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Preview: Alabama Secondary vs. LSU Wide Receivers

Hey look, LSU actually has a competent passing game this year.

NCAA Football: Alabama vs Duke Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

With all the hype going in to the season around the dueling high-flying offenses of Alabama and Oklahoma, nobody outside of Baton Rouge ever expected that this time would actually be the time that LSU put together a competent passing game.

And the Tigers, off the arm of Joe Burrow, skipped straight past competent into elite. 10.8 yards per attempt, 78% completion rate, and 30 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions later, and Burrow is considered a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy and the LSU hype train is barrelling downhill, pushing the sound barrier to its limit.

With any great QB, though, comes a group of great receivers* who can actually snag the oblong projectile out of midair while running at top speed.

*does the QB make the receivers, or vice versa? It’s always a valid question. Unless you’re talking about Alabama, in which case they all make each other look good, but none are actually good.

For LSU, those guys are Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, and Terrace Marshall Jr. The trio have combined for 1,901 yards and 25 of Burrow’s 30 passing touchdowns. Jefferson was LSU’s returning top receiver from last season, and is within a few more yards of surpassing his 2018 totals. The 6’2” slot receiver was a lowly rated 3-star recruit that has morphed into someone that can twist his body around to make crazy contested catches either underneath or down the field. Jefferson leads the Tigers in pretty much every receiving category, and is by far and away Burrow’s most trusted target on 3rd downs.

Ja’Marr Chase, a 6’1” speedster, has been more of a deep threat on the outside for the Tigers, averaging over 17 yards per reception. He will move to the slot as well in empty sets, and is probably the toughest receiver to tackling with the ball in his hands.

Rounding out the trio is the 6’4” Marshall, who was a top 15 recruit a couple of seasons ago. He’s dealt with injuries as a high school senior and missed a chunk of games already this season. When he’s been healthy, though, he’s an incredible outside possession receiver with the size to victimize cornerbacks on backshoulder fades and across the middle. He’s also used quite often as a primary blocker on wide receiver screens.

Similar to Alabama, the Tigers’ passing game heavily depends on slants, drags, and quick curls into zones, often off of RPOs, though they aren’t afraid to go deep to any of their receivers. They also like to go into empty spread sets quite often, pushing a tight end and running back to the edges of the formation in order to get all three receivers into the “slot” and force defenses to move their formations into uncomfortable alignments.

The Alabama defensive backs, though, are uniquely suited to defend the LSU passing attack in a way that many teams aren’t. Doesn’t it just figure that the one time LSU finally gets an aerial attack, they actually play right into the strengths of the Tide defense?

Trevon Diggs and Pat Surtain II are Alabama’s outside cornerbacks, and both are 6’2” lengthy guys who have spent time in the past starting at slot corners. So, to quickly recap: LSU likes to take big, rangey receivers and use them in the slot to get mismatches, but Alabama has two big, rangey cornerbacks who also excel in slot coverage. Nice.

Alabama’s actual slot corner, Shyheim Carter, is different, though. At a generous 5’11”, he may have some issues when matched up with one of the three bigger Tiger receivers. The key will be for safety Xavier McKinney to be able to step up and break on the quick slants and drag routes to make stops before they become big gains.

In his article yesterday, Josh talked about Alabama’s pass rush having a good shot of getting to Burrow with the duo of Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings on the edges. If they can keep him from having time hit drag routes coming all the way across the field and deep seams, then the secondary will have a very good shot at playing to their strengths and keeping LSU limited to a lot of quick, short passes that can’t keep up with a high-flying Alabama offense.