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Previewing Alabama vs. Mississippi State: The Bulldog defense is an animal of a different sort in 2017

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With new coordinator Todd Grantham marking the fourth DeCo in Starkville in as many years, the Bulldogs have seen dramatic improvement following a shift to a 3-4 scheme

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Mississippi State
Gerri Green is an engine of chaos for the MSU defense.
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

It is rare that the Alabama Crimson Tide stares across the line and sees a likeness of itself looking back through the mirror. However, in this year’s annual match-up between the Tide and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, that will be the case, as the Dogs have remade themselves in the image of Alabama over the last year.

They’ve always had a run-first, QB-option powered spread offense similar to the one Dan Mullen ran during his time in Gainesville under Urban Meyer. That offense has lived and died by the presence a star, dual-threat signal caller (such as Dak Prescott, and now, Nick Fitzgerald), but during that same time the defense remained a dumpster fire. It’s not that MSU lacked talent (though they can’t match five-stars with the likes of Bama), but instability on the defensive coaching staff seemed to hamstring a potentially solid unit year after year.

It was clear regardless of the potency of the offense, Mullen and his Dogs would never gain much traction in the SEC West without an overhaul of the defense. After the departure of former coordinator Geoff Collins, Mullen turned to a defensive mastermind proven in both the college and pro ranks, a coordinator who was at the helm of some of the best defenses Georgia has fielded in the last two decades, a coach who turned Bobby Petrino’s Louisville team into more than just a high-flying offensive sideshow.

Enter Todd Grantham, a 25-year veteran of the college and pro coaching ranks. Grantham is known for his innovative style of 3-4 defense, aggressive defensive play-calling, and a penchant for the quick turnaround when it comes to ailing defenses. That reputation is well-served, as he’s seen immediate improvements at each of his stops in the college ranks over the last decade. Take for example this year’s Bulldog squad: last year, under Collins, they ranked 110th in total defense, 120th in passing defense, and 70th in run defense. Flash forward to 2017, and you’ll find a MSU defense ranked seventh in total D, 8th in pass defense, and 23rd against the run. That is a remarkable turnaround for a team that didn’t get an infusion of new defensive playmakers, but rather danced with the three-star recruits they had on hand.

Grantham’s defense at MSU isn’t a mirror image of Alabama’s vicious defense per se, but the similarities are hard to ignore. Both teams run a 3-4 (Bama runs a two-gap version while Grantham’s rendition is a rare one-gap style), both teams like to present multiple looks and personnel groupings, both teams prize versatile hybrid players who can fulfill a variety of roles, and both attack opposing offenses with unrelenting physicality and aggressiveness.

After Alabama’s somewhat stumbling offensive performance last weekend against an LSU defense that is worse statistically than the one the Tide will face in Starkville this week, there is reason for pause. The Bulldog D is the real deal, and Alabama must improve if it hopes to emerge from the clash with MSU unblemished. Can the Tide steamroll a statistically impressive Bulldog team on their own home field? Will the offensive line that seemed discombobulated last week recover to midseason form and dominate a top-10 defense in the trenches? Or will MSU break a 10-game slide with an upset of the favorite in the race for the SEC West?

We’ll see soon, but for now, let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

While the Bulldogs run a base 3-4 defense, there is a great deal of versatility in terms of the way Grantham likes to use his personnel. Much like Alabama’s own defense, it’s sometimes difficult to pin players down to specific positions because they are versatile enough to fulfill a number of roles within the dynamic defense. Unlike many 3-4 defenses that feature a heavy two-gapping nose and two ends, MSU fields a one-gap attacking nose, a defensive tackle, and a true end up front, with the understanding that usually one OLB will have a hand in the dirt as a dedicated pass rusher.

