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Previewing Alabama vs. Missouri: The Tiger Defense

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The Mizzou defense will be the next to test the Tide’s seemingly unstoppable offense…can they do what no one else has done to date?

Missouri v Purdue
The Tigers struggle in the pass rush and air defense, which may spell trouble against the Tide.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Missouri Tigers are 3-2 overall and winless in the SEC through two games. But don’t let that fool you. They’re not nearly as bad as you may think.

Alabama is the top team in the nation thanks to the power of its offense, but don’t let that fool you either. They are not without flaws, especially on the defensive side of the ball as evidenced last week.

That said, to date Alabama’s offense has been explosive, multi-faceted, and perfectly executed. The Mizzou defense, as talented as they may be, has yet to see an offense like the one they’ll face this Saturday. The best attribute of the Tiger defense is their run defense, but that will play right into the strength of a Tide team with Tua Tagovailoa under center that averages 567.5 yards per game, 345.3 of those yards coming through the air.

Alabama can still grind a team on the ground, even if it doesn’t depend on that tactic as much as it once did. But the Tide O excels in throwing the ball, and that is the greatest liability of the Mizzou D. They play a straight-up, conventional style of defense with standard cover packages, but they can’t seem to stop any team that throws the ball well. They seemingly can’t stop even mediocre passing teams, as Purdue feasted on 572 yards passing in a loss to the Tigers earlier this year.

Purdue quarterback David Bough is no Tagovailoa, and the Boilermaker receivers can’t match the elite set of future NFL talents the Tide fields at the WR position. Bama’s recipe this weekend will be simple: They’ll need to do what they do best by taking the reins off Tua and letting him sling the ball to his cadre of targets while dissecting the opponent of the week through the air.

Despite their suboptimal stats against the pass, Mizzou is not without talent in the defensive backfield. While the prospects of the secondary clicking at the right time against a dynamic passing attack are low, stranger things have happened. If the Tiger defense can muster resistance against Alabama’s offense and slow their pace, they may just have a shot at staying in the game. After all, the Tiger offense is the first one the Tide has played this year that can reasonably keep up with the Bama O.

Will Alabama’s offense continue to roll through defenses? Or can Mizzou be the first team to prove the Tide’s Superman merely human? Can the Tiger defense slow Alabama enough to allow its own dynamic offense to keep pace with the Tide? Or will Bama use their shock-and-awe air attack to build a sizable early lead before coasting into the second half?

Who knows? …let’s take a closer look.

The Roster

It wasn’t long after Mizzou entered the SEC that they begin to upgrade their talent level, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Previously known as an offensively-driven team in their Big 12 days, Mizzou has since developed a reputation for turning out NFL caliber defensive linemen such as Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Markus Golden, Shane Ray, Sheldon Richardson, and Charles Harris.

That tradition continues, as the Tigers have a solid defensive front that, while lacking star power, has emerged as one of the better run defenses in the conference. That run defense is anchored by senior nose tackle Walter Palmore (6-4, 320 pounds), a prototypical 4-3 nose who soaks up blocks inside and frees the lanes for his linebackers. Palmore has 11 tackles on the year with two tackles for loss, two passes broken up, a quarterback hurry and a blocked kick. Behind Palmore is sophomore Jordan Elliot (6-4, 315 pounds) and junior Markell Utsey (6-4, 295 pounds). Elliot has been active with 11 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a quarterback hurry, while Utsey hasn’t recorded any stats to date.

At the other tackle position is senior Terry Beckner Jr. (6-5, 295 pounds). Beckner is a massive athlete with great length and long arms for getting free of blocks. He’s made 10 tackles in 2018, five of them for a loss. He also has a quarterback hurry and a pass defended this year. He is spelled by sophomore Kobie Whiteside (6-1, 310 pounds) and senior Rashad Brandon (6-3, 300 pounds). Both men have seen playing time, as head coach Barry Odom and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters believe in playing a lot of defenders during a game. Whiteside has four tackles and a tfl this year, while Brandon has recorded a single tackle.

While Odom and Walters like a lot of girth in the heart of their 4-3 Under hybrid front, they typically use lighter, more athletic ends to get upfield and pressure the quarterback. Sophomore Tre Williams (6-5, 260 pounds) holds one of those roles, and he is tailor-made for the position with excellent reach, long arms, and explosive speed off the edge. He has six tackles and a quarterback hurry on the year. The other end may even be more lethal in the pass rush, as sophomore Chris Turner (6-4, 255 pounds) has already accounted for two sacks among his 10 tackles. Williams is backed up by steady senior Nate Anderson (6-4, 225 pounds), who has 17 tackles, a sack, and a pass broken up this season. Sophomore Akial Byers provides depth behind Turner, and he has only one tackle so far.

Linebackers in the Mizzou system must be athletic but powerful, as they’re called upon as run stoppers and pass rushers, in addition to providing coverage underneath. They are blessed with a talented trio of starting ‘backers, and they have tremendous depth at the position, even if it is largely inexperienced depth.

