Last year’s Texas A&M vs. Alabama matchup was the defining game of the season. It gave eventual national champion Alabama Crimson Tide their only loss of the year and potentially the motivational boost they needed to finish off a tremendous season. It gave Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M their first SEC signature win, showing that not only does A&M belong in the SEC, but that they should be considered one of the feature programs.
And it gave Johnny Manziel his Heisman push that gave him the signature win to secure the Trophy.
In a two part series, I’ll be breaking down last year’s match-up and breakdown what each quarterback and each defense needs to do to win this year’s elite match-up. First up, it’s Johnny Football against the loaded Nick Saban defense.
Quarterback Charting Work – Vs. Different Numbers of Rushers
In charting Johnny Manziel vs. Alabama, I wanted to do more than just see where he threw the ball and how successfully. His statistical performance was impressive, but I wanted to see if there was any difference when Alabama rushed three, four, five, or six rushers throughout the game. While I won’t post the total results here, I did have a few bullet points that stood out. Keep in mind that “rushers” included down linemen and delayed rushers.
-Manziel’s footwork and mechanics when rolling to his left were very suspect, with three throws exclusively in that setting. Most of those passes were off balance and jump ball focused. In general, he only had two passes in the entire game that were further than 5 yards in the air to his left side. Keeping Manziel to his left is a key that Alabama tried to enact in the 2nd half of last year’s game, and should continue that in this weekend’s game.
-When Alabama rushed five linemen, Manziel, was sacked three times on 21 drop backs, and only gained 27 yards on the six times he was able to escape pressure and run the ball.
-Alabama utilized two spies/delayed rushers five times throughout the game. I’d expect them to continue that in this game.
-Manziel only threw 5 passes 10+ yards down the field in the game, completing just two of them, a clear testament to the adequate, but not great arm strength Manziel has. This is a key reason that I expect Alabama to run more press coverage and six in the box against Manziel, forcing him to beat them vertically and outside hashes from the pocket.
Keys of the Match-Up
1. Alabama’s John Fulton in Press Coverage vs. Texas A&M’s Mike Davis
In last year’s game, Fulton was the primary press cornerback against receiver Mike Davis. Davis, one of the best receivers in the country, is as physical as they come when getting off press and winning at the catch point. Fulton did an adequate job against Davis last year, containing him initially and giving the pass rush a chance to force Manziel off balance. Fulton’s work against Davis is a critical factor in keeping Texas A&M vertically contained and the pass rush aggressive.
2. Containing Manziel with Controlled Rushers, Spies
Containing Johnny Manziel is much easier said than done, but Alabama did it on a handful of plays last year. While I’ll get into MUCH more detail below in some play diagrams, it’s clear that the chess match between Alabama’s linebackers and safeties protecting the interior routes while Manziel threatens with his feet will be a critical factor. Pressure is on Adrian Hubbard to be effective on the perimeter in containing Johnny Manziel as well as on CJ Mosley in working on interior in his delay rushes as well as controlling the middle of the field on in-breaking routes.
3. Johnny Manziel On Rollouts
Manziel isn’t very efficient from the pocket, partially thanks to his lack of controlled up and down-pocket footwork, and his lack of ideal size/arm to make 5-7 step drop-type throws. However, on the move, he is able to threaten teams due to his running ability as well as his improvisation. However, on rollouts to the left, his mechanics suffer greatly, a potential targeted weakness for the Alabama defense.
Play Breakdown #1 – Spy Rusher Contain on Manziel
The first play on the docket is actually a well done job, at least initially, by the pass rush. As you’ll see below, Alabama rushes heavy from Manziel’s right, leaving linebacker #42 Adrian Hubbard to play a spy on the backside. With trips to the left, Alabama matches up with each receiver man on, leaning inside and forcing each receiver to either cut inside early or lean outside on their routes.
After sealing his strongside (right) very well, Alabama forces Manziel to roll left and reset (which he does well), but the playcall doesn’t appear to be conducive to him working left. The receivers by now are too far downfield to try and pin between defensive backs, which Manziel soon realizes. However, as you’ll notice below, Adrian Hubbard is already too inside to be able to secure the outside, an open area that Manziel’s foot speed will take advantage of.
