In 24 plays on their first two drives against LSU on Oct. 20, the Texas A&M Aggies lined up in formations with zero backs and four wide, zero and five, one and three, one and four, two and one, two and three, and three and two. With three backs in the backfield, they threw a pass. They lined up in the pistol three times. They ran two bubble screens, a halfback screen, a speed option, a zone read, a quarterback draw, and threw four passes at least 12 yards downfield. They ran Ben Malena four times (and threw to him twice), Christine Michael twice and quarterback Johnny Manziel four times (two planned, two scrambles). They threw to Mike Evans and Kenric McNeal four times each. And, of course, they ran these 24 plays in 7:39, an average of 19 seconds per play.
They also scored twice before LSU could figure out which way was up.
This has been the story of Texas A&M in 2012. They do not waste any time throwing the kitchen sink at you. They move at warp speed, they spread the ball to a multitude of weapons, and the moment you turn your back to account for all the weapons, Johnny Manziel pierces you for a long run, and then another one.
You may eventually figure out how to stop the Aggies, but it's going to take you a little while. A&M scored nine points and averaged 6.7 yards per play in those first two drives, then scored 10 points and averaged 3.6 yards per play the rest of the game.
In their first six drives against Mississippi State last Saturday, the Aggies scored 31 points and averaged 7.7 yards per play; after: seven points and 6.3.
First eight drives against Auburn: 49 points and 9.6 yards per play.
First seven against Louisiana Tech: 39 points and 8.4 per play.
First seven against Arkansas: only 27 points (they missed a field goal and punted once), but 10.5 yards per play.
First three against Florida: 17 points and 5.8 per play.
Good defenses will adjust, but it takes a little while for their collective heads to stop spinning.
So what about great defenses, then? Despite actually showing some vulnerability against LSU last weekend, Alabama's is the best defense in the country, and it still might not be close. Will the Tide struggle early before getting a feel for Johnny Football? If so, how long will it take them, and how many points will they allow? If not, then does Texas A&M have any sort of adjustment in mind?
Shutdown Fullback previews A&M-Bama!
We'll start to answer those questions by looking at how Florida and LSU eventually slowed down the Aggies. Alabama does rank first in Def. F/+, but Florida still ranks third, LSU sixth. In previewing A&M-LSU in October, I talked about Florida's adjustments:
First, they got at least a hair less aggressive. On A&M's passes on the first three possessions, the Gators rushed an average of 3.9 defenders; they blitzed three times early on and Manziel went 2-for-3 for 28 yards. From the fourth possession on, the Gators blitzed just once, choosing instead to alternate between dropping seven and eight defenders into coverage.
They also began to react better to Manziel's tendencies. The short passing game that worked well early on evaporated -- A&M's average yards after catch sank from 6.2 yards to 3.2. And tough, in the face of less pressure and better coverage, Manziel elected to scramble many times (it's what he does), his scrambles rarely paid off: in nine scrambles that we charted, Manziel completed three of five passes but was held to 17 yards in four rushes. Four quarterback draws gained just 16 yards. Twice, Manziel was sacked in the pocket waiting for a receiver to come open.
Even in a five-wide set, which just screams, "Come after me," Florida stuck with the plan of bringing either three or four defenders, and the move worked. A&M still had some decent gains here and there, but the Aggies' six drives after halftime all resulted in punts, four of the three-and-out variety. Florida had the speed to read and react, and it turned out to be a winning strategy.
Like Florida, LSU also had the speed to sit back, read and react. But that's not really LSU's style. LSU is (endearingly) more aggressive on defense, as a whole, than either Florida or Alabama, and their chosen attack in facing A&M didn't change after the first two drives. In Manziel's first 14 passes, LSU blitzed five times (36 percent), sending five pass rushers four times, six once. In the 42 pass attempts that followed, LSU blitzed 14 times (33 percent), sending five 13 times, six once. No, what changed was simply that LSU played better defense. Like Florida, the Tigers got a feel for what it is like to face an offense this intent on moving quickly, this intent on spreading the ball to a number of weapons, and this intent on putting the game in the hands of an incredibly unique playmaker (Manziel).
When A&M's offense slowed down versus LSU, it happened in a lot of the same ways as against Florida. Short passes that were averaging 6.4 yards after catch early on, averaged just 4.2 later. Two early bubble screens went for 21 yards; three later ones went for 11. Johnny Manziel went from averaging 2.5 yards per carry on scrambles to 0.0. Designed rollouts after the first two drives resulted in 1-for-3 passing with a sack. Four quarterback draws gained eight yards.
Once LSU (and Florida) adjusted to A&M's tempo and kitchen-sink attack, the defense adjusted and slowed the Aggies down enough to come back from the early deficit. Even if A&M sees some early offensive success versus Alabama on Saturday, chances are that the Tide will adjust. But did LSU open up any potential new holes in the Alabama defense for A&M to exploit? Before Nov. 3, Alabama's D had played at the highest level of Nick Saban's tenure. Through eight games, no team had rushed for more than 80 yards on the Tide, and no team had passed for more than 209. LSU rushed for 139 and passed for 296. LSU drove at least 50 yards on five different possessions. Freshman running back Jeremy Hill had carries of 19, 19, 10 and seven yards. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger completed both long passes (19 and 22 yards downfield to Odell Beckham, 14 and 13 to Jarvis Landry) and short passes that went a long way (34 yards after catch after an eight-yard pass to fullback
Rick Ross J.C. Copeland, 32 yards after catch after a six-yard pass to running back Spencer Ware, 20 yards after catch after a three-yard pass to Landry).
