LSU-Bama Preview: The Tiger Defense
LSU DE Sam Montgomery
You don't need the national rankings to see that Alabama and LSU are elite defenses...all you need is a remote control. And yet there are subtle differences between these two all-star units. CFN's David Sweigart and Matt Zemek dive deep into these nuances to identify which might prove to be the difference makers on Saturday.
David Sweigart – LSU's Defense
You don't need the national rankings to see that Alabama and LSU are elite defenses...all you need is a remote control. When you turn on the TV and watch them play, the rankings make sense. Athletically, both are gifted and peerless - except, perhaps, to each other. Both defenses attack and physically beat up opposing offenses for the full 60 minutes. In that, they are both relentless. However, there are many differences, beginning with philosophically.
When one compares rosters, the LSU linebackers are similar in size to the Tide safeties. the Tiger defensive ends are the size of the Alabama linebackers. The Alabama defensive ends outweigh the the LSU defensive tackles. Yet that's not to imply a negative...the Tiger defensive ends can run as fast if not faster than the Alabama linebackers, the Tiger defensive tackles are in some cases more explosive than their Tide counterparts, and the LSU linebackers can run like Bama safeties.
Clearly, the principles of the 3-4 defense employed by Alabama and the 4-3 defense used by LSU is a reason for this size discrepancy.
LSU head coach Les Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis made a conscious decision to get faster, more conditioned, and in some cases - smaller on defense in preparation of the opening game for the 2011 season. With so much riding on the opening game against a top five opponent, LSU focused on becoming a faster and more fit defense. The high octane-uptempo-spread offense of the Ducks forced the offseason conditioning program to evolve under strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt, resulting in a squad full of players that may have dropped a few pounds but became faster and more explosive athletes.
That training has carried through to today, and has done the Tigers well.
Only Oregon and West Virginia have scored more than one touchdown against this Tiger defense, and much of their opponent's stats have been gathered late in the fourth quarter of blowout wins, after Miles and The Chief have called off the dogs - or Tigers, as the case seems to be.
Opposing offenses average 76.6 yards per game on the ground and 2.5 yards per attempt. In 2010, the LSU defense allowed 137.3 rushing yards per game for an average of 3.7 yards per attempt. LSU has not allowed a first quarter touchdown all season.
It all starts up front. For their four down linemen, the Tigers employ a regular rotation of 10 men - five defensive ends and five defensive tackles. That thought is a bit staggering until you see them play - at which point it is frightening. There is no drop-off in talent. Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo have been the most productive defensive ends for the Tiger defense, and Mingo hasn't even been a starter. Defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Bennie Logan have been steadfast and disciplined at plugging holes and stopping the run. Through eight games, LSU has been able to disrupt the ground game for a full four quarters and thus put relentless pressure on opposing quarterbacks, thanks largely to their athleticism and depth along the defensive line.
At linebacker, LSU has gotten solid and steady play. Led by the underappreciated senior Ryan Baker, this was an area of concern for the Tigers heading into the season...so much so that they moved some DBs forward for added depth. A move that's paid off. Certainly, the linebackers have been aided by the DL and DB talent around them; a lot of plays have been made behind the line of scrimmage by the defensive line and the defensive backs have provided excellent run support. All of which has created an environment of reduced stress for the linebackers. Along the defensive line and in the secondary LSU has freakish athletes - while that may not be the case at linebacker, it is a steady group of players that are well disciplined and executing well in 2011.
The LSU secondary may just be the most impressive unit of the defense. The Tigers have three legit corners who have played a ton of snaps and the secondary has the best overall players on the defense. Junior Morris Claiborne and sophomore Tyrann Mathieu may lock up both First Team All-SEC CB spots, and Tharold Simon enters in nickle formations. Brandon Taylor and Eric Reid provide the plays at safety. Behind these men are a half dozen more who would all likely start on nearly any team in America. As a unit they are fast, disciplined, fast, aggressive, fast, intelligent, agile and fast - and they appear to relish in hitting hard. Did we mention they're freakishly fast, and nearly always in the right place.
