18 September 2009
After week one I showed Bama with two As, one B, an incomplete, and an F in the areas I hilighted as being in need of improvement. It's tough to find five areas that really need to be addressed after a 40-14 win, though I'm guessing Coach Saban didn't find it that difficult. I will say that I think it's a safe bet you'll see a reoccurance of the failed item in this week's list of things to improve on.
While I gave Bama a grade of B on this for last week, improving from 10 penalties down to six, the Tide needs to get better here. While the penalties were not as directly costly as they were in week one, they did cause the Tide to stall on a couple of possessions, and gave FIU a couple of first downs in the game.
It's to be expected that a team will have a few false starts and overall sloppy penalties early in the season - especially with a new offensive line. It's getting to the point where those issues need to be straightened out, though. The offensive line needs to play as close to penalty free as possible when facing an inferior opponent.
While I still think that Kareem Jackson's pass interference call was a weak one, Bama needs to avoid one of those this week. The Tide has been flagged for this in each of its first two games, and that shouldn't happen. There is a lot of talk about the way that Alabama's defensive backs play the man and not the ball, which is how they are coached. They are coached that way specifically to avoid pass interference penalties.
The special teams needs a penalty free week.
#4 Kick off returns
No, I don't mean coverage... I mean the actual returns. Bama's kick return game has been non-existent so far this season - just 18.4 yards per attempt. That's skewed a bit by a couple of returns by the up-men, but Bama's deep guys - Javier Arenas and Terry Grant - don't have a return longer than 29 yards.
If things go the way that they should, North Texas shouldn't kick off more than once or twice in the game, so this will be a tough one to show improvement. But Bama has two dynamic players deep on kick returns, and they should have the ability to break one past the 30 on a fairly regular basis.
If teams are going to continue to kick sky kicks to make an up-man field the ball, the coaching staff needs to adjust and have a player capable of returning a kick play in that position. I'm not advocating that it be a star player, but Shaun Alexander returned a kickoff for a touchdown in a loss to Louisiana Tech from the up-back position.
If Mike DuBose's staff can make that type of adjustment, then I would expect Nick Saban's staff to at least consider it. To be fair, they might have considered it and decided to avoid it. If the up-man calls a fair catch, then you typically get the ball around the 30, which is not terrible.
But even dominating defense and two solid punt returns by Javier Arenas, Bama only managed an averaging starting position of the 35 yard line. That's a great number if you're playing LSU, but not to much against a Sun Belt opponent. At the moment the Tide is getting very little out of its kick return team, and that needs to improve by SEC play.#3 Play a complete game
Coach Saban might have this number one on his list. He certainly talks that way, anyway. If you listened to "Hey Coach!" on Thursday night then you heard him make an analogy to Nascar, and how the crews work non-stop to make certain that the car can go its fastest on race day. He feels, however, that his team is essentially doing the same and then driving 40 mph during the race.
It's a valid point, and a problem that a lot of teams suffer from early in the season. Florida took a quarter and a half to separate themselves from Troy last weekend. LSU didn't put Vandy away until the fourth quarter. And Alabama led FIU 20-14 at the half.
Alabama needs to come out firing on all cylinders at the opening kick-off, and remain that way until the game is solidly in hand. And then the second unit guys need to come off the bench and play the same way.
Nick Saban uses the word "finish" a lot, and this is what he's talking about.
It's also not just a matter of starting slow, or finishing slow. It's also a matter of not taking plays off mentally. Bama has allowed some big plays this year, and while some of those are the result of the opponent making a nice play; some are the result of Bama not doing the right thing. Both kick returns allowed for touchdowns happened because of solid return men taking advantage of Bama's kick coverage unit breaking their assignments and getting out of their lanes.
Playing a complete game means playing every play as though it is an important one. Bama has proven that it can be dominant on both sides of the ball. Now it needs to prove that it can sustain that dominance. Once SEC play starts, that level of commitment and mental focus will be required to simply win the game.
