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Previewing Alabama vs. Ole Miss: The Rebel defense struggles against the run

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Expect Ole Miss to have a difficult time containing an Alabama running game which churned out nearly 500 yards on the ground against Vanderbilt last week

Tennessee Martin v Mississippi
Can Ole Miss stop Alabama’s juggernaut running game?
Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

Let’s be honest. Ole Miss, for several years, was the bane of Alabama’s existence.

For two straight years, the Rebels threw a sizable wrench into the Crimson Tide’s title aspirations by beating them in consecutive years for the first time that anyone could remember. The Rebels and their explosive offense were venom to the usually-potent Tide defense, and former OM quarterbacks Bo Wallace and Chad Kelly had career-defining days against Alabama in two of the last three times the teams faced off.

While the offense lit the fuse and launched the fireworks, the Ole Miss defense likewise gave Alabama’s offense fits. With a wonky 4-2-5 constant nickel that featured smaller, faster, more athletic linebackers and girthy anchors up front paired with an elite secondary, the Rebels used what many perceived as weakness to their advantage against the hulking Crimson Tide. The scheme was tricky, the players were tailor-made for their roles, and Alabama had a hard time dominating the Rebel D as they had for decades before.

Flash-forward to 2017: after an off-season of tempestuous turmoil, Ole Miss is a creature in a state of metamorphosis. Gone is three-year starter Chad Kelly. Gone is former head coach Hugh Freeze. Gone is the architect of the Rebels’ tricky defense, mastermind Dave Wommack. Gone is much of the Rebel swagger that Ole Miss had carved out as a king-slayer and electrifying force in the SEC West.

Enter defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff. McGriff, a veteran coach with more than 25 years of experience in the college and professional ranks, was hired back in December by the then still-employed Freeze, and he was added to the staff to reinvigorate the defense after Wommack’s departure. When he entered the fray, he brought a zephyr of change along with him. While the Rebels still use the nickel a good bit of the time (like any modern defense), their base package is anything but exotic: it’s the tried-and-true, vanilla 4-3 defense run by teams from Pop Warner to the pro level.

Though the changes have been made in terms of scheme, one thing has remained static. Ole Miss has struggled mightily to hold opposing running games in check, a theme which has emerged over the last two seasons. Against Alabama, that is a death blow, as the Tide is a running team first and foremost that has many ways to attack a defense on the ground. After all, last week Alabama ran for nearly 500 yards against a Vanderbilt defense that was ranked first nationally in run defense going into the game. Ole Miss, conversely, is currently ranked 95th. Sure, that can’t be a good omen for the Rebels this weekend.

Can Alabama maintain its run-game superiority again this week against a defense that, while trying to improve, still falls into the “wretched” category when it comes to stopping the run? Or will McGriff and Ole Miss find a way to bring some tricky new facet to the defense to slow Alabama’s progress and give the explosive OM offense a chance to keep pace with the Tide on the scoreboard? Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

While the Ole Miss defense has seen considerable attrition of talent over the last two years, they still bring to bear a solid roster of defenders who are undersized, but still athletic and fast.

Nowhere are there more talented defenders than up front, where the Rebels are blessed with a combination of leadership and well-rounded talent. The 4-3 requires solid linemen: ends who can set the edge against the run and get up field consistently in the pass rush to generate pressure. They are fortunate to have one of the better pass rushing ends in the SEC in senior Marquis Haynes (6-3, 230 pounds). There aren’t many 230-pound defensive ends at the top of their field in the conference, but Marquis is an elite athlete with the get-off of Bama’s former star Tim Williams and the naked aggression of Mike Singletary. So far this year, Haynes has been a difference maker for a defense that has struggled to make a difference. He has 12 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a quarterback hurry. His stats may not reflect it because he often draws doubles, but he is a focal point for any offense that faces the Rebels. He is spelled buy junior Markel Winters (6-3, 252 pounds), a bulkier end of the more traditional variety.