Every 3-4 defense is built up front on the nose tackle position, and the Bulldogs have a great one in starting sophomore Jeffrey Simmons (6-4, 301 pounds). Simmons isn’t your standard 3-4 nose tackle, though his size is substantial enough to allow him to play that role. Grantham prefers a one-gapping nose who retains athleticism and becomes a chaotic force in the middle, and Simmons fits that bill to the letter. The big sophomore has been excellent thus far, with 44 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one pass broken up, one pass defended, four quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery for a touchdown, two forced fumbles, and two blocked kicks. That’s a nasty stat line to be sure, and with that type of production, it’s easy to see why Simmons is the key to an excellent front seven for MSU. Simmons is spelled by another versatile player in junior Braxton Hoyett (6-3, 303 pounds). Hoyett is cross-trained at nose and tackle, and is having a solid year spelling Simmons and fellow tackle Cory Thomas. He has 10 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries, a pass defended and an interception.

At the other tackle position is the aforementioned junior Thomas (6-5, 303 pounds), another large, physical athlete who adds good girth to the heart of the Bulldog D. Thomas is off to a bit of a slow start with only five tackles, but he has the skills to eventually emerge as a force up front.

At the lone dedicated end position, sophomore Fletcher Adams (6-2, 270 pounds) has become the go-to player. He has a good first step and is aggressive in sealing the run and penetrating the backfield. Adams is having a good year as well, as he is benefitting from the routine doubles that Simmons and Thomas have faced throughout the first half of the season. Adams has 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a pass defended, a pass broken up, and a forced fumble. Redshirt freshman Koby Jones (6-4, 275 pounds) provides depth, and the young player is another in a long list of cross-trained athletes, as he has served time as an end and tackle in Grantham’s scheme. Jones has 16 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble in 2017.

The linebackers in any 3-4 defense are pivotal to the unit’s success, and the Bulldogs have been resoundingly successful with a platoon of role players who can rush the passer, drop into coverage, and fit the run. The middle linebackers in Grantham’s scheme are key, as they must filter through the gaps created by double-teaming offensive linemen and penetrate to the backfield and meet backs with authority at the point of attack. Senior Dez Harris (6-4, 243 pounds) may be the best of the bunch, as he currently leads the team in tackles with 55, along with three tackles for loss, two sacks, three quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. Behind Harris is redshirt freshman Erroll Thompson (6-1, 250 pounds), a thumper who has seen a lot of action while accruing 31 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a pass broken up, and a pass defended.

At the other middle spot is sophomore Leo Lewis (6-2, 235 pounds), and Lewis is making a name for himself on a defense that doesn’t feature many recognizable names. The young defender already has 35 tackles, a pass defended, a pass broken up, and a forced fumble to his credit in 2017, and he will only get better as he grows into his starting role. Another up-and-comer who has made inroads in ’17 is Lewis’ back-up, true freshman Willie Gay (6-2, 230 pounds). Gay has been involved in early action, and has 14 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, two passes defended, one quarterback hurry, and one forced fumble.

The OLBs in Grantham’s scheme are generally pass rushers, though he also disguises them well and uses them in coverage to keep offenses guessing. He has two skilled athletes tailor-made for the purpose in junior starters Montez Sweat (6-6, 241 pounds) and Gerri Green (6-4, 245 pounds). Sweat is adept at the role and has become a terror on the edge, with 34 tackles, a team-leading nine tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, four quarterback hurries, and a fumble recovery. On the other side, Green is a raging, blistering ball of naked aggression, and he plays with a ferocity that hasn’t been seen from a defender in Starkville for quite some time. He has 28 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two passes broken up, three passes defended, two quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery, three forced fumbles, and an interception. The impact of Green’s play on the MSU defense can’t be underestimated, as he is an engine of chaos for Mullen’s Bulldogs.

Backing up Sweat is lumbering sophomore Marquis Spencer (6-4, 271 pounds), a large-framed ‘backer who is a proxy defensive end. Spencer is making an impression as well, with 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, two passes broken up, two passes defended, and a fumble recovery. The other reserve at OLB is senior Tarver Jung (6-4, 226 pounds), who has seen just enough action to record six tackles and a tackle for loss this season.

