How Alabama Neutralized Notre Dame Linebacker Manti Te'o

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How Alabama Neutralized Notre Dame Linebacker Manti Te'o
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most shocking results of the 2013 BCS National Championship Game—aside from the obvious 42-14 final tally on the scoreboard—was that Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o, the Big Ten Blog pick for the Heisman Trophy and the single most decorated defender of the 2012 season, looked so average in defeat.

Sure, Te'o ended up with 10 tackles on the day, but only three were solo efforts, and he missed several tackles over the course of the game—often leading to big plays for the Crimson Tide as Alabama rolled to the easy victory. Here's what Yahoo! Sports said about his performance:

Though he was thought by many to be a sure-fire top-5 pick -- there were even some who believed T'eo to be worthy of the first overall selection -- T'eo's flaws were exposed against Alabama's big-boy offense in the Crimson Tide's 42-14 beatdown of the Fighting Irish in Monday's BCS Championship game.

Facing an offensive line that had poleaxed opponents all season, and a multi-headed run game that proved impossible to stop, T'eo looked very much like an NFL prospect with impressive range in space and coverage, but a real need for improved core and functional strength before he can truly take on what the NFL has to offer.

Yes, pardon the misplacement of the apostrophe in Te'o's last name—the sentiment there is correct, and it highlights a central feature of how Alabama ran so wild against that Notre Dame defense. Quite simply, Alabama ran right at Manti Te'o, and did so successfully.

This is not the first time this Alabama squad has faced a Heisman finalist defender in the national championship. Recall that just last year, LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu was victimized repeatedly by the Crimson Tide offense, and the result was a strong performance on both sides of the ball for the Tide.

That's because while Mathieu and Te'o are obviously very different defenders in most ways, their best strengths are in pursuit. The common thinking of an offensive mind is to avoid a defender by running away from him, but that's just what a great pursuit defender wants; as soon as he sheds a block, it's off to the races to track down the unsuspecting ball-carrier.

This also applies to Te'o's run support as he crashes down, as Chris Brown pointed out at Grantland before the championship game:

As soon as Te’o sees Michigan State's guard — who is lined up a bit off the line and back on his heels, a common giveaway of an impending pull — Te'o comes roaring downhill to attack inside of where the guard intends to block. His first job is to take away any obvious open spaces, known as "destroying the bubble." This also forces the pulling lineman to choose a target; if he peels off for Te'o, that merely frees one of the other Notre Dame defenders to make the play.

Screencap via Grantland.com / ESPN

On this play, however, Te'o gets to the line so fast — faster than even his play-side teammate — that it's not clear if Michigan State's pulling guard even sees him. At that point, there is only one thing left for Te'o to do — execute Diaco's final instruction for all of his linebackers: "Get there fast and blow s--t up."

Go right at that defender, however—especially if he has a bit of a reputation as not being the most physical player at his own position on the team (remember Brent Musburger citing Carlo Calabrese as the "more physical" linebacker during the game)—and that's a spectacularly cocksure way to assert one's dominance on offense.

Let's take a look at a few big plays in particular that helped Alabama attack Te'o.

 

0:29: This is Eddie Lacy's 20-yard TD run that opened up the scoring. This is the most mystifying of the plays Te'o made (or, more accurately, didn't make). The Alabama blocker who's supposed to seal off Te'o falls down, and as a result, he should be able to attack Lacy's lane and bring him down for a moderate gain. For whatever reason, Te'o never fills the gap, never squares to Lacy and just plain whiffs on his tackle. That's like seeing Kevin Durant chunk a free throw off the top of the backboard. Just mystifying.

0:44: This, meanwhile, is no mystery. Alabama left guard Chance Warmack comes off the ball and meets Te'o right at the point of attack, and Te'o just doesn't have the hand-fighting skills to disengage until the play requires him to run away from Warmack. If Lacy's not tripped up, it's another touchdown; either way, Te'o is left chasing ineffectually. 

0:55: Alabama is on the move again, and knocking on the doorstep with a 1st-and-goal at the 3-yard line with a potential 14-0 lead at stake. Alabama shows run just well enough to get Te'o rolling downhill in run support...then throws right over his head for the touchdown. Te'o's aggression has just been used against him for an easy score, and Nick Saban is now firmly in Te'o's head.

1:15: Te'o has to shrug off a block from human gorilla Jesse Williams in order to be in on this play, and he actually does a pretty decent job of it—if only because instead of engaging, Williams plows upfield to initiate another block. But Te'o's lack of physicality means he still ends up down on the 1-yard line, and it's nearly impossible to keep a tailback out of the end zone from there.

 

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports
A still photo doesn't do justice to how dead-to-rights Te'o had Lacy. Except, y'know, it's Eddie Lacy.

There is one play that's sadly lacking from the highlight reels, and it's one where Te'o actually sniffs out a play well—exactly as Chris Brown mentioned in that Grantland article linked above—and shoots into a gap to meet Eddie Lacy on a 3rd-and-short. Lacy fights his legs through Te'o's tackle, weaves through the defense and easily grabs a first down to keep the drive moving. Eddie Lacy is a bad, bad man, and he beat Te'o one-on-one. Sometimes, it's just that easy.

By and large, the way Alabama beat Manti Te'o and the Notre Dame defense was to just be more physical than them. That's much easier said than done, but Alabama had the horses to get it done. Saban planned a perfect game to accomplish exactly that, and the end result is what we had on Monday.

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