Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide defense is among the most fearsome in college football year after year, and on Saturday in College Station, his unit will make containing reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel its top priority.
That's why Manziel will have to rely on Texas A&M's underrated ground attack, led by Ben Malena and Tra Carson, who are averaging a combined six yards per carry coming into Saturday's SEC showdown.
If there's one area where Kirby Smart's Tide defense appears vulnerable early on in 2013, it's on the ground, where Alabama surrendered 153 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries in Week 1 against Virginia Tech.
However, Alabama's secondary is no joke, and Manziel and his receivers will be in for a rude awakening on Saturday afternoon. Although there isn't a ton of notable talent in the Tide's secondary, Smart gets the most of his players and no one game-plans better than Saban.
The Tide ranks tops in the nation in pass defense following its season-opening dismantling of the Hokies. Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas only completed five of 26 passes for 59 yards and an interception in the loss. He finished with a quarterback rating of 1.9.
Logan Thomas is no Johnny Football and vice versa, but with a bye week under its belt, Alabama's secondary is a unit to be feared and respected this weekend.
In addition to Alabama's frightening defensive numbers coming in, Manziel won't have a whole lot of proven talent to work with on the outside. Sure, 6'5" sophomore Mike Evans is a phenomenal target. But Saban and Smart will make sure that he's blanketed on every key down.
With no Ryan Swope safety valve (11 receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown in 2012 vs. Alabama) to go to on third down and in the big moments, Manziel and the Texas A&M offense must rely on the running game to help them avoid obvious passing situations and stay ahead of the chains.
As mentioned, if the Alabama defense has shown a chink in the armor anywhere, it's up front where Virginia Tech was able to pick up 4.6 yards per carry in Atlanta. To put Alabama's opening performance into proper perspective, the Tide currently ranks 68th in the nation in rush defense and 87th in fewest yards per carry allowed.
With two stud backs at their disposal, Manziel and the Aggies must take advantage of every opportunity to run Malena and Carson through and around the Alabama front seven. Of course, the Aggies aren't going to pick up five or six yards every time and will sometimes be stopped for a short loss. But what better way to wear out a top-flight defense and keep the Alabama offense off the field than by pounding the ball consistently?
Rewind back to Texas A&M's 2012 upset in Tuscaloosa when the Aggies ran the ball 46 times (18 carries for Manziel) and attempted 31 passes in all. Texas A&M finished with 165 rushing yards and wound up possessing the ball for five more minutes than Alabama.
Malena carried the ball 14 times for 50 yards in that game and should be even more effective on the ground the second time around.
Relying on the ground game doesn't mean that Manziel shouldn't be utilized as a runner. He's far too dangerous with his legs to be limited by Kevin Sumlin and the offensive coaching staff. But Manziel shouldn't be the focus of Texas A&M's ground attack vs. Alabama.
Instead, he would be better suited as a complement to both Malena and Carson.
Designed run plays for Manziel on third down have the potential to catch the Alabama defense off guard. But in the end, Texas A&M's level of success in this colossal matchup will come down to how effective they can be against on the ground against the Tide.
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