I do not think Zach Mettenberger has a chance versus Alabama. The Crimson Tide has not allowed a pocket quarterback to beat them since Utah's Brian Johnson shredded them in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. I could go a little more into detail, but here is my column for DIG Baton Rouge on why I think Mettenberger should run while he still can.
Mettenberger hasn't been the same since he was crushed in his first game versus North Texas. I spoke with an insider who works within the LSU program earlier this week. He attends practices and has seen the progression of Mettenberger and we agreed on one common point. Mettenberger is not the same quarterback he was in the Spring because he wasn't getting hit then.
I tweeted my tail off about why I loved Mettenberger the few times I saw him play in the Spring. He did the things Jordan Jefferson didn't do. He stepped up in the pocket, felt out pressure, looked off safeties, went through progressions, and delivered the football with confidence.
"It is amazing what happens when a quarterback gets hit," said the insider. "He hasn't done all he could possibly do because the game speeds up after getting hit a few times. He's shown flashes in practice, but hasn't shown much in games."
A huge problem that exists when playing Alabama is that they pulverize quarterbacks harder than anybody I've ever seen in college football. Watch these highlights of Tyler Wilson versus Alabama a year ago if you don't believe me. Wilson actually had some success throwing the football in this game mainly because stayed in the pocket and took the brutal hits from the Crimson Tide defense.
There are a couple of reasons why Alabama is able to get so many free shots on opposing teams' quarterbacks. The first is that they are extremely athletic playmakers. The second is that their scheme and technique is impeccable. With their 3-4 Hybrid scheme, it is difficult to read who is supposed to block who on a given play. This is why center P.J. Lonergan needs to have a Josh Dworaczyk vs Jadaveon Clowney type of effort versus fierce Alabama nose tackle Jesse Williams. Alabama has had much success versus other SEC teams with simple inside blitzes and "games" to free up linebackers. Lonergan needs to watch hours of tape so he can make the proper calls to avoid this from happening. But it's tough to make calls when an Australian juggernaut is lined up directly in front of you.
The reason why I linked Tyler Wilson earlier is because Mettenberger is a similar quarterback. Both are tall and slender with very limited mobility. The bravery of Wilson when he played Alabama was admirable, which is why I am glad Arkansas didn't allow to him play with a lingering concussion versus the Crimson Tide this year. Hopefully Mettenberger takes the route of Wilson versus Alabama instead of former LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee, who was notorious for bailing out and not stepping through his throw to help embrace for a hit.
But if there was a weakness to Alabama's pass defense, it would be up the middle. And last year, LSU missed an opportunity to score a touchdown in the BCS National Championship Game because of Jordan Jefferson's inability to look off a safety and go through progressions. This is the second play LSU ran of the second half after Odell Beckham missed out on an opportunity to score a touchdown the play before. Here is the link to the full study of the play we are about to analyze because I took a lot of it out. It is the play that would have changed the ebb and flow of the game:
As we can see here, Alabama is giving a 2-deep safety look. Robert Lester (RL), who should have been beaten on the play before, is on the near side of the screen and Thorpe finalist Mark Barron (MB) is on the far side of the screen. I also have highlighted Menzie (DM), who is in the slot. LSU's respect of his cover ability could have had an affect on the outcome of this play.
I believe this slide sums up everything we need to know this play. This is just a warning, but things are about to get really technical. I'm a former defensive lineman, so if I can understand this, anybody can understand it.
The coverage Alabama is running is a form of "Cover-2". You see the safeties playing over the top with the corners and linebackers playing everything underneath. Every quarterback knows the weaknesses of "Cover-2" is the deep-middle of the field.
As we can see, the Tide are adjusting their Cover-2 to personnel. Randle at the top of the screen has a corner running with him and safety Barron (MB) still opening his body to help the corner over the top. This is the ultimate sign of respect from an Alabama defense who thinks they can guard any receiver in the country. But because Barron is giving help, the corner running with Randle doesn't take away any of the weaknesses of the Cover-2 defense.
Now this is where things get interesting. Notice how Menzie and the linebackers stop running with Peterson. They begin to sit down in their zone underneath coverage. Look at how evenly spaced these defenders are in the center of the field and where their eyes are located. They completely ignore the receiver, Peterson (DP), running right behind them.
This coverage is very UnSaban-like. Usually The Crimson Tide run man coverage under their Two-Deep safety, which they did on Nov. 5. This hurt the Tide, because LSU ran "All-Verticals" last game against it. If a corner is in man coverage, their back is turned to the ball, making it easy for Jefferson to scramble for chunks of yardage.
