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Previewing Alabama versus Mississippi State: The Bulldog defense

Though the team in Baton Rouge claims the best defense in the conference, the Bulldogs from Starkville may have a tougher overall D.

Texas A&M v Mississippi State
The MSU defense may be the best the Tide has faced to date.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

When former Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen spurned Starkville for Gainesville at the end of the previous season, the Bulldogs were caught in a competitive hiring environment. Several schools, many of them viewed as more attractive job to top coaching candidates, were also looking for head men, and the Bulldogs could merely get in line.

Mississippi State eventually settled on Joe Moorhead, a coach whose highest profile previous gig was as the offensive coordinator at Penn State during the 2016-2017 seasons. Though a relative unknown to many SEC fans, Moorhead has proven himself capable in his first year at MSU, with his Bulldogs sporting a 6-3 record and a top-20 ranking.

A big part of that success can be attributed to star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, the team’s leading passer and rusher. However, the real strength of the Bulldog squad is their defense. It’s a salty crew led by former Penn State and Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and is stocked with talented veterans in the front seven and backfield. The Bulldogs will offer the explosive Tide offense yet another test, though this week’s confines will be more familiar and welcoming for the Bama O led by Tua Tagovailoa.

The hype surrounding the MSU defense is not hyperbole, however, and Alabama will once again have to enter the fray with weapons sharpened to a razor’s edge if they are going to best what is statistically the best defense they’ve faced to date. Shoop’s defense is aggressive, and they attack downhill. They have a better pass rush than LSU, and though they may have less pure talent in the secondary, the Bulldog defensive backs are more than up to the task of competing against the Tide’s elite receivers.

Can Alabama continue its offensive march through the conference’s best defenses with another dominant performance this weekend? Tagovailoa is in a league of his own, and Alabama’s offensive line has been absolutely dominant. The running game has picked up steam as a result, and the Tide has become the balanced beast everyone feared they’d be.

But the Bulldogs will put up a fight, and they won’t go quietly. Can they do enough to prevent Bama’s all-out assault this Saturday. That remains to be seen…let’s take a closer look.

The Roster

Mississippi State has a defensive roster this season that would be the envy of almost every program in the South not found in Tuscaloosa, Georgia, or LSU. They are phenomenally talented, they are a decidedly veteran unit, and they have solid depth to spell the starters. That is the recipe for an elite defense in the SEC, and Mississippi State is about as well primed as it can be defensively.

The dominance of the State defense begins up front, and there may not be a better tandem of defensive linemen in the country than senior end Montez Sweat (6-6, 245 pounds) and junior nose tackle Jeffrey Simmons (6-4, 300 pounds). The pair has been completely dominant this year, with Sweat leading all Bulldogs with 9.5 sacks to go along with 36 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, seven quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Sweat has tremendous length for a tackle with a wide wingspan, and he is lightning fast off the edge. Offensive lines have had no answer for him, and it will take the best performance of the year by Tide tackles Jonah Williams and Jedrick Wills to keep him from harassing Tagovailoa all afternoon. Simmons is no slouch either, as he has 42 tackles on the season with 9.5 tackles for loss, two passes broken up, two passes defended, and five quarterback hurries.

Sweat is relieved by juniors Chauncey Rivers (6-3, 275 pounds) and Fletcher Adams (6-2, 265 pounds), and Rivers has 14 tackles, four tackles for loss, and three quarterback hurries while Adams has 15 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and four quarterback hurries. Simmons gets help from senior Tre Brown (6-4, 315 pounds) and junior Lee Autry (6-2, 310 pounds). Brown has five tackles this season, and Autry has nine.

At the other tackle position is senior Braxton Hoyett (6-3, 310 pounds), another mammoth run plugger and pocket collapser in the middle of the Bulldog D. Hoyett has 16 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and a quarterback hurry. Senior Corey Thomas (6-5, 310 pounds) is the reserve tackle, and he’s recorded 11 tackles, 1.5 tackle for loss, and a sack this season. Freshman James Jackson (6-3, 330 pounds) is also available if needed, though he has been used sparingly in 2018.

