Perhaps even more impressive than the 149 points the Ole Miss offense has piled up in its first two games is the fact that it did so without the best receiving tight end in the country. Evan Engram, a preseason All-American who led SEC tight ends in receiving yards last season, has just one catch for a measly five yards so far in 2015.
Expect that to change against Alabama on Saturday.
Engram, who helped fuel the Rebs' 2014 upset with a team-high 71 yards off three catches (all of which went for first downs and two of which keyed touchdown drives during the second-half rally), is already salivating over the matchups he'll see from Bama's bulky defense.
[Bama] kinda wants to keep everything boxed in. They don't really like to give up deep balls so right now they're going to have to account for our deep threat so that can open some stuff up in the middle. They put their linebackers on slot guys a lot, so I'm just working on my technique this week and picking up on their tendencies and linebackers' stuff. So that can be a huge upside for me against some of the linebackers and then their linebackers are real physical and their safeties can come down real hard as well.
It's not as if Nick Saban made a conscious decision to stick his overmatched linebackers and safeties on Engram -- you don't build the most menacing dynasty of the modern era by doing dumb things. No, the mismatches that allowed Engram to gash the Tide last season were engineered through clever scheming by Hugh Freeze and his staff. Let's take a look at how they did it, and how they could use similar strategies on Saturday.
We're gonna start by looking at a 16-yard reception during the fourth-quarter drive that scored the game-tying touchdown. But first, let's jump back one play so we can see how it was set up.
In the clip below, Engram is lined up as a traditional tight end, tight to the offensive line and in a three-point stance (No. 17 at the very top of the screen). This suggests a run, and true to form, Dr. Bo hands off the Jaylen Walton as Laquon Treadwell comes in motion from the outside.
Freeze comes back with the exact same formation on the next play, with Engram set up tight to the line and Treadwell split wide left. But this time Bo goes play action and hits Engram, who's running free through a surprised Bama secondary.
The key to this play is Treadwell going in motion. That has a chain reaction:
- The strong safety comes comes down towards the line of scrimmage to help against a potential fly sweep to Treadwell.
- The free safety rotates over to help cover the area vacated by the strong safety.
- The cornerback on the left side, freed because Treadwell has gone to the other side of the field, is now responsible for covering Walton in the flat.
- With the play-side corner covering Walton and the free safety rotating over, the Will linebacker is left all alone covering Engram.
Using bunch formations
Pretty much every big passing play Ole Miss had in the second half came out of some sort of bunch formation, where three or more receivers were stacked on the same side of the field. Bama's secondary, particularly eventual second-round NFL Draft pick Landon Collins, just didn't know what the hell to do with it.
The biggest perk was that it usually left Engram with a favorable matchup. Every time the Rebs went trips left to one side with Engram as the inside man, for example, Bama responded by covering him with a linebacker.
Here the Rebs go with a trips left formation late in the third quarter. Because Engram is out there instead of a fourth WR, Bama has to leave a linebacker on the field and play a 4-2-5 for fear of being gashed by a run. Because they're playing Cover-2 man (two safeties playing deep zone, everyone else manned up on a receiver), the outside linebacker is stuck covering Engram. And while there is safety help over the top, he's preoccupied covering the outside guys on deep routes, leaving Engram a free route down the seam.
Dr. Bo doesn't go to Engram on that particular play, but he did earlier in the third quarter when Bama gave a similar look. Once again the Rebs have trips to one side with Engram on the inside, and once again the Tide puts a linebacker on him. Engram smokes the backer and runs by the safety (who's busy watching Cody Core) for a 50-yard pickup.
Safeties don't stand a chance either
It wasn't just linebackers getting burned. In the play below, Ole Miss uses a creative formation to get Engram a one-on-one matchup with the safety.
Four guys -- Engram, Treadwell, Nick Parker and Jeremy Liggins -- line up in a diamond formation. Because Treadwell (a dangerous catch-and-run threat) is lined up at the back and Big Lig and Parker (big, blocking tight end hybrids) are out there, Bama is wary of a screen play. Because of the blocking personnel, Bama sticks to the 4-2-5 and plays man coverage. Strong safety Landon Collins is left manned up on Engram.
You'll remember this play because after Engram smokes Collins (who, remember, is a top-shelf NFL talent), he has what would have been the game-tying touchdown clank off his hands.
But Engram ain't gonna drop many of those. If Bama gets stuck covering him with linebackers and safeties like it did last year, Engram will have the breakout game we've all been waiting for.