#2 The Red Zone
Leigh Tiffin has attempted three field goals of less than 30 yards in Bama's first two games. Those field goals shouldn't happen. Bama has simply got to get better at putting the ball in the end zone once it breaks the opponent's 20 yard line.
It's not one thing that's been the culprit, either. There have been penalties, missed blocks, poor running lane reads, poor passes, dropped passes, and bad play calls. So this isn't a matter of fixing one thing and the problem is fixed.
The bottom line is that the Tide has scored just five touchdowns in twelve red zone possessions - 42%. The Tide has scored on 10 of its 12, but five of them were field goals. Also, one of the two failed scoring attempts came at the end of the of Virginia Tech game when the Tide chose to run the clock out at the end of the game. The other, for the record, was Leigh Tiffin's missed FG at the end of the first half of the Tech game.
So, in reality the Tide has scored five touchdowns in eleven competitive red zone possessions. But that's just a total of 45%. And that's horrible. Especially when you consider that one of those games came against Sun Belt competition. To be fair, I think FIU will be competitive in the Sun Belt. But let's be honest, if Bama is struggling to do something against Sun Belt competition, the likelihood of having success against an SEC defense is small.
And Leigh Tiffin kicked field goals of 23 and 29 yards against FIU. Both of those should have been touchdowns.
Bama has to figure out a way to correct this, and it needs to happen before Arkansas rolls into town. The Hogs don't have a typical SEC defense, but they should still be better than either FIU or North Texas. Bama needs this percentage to be closer to 65% in SEC games, so expecting an 80% rate against Sun Belt opponents should not be out of the question.
#1 Kick Off Coverage
This was the failing grade last week. How could it not be? Despite the fact that Bama covered well for all of the other kicks in the game, T.Y. Hilon took one back to the house. That's two in two weeks. That's two too many.
Throw in the fact that Leigh Tiffin kicked one out of bounds attempting to kick away from Hilton, and you can quickly see how the problem can be exacerbated. Though it's tough to really get worse than simply allowing the guy to take one back for a touchdown.
As I said, Bama did well on the remaining kickoffs. If you take out the two touchdown returns, Bama has allowed an average of just 18.4 yards per return. But if my aunt had balls, well, she'd be my uncle.
Bama spent a lot of time working on this over the course of the practice week, but the same could have been said prior to the FIU game as well. If we see a long return again this week, then you can probably expect to see Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower covering kicks come Arkansas week. And while that would likely fix the problem, it could also create one at the middle linebacker position.
Alabama simply has too many athletes for this to be a continual problem. So right now it's a coaching issue. I know that Bobby Williams is technically the recruiting coordinator, but pay no attention to the title. He's here to coach tight ends, help with the receivers, and recruit. And maybe that's the problem. Prior to Williams, Bama had an actual special teams coach in Ron Middleton.
I'm not advocating that Williams should be selling his house, either. He's done a great job with the tight ends, and he's a great recruiter. He is absolutely a positive and productive member of this coaching staff. But as this problem continues to persist, I have to wonder if Bama needs a special teams guy on staff. Again, I'm not advocating Bobby Williams getting fired.
Bama saw two coaching positions turnover this past off-season (both linebackers coaches), and it's likely that there will be some turnover again this season. That's the nature of assistant coaches, especially when you have good ones. It's very likely that someone on Bama's staff will be offered the opportunity to move from being a position coach to being a coordinator, or from being a coordinator to being a head coach. If that happens, I hope that Nick Saban is able to find a special teams guy to fill that guy's place. That would allow Williams to concentrate on tight ends and recruiting.
Either way, the kick coverage has been bad through the first two games in 2009. The Tide only allowed an average of 21.8 yards per return last season, so it's also possible that I'm being too hard on Coach Williams. He's got 11 or 12 games left this season to prove me wrong. And, honestly, I hope he does. Because as much as I would love for the kick coverage to become one the nation's best, I would also love for Nick Saban to keep this coaching staff intact for another year.
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