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2014 SEC Championship: A good defensive line can make Alabama's bellcow offense stutter

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It is impossible to overhype Amari Cooper, and the Alabama run game is all sorts of efficient. But the Tide offense has struggled against really good defensive lines, and ... well, Missouri has a really good defensive line.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

QB
Blake Sims (6'0, 208, Sr.) (207-for-328, 2,988 yards, 24 TD, 7 INT, 8 sacks; 56 carries, 361 yards, 6 TD)
Jake Coker (6'5, 230, Jr.) (38-for-59, 403 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT, 3 sacks; 4 carries, 33 yards)

Blake Sims is one of the most difficult quarterbacks in the country to figure out. Against four teams with great defensive fronts -- Ole Miss, LSU, Mississippi State, and Arkansas -- Sims completed 54 percent of his passes with a four percent sack rate, averaging a terribly mediocre 5.8 yards per pass attempt (including sacks).

Against the eight other teams on the schedule, Sims completed 69 percent of his passes with a one percent sack rate, averaging 10.6 yards per attempt.

Really good defenses have been able to take away both the run and the pass to a certain extent, but if you can't match up athletically, Sims will pick you apart.

Now, you can say these things about most quarterbacks. There aren't many out there who destroy good defenses then die against bad ones. But this expanse between good and bad here has been impressive, and I don't know how much of it to pin on Sims and how much of it simply comes down to the talent and matchups of the other 10 players on the field. Sims isn't necessarily good enough to beat you on his own, but ... he plays for Alabama. He doesn't have to. And he's certainly made his share of timely runs and passes.

RB
T.J. Yeldon (6'2, 221, Jr.) (170 carries, 885 yards; 24 targets, 15 catches, 180 yards, 1 TD)
Derrick Henry (6'3, 241, So.) (139 carries, 754 yards; 6 targets, 3 catches, 79 yards, 2 TD)
Tyren Jones (5'9, 212, Fr.) (33 carries, 198 yards; 2 targets, 1 catch, -1 yards)

FB
Jalston Fowler (6'1, 248, Sr.) (11 carries, 67 yards; 15 targets, 8 catches, 102 yards, 2 TD)
Michael Nysewander (6'1, 238, Sr.) (2 targets, 2 catches, 21 yards)

Alabama's run game has been both great and totally non-descript this year. The big plays have been non-existent, even though we know from previous seasons that both Henry and Yeldon are capable of going a long, long way with the football. (I've said the same thing about Missouri's run game this year, haven't I?) But they're a brutally efficient duo. You don't have to fear an 80-yard gain, necessarily, but it's hard to stop the four-yarder.

WR-X
Amari Cooper (6'1, 210, Jr.) (146 targets, 103 catches, 1,576 yards, 14 TD; 4 carries, 14 yards)
Cam Sims (6'4, 208, Fr.) (13 targets, 7 catches, 62 yards, 1 TD)
Robert Foster (6'3, 191, RSFr.) (10 targets, 6 catches, 44 yards)

WR-Z
DeAndrew White (6'0, 192, Sr.) (55 targets, 33 catches, 338 yards, 3 TD; 2 carries, -4 yards)
ArDarius Stewart (6'0, 193, Fr.) (17 targets, 12 catches, 149 yards)

WR-H
Christion Jones (5'11, 187, Sr.) (27 targets, 16 catches, 224 yards; 1 carry, -4 yards)
Chris Black (5'11, 186, So.) (16 targets, 13 catches, 178 yards)

TE
O.J. Howard (6'6, 240, So.) (21 targets, 13 catches, 226 yards)
Brian Vogler (6'7, 263, Sr.) (6 targets, 3 catches, 13 yards, 1 TD)
Brandon Greene (6'5, 304, So.) (1 target, 1 catch, 24 yards)

One of the keys to a Lane Kiffin offense is figuring out the most talented players and giving the ball to them as much as they can handle. For Bama this year, that's meant giving Yeldon 194 intended touches (carries and targets), Amari Cooper 150, and Derrick Henry 145. From there, there almost aren't any touches left. The next three guys on the list -- DeAndrew White, Tyren Jones, and Christion Jones -- have only combined for 120. White came up big at the end of the LSU game, and lord knows there are blue-chippers everywhere you look. But there are basically two bell cows in this offense: the running back (whoever is in the game at a given time) and Cooper.

Cooper is just incredible. He is as complete a receiver as I can remember seeing; he is a threat to go 80 yards on a bubble screen or simply outrun double coverage for a touchdown bomb. LSU double-teamed him and pushed him around as much as possible, and I think it had an effect -- he had a ton of drops in that game -- but LSU has the athletes to do that.

I'm curious how Mizzou attempts to rein Cooper in. Gary Pinkel and Dave Steckel aren't the types to say "Cornerback A: you're on Cooper at all times, whether he's in the slot, wide, wherever. They do that they do, after all. Still, they'll establish some preferences, and I'm curious whether they give primary responsibilities to Kenya Dennis or one of the sophomores (John Gibson, Aarion Penton). Gibson and Penton are faster, but Dennis has been the team's best corner for the last month or so. He is bigger and more physical than the others, and he gives Steckel options.

LT
Cam Robinson (6'6, 323, Fr.) (12 career starts)
Ross Pierschbacher (6'4, 295, Fr.)

LG
Arie Kouandjio (6'5, 315, Sr.) (25 career starts)
Isaac Luatua (6'2, 315, Jr.)

C
Ryan Kelly (6'5, 296, Jr.) (18 career starts)
Bradley Bozeman (6'5, 325, Fr.) (2 career starts)
J.C. Hassenauer (6'3, 290, Fr.)

RG
Leon Brown (6'6, 320, Sr.) (11 career starts)
Alphonse Taylor (6'5, 325, So.) (2 career starts)

RT
Austin Shepherd (6'5, 320, Sr.) (24 career starts)
Dominick Jackson (6'7, 320, Jr.)

Some other "good defenses vs. bad defenses" stats for Bama this year:

  • T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry: 3.9 yards per carry vs. Ole Miss, Arkansas, LSU, and MSU; 6.1 yards per carry vs. everybody else.
  • Amari Cooper: 6.2 yards per target vs. those four teams, 12.9 per target vs. everybody else.

The entire Alabama has been unstoppable for two-thirds of the season, but against four of the five really good defensive fronts they've played this year, almost nothing has worked. (The fifth good front was Florida, and you could make a pretty convincing case that the Gators' defense wasn't very good early in the year when the teams played.) And as luck would have it, Mizzou's defensive front is really good.

If you're looking for hope as a Missouri fan, that's where the hope starts. Good defensive lines can gum up virtually everything Alabama wants to do. For all we know, the Tide will find an edge here and cruise to an easy win. But if Mizzou wins the battle up front, that could give the Mizzou offense a decent amount of margin for error. If you can hold Yeldon and Henry to lots of two- to four-yard gains, get Sims into as many obvious passing situations as possible, and get pressure on him before he can find Cooper deep, you can slow Bama down. Arkansas did just that, albeit at a point in the year when the Bama OL was going through some injuries. So did LSU. If Mizzou can, too, the Tigers' odds improve dramatically.