At the other end position is a newcomer to the starting line-up, junior Victor Evans (6-3, 242 pounds). Evans has seen plenty of time as a rotational player in previous seasons, but with an injury to regular starter Qaadir Sheppard, Evans has stepped into the role and made the most of it. Evans has 14 tackles and five tackles for loss this season, and he hopes to hold the starting role while continuing to build his resume. Sheppard (6-3, 248 pounds), though limited by injury, is still listed second on the depth chart, and the sophomore has six tackles this season.

In between the ends, the Rebels have a pair of good tackles. Junior nose Breeland Speaks (6-3, 285 pounds) can be a force despite his smallish size for a SEC nose tackle, but he is extremely athletic and quick on his feet. He can be a pocket crusher at times, freeing up his ends to make plays, and he is likely the best run defender amongst the front four. Speaks has six tackles, a sack, and a quarterback hurry to date this season. He is spelled by talented sophomore Benito Jones (6-2, 315 pounds), who has the physical characteristics typical for the position in the conference. Jones has seen a little playing time, and he’s accrued four tackles and a tackle for loss this season.

The other tackle position is held down by sophomore Josiah Coatney (6-4, 302 pounds), another big-body with power and push up front. Coatney is still rather young, but his play is that of an older defender. He holds his position and creates an obstacle to opposing run games, and he takes on doubles in the middle in pass defense so the athletic ends can get free. Coatney is having himself a year, as he has 15 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss this year. Behind him, the depth is limited, so when he needs a breather, Speaks rotates over to Coatney’s spot while Jones steps up at nose.

In a 4-3 defense, the linebackers are the most important moving parts because they have multiple roles to play. They fit the run and plug gaps. They bring pressure on blitzes. They drop off into coverage…not just in the flats, but downfield. The linebackers in the 4-3 must be talented, because they’re everywhere.

The Mike position, by McGriff’s admission, is critical in his defense. The player must meet the physical and mental attributes required of the role, since he is a primary run-fittter, and the quarterback of the defense who handles the defensive calls. The middle linebacker position this season is filled by a redshirt freshman, Donta Evans (6-1, 236 pounds), who overtook the role after previously presumed starter Detric Bing-Jones (6-1, 254 pounds) was arrested. The junior is still the reserve middle linebacker and has seen enough time to accrue 12 tackles and a quarterback hurry, but Evans continues to hold the top spot, with six tackles to his credit.

Will linebacker and senior DeMarcus Gates (6-2, 221 pounds) is an unquestioned leader on the Ole Miss defense, and he leads through example as the team’s top tackler. Gates already has 25 tackles, two tackles for loss, two passes broken up, and two passes defended this season, and the Rebels will depend on his continually high-motor to charge a rather young linebacking corps. Behind Gates is sophomore Jarrion Street (6-1, 211 pounds), who has two tackles this season.

Sophomore Brendan Williams (6-3, 227 pounds) is the current starter at Sam, though he only has a single tackle to his credit. Listed at second on the depth chart is sophomore Willie Hibbler (6-3, 227 pounds), and Hibbler sees a good bit of playing time, with six tackles on his ledger.

The secondary for the Rebels isn’t as loaded with NFL potential as it has been in recent memory, but there are some solid players on the back end, regardless. The corners are sophomores Jalen Julius (5-10, 188 pounds) and Myles Hartfield (5-11, 199 pounds). Both are smallish but active corners who have done a decent job for McGriff this season despite their relative youth. What they lack in their run-support ability they make up for in coverage. Julius has three tackles on the season, while Hartsfield has 11 tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass broken up, and a pass defended. Behind Julius is senior Kendarius Webster (5-11, 194 pounds), and junior Javien Hamilton (5-10, 176 pounds) spells Hartsfield. Hamilton has an interception, two tackles, a pass broken up, and a pass defended to his credit, while Webster hasn’t recorded any stats yet.

