By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 11, 2014
It is the height of irony that the principal reason for Alabama scoring more points than Arkansas Saturday came as a result of a special teams play on the part of the Crimson Tide.
A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen have been crushing opponents’ field goal and extra-point formations all season long. And, for the second consecutive week, one of those plays gave Alabama the opportunity to win.
This time, Alabama took advantage. Arkansas, for some reason, chose not to go for two points following the score that put the Razorbacks up 12-7. In a close, defense-oriented game such as this one, there was no guarantee Arkansas would get another chance at points. Indeed, Arkansas never did. A 13-7 score did Arkansas no good; Blake Sims hit DeAndrew White for a touchdown to put Alabama up 14-13 and the rest is history.
But the real reason Alabama won this game – or the real reasons – were lined up primarily on the defensive side of the ball. Players like Robinson, Cyrus Jones, Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest terrorized Arkansas’ offense all day long. Alabama shut Arkansas down in fourth quarter – although, to be fair, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema helped Alabama out in that regard by abandoning his running game one series too early. Once Arkansas decided to become a passing team on the final drives of the game, Alabama pinned its ears back and took over the game.
The big concern for Alabama, however, is the future. Suddenly, the Alabama offense is sputtering. The special teams play, save for punter J.K. Scott and the kick-blocking unit, is really a sad joke right now. Alabama cannot win the SEC on defense alone; it must have help.
But before addressing those concerns, the defense deserves another tip of the cap. Alabama probably never dreamed it would hold Arkansas to less than 100 yards rushing, but it did. And most of the yardage given up in the passing game – after the first quarter, at least – were empty yards on short- and intermediate-range passes.
Given how the defense struggled in the fourth quarter against Ole Miss last week, such a rebound performance is much-welcomed. But unless the Crimson Tide has some big changes up its sleeves in the other two facets of play, this season will not end well. Or, at least, not as well as Alabama fans thought following the win over Florida.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Arkansas:
1. Defensive coaches responded with the correct adjustments. A week after failing to adjust to Ole Miss’ passing game in the fourth quarter, Alabama didn’t even wait until halftime to get it right against Arkansas. The Razorbacks picked on Alabama’s safeties for the entire first half, particularly Geno Smith and Nick Perry, and practically ignored cornerback-covered players unless it was a tight end on a hands-over-head call to take advantage of height differential. With the exception of a long pass to A.J. Derby, which came when dime safety Maurice Smith failed to recognize a pass-off signal from Cyrus Jones, Alabama’s safeties went from zeroes to heroes in the second half, culminating with Landon Collins’ game-saving interception. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart also adjusted their blitz packages late in the game – i.e., they turned most of them off – and allowed the back seven to drop into coverage. Brandon Allen’s limitations as a quarterback were exposed, and Alabama took full advantage.
2. Offensive line almost lost the game. Special teams were a big issue, but they didn’t cost Alabama anything late in the game like poor offensive line play almost did. Alabama misses center Ryan Kelly badly, if for no other reason than to make last-second line call adjustments. The right guard position again proved problematic. Right guard Leon Brown actually played well after taking over for Alphonse Taylor, who was consistently shaky and not quick enough to handle Arkansas’ quick defensive ends. Right tackle Austin Shepherd did not have a good day, and left guard Arie Kouandjio almost gave away the store with a procedure penalty late in the contest. It’s not clear whether more personnel moves will have a positive effect. Dominick Jackson could be an option, but more likely, Alabama will be handicapped until Kelly comes back.
3. Bobby Williams’ coaching position should be in jeopardy. Nick Saban will surely bite the head off any reporter who suggests it this week, but it won’t change the facts. Alabama’s special teams are a disaster. On top of that, Alabama’s tight end group needs work. O.J. Howard had one nice catch and run Saturday, then disappeared. Brian Vogler’s blocking, while improved in 2014 overall, could still be better, and Dakota Ball nearly cost Alabama dearly when he didn’t leave the huddle soon enough after Vogler returned. That’s on Vogler for not communicating his return, which is at least partially on his position coach for not emphasizing it. Williams and Saban are more than employee and employer, they’re friends, which complicates the matter a great deal. But there has to be accountability for poor results.
4. This was Alabama’s front seven’s best game, especially the linebacker group. Reggie Ragland has become the breakout player on defense this season. He’s the rare 250-pound linebacker who plays like a 210-pound linebacker. He’s a force against the run and not bad in coverage. But the best part of Ragland’s game in 2014 has been the improvement in his instincts. Now that he’s seen enough reps, he’s getting more comfortable with schemes and is making plays ahead of them happening. But Ragland wasn’t along Saturday. Trey DePriest was much more at home stopping a run-first offense than the spread offenses of recent weeks, and it showed. Outside linebackers Ryan Anderson, Xzavier Dickson and Dillon Lee were all solid contributors. Arkansas’ offensive system also gave Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake a chance to make an impact at nosetackle, and both players were effective. Arkansas averaged 2.6 yards on 38 carries, by far its lowest output of the season, and coupled with Alabama’s performance last week against Ole Miss, this should serve notice to the rest of the conference that Alabama will be an opposing offense’s toughest out.
5. This was not, however, Blake Sims’ best day. There is still plenty of argument as to whether Sims was a primary driver of the Ole Miss loss. But had Alabama lost to Arkansas, there would have been no debate. To be fair to Sims, Alabama’s offensive line woes were a far greater problem. Sims is not a great 3rd-and-10 quarterback, nor will he ever be. Alabama was asking him to do things he is never going to be able to do. However, some of the things he could do, he simply didn’t. The 4th-and-1 play was hideously executed, for starters. But Sims also threw a couple of near-picks right in defenders’ bread baskets again, and sooner or later, those are going to start being caught. Alabama also needs to do a better job of utilizing his mobility outside the pocket. It’s a weapon when used correctly, but Alabama seems to be determined to turn Sims into a pocket passer outside of three or four designed runs. It’s not time to hit the panic button yet, but improvement is needed. Sims did have a QB rating almost 40 points higher than Brandon Allen, with greater yards-per-attempt, despite Allen throwing for 245 yards. Numbers like that will buy some patience, but they’re just empty figures if losses begin to pile up.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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