LSU-Alabama Week: Treacherous Bayou Bengal Pass Defense


Tyrann Mathieu is known well among college football followers. The Honey Badger is a legitimate Heisman candidate, almost unheard of for a defensive back. Through just seven games, Mathieu’s compiled four forced fumbles including two returned for touchdowns, two interceptions, 32 tackles and five pass break-ups. Indeed, such figures will generate considerable buzz.

But the LSU secondary is no one-trick Badger. A 45-10 blasting of Auburn the Tigers’ last time out proved just how deep LSU goes in its pass defense. With Mathieu serving a one-game suspension, Ron Brooks stepped up to make two of the biggest plays on the day.

Brooks denied AU an early touchdown with a sensational leap to bat away a would-be scoring pass, then ran an interception back for six. Oh, and Brooks is a reserve.

LSU is ranked No. 10 among Bowl Subdivision programs against the pass with a hair below 1400 yards yielded — 463 of which were compiled when West Virginia’s Geno Smith threw 65 times against the Tigers in Week 4. Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron certainly won’t heave the ball around the field at that pace Saturday. With 200 attempts in eight games, McCarron is hard pressed to reach 65 passes through three games.

No, the previous LSU opponent Alabama most closely mirrors is actually uptempo Oregon. The Pro Set from which the Tide offense works is a vast departure from Oregon’s almost gimmicky spread, but where the two are similar is how an explosive rush launches from enough passing to keep opponents honest.

UO was most effective last season when Darron Thomas was spreading mid-range balls (with the occasional find of Jeff Maehl long) at a 65-70 percent clip. LSU contained Thomas to just 57 percent completions, and cut off passes beyond about an 8-yard net. Thomas’ yards-per-attempt were limited to just 4.4, and the eliminated threat of the pass bottled up 2010 Heisman Trophy candidate LaMichael James.

Conversely, the inability to get James going forced Thomas into more short yardage pass attempts. Whether LSU contains the run thus forces unfavorable passing conditions or vice versa is a chicken-or-egg argument, and ultimately irrelevant since either way offenses end up scrambled. LSU simply creates a nasty cycle that frustrates and ultimately beats opponents into submission.

Like Thomas, McCarron’s production may not be the most impressive statistically, but is an essential component of what the Tide does offensively. McCarron’s ability to be efficient sets up explosive Trent Richardson, as a few mid-range gainers soften pressure from the tackle box. LSU thrives on rendering opposing quarterbacks ineffective.

As is the case with any successful pass protection, LSU’s begins at the line. And there may not be a defensive line as good as the one John Chavis oversees. Ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery attack off the edge with a thunder-and-lightning combination that has produced eight combined sacks and 14.5 of the Tigers’ 61 tackles for loss. Their respective speed pose decided challenges for offensive tackles, and that there are two such equally skilled rushers prevents lines from double teaming.

Then up the middle, defensive tackles Micahel Brockers and Bennie Logan have been as difficult to contain. Pockets crumble with startling quickness when LSU brings pressure, hence 18 quarterback hurries to go with 19 sacks. Quarterbacks give it up quickly, and that’s when the talented secondary shines.

Brooks’ outstanding performance against AU shows just how deep the Tigers are in that facet, because on the first string: Mathieu, Brandon Taylor, Eric Reid, Morris Claiborne, four players combining for 10 interceptions, 15 break-ups and over 150 tackles. That’s not the kind of Murderers’ Row against which Nick Saban wants his quarterback to have his first air-it-out game.

But limiting what McCarron does best, thereby limiting Richardson and forcing more pass attempts is exactly what the Tigers will seek out.