LSU's secondary are like fishermen, in that they love to bait opposing offenses.
Taylor is the leader of this unit, and he leads the entire defense in tackles, while Reid is second. The Tiger secondary has five players with 29 or more tackles, to go with 10 interceptions and 28 pass break ups. LSU is able to mix up its coverages and provide excellent run support from the secondary because of the quality of players roaming around, as well as the effectiveness of their defensive line so far this season.
The pro-style Alabama offense is built on a power running attack headlined by Trent Richardson, behind a big offensive line. The Tide arrive Saturday averaging 229.2 yards per game on the ground. All three of the Alabama running backs weigh more than 220 pounds, and average at least 6.6 ypc on the year. The intent of the Tide offense will be to physically pound away at the smaller LSU defense, which provides a unique challenge for the Tigers. LSU's decision to trade size for speed on defense will be greatly tested in this game.
Through eight games, the Tigers have faced finesse offenses in Oregon and WVU, struggling offenses in Miss St and UK, and quarterbacks making their first start of the year in UF, UT, and Auburn. None of the previously mentioned teams have a successful pro-style offense led by a big-experienced offensive line and a power running game with a back like Richardson. LSU is very tough on the edge and Alabama is not explosive enough to make many plays on the perimeter; fortunately for the Tide, that's not a big part of their offense.
If Alabama is successful with its ground game between the tackles and Richardson/Lacey are able to get to the second level of the defense consistently, LSU's aggressive secondary will likely move up to stop that. At that point, if the Tide can mount even an adequate passing attack, they become a very dangerous offense that will be able to effectively mix in the pass with the run. If LSU is forced to commit more defenders to the box, cutback lanes for the running backs will begin to open as the Tigers over pursue, the tight ends will find more room to work, and the LSU defense will become very vulnerable to the play action pass and screen game.
LSU must gang tackle Trent Richardson, one man rarely brings Richardson down by himself. It is important that the Tiger defenders wrap up and do not just try to simply make big hits, because Richardson will bounce off many like a pinball and continue rumbling up field. Stopping the run when you know it is coming is a must for LSU.
AJ McCarron is facing his first real test of the year - his career. Like any inexperienced first year quarterback, he is more likely to make mistakes if the play calling becomes predictable and the defense knows the offense has to throw. LSU will be able to get more exotic with its coverages and confuse the young quarterback with different pressure looks. With the talent LSU has at corner and the physical play of safeties Brandon Taylor and Eric Reid to be able to come up for run support - this will be an effective way of countering the size Alabama will try to use to their advantage. Depth and experience, too, will be big advantages for the Tigers. While Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks are reliable at wide receiver, they are not the elite talent that Julio Jones was, and neither player will require a safety over the top.
McCarron's inexperience reminds us we would be remiss in discussing the LSU defense without mentioning its penchant for stealing - everything. Not just the opposing team's ball/possession...but their pride, confidence, and courage. This is a team that, perhaps aided by their speed, seems to relish in bone-crashing hits. Turnover margin WILL play a factor in this game, likely in favor of the Tigers, who are currently ranked second best in the nation.
Through eight games, the LSU coaching staff has successfully implemented their plan to become a faster and more explosive defense - to success both at home and on the road. This is not a defense that will be in anyway intimidated about playing in Bryant-Denny. But that decision to "go small" will be greatly challenged in this game of size versus speed.
One final thought - as my colleague Russ Mitchell has pointed out, depending on which roster you look at, more than 50% of this Tiger defense 2-deep is comprised of underclassmen. For the rest of the conference, this may be a sobering thought for the future, but will their relative inexperience come back to haunt LSU's defense on a loud, road evening in Tuscaloosa?
Follow David on Twitter @DMS225
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