith (6-0, 192 pounds), who has made eleven tackles, a pass broken up and a forced fumble in 2017.

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 Daboll’s iteration of the pro-style offense with spread concepts, 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. Whereas last year, Chavis faced a spread, zone-read heavy option attack run by the Crimson Tide, this year’s scheme may be more familiar despite the newness. The Tide will seek to run with Power and Counter blocking, and they’ll go to the pass when the box gets stacked and the Aggies go into man coverage against the Tide’s talented receiving corps.

To that end, don’t expect Chavis to go changing his game plan too terribly much. After all, Alabama’s offense still likes to create space with spread concepts and pound the ball, and the Tide has one of the nation’s premier dual-threat quarterbacks in Hurts. Chavis made his living at LSU with a defense designed to negate some of the benefits of those same spread schemes designed to ignite running quarterbacks. 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 teams with dual-threat QBs, and Alabama’s multi-pronged ground attack 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 typically given Alabama a test. While Texas A&M’s defensive talent level in 2017 is a few studs shy of 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 seems to have an improved run defense, with aggressive play up front and solid linebackers filling gaps on the back end. The Aggie run defense has been more effective as a result, with the Aggies now ranked 15th nationally run rushing defense, allowing only 95.8 yards per game on the ground. That is a dramatic improvement over last year’s Aggie defense, which at the time they played Alabama, was ceding an average of 159.3 rushing yards per game and was ranked in the bottom third nationally.

Traditionally speaking, when playing pro-style, run-based offenses, Chavis takes a rather straight-forward approach against the run, at least regarding 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 used against Alabama’s offense, which is a hybridized offense which uses spread formations to loosen defenders while maintaining the smash-mouth, physical Power and Counter blocking up front to physically dominate opposing fronts. The Aggie 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 and slow QB reads.

To counter what Chavis and the Aggies do with fronts and coverage-masking, Alabama may pivot slightly more to the 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. After using RPOs prolifically in 2016, Daboll has seemingly limited their use in the early going of 2017, but it could be wise for Alabama to rediscover the tactic against a salty aTm front. 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 could 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 the cadre of Aggie defensive ends. 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 quickly 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. Whereas last season Alabama ran a lot of zone read and inverted veer option packages that stressed the defense on the edge as well as the interior, Alabama has shifted back to a more straight-up attack using Power blocking to pound the weak spots of the opposing defensive line. There’s not as much misdirection and subterfuge, but rather, the Tide relies on physical domination and execution of the blocking scheme to spring the backs, regardless of whether they attack the edges or slash the middle.

While Chavis may not be an advocate of the “mush rush,” one must expect him to find a balance between rattling Alabama’s fleet-footed signal caller with the rush and overpursuit that allows Bama to attack the edges with slightly-delayed runs, 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 tackles Jonah Williams and Matt Womack can hold the line against the Aggies quick, talented 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 Foster. Ridley has an advantage over any Aggie DB, and Foster’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, especially with Hurts’ seemingly improved command of the passing game, but it may be one the Aggies are forced to test if the Tide runs at will.

If Alabama’s tackles can’t handle the edge rush created by the Aggie ends (the Aggie defense, after all, is ranked fourth in sacks with a total of 20 on the season, or four per game), the Tide may be forced to move the pocket to give Hurts an extra second or two to diagnose the defense. While last year Hurts was a bit of a wildcard in the passing game who often took too long to get the ball out, his command of the offense is dramatically improved to date this season, so the Aggies won’t be able to exploit him as a young passer.

That said, there are pitfalls for Hurts through the air, as Watts has turnover ability, and in the scheme, the Aggie DBs and LBs will be primed to rob passing routes and create havoc. Still, despite the high degree of pressure the Aggie front has gotten in 2017, the aTm pass defense is lacking: the Aggies are ranked 118th nationally in pass defense, giving up 291.6 yards per game. Even their pass efficiency defense numbers look wretched, as they rank 98th in the country. This is largely due to thin depth and a dependence on largely inexperienced players. Chavis has the bodies he wants, but it’s the young minds that must be developed before the Aggies can become a formidable secondary. For the moment, however, Alabama will have an opportunity to further hone their passing attack against an Aggie pass defense that has plenty of weaknesses, especially if the Tide can force the Ags to keep eight in the box by establishing the run early.

Regardless of the methodology, the Aggie defense will do whatever it can to limit the Tide to third-and-long attempts, where they have been above average this season (ranked 23rd in third-down defense). Three-and-outs are the bread and butter of Chavis defenses, and paired with Sumlin’s offensive philosophy, they 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

Some may expect this game to be a high-scoring affair, with the Aggies’ traditionally-lackadaisical defense unable to stop Alabama’s re-established power running game while the aTm offense gets its fair share of explosive plays thanks to an ungodly wealth of skill position. That, however, may not be in the cards. Though Alabama’s offense seems to be hitting on all cylinders, as the passing game continues to develop, the Texas A&M game will feature a strength-on-strength battle between the Tide rush and the Aggie run defense. Conversely, it’s hard to imagine that the Aggies’ run-heavy offense will make much hay against a Tide rush defense that is ranked second in the nation midway through the season, allowing a mere 73.8 yards per game on the ground.

This Aggie defense can give Alabama trouble, especially if they find a way to limit Alabama’s running effectiveness without loading the box. That is a critical point for Chavis’ defense, as with Hurts’ improved passing ability this season, it’s difficult to imagine that a thin corps of rather young (though admittedly physical) defensive backs will hold Alabama’s explosive playmakers in check. The threat of a consistent downfield passing game makes the Alabama offense nearly unstoppable, and if the Tide runs at will early, one can imagine the aTm secondary will be put through the ringer.

But don’t make the mistake of lumping the Texas A&M D in with the unit that the Tide played last weekend. Where Ole Miss had one of the nation’s most terrible run defenses, Aggie has a nationally-ranked unit that will be far more effective at limiting what Alabama does best on the ground. Their linebackers are salty, their tackles are huge, and the ends are adept at setting the edge. Alabama likely won’t see the same level of success on the ground that it saw against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, though even a slight regression would still provide plenty of ammo for a solid offensive performance. This opponent will test Alabama’s offense like no other team since the FSU 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 an increased usage 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 Ole Miss 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 Daboll 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, Chavis defenses typically stiffen, limiting red zone production for opponents. 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 an improving though still limited air attack (Bama is ranked 94th in passing offenses with 194 yards per game), Alabama is not built to consistently thrive on second-and-long and third-and-long situations. While the Tide 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 the Aggie ends to play with abandon, and that could be an unsavory prospect for the Tide. Alabama’s tackles haven’t been tested much this season outside of the FSU game, so it will be interesting to note how much progress has been made since the opener. 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 quite the test against a potent, powerful offense. The converse is also true, as outside of FSU, the Tide hasn’t faced a unit 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.