Placing a label such as “starter” on any of the platoon of defensive backs the Bulldogs have used this season is an act of folly. One of Grantham’s strengths is his ability to create match-up issues for offense by taking the labels off his players and seeking the best athlete to match against the opponent’s play-makers. Therefore, there is a great deal of flux in the MSU secondary, which is further amplified by the preponderance of looks Grantham will throw at an offense (a base 3-4-4, nickel looks with linebackers in coverage, dime packages, and even a 2-4-5 look with two pass rushing OLBs (similar to Bama’s own nickel rabbits package).

For the sake of description, we’ll go with conventional positions. Possibly the single most important defensive back (in terms of the overall defense) is senior J.T. Gray (6-2, 202 pounds), a safety-linebacker hybrid who isn’t listed as a starter on the depth chart but who will see as much time as any other defensive back versus Alabama. Gray is having a stunningly successful year while seeing his stock soar, as he has recorded 52 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries, six passes broken up, seven passes defended, a forced fumble, and an interception. Much like FSU’s Derwin James, Gray is used as a wrecking ball who knows no positional limitations: he is a linebacker trapped in the body of a safety. He can rush the passer, he can support the run with physical authority, and he is an adept coverage safety. Without Gray, the MSU defense would suffer mightily, as he is a catalyst for much of the explosiveness the unit has enjoyed.

The official “starting” safeties for the Bulldogs are juniors Mark McLaurin (6-2, 215 pounds) and Brandon Bryant (6-0, 215 pounds). McLaurin is a headhunter with the size to back up his aggressiveness. He has been excellent in run support, but he’s no slouch in coverage either (with a team-leading two interceptions on the season). McLaurin has 49 tackles, a forced fumble, four passes broken up, six passes defended, and a forced fumble this season. Likewise, Bryant is a nasty safety, as he has 30 tackles, two passes broken up, three passes defended, and an interception of his own. While Gray is the official second-string safety behind McLaurin, Bryant is spelled by junior Jonathan Abram (6-0, 210 pounds), another hybrid type player who is cross-trained among a variety of roles within the MSU scheme. Abram, like Gray, is a situational player who has seen a ton of action, and he has 43 tackles, two tackles for loss, two passes broken up, two passes defended, and a quarterback hurry to his credit.

The corners are also excellent, as they are called upon to cover downfield but likewise play a role in run defense and the pass rush at times. Senior Lashard Durr (5-11, 195 pounds) has been steady enough this season, with three tackles, an interception, three passes broken up, and four passes defended. He is spelled by junior Chris Rayford (6-0, 202 pounds), and Rayford has eight tackles and a tackle for loss this season.

At the other corner spot is senior Tolando Cleveland (6-0, 194 pounds), a veteran of SEC defensive play who has been dependable if not spectacular this season. Cleveland has 12 tackles, one pass broken up, and one pass defended to date. Another corner that’s seen a lot of field time is junior Jamal Peters (6-2, 218 pounds), a player with a safety’s body and corner’s speed who has 16 tackles, an interception, a pass broken up, two passes defended, and a fumble recovery this season.

How Mississippi State will try to stop the Alabama offense

Though Alabama has looked bored at times this season in dispatching middling defenses, they won’t have that luxury against Mississippi State, a team that has shaken off doubters to cement its spot as one of the nation’s elite defenses under Grantham’s tutelage. The Bulldogs create match-up problems for Alabama, and that is exactly what Grantham wants to do as he uses his athletes to shut down the things that Bama does best, hoping to instill desperation that results in pressure-rendered errors.

First off, one must recognize that this year’s Bulldog defense is far-removed from the tire fire of a defensive effort that MSU endured last season. The Dogs were legitimately one of the nation’s worst defensive units, and in the span of less than a year, Grantham has made them fast, ferocious, and physical. His scheme is a tricky one to decipher, and with some role-playing athletes at his fingertips, the wily coach has minted a brand new defensive product in Starkville.

