As a high school senior back in the fall of 1985, our football team was playing away from home against a school from Bibb County. This particular night stands out in my mind for two reasons in particular.
First, as we were taking our pre-game stroll around the field, we noticed a jillion ant hills covering the field of play. (Well, it wasn’t a jillion, but it was a lot.) There were so many that our coach told the other team we weren’t playing unless they did something to kill the ants. They poured gas on several of the hills around the field and we played as scheduled.
We beat this team pretty badly, so the Monday afternoon film session was filled with chuckles as we watched players swatting the ants off of their legs.
The other thing that stands out after all of these years is one of our defensive linemen screaming, “I got the double-team, I got the double-team!” after an apparent stellar play. As a skill player, his message didn’t resonate much at the time, other than to cause a chuckle at his over exuberance. But I can tell you now, that getting a double-team in football is a big deal. On both sides of the ball.
Under Nick Saban, we first saw the importance of the double-team with the emergence of nose tackle Terrence Cody. Simply put, Mount Cody dominated the offensive linemen assigned to him to the point that another player was assigned to help (and sometimes even two extra players were assigned). At this point, obviously, Cody drawing the extra blocker allows the defense to play with an extra man. That “extra player” could, for example, take the form of allowing a linebacker to play with more freedom (i.e. keeping a lineman off of him) or it could allow an extra player in pass coverage. Or it could force the offense to keep a tight end or back in to help with pass protection. I think you get the point. It’s a big deal.
Having a defensive back that can play man-to-man coverage also provides similar flexibility (especially when coupled with a double-team up front). A DB that can play man coverage effectively can, at a minimum, be assigned a specific skill player, or best case, eliminate the threat of that player altogether.
Offensively, players that can draw a double-team are especially important. Julio Jones is a recent player that commanded, for the most part, double-teams from opposing defenses. When a play can do this, it creates a ripple effect for the O. It can affect pass blocking schemes, force fewer defenders in the box and help open up the passing attack. And the particularly sweet thing about Jones drawing double-teams was that he still made plays when being defended this way.
Over the course of Saban’s time at Alabama, we’ve seen several players, offensively and defensively, that were double-team type of players. Of course there was Cody and Jones, but there have also been guys like Josh Chapman, Jesse Williams, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner. Even guys like Kareem Jackson become invaluable because they can cover guys one-on-one. But when we look back at the 2013 team, and this was a very talented team, we don’t see a lot of difference-making double team guys. There are guys with this type of potential, like A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen, but in 2013 not much was on display.
This was especially evident in the defensive backfield. Yes, the group was young and, yes, it hurt to lose Vinnie Sunseri to an injury, but overall, this group did not have a shutdown corner. Since Saban’s recruiting pipeline started, there has been a steady stream of cornerbacks, but in 2013, there was a void.
It also didn’t help that the defensive line struggled a bit and also lacked big-time playmakers. Robinson and Allen will most likely be dominant players (and played well in 2013), but they were young and they weren’t those type players last year.
Mix a defensive line and secondary like Alabama’s from 2013 and that spells problems in the hurry up no huddle environment of today’s brand of football. Will this change in 2014?
Offensively, Amari Cooper has the potential to cause defensive plans to adjust to account for him, but that didn’t happen last year. He was hurt at times and looked to be sulking at others. Whatever the reasons, his sophomore campaign looked like a shadow of his freshman season. Our other best receiving weapon, O.J. Howard, showed signs of brilliance, but wasn’t quite up to the blocking challenges he faced. This problem couldn’t be overlooked because of the struggles of the offensive line. In other words, the five OL needed help from a blocking tight end. And because Howard struggled with blocking assignments, a weapon had to be taken off of the field at times. (I’ll also admit that maybe Howard wasn’t properly utilized when he was in the game.)
All of this meant that our offense didn’t or couldn’t play up to it’s potential.
To be clear, I’m not blaming all of 2013’s troubles on double-teams or the lack thereof. But I do think it was a big factor. The team was star-studded and deep with talent, but there were key positions where we just didn’t get the dominating play we needed for both the defense and offense to be successful.
Will that change in 2014? Well, we certainly hope so and there is reason to be optimistic – on both sides of the ball. Cooper and Howard have a chance to be difference makers, defense adjusters. Newcomers Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey have loads of potential at corner, but can it’s asking a lot to expect them to dominate as freshmen. Hopefully, improved defensive line play will make all of our lives more enjoyable.
Also, keep in mind that I’m not saying we don’t have talented players. We certainly do. And we have them all over the place. Every position group has some of the most sought after players in the land. I’m specifically looking for those special players – players that can cause game plans to be adjusted, players that have to be accounted for every down, players that allow us to do other, more dynamic things because of their presence. I think we have them on the roster. We’ll just have to wait and see if they show up this fall.