But for this game, they would rather Jefferson make attempt to read a defense instead of tucking and scrambling. Notice how Menzie and the Alabama linebackers are both spying Jefferson, waiting for him to scramble. They are running zone underneath their two deep safeties, which Jefferson should have crucified them for with his arm but didn't.
Offensive coordinator Greg Studwara knew the best play against Cover-2 is "All Verticals" with at least three receivers. So if the corners are in "Cover-2", they won't run with the receivers (other than Randle), meaning if there is enough time to throw the football, one of the receivers would be open for a HUGE GAIN. This where Jefferson lacks "Safety Manipulation." For a quarterback, this means making a safety do one thing by your head placement and pump fakes when he should be doing another.
This was actually not as easy I am making it sound, but it's simple numbers game. Notice how the ball is still in Jefferson's hands when Peterson (DP) is still fighting through that linebacker traffic. He sees the open Beckham Jr. (ODB) and reacts by throwing the ball his way. Jefferson has to know before the play that if he reads Alabama in a "Cover-2" when his receivers are evenly spaced out across the field, running "All-Verticals," he has to connect with Peterson exploiting the middle.
This is where Jefferson could have applied "Safety Manipulation." All he has to do is look in the direction of Beckham Jr. (ODB) and then fire it to Peterson (DP) for a clear path touchdown. If he pump fakes it in the direction of (ODB) then delivers to Peterson, even better. And because the play before involved Lester closing in on Beckham Jr., look at how hard Lester is running in the direction of (ODB).
Jefferson sees an open Beckham Jr. (ODB) and fits a tight spiral before Lester can get there. But if you look in the middle of the screen, Peterson is wide open. Once again, all Jefferson has to do is just look at ODB and then throw it to Peterson. This is where anticipation is key for quarterbacking. Jefferson has to know if he doesn't feel pressure, that three vertical route from fast weapons will rip apart a Two-deep safety zone coverage, especially in the middle. This pass could have easily been a touchdown and would have gotten LSU passed midfield easily.
So what does this have to do with Mettenberger? There are plenty of different dynamics to this play. The first of which is that Alabama is playing this zone to make Jefferson beat them with his arm instead of his legs. Alabama will play more 2-man under because they don't respect Mettenberger's ability to run. And having no Randle will hurt Mettenberger as well.
Yet there is one thing I forgot to mention on the play before: Protection. Pass pro is perfect. Jefferson had plenty of time to make the right read and throw. Alabama isn't going to blitz on every play on Saturday Night. Even if they do, they won't be successful every time. Some credit must be given to the LSU offensive line for their stellar play last two games. There will be, at the very least, a few snaps Mettenberger wil have time to throw the pill.
And guess what...we at ATVS have tape of where Mettenberger made a similar error versus the Florida Gators!
In this first slide, we see LSU in a two tight-end formation to the right. One is Nic Jacobs, who is a 3-point stance like the rest of the offensive lineman. But the key player on this play is Chase Clement (CC) who starts this play in motion.
Now we see Clement come back to his original position pre-snap. Notice how the Florida defense didn't budge whatsoever reacting to the motioning player. This usually means the defense will be playing some sort of zone. I have also labeled three other players who play crucial roles in the outcome of the play, receiver Jarvis Landry (JL), Florida linebacker Jon Bostic (JB) and safety Matt Elam (ME).
As the play begins, we Florida is in Cover-3 because the corner at the bottom screen guarding Jarvis Landry bails to the deep third of the field. But because LSU had been running plenty of "Max Protection" and two man routes, safety Elam (ME) opens his hips to the left and focuses directly on the receiver (JL) instead of his deep middle-third of the field.
We see that Clement (CC) doesn't stay to protect and runs a fly pattern through the seam of the defense. The play is beautifully designed by offensive coordinator Greg Studwara, because the seam route is intended to take linebacker Bostic (JB) out of the play by forcing him to make a decision to help guard Jacobs, stay with Clement or help underneath on Jacobs.
Before we continue with this slide and route breakdown, it is important to note LSU's pass protection is flawless on this play. Mettenberger has a clean pocket to throw the pill, which gives him plenty of time to go through progressions and find the open man in zone coverage. On this play, he actually reads the defense really well and actually has three open targets on the field. He just locked in on Jarvis Landry on the play, which nearly turned into a terrible mistake.
