It’s time for the “game of the season” between top-ranked Alabama and sixth-ranked Texas A&M. It’s time for Tide v. Manziel II, the rematch of Manziel’s jaw-dropping performance in A&M’s victory at Tuscaloosa in 2012.
It’s time to analyze the on-field Manziel and what Alabama must do to deflate “Johnny Football,” so here goes this hack’s best attempt to read the minds of Alabama coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
The short report warns of Manziel’s scrambling, but Alabama must play a long game against the Heisman Trophy quarterback Saturday.
The Crimson Tide must make Manziel take longer in run-pass decisions, must make him run longer to cross the line of scrimmage, must cover his receivers longer and must make him throw longer passes.
It’ll take discipline in the pass rush and maybe someone shadowing Manziel here and there, but it will take maximum defenders in coverage with disciplined eyes glued to receivers. Top-ranked Alabama will face a proven scrambler in Manziel, but the Tide must defend a passer and keep his scrambles from becoming big plays.
Saban seems to think the same way.
“He’s a really, really good player, and I think he’s a really good passer,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said during his Monday news conference. “And I think, athletically, he extends a lot of plays, but he extends a lot of plays to pass.”
It’s tempting to commit personnel to keeping Manziel in the pocket, but statistics show he does more damage in the passing game. His accuracy as a passer was the most eye-opening element of his winning performance at Tuscaloosa last season.
He keeps his eyes downfield, looking for receivers that Saban called “every bit as good as they were a year ago.” They know their “scramble rules,” adjusting routes based on how Manziel scrambles.
So Alabama needs as many as eyes possible, watching what Manziel is watching. That’s not to down play the need for a pass rush, but it’s more important for Alabama’s three down linemen to keep the middle clogged. If Manziel scrambles up the middle, he has more open field and more receivers in play. Forcing him outside cuts the field in half and makes the sideline a tackler.
Mixing in a shadow will help when Manziel scrambles outside, and Saban hinted Monday linebacker C.J. Mosley would be “as good as any” player Alabama has for that role. But don’t send more than four after Manziel, and shadowing defenders should not be first to cross the line of scrimmage.
Make Manziel commit. If the 6-foot-1 sophomore throws, make him throw with hands in his face.
Meanwhile, keep at least seven defenders in coverage, squeezing intermediate routes. Force Manziel to throw long for big plays, and react quickly to his dump-offs or runs over the line of scrimmage.
More than anything, Alabama must make Manziel think longer on run-pass decisions. Take him past his mental alarm clock, and make him throw perfectly into tight openings.
“He’s going to scramble,” Saban said. “I think (it’s all about) trying to do a good job of not letting him get in positions where he can make those plays and have the good discipline down the field to stay matched in your coverage and not start looking at the quarterback.
“I told our players, I said, there’s a lot of NFL games on Sundays. You want to watch the quarterback, go watch those games. But if you start watching this guy in our game, you’re going to get busted. It happened in our game last year.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.