The Rebels field a pair of junior safeties in strong safety Zedrick Woods (5-11, 201 pounds) and free safety C.J. Moore (5-11, 198 pounds). Again, while both are somewhat small by SEC standards, the two aren’t afraid to lean in on the run, and are intelligent enough to adapt to McGriff’s disguised coverages and blitz packages. Woods has been active, with 16 tackles, three passes broken up, and three passes defended this year. Moore is having a career season in the early going, with 21 tackles, two interceptions, 1.5 tackles for loss and two passes defended.

Ole Miss isn’t nearly as dependent on the use of five defensive backs this season, as they’ve transitioned away from Wommack’s formula to embrace convention. Still, every defense that hopes to have a chance of stopping modern passing attacks must have a nickel package. When the Rebels go to the nickel, the Star defensive back is steady senior A.J. Moore (5-11, 202 pounds). Moore is a play-maker, pure and simple. He flies around the field, is good in coverage, above average against the run, and has he instincts of a linebacker. So far this season, he has accrued 12 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, one pass broken up, one pass defended, and one quarterback hurry. When Moore takes a breather, in comes junior Cameron Ordway (5-11, 182 pounds).

How Ole Miss will try to stop the Alabama offense

Try as they might, stopping what Alabama does best is going to be quite the tall order for a Rebel defense which has struggled greatly against running offenses this season.

McGriff freely admitted in the lead-up to the Rebels’ last game with Cal that the Golden Bears would likely be able to run through the OM defense like a knife through warm butter. Coming off of a bye week, Ole Miss has only played three games. Against South Alabama, they gave up 170 yards on the ground. Against UT-Martin, they gave up 201. Then, in their most recent game against Cal, the Rebels gave up 163, which can partially be explained by Cal’s pass-first proclivities (the Golden Bears passed for 236, for the record).

So, is there any hope that Ole Miss will be able to stop a multi-headed hydra of a running attack that racked up 496 yards of rushing offense against Vanderbilt (which was the nation’s leader in the category before running lengthwise into the Bama buzzsaw)? Probably not. It’s not so much a matter of scheme that will doom the Rebels, as the 4-3 is probably the most utilized defensive alignment in football. It works well enough when properly staffed and properly executed. But therein lies the problem for Ole Miss. Through three games this season, they’ve struggled to run a 4-3 system with unique, niche 4-2-5 talent.

Look at the interior line, for example. A 4-3 set really needs two 300+ pound tackles, and big ends that can physically set the edges against the run and curl backs into the heart of the line. The big tackles soak up blocks, and when the lanes reveal themselves, linebackers charge forth to meet the backs in the gaps. Sounds simple enough. But the problem for Ole Miss is that against the run, they have a 230-pound end and a 250-pound end trying to take on men much larger than them. While that can be of benefit in the pass rush, where speed and quickness is at a premium, it is problematic in the trenches, where there is a big man-on-big man battle for brute force being waged. A tiny end, no matter how fast, is going to struggle against big tackles when it comes to forcing the run. Then, with only one regular contributor inside coming in at over 300 pounds, Speaks has trouble playing the role his defense needs him to play because he is smaller than the men he battles at the line of scrimmage. He wins his share of battles to be sure, but he gets shoved out of the way at times, too. When that happens, backs can exploit those gaps, and linebackers can’t properly fit the run.

But it’s not all about the line. Ole Miss’s struggles with the run are even more a function of rough play at linebacker and, to a degree, safety. Because McGriff uses a lot of disguises to mask his coverages and blitz vectors pre-snap, the linebackers are sometimes caught flat-footed, confused about their roles (or it at least appears that way on tape.) There is hesitation, and the execution is not aggressive nor at full speed. One of the benefits of the 4-3 defense is that it is a one-gap defense up front: there are no complex reads for the players in the front seven. Everyone has a job, and they attack that job aggressively. But when there is hesitation caused by a lack of certainty, it really turns the 4-3 system into a slow-moving, jumbled mess that can be exploited by heady offensive coordinators.

The pass defense has been decent for the Rebels this year, but that comes with the caveat that teams have been able to rush at will, limiting the number of passes Ole Miss has had to defend. Because teams would just as soon take what the Rebels are giving on the ground, the pass defense sample size is small.

