Analyzing Alabama football's defensive miscues against Ole Miss
OXFORD, Miss. — By virtue of its SEC schedule and consistent trips to the College Football Playoff, Alabama has faced the best assortment of offensive masterminds and electric playmakers the sport can offer in its Nick Saban era: Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze, Joe Burrow and Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton and Kyler Murray.
None of them did what Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss did to Alabama on Saturday. The 647 yards has never been done to UA in the Saban era and the 48 points has only been done twice. A closer look at Alabama’s 63-48 win over Ole Miss revealed a wide array of defensive issues to be addressed, issues covering both schematics, personal execution and communication.
No problem was more apparent than UA’s inability to cover tight ends. Kenny Yeboah was the most recent problem, catching seven passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns. It was the first time since 2014, and the fifth since 2000, that UA allowed a pass catcher of more than 180 yards; including the four that came before him, Yeboah is the only one to do so as a tight end.
At times, Kiffin was genuinely creative with how he created space for Yeboah. Yeboah’s first reception, a 52-yard gain, came when Ole Miss motioned a wide receiver across the formation behind him, presenting the look of a swing screen with Yeboah as a perimeter blocker. Yeboah released from that block into a large gap over the middle of the field.
On Yeboah’s first touchdown reception, he appeared to be the lead interior blocker on a quarterback lead into the center for the formation, just for quarterback Matt Corral to lift a pass over the defense to Yeboah.
Others were more simple. Yeboah’s third catch, for 17 yards and a first down on third-and-7, was an elementary block-and-release route across the formation.
Saban made the case for some of the problems being a natural side effect of modern offenses.
“The offensive line is blocking a run play and they throw a pass to the tight end,” Saban said. “I don’t know if there’s anybody downfield or not, you know, it’s just hard to play RPOs. Every time you play middle of the field coverage, they run RPO so they’re running slant, bang-bang plays but they’re 10-yard plays. If you try other things to take that away, it’s hard to stop the run.”
Tackling miscues also contributed to several of Ole Miss’ explosive plays, of which there were many. The Rebels had nine plays of 20 yards or more against Alabama; for context, UA allowed 46 such plays in 13 games last season and has allowed as few as 40 over 14 games as recently as 2017.
“I just think we have to finish, run all the way through the ball,” UA linebacker Dylan Moses said.
Communication proved costly particularly on third downs, which Saban prioritizes when facing what he calls fastball teams, teams with up-tempo offenses. The Rebels converted nine of their 17 third downs and all four of their fourth downs, frequently going more up-tempo than normal in those downs to convert.
At times, UA was barely fully in formation before the ball was snapped, much less organized within its call.
Moses said it was a learning experience for the many inexperienced players on UA’s defense. The players are not the only ones learning.
“We got to do a better job as coaches to try to help put our guys in a better position,” Saban said. “When we did get off the field on third down, they went for it on fourth down, they went fast, we never got lined up and they must have converted three or four fourth downs.”