The other end is senior Gerri Green (6-4, 255 pounds), another tall speed demon with great reach. Green has 21 tackles so far with four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and a quarterback hurry. Sophomore Kobe Jones (6-4, 270 pounds) and senior Grant Harris (6-3, 290 pounds) back him up. Jones has 17 tackles, five tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry, and a fumble recovery. Harris has seven tackles, two quarterback hurries, and half a sack.

Though technically Shoop runs a 4-2-5 nickel on most downs, the Bulldogs still list three linebackers on the roster. At the Mike position is sophomore Erroll Thompson (6-1, 250 pounds), a fireplug of a defender who can lay devastating hits on backs up the middle and offer decent coverage in the underneath zone. Thompson has 62 tackles this season, second on the team, in addition to four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, two passes defended, and a quarterback hurry. Utility ‘backer Tim Washington (6-3, 230 pounds) spells Thompson, and he has 17 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss this year.

Junior Leo Lewis (6-2, 240 pounds) is listed as the starter at Will, and Lewis has 37 tackles, three tackles for loss, a pass broken up, a pass defended, and a quarterback hurry. Holding the Sam designation is sophomore Willie Gay Jr. (6-2, 235 pounds). In Shoop’s defense, when the Bulldogs shift to the 4-2-5, the Sam gives way to an extra defensive back and Gay becomes the back-up at Will. Gay has 28 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a pass broken up, a pass defended, and four quarterback hurries. Again, Washington steps in behind Gay at Sam when relief help is needed.

The secondary has a solid veteran presence, with three of the four starters leading as seniors. Corner Jamal Peters (6-2, 220 pounds) has been solid if not spectacular, as he has contributed 15 tackles, a tackle for loss, three passes broken up, and three passes defended. Peters is backed up by senior Chris Rayford (6-0, 200 pounds), who has nine tackles, four passes broken up, four passes defended, and two quarterback hurries.

At the other corner positions is lockdown sophomore Cameron Dantzler (6-2, 175 pounds), and Dantzler has arguably been the best corner on the team this season. He has 30 tackles, two interceptions, eight passes broken up, and 10 passes defended. Dantzler’s backup is junior Maurice Smitherman (5-10, 190 pounds), who has been active as a reserve with 17 tackles, three passes broken up, and three passes defended.

The Bulldogs are gifted when it comes to safeties, as both senior strong safety Jonathan Abram (6-0, 215) and senior free safety Mark McLaurin (6-2, 215 pounds) have SEC size and speed. Abram leads the team in tackles with 68 in addition to two tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, three passes broken up, four passes defended, and a quarterback hurry. McLaurin is third on the team in tackles with 58, and he has 3.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up, three passes defended, three quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. Sophomore C.J. Morgan (6-0, 200 pounds) relieves McLaurin and has four tackles, an interception, and a pass defended. Abram’s backup is senior Stephen Adegoke (6-0, 210 pounds), who has five tackles, an interception, a pass broken up, and two passes defended.

When the Bulldogs go into the nickel, junior Brian Cole (6-2, 210 pounds) fills the role. He has 11 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, and a pass defended to his credit. Cole’s relief is junior Jaquarius Landrews (6-2, 190 pounds) and freshman Marcus Murphy (6-1, 195 pounds). Landrews has been quite active though not listed as the starter with 21 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, five passes broken up, five passes defended, and a quarterback hurry. Murphy has played sparingly as a freshman, but he has accrued six tackles.

How Mississippi State will Attack the Alabama Offense

Rooted in the 4-2-5 scheme, Shoop’s defensive philosophy requires the unit to be ruthlessly efficient, relying heavily on forcing offenses into negative plays on first downs. Shoop does this using primarily a four-man Over front with a Cover-6 base, schematically speaking. He likes to find unconventional ways to load the box against the run, and if opponents are going to throw, he wants to force them to throw to the edges on slow-developing, low-gain plays. Unlike some 4-2-5 defenses, Shoop likes to use his nickel back and a corner to set the edges against the run while the safeties roll back into safe coverages down field. The corner and nickel have expanded, unconventional responsibilities against the run, in other words. With this strategy, the defense can quickly read run and collapse the corner and nickel into the box, getting eight men up front in run defense in a split-second.