When teams do pass, however, quarterbacks face a confusing pre-snap dance that masks the coverages McGriff will be leveraging on a particular play. The defense is designed to bait offenses into certain plays or tendencies through formation, only for that scheme to change prior to the snap. For example, one may see the Rebels line up a split safety look pre-snap, only to bring an outside linebacker on the blitz while dropping the safeties into a single-high look once the ball is in play. This puts an extra man in the box in case the quarterback RPOs to a run, even though the initial formation indicated that wouldn’t be the case with two safeties high. Sometimes the Rebels will line up in a standard front with two safeties in the box to encourage a quarterback to check into a pass and avoid a blitz from the overloaded side of the line. However, at the snap, they’ll drop a safety back into deep coverage, and shift one of the blitzing linebackers back into coverage to seal off the slot after presenting the appearance that the slot would be unmanned. At other times, McGriff will present a six-man blitzing front with two safeties in the box, only to blitz from several unusual angles while the defenders who showed blitz drop off into coverage.

While the 4-3 base is as conventional as a defense gets in the modern era, the way in which McGriff uses blitzes and coverages is somewhat novel. While it likely won’t factor too heavily into Alabama’s game plan (given that the Tide should be able to run at will and will be able to operate a one-read offense with quarterback Jalen Hurts when they do elect to pass), the Rebels are tricky, as previously explained. The system is designed to lull a quarterback into a pre-snap decision, only to then change the scenario, introduce variables, and cause the signal-caller to alter his plan under duress. It can work, but the scheme is heavily dependent on execution at a high level, and players who are well-versed in their roles. Otherwise, it becomes a symphony of chaos…not for the offense, but for the defenders themselves.

Alabama can take full advantage if Hurts remains level headed, makes his one read, then uses his legs if things aren’t looking copacetic. The running game will be the Mjolnir with which the Tide will dispatch the Rebels, make no mistake about that. If Alabama puts together a performance this week that resembles the one against Vanderbilt, it won’t matter too terribly much what Bama does through the air, as they’ll run roughshod through one of the worst rush defenses in the nation (the Rebels are giving up 184 yards per game…Alabama could easily double that.)

The Result

This game between Ole Miss and Alabama will not hold the mystery and intrigue that has been a fixture of the SEC West battle for the last three years. Conversely, this game will be more reflective of the pre-Freeze era, when Ole Miss was a perennial whipping boy to their big brothers from the east. They may still hold a little swagger in the back of their minds, but this contest, this season…it’s a total mismatch, no matter how you look at it.

Alabama is one of the nation’s top rushing teams, ranked fifth nationally with an average of 303 yards per game. Combined with Ole Miss’s horrid run defense, that’s a recipe for a blowout of Vanderbiltian proportions. If Alabama can run at will, and they should, then Ole Miss can only hope that Shea Patterson and the offense can find a weak seam in the Bama defense and hold on for the ride.

If Alabama does decide to pass, there will be room in the flats and behind the linebackers for Hurts to exploit, just as Cal did in their game against Ole Miss. With the Ole Miss linebackers still struggling to grasp their responsibilities, there could be space for Hurts to execute the running back screens and passes that were so effective last week against Vandy. If (or when) Brian Daboll takes the reins off Hurts with the deep ball, Bama’s receivers will have a decided physical advantage over the secondary they will be facing. It’s hard to imagine that tall receivers like Calvin Ridley, Cam Sims, Robert Foster, and Jerry Jeudy won’t make hay, especially in the second half when the markedly smaller Rebel secondary begins to grow weary.

There’s just not a lot of deep analysis to do here. The course is clear. Alabama will run the ball, and they’ll do it with authority. Ole Miss will stand in their way, and they will likely be trampled underfoot. Not much else to forecast, and there’s no reason to believe Daboll and the Tide offense will get overly cute. Let the first-teamers maul the Rebels, and usher in the reserves in the second half. That hasn’t happened the last several years, but with both the Alabama offense and defense performing at a high level, that could very well be the case this weekend.