Alabama's blitz, nearly automatic in the first eight games, did get to Mettenberger twice in 20 tries, but in the 18 passes Mettenberger was able to throw, he completed 12 for 147 yards, a nearly unheard-of level of success. LSU also devastated Alabama with play-action. On 10 play-action pass attempts, Mettenberger was sacked once but completed seven of nine passes for 125 yards. Alabama got pressure relatively frequently (10 times in 39 pass attempts), but Mettenberger was able to hang in and fire some absolute bullets to open receivers.
Can Texas A&M replicate LSU's success? Maybe, but it is difficult to glean too much because of one simple fact: The LSU and A&M offenses could almost not possibly be any different.
1. Johnny Manziel does not have Zach Mettenberger's arm. Arm strength is often an overrated concept, used frequently by NFL scouts to justify drafting a bigger, stronger, more prototypical quarterback over another who is smarter and better. JaMarcus Russell has a hand cannon. Drew Brees only has a good arm. That said, we saw the value of arm strength last Saturday in Baton Rouge. I have written before that Alabama will often dare you to throw longer passes, confident that most college quarterbacks won't be able to consistently, and quickly, hit semi-open receivers 15 (or more) yards downfield. The Tide are usually correct in this gamble, but they were not against Mettenberger, who, for all that he has lacked at certain times in 2012, has an abundance of cannon powder in his right arm.
Johnny Manziel, by all means, has a good arm, certainly one strong enough to find open receivers against most defenses. But the passing windows close really, really quickly against Alabama. If Mike Evans or Ryan Swope are open on a deep out route, we'll see if he is able to identify, throw, and get the ball there before Dee Milliner, Deion Belue, or another Alabama defensive back closes in.
2. LSU keeps a lot of blockers near the quarterback. In 39 pass attempts versus Alabama, LSU blocked with just five linemen only nine times. Most of the time, there was at least one extra blocker (likely a running back/fullback), but on 13 pass attempts, LSU employed at least seven blockers. Four times, they used eight. With five blockers, LSU averaged just 3.2 yards per pass attempt. The quick passing game didn't really work at all. With six or more blockers, however, LSU averaged 8.2 yards per attempt.
Meanwhile, against Auburn two weeks ago, Texas A&M pass-blocked with just five linemen 69 percent of the time. Against LSU: 46 percent of the time. Against Florida: almost 100 percent of the time. As Alabama proved against Ole Miss and Missouri, among others, the Tide have more than enough speed to both pressure the quarterback and swallow up the short, quick, passing game that defines a lot of spread attacks.
That's not to say that we can't learn anything from LSU's success, however. It has to be encouraging for A&M that Alabama simply didn't play well at times. It was not always a schematic issue; on at least 12 plays, Alabama defenders missed a tackle. On J.C. Copeland's long catch-and-run, there were at least two missed tackles. The idea behind Texas A&M's, and others', spread attacks is to almost turn plays into punt returns, where a skill position player gets the ball in space, and if he makes a single tackler miss, he can run a long, long way. Alabama thrives on leveraging ball carriers toward the middle of the field, where many tacklers await. But the Tide showed in Baton Rouge that they can fall out of discipline at times. And lord knows that if that happens against A&M, players like Malena, Michael, and of course Manziel will make them pay dearly.
Plus, it's not like LSU operates out of nothing but the I-formation. Mettenberger did operate out of the shotgun on 28 plays last Saturday, almost always just one back in the backfield with him, and on those plays LSU averaged 6.8 yards. Alabama is not immune to giving up yards against any offense if said offense is full of great athletes and operating at a high level. LSU's offense operated at a higher level than any of us probably anticipated last Saturday, and they gained yards because of it.
No team has a better understanding of its identity than Texas A&M. The Aggies want to spread you out, wear you down with play after play after play, and gash you when you lose discipline. LSU almost beat Alabama by wearing the Tide out and controlling the ball; there's nothing saying A&M cannot do the same. Still, it would be incredibly beneficial to the cause if the Aggies were to start out as hot as they have in the rest of SEC play. Alabama's offense is obviously good enough to move the ball on the Aggies, too (Alabama ranks ninth in Off. F/+, while A&M ranks 27th in Def. F/+), so if A&M is to pull off an enormous upset in Tuscaloosa, a cushion would be highly recommended.
Can Texas A&M win this game? Sure. There's nothing saying Alabama will stop A&M early any better than LSU or Florida did, and there's nothing saying that Johnny Manziel isn't a unique enough weapon to consistently confuse and frustrate the Tide. Nick Saban likes order, and Manziel gives you none. Plus, Alabama is capable of fumbling a couple of possessions away, and A&M is capable of taking full advantage.
That said, evidence is on Alabama's side. LSU and Florida did adjust to A&M's pedal-to-the-metal attack, and Alabama's defense is, as a whole, better than the Tigers' or Gators'. A&M cannot necessarily exploit the Alabama defense in the same ways that LSU did, and there's nothing saying the Aggies can keep Bama under 24-28 points. Pick Alabama to win, but watch anyway: this one could be fascinating.
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