Junior middle linebacker Cale Garrett (6-3, 230 pounds) leads all Tigers in tackles with 38, and he has been called upon as a pass rusher frequently, as evidenced by his three tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries. He has great size and good straight-line closing speed, making him the perfect defender for the heart of the Mizzou front seven. He’s backed up by fellow junior Josh Trump (6-3, 230 pounds) and sophomore Jamal Brooks (6-1, 240 pounds). Trump has seen plenty of action with five tackles, a sack, and a fumble recovery this season, while Brooks hasn’t recorded any stats to date.

Senior Will linebacker Terez Hall (6-2, 230 pounds) could be the best pure athlete in the linebacking corps, as he has excellent speed and good instincts in pursuit. He has an impressive stat line as well, with 32 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, a pass broken up, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Hall is backed up by freshman Nick Bolton (6-0, 235 pounds) and sophomore Aubrey Miller Jr. (6-2, 225 pounds). Miller has two tackles, while Bolton has four.

Senior Brandon Lee (6-2, 225 pounds) rounds out the corps at Sam, and he has 19 tackles and a tfl this season. Mizzou uses the Sam as a hybrid linebacker/ safety type player, and Lee fits that mold with his speed and athleticism. He’s excellent in coverage but still stout against the run. Junior Ronnell Perkins (6-0, 205 pounds) relieves him along with senior Tavon Ross (6-0, 215 pounds). Perkins has four tackles, a tackle for loss, and a quarterback hurry this season, while Ross is credited with five tackles and a blocked kick.

The weakness of the Mizzou defense to date has not been the front seven, but rather the back half of the defense. It’s not that the Tigers don’t have players, as they have a talented roster of defensive backs.

Possibly the most gifted defensive back on the Tiger roster is sophomore corner Adam Sparks (6-0, 180 pounds), a quick defender with solid fundamentals who leads the defensive backs in tackles with 29 on the season. Sparks is a versatile player for Odom and Walters, as he is used in run support and as a blitzer. He has 1.5 tackles for loss this season and a quarterback hurry. Behind Sparks is fellow sophomore Christian Holmes (6-1, 200 pounds), who has been dynamic in relief with seven tackles, an interception, and three passes broken up.

At the other corner position is junior DeMarkus Acy (6-2, 195 pounds), a defensive back with great measurables who is still adapting to a starting role. Acy has 11 tackles and five passes broken up, and he seems more comfortable with his place in the defense with each passing game. Acy is spelled by freshman Terry Petry (6-1, 175 pounds) and freshman Jarvis Ware (6-1, 190 pounds), both of whom have good height for the position and solid speed. Petry has three tackles and a forced fumble this year, while Ware has recorded two tackles to date.

The Tigers start a pair of solid upper classmen at the safety positions in senior strong safety Cam Hilton (6-0, 190 pounds) and junior free safety Khalil Oliver (6-1, 210 pounds). Both men are good enough players in the Mizzou system, as Hilton has 17 tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception, a pass broken up, two quarterback hurries, and a fumble recovery. Oliver has likewise been active in recording 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, a pass broken up, and a fumble recovery. Sophomore Joshua Bledsoe (6-0, 205 pounds) steps in when Hilton needs a breather, and he has nine tackles and a pass broken up this year. Sophomore Tyree Gill relieves Oliver, and he has six tackles and a quarterback hurry to his credit.

How the Mizzou Defense Will Attack the Alabama Offense

After several weeks of playing unconventional, nickel-based defenses, the Tide will this week face one of the most tried and true defensive schemes used today: the 4-3 Under. Though that 4-3 base will look familiar, Odom (a former defensive coordinator) and Walters add a few twists to the usual plot to give quarterbacks pause when dissecting the scheme.

In a way, the Mizzou defense lines up in a 4-3 from a personnel standpoint, though in many cases they play like a one-gapping 3-4. Four true defensive linemen are used (though the ends are closer to linebackers in size than the traditional defensive end). They are generally shaded to the outside shoulder of their assigned blocker to the strong side of the formation. This allows the Mizzou defense to commit at least four pass rushers while retaining the ability to bring another player from a unique angle on a blitz. Sometimes Walters will walk the Sam up to the line of scrimmage, either as a bluff before backing into coverage underneath or as a true pass rusher around the edge. The Tigers will bring a safety at times who explodes through gaps behind linebackers while the limber, athletic hybrid Sam drops into coverage. They even commit the corner to the blitz at times to take advantage of speed and agility mismatches from an unexpected angle.

Against the run, the front seven plays like most one-gapping 4-3 systems. The ends get up field and set the edges while the tackles snarl the middle and soak up doubles. They try to push the pile into the projected gap to reduce space and create chaos. The linebackers play downhill into their gaps to make sure the run doesn’t leak through. The defense wants to bracket running attempts into the middle without letting them spill outside where their larger framed linebackers become a liability in pursuit. With two 300+ pound tackles in the middle, Mizzou wins their fair share of those battles, which is why they have a run defense that ranks 15th in the nation in giving up only 107.4 yards per game on the ground.

