Alabama’s Strengths and Weaknesses Against Cincinnati’s Defense
One of the top storylines to come from the moment Alabama and Cincinnati were matched up to play in the Cotton Bowl Classic in the College Football Playoff Semifinals was the matchup of the Crimson Tide's efficient passing game against the Bearcat defensive backfield.
Cincinnati brings a strong presence on the defensive side of the ball with names like Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, Darrian Beavers, Coby Bryant and Myjai Sanders leading the way for a disciplined and experienced unit. The 2021 squad allowed just 16.1 points per game which was the fourth-best in the country. The Bearcats held teams to 137.5 yards per carry on the ground, 30th among Power 5 programs. Cincy fields the second-best passing defense in the country statistically, allowing just 168.3 yards per game through the air with 18 total interceptions (3rd in the country) and 37 sacks (11th among P5 schools.)
Alabama fans know numbers lie. After all, Georgia's defensive numbers were better in many ways and on par in other categories heading into the SEC Championship earlier this month. That didn't stop Bryce Young and the Crimson Tide from scorching the Bulldogs for 421 yards through the air and 41 points.
With Cincinnati playing a rather lax schedule just as Georgia did this season, these numbers could lie just as harshly.
So where then can Cincinnati prove its strengths?
That one's rather straightforward: it's Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner. This cornerback has given up fewer touchdowns in his college career than his jersey number. Group of 5, Power 5, Fantastic 5, doesn't matter, that's impressive. Has Gardner covered a player like Jameson Williams, though? No, not exactly. But his skill set translates to a guaranteed first-round selection.
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Odds are he won't shut down the other No. 1, Jameson Williams. He might not even trail the speedy receiver the whole game, as Coby Bryant can hold his own as well - he did win the Thorpe Award after all.
The impact of the loss of John Metchie will rear its head in this aspect though. If a young receiver like Traeshon Holden, Ja'Corey Brooks or Agiye Hall can't step up, then Cincinnati will be able to bracket Williams on a regular basis.
All that would be for not if Bryce Young has time to throw the ball, which poses the biggest toss-up question. Is Cincinnati's pass rush legit?
Myjai Sanders is the big-name pass-rusher for the Bearcats, but of Cincy's 37 sacks this season, he has just 2.5 of them. But, he's tied for fifth in the country with 48 pressures and has a 23% pass-rush win rate which is in the same ballpark as Aiden Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux. He's talented, but is he a playmaker like Gardner?
Either way, he's a freakish speed rusher and will likely line up across from Chris Owens or Damieon George, both of whom have struggled mightily with speed rushers this season. In the games Alabama has struggled the most - Auburn and Texas A&M - offensive front couldn't handle the pass rush. If that's the case Friday, it only boosts the opportunities for the Bearcat defensive backfield.
How does Alabama circumvent both potential strengths of the Bearcats' defense? Easy, run the ball. It's the one thing Cincinnati has been inconsistent in stopping, and that has a lot to do with the base scheme. A 3-3-5 defense inherently will struggle to stop the run more than a traditional 4-3 or 3-4 defense because of the size of the seventh player in the box in run situations. The personnel of a 3-3-5 has the benefit of being more versatile in the box, but the linebackers tend to be put in a spot where they are responsible for multiple gaps and if they are reached by a guard, gaping run lanes will exist.
Alabama traditionally has run roughshod on 3-3-5 defenses because of the size and athleticism of the offensive line coupled with excellent vision by running backs. Two prominent examples this season were Alabama's performances against Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The Crimson Tide rushed for 195 yards against the Rebels and 210 yards against the Bulldogs.
With Brian Robinson more healthy than he was at the end of the regular season, he's poised to have a big game against the Bearcats.
The Bearcats are certainly aware of the weaknesses that come with running a 3-3-5 and as such Luke Fickell employs multiple looks up front to stop the run, showing 4-3, 3-4, 4-2 and traditional nickel looks that give linebackers Darrian Beavers and Joel Dublanko more opportunities to fill their run gaps. Those different looks also allow pass rush pressure to come from unique directions which forces confusion on the offensive line and helps force turnovers.
If Cincinnati can mask its weaknesses schematically, the Bearcats will have its best chance to advance to the national championship. Still, if the the Bearcats can't match up in the trenches in the run game, Alabama could run away with the game on the way to Indianapolis.