The Bulldogs currently field the nation’s seventh ranked unit in total defense, a squad which allows a mere 289.3 yards per game. Against the run, they rank 23rd, giving up 124.1 yards per content. They are the eighth-ranked pass defense in the country with only 165.2 yards per game ceded to opposing offenses. In scoring defense, they are tied for 14th while allowing 18 points per game. Those aren’t bad numbers for a unit who finished near the bottom of every major defensive statistical category following the 2016 season, and it serves as a testament to the renovation job Grantham has done over the last 11 months.

If advanced metrics are your thing, behold an even more impressive ledger of stats. The Bulldogs field the nation’s 10th best team in defensive S&P+, a metric that is adjusted to factor in strength of schedule and opponent while filtering out garbage time yardage. They boast a number 15 ranking in rush S&P+, and ninth in pass S&P+, both marking a dramatic improvement from last season’s dismal rankings. The Dogs do a fair job of limiting big plays from opponents, with an IsoPPP+ ranking of 23rd.

How has Grantham engineered such a dramatic about-face? By implementing a scheme that he’s built and tweaked over the course of his nearly three decades in coaching. He began on day one by instilling a new philosophy in his players, staff, and fanbase: he said his defense would be “fast, physical, and aggressive.” He’s repeated that mantra enough that the players have embraced it, even using it as a hashtag on their social media feeds. That phrase doesn’t just represent a hollow slogan, either. Grantham has molded the Bulldogs in that image, and they have built swagger around that new identity, so much so that they have become that which they aspired to be.

Grantham then began to identify the talents on his defensive roster while cross-training them to be more versatile athletes. That is one of the demands of his scheme. His goal is always to put the best 11 players on the field to match up with an opponent’s best 11. Sometimes, that may represent one combination of players, and at other times, a different combination becomes the best 11. He doesn’t get locked in on labels like “starter” or “back-up,” and he isn’t limited to traditional restrictions regarding personnel. If he wants to run a nickel package with a linebacker in coverage instead of an extra safety, then he does it. His defense is amorphous: like an amoeba, it bulges and retracts to fit the needs of the moment, thus keeping opponents off-guard while giving his defense its best chance of dealing with the relative strengths an offense can present.

Personnel is of the utmost importance in the MSU defense, as Grantham wants to micromanage match-ups to make sure he pressures an offense to execute flawlessly against his well-suited athletes. While offenses seek to create mismatches (such as a linebacker in coverage on a slot receiver), Grantham counters by finding ways to match his elite athletes up in ways that mitigate those mismatches. For example, while a Z wideout may usually represent a mismatch against a safety, Grantham can trot out Gray or Abram to provide excellent coverage while keeping his corners isolated on the other wides. Personnel versatility is key, and because he has a roster of cross-trained players at his disposal, his defense has been phenomenal in 2017.

Grantham has iterated at his previous stops that the modus operandi of his defense is to stop the run first, find ways to disrupt the passing game through pressure, to force mistakes that render turnovers, and to confound and frustrate the offense with multiple looks and personnel groupings. His OLBs are blitzers who can drop into coverage. The D linemen are athletic and quick, but large and physical to clog the interior. The secondary plays a lot of pattern-matching zone, or in other words, they match pattern distribution while remaining in their zones. Safeties are expected to perform on an island, making sure tackles in space. The corners must retain a high degree of physicality but be agile enough to make plays on downfield balls.

The MSU defense is multiple to be sure, and the scheme a given offense may see from week to week will vary widely because it’s all situational. Even within similar schemes, the personnel groupings may be so different that they force an offense to recalibrate and adjust on the fly, which is exactly what the wily defensive coordinator wants to happen.

Take, for example, the defensive front. Typically, a 3-4 defense involves a two-gapping nose tackle. What that means is that the nose plays over the ball in a 0-technique, and his job is to bum rush the center at the snap and punch him back into the backfield. Doing so creates two gaps on either side of the center, and those gaps can be exploited by linebackers or safeties via overloads or blitzes. Generally, offenses will adapt by doubling the nose to help the center hold point, but even that adaptation leaves a gap for a properly timed overload blitz, so it’s not without danger for an offense. However, since the offense can double from either guard position, the defensive rush can be snuffed by hesitation and indecision from linebackers, as can be seen in many 3-4 two-gap defenses.