As good as the Tigers have been against the run, however, they struggle in the pass rush. In past years, the Tigers made hay from electric ends and linebackers who could exploit lumbering tackles and get around the edge in the blink of an eye. They’ve seen some drop off in that regard, as Turner and Williams, as good as they are, haven’t mastered the art of getting off blocks and upfield. The linebackers have been solid contributors to the pass rush (with half of the Tigers’ seven sacks recorded by linebackers), but the numbers in that metric remain anemic. Mizzou has seven total sacks, good for 102nd nationally. Alabama, conversely, has been excellent in protecting Tagovailoa and Hurts, as the Tide has given up a mere four sacks all season (sixth nationally).

When the Tigers are unable to pressure a passer like Tagovailoa, bad things are likely to happen. The withering pass rush could have something to do with the relatively poor overall performance of the Tiger secondary this season. They rank 111th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, giving up 284.8 against lesser passing offenses than the one they’ll face Saturday. Even in terms of passing efficiency defense, the Tigers are lackluster at 105th in the country.

When the pass rush struggles, it puts pressure on defensive backs by forcing them to defend elite wide receivers for longer, which increases the chance of those receivers eventually working themselves open. No one in the country has a more talented corps of wide receivers than Alabama and letting Tua run the scramble drill with that cadre of pass catchers will result in devastation through the air for Mizzou.

To try to limit the Tide’s prolific passing game, the Tigers will need to first generate some semblance of an effective pass rush. Without it, their defensive backs are simply outgunned. Mizzou likes to use a lot of quarters (Cover-4) coverage, though they play that scheme in practice like a Cover-2. For example, if the corner or safety reads a receiver’s release and the WR is running a deep route, the defensive back will slide into man and run with the receiver rather than handing him off to the deep safety as would occur in a straight Cover-2 scheme.

When the Tigers go into a nickel set, they do so in a different way than most 4-2-5 teams. Typically, the fifth man in coverage is a corner or safety designated as a nickel back. However, Mizzou likes to use a beefier player who is still adept in coverage when they go to five men in the defensive backfield. They call that fifth coverage position Money, which may sound familiar. That said, it’s not the same as the Money position Alabama has used in the past, but rather refers to a linebacker/ safety hybrid, a player who is bigger than a typical safety who can play the run but is also quick and agile enough to help in coverage.

When the Tigers go into their modified Cover-2/ Cover-4 scheme, the Money joins the linebackers in playing underneath in the short zone. Not only are the linebackers and Money back responsible for covering backs and tight ends that leak into the zone underneath, but they also attempt to jam those receivers releasing from the line on deep routes to disrupt timing.

Against an offensive scheme that features a lot of short routes, the coverage pattern resembles a Cover-2 with five underneath. That allows the Tigers to rush four with all the zones covered by defensive backs and linebackers. If the offensive lines up four verts, the coverage scheme looks more like a Cover-4 over three (four defensive backs playing man on vertical receivers and three linebackers covering underneath zones).

It’s a solid, if somewhat vanilla, defensive scheme that the Tigers run this season. The scheme is less important when talented players execute it properly. Almost any defense can be workable if everyone does his job. But that’s the problem with the Tiger defense. They’ve yet to hone their play into a well-oiled defensive machine, and as a result of minor failings from unit to unit, bigger, more systemic problems have emerged to doom the Tigers’ defensive efforts thus far.

The Result

There’s nothing new or exotic about the Mizzou defense, as they’ve always built solid systems around excellent execution with explosive players in key positions. This year, their roster is a step behind previous teams in terms of raw talent, and there has been confusion at times for those adjusting to their new starting roles. Odom said earlier this year that the problems for the Tiger defense included an inability to generate effective pass rush, defensive backs who have a hard time covering in man, and linebackers who struggle to with assignments and who play tentatively in coverage.

That, quite simply, is a recipe for disaster against a team like Alabama. The Tide’s offense is incredibly multiple and has proven that it can attack from any angle with any number of personnel already this season. Alabama can still run the ball, as it proved last week against a decent Arkansas rushing defense. The line may not be as dominant at the point of attack as in previous seasons, but they possess that ability when they need it. The truth is, they’ve not needed it much this season, as the passing game has been so prolific that third-downs conversions are commonplace.

The little flaws in Missouri’s defense will be magnified beneath the burning beam of the Tide offense. When the Tigers can’t generate pressure in the pass rush, Tagovailoa will have ample time to run through his progressions. Not that he needs much time, as he tends to be decisive and get the ball out with lightning quickness. But with the luxury of time, he can absolutely slay the Tigers’ coverage, whether he goes vertical against the corners, across the seam against the safeties, or underneath against linebackers. The mismatches exist at every level of the passing game, and with Tua’s accurate delivery, there’s little that the ailing Mizzou pass defense can do to change their fate.

Unlike in previous seasons, the Tide will pass first them bring in the battering ram running game to burn the clock and keep the potent Mizzou offense off the field. With a suspect secondary, a flagging pass rush, and confusion underneath among linebackers, there’s no reason to think that the Tigers won’t fall victim to the Tide’s offense in much the same way as the Razorbacks last weekend. The two teams are similar in talent level, defensive statistics, and scheme. If last week’s performance against Arkansas was a dressed rehearsal, then this week’s contest against the Mizzou defense could be a grand performance for Alabama.