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Jeremy Pruitt’s Predictable Desire to Blitz Killed the Tide on Third Down

Marvin Gentry - USA Today Sports

There are fewer things more important in football than converting third downs for an offense and getting stops on third downs for a defense. Failure to do one, or both, of these things drastically swing the time of possession in an unfavorable manner. This was the story of yesterday’s Iron Bowl loss in Auburn, and while the defensive shortcomings can be attributed to many things, one thing in particular should not be overlooked: Jeremy Pruitt’s desire to blitz on almost every play regardless of situation.

Blitzing, inherently, is not a bad thing. In fact, against below average quarterbacks or shoddy offense lines, it can be a key to victory. However, when one of the best defenses in the nation allow a team to go 9-of-18 on third down conversions, it is fair and human nature to want to assess the problems. That problem for Pruitt appears to be his unreasonable blitzing obsession.

Early in yesterday’s contest, Auburn was faced with multiple third-and-long scenarios in Alabama’s territory. Each time, Pruitt sent a blitz. Each time, it did not work. Coincidence? Not even close.

The first, and most obvious, time it failed was on a 3rd-and-6 screen pass to Kerryon Johnson. Alabama predictably, and without trying to disguise it, sent six guys on a blitz leaving Johnson wide open on the right side of the field to pick up a huge first down on their way to a seven-point lead. After an Alabama fumble on the following drive, Auburn was faced with a 3rd-and-5 from the 27-yard-line. Again, Pruitt sent Fitzpatrick on a blitz from his corner spot leaving Hootie Jones with no help on an easy comeback route.

Early in the third quarter, after Alabama had scored and taken the momentum of the game, Pruitt rushed Evans and Harrison – both of which were picked up – leaving a speedy Will Hastings man-to-man on a crossing route. With no help over the top, he was able to turn a two yard catch into a 20 yard gain and once again grabbed the momentum for the home team.

One of the most frustrating plays of the night came on a 3rd-and-5 play from their own 36. Pruitt opted to blitz both inside linebackers – Wilson and Evans – leaving Ryan Davis in man-to-man coverage with Levi Wallace. For as good as Wallace has been this season, man-to-man coverage on slants/crossing routes tend to spell death for a team choosing to blitz. In other words, few would even pick this play in a game of Madden. As he did all day, Davis took the ball and made another big play for his team – this time cashing it in for a 25 yard gain.

On that same drive, Auburn was faced with a 3rd-and-7 in Alabama’s side of the field. This time, Pruitt elected to send Tony Brown on a corner blitz and possibly spy Stidham with Mack Wilson. After a moment’s hesitation, Wilson, too, rushed after Auburn’s quarterback, leaving nobody past the line of scrimmage to make a play should he scramble. So, naturally, he did and picked up nine yards in the process. The blitzing speedster, Tony Brown, was ultimately the one that had to catch up with him.

Throughout the rest of the game there were more examples, but the point has been made crystal clear. While Pruitt is far from a bad defensive coordinator, his decision making has been ousted over the last few weeks. On Auburn’s weekly coaching talk show, Gus Malzahn even laid out what he felt about Alabama’s defensive coordinator, whom he lost to in the National Championship game when Pruitt was at Florida State.

“When they played in the national championship game it was a blitz fest…he’s a lot more aggressive this year,” he said. “They’re blitzing a lot more. You’ve got to make them pay when they blitz. If you don’t they’ll keep doing it. They’re pretty good at it. He’s an aggressive mindset guy and does a good job.”

I chose to bold one sentence in that quote, because that is exactly what his Tigers did on Saturday. What made it even more embarrassing was the lack of adjustments as the game went on. Even into the fourth quarter, Pruitt was getting the Tide killed with poorly timed blitzes from everywhere on the field.

To restate it one more time, Jeremy Pruitt is a tremendous defensive coordinator, but his lack of adjustments is a reasonable cause for alarm. The loss of guys like Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Tim Williams should – as expected – make a defense look different from a scheme standpoint, but it was more of the same and they failed to play to the strengths of this team. The pass rush not been Alabama’s forte this season, but trying to force one with ill-conceived blitzes is not the way to go, and it may have cost them a chance at the College Football Playoffs.

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