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Texas A&M wrap-up: Defense had a mixed day, but Bama’s air game is next level

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Any time Texas A&M and Alabama get together, there will be Gene Stallings references either in the pregame, on the television broadcast, or both.

Stallings is beloved by both schools, and for good reason. He coached at both places and coached the same way at both places. Stallings loved to run the football, control the clock, and the only thing wrong with beating someone 17-7 was that they scored 7.

So recent Alabama-Texas A&M history has to give Stallings all kinds of heartburn, because this series has turned into an offensive demonstration that is almost as far removed from the kind of football Stallings retired from coaching nearly 25 years ago as it is from tenpin bowling or open-wheel racing at Indianapolis.

Alabama ran up 544 yards of total offense, scoring almost a point for every snap in the game and averaging nearly 10 yards per snap. Quarterback Mac Jones set all kinds of high marks in the game with 435 yards and 4 touchdowns. His lone interception was off a freak deflection on a ball batted at the line of scrimmage. Aside from a slight overthrow on what would have been a fifth touchdown pass, he finished the day with a fairly errorless scorecard, and seems to have removed any doubt as to who will be the starting quarterback this year, he or freshman Bryce Young.

The running game, though, was not quite as well-oiled as Jones’ right arm. Najee Harris was bottled up, scoring twice but gaining just 43 yards on 12 carries. Brian Robinson Jr. led Alabama rushers with 60 yards on 10 carries, but most came late in the game after Texas A&M was starting to get gassed. Jones’ passing ability is what kept Alabama ahead, especially after Texas A&M roared back to tie the game 14-14 early, one of the scores coming after Jones’ turnover.

For that matter, the one part of the TideFans pregame preview that didn’t come to pass was Alabama’s edge at running back. Texas A&M has found a package that works for Ainias Smith, who racked up 152 yards on 11 touches and was always the center of the universe when the Aggies had the ball. Alabama really had no answer for him, but in a twist of fate it was Smith’s drop of a crucial fourth-down pass that really ended A&M’s chances in this game for good.

It probably wouldn’t have mattered, anyway, because Alabama’s offense has shown a kind of explosiveness that wasn’t entirely expected, nor has been duplicated much by other teams thus far in a young season. While most Alabama fans were expecting continued offensive competency even after the end of the Tua Tagovailoa era, the results so far have exceeded those expectations. Now Alabama is beginning to look like the conference’s most explosive offensive team yet again.

Like last week, there is still enough to clean up coming out of this game that the coaches shouldn’t have to worry about complacency. The defense contained but didn’t dominate; the running game (outside of the red zone, at least) couldn’t get going because the offensive linemen couldn’t get to the linebackers. With games coming up soon against improved Georgia and Tennessee teams, Alabama can’t afford to stop working on the details.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Texas A&M.

1. Alabama’s playmakers at wide receiver are too much for most secondaries to stop. Having a 1-2 punch like DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle is already a luxury, but John Metchie III established himself as another weapon Saturday. Metchie’s value had previously been mostly as a blocker, but Saturday was his breakout performance, as he caught 5 passes for 181 yards (36.2 avg.) and 2 touchdowns.

With Metchie establishing himself alongside Smith and Waddle, opposing secondaries really have no way to relieve the pressure. Defending those three opened up a couple of opportunities for TE Miller Forristall, who caught 2 passes for 23 yards including one acrobatic catch on the Tide sideline. Mac Jones did a fantastic job getting the ball to his receivers, but these are also not normal receivers he’s working with.

Nobody else in the SEC has a pair of receivers as good as Smith and Waddle, and if Metchie is now in the mix as a playmaker, too, then the opportunities will just keep opening up.

2. Alabama’s offensive play design and playcalling the first 2 weeks has been fantastic. There was plenty of reason to be wary of Alabama’s hiring of Steve Sarkisian as its offensive coordinator a year ago, given a loss in a national title game under his direction and his subsequent departure from the program, not to mention his rather pedestrian performance while at the University of Washington. But last year he showed those concerns were probably unfounded, and so far in 2020, he has taken his game up another level.

It isn’t just about the playcalling flow, but the basic play design and deployment, especially the route trees Alabama has designed for its passing game. Alabama has had receivers running free for two weeks now against secondaries that utilized several veteran players each.

Having said that, Texas A&M may not have the answer it needs in defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Texas A&M struggled to defend the pass in 2019 and a lot of the problems it displayed last year haven’t been fixed. Texas A&M looked confused in the back end of the defense, didn’t handle pass-offs well from the linebacker to the safety level and didn’t get enough pressure on Mac Jones despite having a very talented defensive line.

Alabama simply outsmarted Texas A&M, then made it stick by having better players overall. If you’re a Texas A&M fan hoping the Aggies can close the gap with Alabama, this is not the source material you need for such a supposition.

3. Bama contained the rush, and Mond’s scrambling. For all the damage Ainias Smith did in the category of total yardage, he carried the ball only 5 times for 29 yards (5.8 avg.) and no scores. Isaiah Spiller was completely shut down, getting only 23 yards on 11 carries. Kellen Mond? He scrambled 8 times for 19 yards with a long run of 8. Texas A&M only went over the 100-yard mark in rushing late in the game when backup QB Haynes King, who was seeing his first career action, broke loose for 43 yards on 5 runs from the pocket.

Overall, Texas A&M was held to 3.8 yards per rush and no scores, and that’s a winning defensive strategy nine times out of ten. Alabama even put decent pressure on Mond when he dropped back for passes, recording 8 QB hurries and a pick-six. Defensively, it was a good effort up front, but Mond has been slippery against Alabama before and his ability to sidestep trouble allowed him to get off some of his longer throws.

Having effectively handled two pretty good rushing attacks in back-to-back weeks, Alabama has to feel good about facing such teams as Georgia, Auburn and LSU later in the year.

4. Malachi Moore played a spectacular game. The rest of the secondary? Not so much. Moore was nearly flawless as Alabama’s Star safety/corner. His late interception of Haynes King was what has all the pundits talking, but he was strong against the run and was disruptive long before than last interception.

It was one of the best performances by an Alabama true freshman defensive back ever, certainly one playing just his second game, and from here out, fair or not, he’s going to end up being compared to Minkah Fitzpatrick and his stellar 2015 freshman season. But Alabama also gave up 335 yards and 3 passing touchdowns, and that needs to be fixed. At least two of the touchdowns came off busts; Ainias Smith was left open on a backside route and safety Daniel Wright blew the tackle, allowing Smith to score.

Backup tight end Ryan Renick, who came into the game with a very sparse resume, got loose on a shoot-screen option call, and communication issues between MLB Dylan Moses and the safeties led to Renick running free for a 17-yard touchdown. Alabama had trouble covering wheel routes against Missouri last week and continued to struggle with misdirection in passing routes this week.

Wright made up somewhat for his gaffe by baiting Kellen Mond into throwing a pick-six later in the game, but against teams with good quarterbacks and receivers that can run complex routes, Alabama’s defensive backs need to show improvement.

5. Punting game is still subpar, and Bama needs to clean up the pre-snap penalties. Two things to work on before Georgia show up on the schedule: brain-dead pre-snap penalties, and a punting unit that isn’t carrying its own weight. Sam Johnson averaged just 33 yards per kick against Texas A&M, and with two other punters essentially tied with Johnson on the depth chart prior to the season, it might be time to get a look at one of the other ones.

The pre-snap penalties are maddening, however, and talent has no bearing on them. Alabama continues to see its offensive line get a case of the twitches, and was flagged 6 times for 40 yards on the day. Five of those flags were for non-contact fouls that have the tendency to turn into drive killers.

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