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Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Uptempo passers find success vs. Bama

By Alex Scarborough

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Every piece of analysis builds the fortress that is the Alabama defense. Brick by brick, it grows.

You can't run through it. The rush defense trails only Stanford for the best in the country. Nose guard Jesse Williams is not a man you want to meet in a dark alley. There's no getting by his 6-foot-4, 320-pound frame.

You can't throw around it, either. The pass defense is good enough for third overall. Cornerback Dee Milliner knocks down passes like a game of Whac-a-Mole. The ball-hawking junior is poised to become a first-round pick in next year's NFL Draft.

There's little an offense can do. Nick Saban lost three-quarters of his starters from a year ago and still Alabama is No. 1 in the country in yards and points allowed.

"It's very sound what they do," Georgia coach Mark Richt explained. "They do a good job of preparing those guys for the moment when they take over. That's what you're seeing right now."

Said Georgia receiver Tavarres King: "Alabama really gets after it. I was watching film on them yesterday afternoon and it just seemed wherever the ball was, there were 11 hats flying to the ball."

There are watch towers erected and moats dug out around the Alabama defense, every anecdote another stone laid in its foundation. But like every castle or legend or myth, there's a soft spot, a point of attack. Achilles had that pesky heel. The Death Star had a solitary target that would send the whole thing up in flames. There's always a fail-safe, and Alabama's defense is no different.

When quarterbacks run and the tempo picks up, the Crimson Tide are often in trouble. All three of Alabama's most recent losses have come at the hands of mobile quarterbacks: Auburn's Cam Newton in 2010, LSU's Jordan Jefferson last year, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel this month. All three have employed some version of a no-huddle.

Manziel and the Aggies lit up Alabama for 418 yards of offense. A week earlier, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, however slow of foot he might be, pushed the tempo against the Tide and found success, throwing for 296 yards in defeat. The defense got on its heels in both instances and holes were revealed; the facade crumbled.

"Those two games, we knew and the coaches knew … we didn't play our best," UA linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "We know we didn't. We made over 70 or 80 mental errors in that game, and that's really not us. Those games happened for a reason. They got those type of yards and plays for a reason."

Mosley said the defense went back to the basics after back-to-back subpar games, focusing on fundamentals like wrapping up ball-carriers, foot work and eye control.

"Once you lose sight of those things, that's when big plays start to happen," he said.

Richt will look for a few big plays from his offense on Saturday afternoon when his Bulldogs face Alabama for the SEC title. While he's not sure forcing the tempo is the way to go, he knows he has the quarterback to run the offense either way. It's what will keep Saban up most nights this week.

"He knows exactly what he wants to do with the ball," Saban said of quarterback Aaron Murray, who trails only Alabama's AJ McCarron in terms of passing efficiency. "He's smart. When you play quarterback, you have to process information quickly, get the ball out of your hand to the right guy. I think he's done that very consistently all year long."

Linebacker Nico Johnson said the key will be getting pressure on the backfield. If Murray has time to survey the field, whether its using his feet or the offensive line buying him time, the defense will be in trouble.

"If we let him sit back in the pocket, he can hurt you," he said. "It has shown all year. We're going to have to make him less comfortable in the pocket. That's one of our goals going into every game -- affect the quarterback the best way you can. That's what we're going to have to do."

Therein lies the problem. Unlike a season ago, Alabama's pass rush has been good but not great. Gone are the dominant linebackers like Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower. Mark Barron or Dre Kirkpatrick no longer are in the secondary to bail them out, either. Milliner and safety Robert Lester have had solid seasons, but they're not the game-changers their former teammates were. Performances against Texas A&M and LSU showed as much.

"We had two weeks where we kind of were slacking defensively," Lester said.

Said Johnson: "We have to stay consistent. We have to do our job. We have to get back to the basics, technique. That game came down to doing the little things right and that's what we didn't do and he took advantage. That's what we have to do this week."

Johnson said Georgia has the most balanced offense they've faced this season. It's all about making them one-dimensional and taking away the big play, he said. That starts with limiting Murray and the passing game. If he gets going, it could expose the Tide's chink in the armor.

Is Murray the most dangerous passer the Tide will face? Probably.

"You could say that," Milliner said. "He does different things. Say if you get in the pocket and collapse it, he’s one of the guys that can get out of it and take off running. He just different things than other quarterbacks. We’ll try to contain him for the most part. Just hopefully we can keep him back there and hopefully we can make plays on him."