Notice how Bostic (JB) is shuffling from his original position, reading Mettenberger's eyes. Mettenberger finds the right target on this play, the sure-handed Landry (JL), open on a comeback route. Landry does a great job of working back to the football as he is wide-open in the soft spot of the Cover-3 zone right underneath the deep right-third cornerback. Even though Elam (EM) isn't pictured, he is still keying in on helping Landry, leaving Clement open over the middle of the field.
After the ball is delivered, we see Clement running open through the middle of the field since Bostic was making on a jump on Mettenberger's eyes since the start of the snap. Bostic does a great of eventually get his hand on the ball, as you will see next slide.
Bostic tips the ball in the air and misses an interception he should have had. Mettenberger would have thrown an interception even Jordan Jefferson would laugh at.
There are a couple of crucial learning points Mettenberger needs to take from this play. This was the first game Mettenberger played against elite linebackers who could play the run and pass. Bostic is as complete of a linebacker there is in the country. But Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley is one of the best I've seen at reading a quarterback's eyes and getting an interception. Hopefully Mett learned from this mistake in his film study with quarterback coach Steve Kragthorpe.
This would be a great play by Mettenberger against most teams. Not every team has a Bostic or Mosley as a "Mike" linebacker. Mett made the right read. The comeback route in the soft spot of the zone against Cover-3 in the area the corner previously occupied is the right place to go with the football. He just can't lock into a receiver and expect to not eventually get intercepted against elite defenses. This is why the right play is to look off the linebacker Bostic and go to Clement (despite being slow and not a great pass-catcher) streaking down the middle. Or Mettenberger could have started off look toward Beckham or Clement for a second and then comeback to Landry. (Side Note: This was the exact same coverage LSU busted with Beckham, who eventually fumbled the ball to Elam.)
Before I continue, I must add quarterback is by-far the toughest position to evaluate. I love watching film, but I am always careful in evaluating a position I have never played. I think former quarterbacks and professional scouts are truly the only ones who can draw conclusions. There are so many aspects and layers of team's offenses we don't know about. But from what I've seen, Mettenberger will have to play the game of his life for the Tigers to be successful throwing the football.
Many are saying Mettenberger just needs to manage the game and not make any mistakes for LSU to be successful. Many are citing how Jefferson wasn't anything special in the November 5th victory. While this is true, his legs alone was the only reason why LSU had any success of moving the football. Also, Alabama had a huge disadvantage in special teams (four missed field goals and the spectacular Brad Wing) and was horrendous in what I like to call the "extended red zone" (team's offensive plays inside the opponents 30 yard line). On 13 plays, Alabama averaged -1.5 yards per play and never reached the LSU 15 yard line. They cleaned up both categories in the BCS Championship game.
Mettenberger needs to make plays. Even though Alabama hasn't faced an offensive line and power running game the caliber of LSU, there is no reason for me to think they can't stop the LSU rushing attack. Mett needs to come to terms with this simple fact: he will be spending hours in the ice bath next week. If he is to complete throws, he must: give plays time to develop, trust his offensive line in non-blitzing situations, step through his throws and embrace contact.
Even if he struggles early, there is one consistent theme in studying tape of the Crimson Tide over the years. In my earlier study, the touchdown Jefferson missed was in the third quarter over the middle of the field. Alabama has a horrendous history of giving up explosive plays, most of which down the middle of the field, in the third quarter of big games which completely shifted momentum. This includes backup Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert in the BCS National Championship game, Cam Newton in the Iron Bowl "Camback", and Jefferson to Randle the last time Alabama played in Tiger Stadium. In these four games, Alabama only gave up an average of four points in the first half. As much of a disciplinarian Saban gets credit for being, this rather surprising.
I think Mettenberger will also be aided by the fact he has already faced a tough 3-4 defense in Florida. But Saban's defense is unlike any other. It is packed with NFL-level athletes that he and Kirby Smart blitz from all angles. His "Nickel" package with Mosley has been spectacular. In order to beat a complex scheme packed with speed and strength, Mettenberger must make NFL-type of reads to succeed. He has to look off safeties and feel out pressure.
I will say it again: I do not believe Mettenberger has a chance to move the football effectively versus Alabama. He has the talent to make plays versus this defense. But there is not enough I have seen out of him to believe he can make the proper adjustments for this game. I am surprised I haven't seen a Vegas line on whether or not he will finish the game. But with the magic of Tiger Stadium, anything can happen.