Grantham’s scheme is the anomaly, though: he has his nose one-gap at the point of attack, lining up as a 1-technique just off the ball. The nose attacks only one gap to overload one side of the line. This presents a few advantages in that it allows the defense to dictate which side the double come from, thus giving the middle linebacker/ safety a better idea of which gap he’ll attack after the snap. It makes it easier for a MLB to penetrate, as the nose will draw a double while the end ties up an offensive tackle, thus accounting for all the blockers on one side of the line. Worst-case scenario is that the blitz gets soaked up when a tight end is forced to stay in and block, thus eliminating a potential offensive weapon, which can only be considered a stalemate at worst. The defense can still stunt or use full-side overload blitzes, but it will do so knowing the primary blockers have been handled. It also allows the nose to become a force of chaos inside by attacking a consistent gap/ match-up, as he can use his large body and inertia to create penetration and disrupt both running attempts and passing plays. Simmons is perfect for this role, as he is huge but athletic, and he attacks aggressiveness at the point of attack.

Other than Simmons, the two key players in the Grantham scheme at MSU are Green and Gray, as both have enough versatility to be the flex points in a defense that seeks to be multiple enough to bend to the needs imposed by the varied offenses found in the SEC. For example, Grantham has his own version of Bama’s nickel rabbits package, a look designed to put speedy, aggressive pass rushing linebackers on the edges while maintain rigidity against the run. In that look, Grantham will field Simmons and Adams (or Simmons and Thomas) as down linemen with Green and Sweat as pass rushers off the edge and Gray as the fifth defensive back. This gives Grantham a speedy unit that can respond to RPO pass attempts without giving up the ability to stop the run and pressure the passer.

Green is an incredible asset for the Dogs, as he can flip back and forth between the two outside linebacker spots, and is one of the most explosive players in the SEC off the ball. He is an excellent pass rusher, and is surprisingly good in coverage when he is asked to drop. Sweat has been a nice surprise this season as well, and the duo is considered (by some) as the best tandem of edge pass rushers in the SEC. That’s important, because Grantham plots and schemes to get both men on the field at the same time (as in the aforementioned look), creating multiple pressure points for an offensive line that must also account for Simmons in the middle.

At other times, the MSU defense will show a 4-2-5 nickel with Lewis and Harris at MLB, Sweat and Green with hands in the dirt as proxy defensive ends, and a nickel backfield featuring Gray. He’ll even put a dime backfield out against pass-happy spread teams and field both Gray and Abram to create a pass-killing defense that is still a credible impediment to an RPO running play. While Green is a force in the pass rush whose impact must be recognized, Gray may be even more important to the gears of the Dog defense. He has great coverage skills, is adept at cutting off perimeter runs due to his speed and size, and is a good blitzer when called upon to play that role. What further complicates things for offenses is that the Bulldogs have not one, but two hybrid safeties with Gray and Abram, and when both men are on the field, they create quite a quandary for opposing offenses.

Because of the versatility created by players such as Gray and Abram, Grantham can legitimately play four safeties in his nickel and dime looks (Abram, Gray, Bryant, and McLaurin) without losing much in terms of coverage. The gain comes against opponents who are RPO happy, as it provides a balanced defense that can react and respond to any last second subterfuge an offense hurls at it.

Needless to say, the Tide will face its most difficult task of the season in battling a multiple, skilled, tricky defense with versatile playmakers. The Tide won’t be able to isolate on one key player, or it will face death by a thousand cuts from any of a number of other elite talents who know their roles and pursue their goals.