When opposing offenses test the Bulldogs with the passing game, corners lock up the edge receivers in one of several different underneath coverages, while the safeties roll over the top to assist the corners. If an offense lines up three receivers, the safeties roll over the top to provide help on the two receivers nearest the quarterback, leaving only the furthest receiver from the quarterback one-on-one. The idea is that though the Z receiver will be single-covered, the quarterback will face the biggest challenge in getting the ball to that distant receiver regularly on standard downs (1st-and-10, 2nd-and-5, 3rd-and-2). And when those passes are complete, they are so slow-developing that they allow defenders to read and react, thus limiting the gains allowed.

On top of this strategy, Shoop will use blitzes extensively to make the quarterback’s read job that much harder. He likes to mix in man-free blitzes to create explosive plays for the defense in hopes of putting the offense behind the chains and forcing them into passing downs. When an offense has a negative play on first down, the chance of a run on second down is lower, making the defense’s job of diagnosing that much easier. It effectively stacks the deck in favor of the defense.

Shoop also loves to run fire zone blitz coverages in which he brings unconventional blitzers from several vectors. In those instances, he’ll couple one of three blitz angles with a multi-level zone approach (three deep zone defenders and three underneath zone defenders). The blitzes generally represent one of three types of attack: 1) a “field scrape” blitz which sees the nickel blitz around the tackle/ tight end; 2) a “bench scrape” blitz in which the boundary corner attacks the passer; and 3) a double linebacker blitz in which the Mike and Will cross and attack the A gaps on either side of the center. In the latter blitz look, the center can’t contain both A-gaps, so one backer is guaranteed to break through most of the time. Shoop compensates for the two blitzers by shoring up coverage with an athletic end who drops into coverage versus the tight end or H-back.

Overall, the Mississippi State defense is a highly active, aggressive, containment-style defense that sprinkles the exotic blitzes in liberally. As previously stated, the overarching goal is to stall opposing offenses and disrupt offensive flow by creating numerous second-and-longs and third-and-longs which lead opponents to shave away from run calls on those downs in favor of passes. When the defense can accurately anticipate the pass, then Shoop’s coverage concepts make for difficult treading, as the defensive backfield is littered with defensive backs and athletic linebackers who can force quarterbacks into complex decisions that are made even more difficult by the constant, unexpected pressures of the Mississippi State blitzes. MSU gains numerous sacks as a defense, but even when the blitzers and linemen don’t bring down the QB the pressures are common and are still effective in disrupting the passer.

When the Bulldogs get what they want on first down, they’ll move into something like a traditional Tampa-2 look on the latter downs, coupled with even more blitzes. The blitzes can come from almost anywhere: safety, linebacker, corners on the edge…it’s awfully hard for a quarterback to diagnose, and the Bulldogs make it more so by varying the calls they make in given situations to hide tendencies.

To run this kind of scheme, the defense must be stocked with fast players across the front with speedy, athletic ends. In fact, if one was to design a prototype end for Shoop’s scheme, it would be Sweat. He’s aggressive as a pass rusher, has great length, and is light and fast enough to be a workable coverage option on drops.

For the scheme to work, the defense also must have physical corners who can execute in run defense and effectively seal the edges. Without such players, the run defense suffers. That was a problem for Shoop at Tennessee, but in Starkville he has big bodies at safety and corner (with the exception of the comparably-light Dantzler). The Bulldogs are better statistically in pass defense (they are 7th against the pass and 18th against the run in raw data, and eighth against the pass and 25th against the run in terms of defensive S&P+). Either way, the Bulldog defense is pretty effective, and can hold its own against either facet an offense throws their way.

The defense must have linebackers who are excellent pass rushers, since given the frequency of the blitzes that utilize the linebackers, their success is critical to the overarching philosophy of disrupting offenses with explosiveness. The Bulldog front seven has fantastic pass rushers, and large linebackers do their jobs to make this defense work exceptionally well. That’s another big difference between the defense Shoop had in Knoxville and the unit he fields at MSU. At UT, he had less overall talent, and the talent he did have wasn’t well-suited to his scheme. At MSU, he has the perfect players for his style of attack, and they are playing at a high level.

Finally, the defense must have safeties who can do everything: support the run, drop into coverage, and read developing plays to provide clean-up when needed. Abram is asked to fly all over the field and be disruptive as a ball-hawk, while McLaurin is a boundary safety who alternates between deep zones and loading the box versus the run. The duo has been outstanding for most of the year, and while they sometimes fall out of phase or let elite receivers slide past them, they are quite reliable and know their responsibilities well.