In the final picture below, you’ll see that only a few steps out of position by Adrian Hubbard leads to Manziel not only easily picking up the first down (thanks to the vertical routes the outside receivers ran), but gaining 25 total yards and putting his team nearly into the redzone.
Play Breakdown #2 – Double Spy Contain on Manziel
Just a quick one picture spot here, this is a concept that I think the Alabama will continue to run in this game: a double spy with some 5-7 yard hitch coverage simultaneously. On this 3rd down and four yard play, Alabama sends only four rushers and does a solid job of getting bodies at different spots around Manziel. However, the team effectively keeps Manziel in the pocket and shuts off the middle of the field short (where Manziel wants to go) off limit. Eventually Manziel finds Ryan Swope very late on the right sideline, but that’s likely thanks to Swope’s high football IQ and Alabama not containing the pocket well enough and finishing their sack.
Play Breakdown #3 – Press Coverage With Five Rushers
As opposed to rushing four defenders and having two spies, having five down linemen and a single spy may be as effective if not more so, as long as they also press on the outside. The cornerbacks press on the outside, limiting the short pass initially and forcing Manziel to wait an extra second before he can make his vertical throws. In this play, both edge rushes collapse on the edge, with the inside linebacker on a delay blitz and safety Robert Lester working as a spy in the middle of the field.
Initially, the pocket is secured from the edge, and it forces him to work left and up in the pocket, both things Manziel doesn’t naturally have the footwork or comfort-ability to do. At this point, Manziel considers working through the opening in the defensive line and using his feet to pick up the play. However, by play design, he quickly realizes that Robert Lester is in position to attack at the line of scrimmage, well short of the 1st down marker.
After being in ideal position, Lester begins to get over aggressive (below), and ends up leaving his spy/midfield coverage responsibilities to try and attack Manziel in the backfield. Manziel responds by pulling up and throwing a pass right at the first down marker, a jump ball that Mike Davis finishes for a first down.
Play Breakdown #4 – Zone Reads/Drops on 3rd Downs
Maybe the most impressive offensive play and key turning point in Texas A&M’s win was the play below. On 3rd and 9, up by 6 points and 11:30 left in the game, Texas A&M ran four 15+ yard routes, with trips to the left, and X receiver on the left, and a halfback to Manziel right. The play is designed below, but the main premise of the play is to press the defense similar to a four verticals play, forcing the Alabama Cover 3 midfield safety to make a play on the inside. However, the outside receivers have vertical/first down comeback option routes, while the slot receiver closest to the line attacks over the linebackers.
Note the two Alabama defenders boxed in red. The one closest to the line is nickel defensive back Vinne Sunseri, while the deep safety is Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix. These two players are pressed most by the Ryan Swope route in the middle of the field.
After the play develops, you can see both outside cornerbacks are in ideal position. Robert Lester (#37) is in ideal position to cover the vertical receiver, and begins to float inside wisely. However, the combination of Vinnie Sunseri (in red) biting on the running back coming out of the backfield and deep safety Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix (also in red) being over-aggressive in his drops to get vertical, leaving the mid-field crossing route (Ryan Swope) in the game between levels.
The play results in a 22 yard reception for Ryan Swope and a key 3rd down conversion that allowed the drive to continue to eat up clock and further aid in Texas A&M’s control of the game. Manziel throws it a second later than he should have, leaving Ryan Swope a bit out to dry and allowing him to take a major hit from Clinton-Dix.
For Alabama, the key is simple: Don’t let Johnny Manziel beat you with his feet. That means keeping him contained in the pocket or forced to his left on rollouts. Also, keeping six men in the box seems to be an effective strategy on obvious passing downs, as long as they can contain (double and press?) Mike Davis with some consistency.
For Texas A&M, attacking the Alabama’s linebackers in the middle of the field while Manziel is the pocket is a must, especially considering they’ve struggled to manage Manziel’s foot speed, running backs out of the backfield, and well-designed routes. Also, reducing Manziel’s reliance to go right on rollouts and giving him as many short route options when he begins to threaten teams with his run.