The Result

While it would be easy to assume the Tide will just need to run the ball down the throats of the MSU defense, one must only look back to the previous week to realize the folly of such a tactic. LSU had the 47th ranked run defense in the country, allowing 145 yards per game on average. Alabama ran at them, but didn’t even come close to its standard average, with only 116 yards on the ground, well below its average of nearly 300 yards heading into the game.

LSU stymied Alabama’s ground game with a great game plan and physical play, and one can expect the Bulldogs to take a page from that playbook. They are a better defense against the run than LSU (ranked 23rd, giving up 124.1 yards per game), so unless Alabama sees significantly better line play in the trenches, the Tide could be in for a dog fight on Saturday evening against a Mississippi State defense that has a penchant for snuffing the run.

Alabama’s offense struggled against LSU last week, as they failed to produce 300 yards of total offense for the first time this season. Many blamed the offensive line’s lackluster play in both pass pro and run blocking, and the outcome was puzzling after multiple weeks of dramatically improved play up front.

Regardless of the reasons for the offensive struggles versus LSU, there’s certainly cause for concern heading into the game with MSU, as they represent a better (if not more talented) overall defense. Alabama can ill-afford the stunted drives and inconsistent performances that pocked the LSU game. After all, the Alabama defense, usually the rigid load-bearing wall of Tide football, is hurting. Alabama can’t count on an injury-decimated defense to win games on their lonesome. It’s time for the Bama offense to flash its firepower and make life easier for the defense, at least until the latter can lick its wounds and heal.

That will be a tall task against an MSU defense that doesn’t feature the weak points that plagued previous Tide opponents. Bama offensive coordinator has done a good job of game planning and attacking opponent weaknesses this season to date, but the problem with that tack against the Bulldogs is that they don’t have any glaring weaknesses. They don’t get a lot of penetration as a unit in pass rush or in run defense, which will be a pressure point the Tide can exploit.

One of the few glimmering gems from Bama’s performance against LSU last week was the passing of Jalen Hurts, as he threw the ball with authority and seemed to be ready to make the next step as a passer. He better be ready if the Tide running game struggles again, as the Bulldogs are every bit as good in the secondary as they are against the run, with the nation’s eighth ranked pass defense, and 17th ranked team passing efficiency defense. They are also ranked ninth in passing S&P+. The Tide will need to loosen the MSU defense by getting the ball in the hands of playmakers like Calvin Ridley and Josh Jacobs in space, and Alabama’s offensive line will need to play its best game of the season to manhandle the Dog defensive front and establish the run.

The picture for Alabama’s offense is becoming clearer: they will need to be flawless against Mississippi State to be successful against a salty Bulldog defense. They can’t count on running over the Bullies, and they will not pass over them without great risk of failure (or worse…turnovers). This game will be an absolute dogfight when the Tide offense is on the field against the Bulldog defense. Alabama may well be held to under 300 yards of total offense again, as Mississippi State has the horses and scheme to do just that.

Alabama hasn’t met a foe with the statistical prowess of Mississippi State, and there’s no doubt that this game represents the Tide’s stiffest challenge to date. The usual pressure points aren’t there, and the path to victory is not as clear as it usually is when Bama lines up from an opponent.

Though Alabama remains the more talented team, and the statistically superior squad in both raw data and advanced metrics, the chance for a bare-knuckled brawl is elevated this week. The Bulldogs have something they haven’t had in recent memory: justified swagger. They are physical, and they are talented. Alabama won’t have its usual advantage when it takes the field on Saturday against a Bulldog team that, top to bottom, may be the best of the Mullen era in Starkville. The Bulldog defense will be aided by a bevy of cowbell ringing acolytes, making the difficult job at hand even more arduous for the Tide offense in Hurts’ first trip to Starkville.

Alabama will need a solid game plan, mistake-free offensive football, rejuvenated explosiveness, and a few lucky bounces to break the Bulldogs this week. If they pay the kind of offensive game they endured against LSU, the limping Tide defense may not be able to bail them out. Unless the Tide offense sees a return to form this week in Starkville, an upset won’t just be a possibility, but rather a reality.