Shoop runs a great system when it works. At UT, he struggled with personnel and buy-in from his players. At State, however, he has the bodies he needs, and they appear to understand the philosophy of what he is trying to accomplish. The system is complex to teach, with a lot of heavy-lifting on the front end. However, once players become versed in the reads and responsibilities, it is a strategy that is exceedingly difficult for a quarterback to read. Under Shoop’s leadership, the Bulldog D is a legitimate top-10 unit (they are 6th in total defense, giving up 278.7 yards per game and fifth overall in defensive S&P+).

The Result

At this point, there are no secrets about the mission of either team on the field Saturday. Alabama will do what Alabama does. Tagovailoa will sling the ball around, option strengths against defensive schematic weaknesses through RPOs, and the offense will seek balance. If there’s one “criticism” one could levy against the Tide offense this season, it’s that they’ve depended on the excellence of the passing game while struggling to run the ball at times. That is no longer true. The Tide romped over the LSU run defense last week, and the left side of Bama’s line with Williams and Deonte Brown looked like a rolling roadblock against skilled Tiger defenders.

Alabama may not have as easy a time paving the Bulldog front seven, but they won’t shy from the challenge either. Alabama’s running game momentum has built with each passing week, and it has gotten so effective that Nick Saban mentioned the improved balance on offense in his post-game remarks last weekend. One can imagine that faced with another top-10 pass defense, the Tide’s flow towards a more heavy-handed rushing attack will continue this week. It’s where the Bulldog defense is softest, and it mitigates their strength in the pass rush. Running the ball effectively can slow down the likes of Sweat and Green and draw Abram and McLaurin into the box. If the Tide can make them pinch closer to slow Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, and Najee Harris, then Tagovailoa will get plenty of traction against the Bulldog secondary.

Another important match-up will be the potent Dog pass rush versus Alabama’s offensive line. While the MSU front has lived in opposing backfields this season, they still have fewer sacks than Alabama (the Tide is ranked fourth in sacks with 31, the Bulldogs are 35th with 23.) And Alabama has given up only six sacks throughout the season, which averages to fewer than one per game (Bama ranks fourth in sacks allowed.) No one has been able to disrupt Tua’s timing through the pass rush this season, and if the Tide’s offensive line can continue to stem the flood of pass rushers attempting to crash their party, Tagovailoa will continue to enjoy time to run through his progressions and throw his receivers open.

One of the few lone areas in which the Bulldogs have struggled defensively is in preventing big plays. Dominant defenses often experience problems with huck-and-hope passes on third-and-long plays, and the Bulldogs are no different. They currently rank 44th in IsoPPP+ defense, which is used to indicate the propensity of successful plays against a team of more than 20 yards. This could be problematic against an Alabama team that ranks second in offensive IsoPPP+. The Tide makes a living off explosive plays, and if the Bulldogs fall asleep, the Tide will make them pay for napping.

Finally, there is little question that the Bulldogs have an elite secondary. That fact, combined with the excellent and consistent pressure applied by the pass rush, have led the Bulldogs to become one of the best pass defenses in the nation. But they won’t be facing the Florida WR corps, or the Auburn WR corps, or the LSU WR corps. They will this week face the best assemblage of wide receiver talent in college football, as evidenced by the play of stars Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, and Jaylen Waddle last week. If Devonta Smith is a full-go for this week, that deepens the predicament for the Bulldogs even more. As deep as they are, there’s legitimate question as to whether any of the DBs are good enough to routinely wrangle even one of those Tide receivers. Can they keep those all those receivers in check, and tight end Irv Smith, throughout the entire game? That’s not likely. And with the way the Tide defense is playing right now, the offense only needs to make the Bulldogs pay a few times to stretch the game into an unwinnable match for Mississippi State.

While it’s true that the Bulldogs have an elite defense built to cause trouble for a squad like the Alabama offense, the Tide has yet to falter. If they play their game, there’s not a defense on the planet – including their own – that can contain them. As Tua continues to develop and improve, teams like Mississippi State ultimately have little chance of keeping pace with the offense.