Confident and comfortable.
Those were the words that redshirt junior outside linebacker Terrell Lewis used to describe Joe Burrow, and the stats can back it up.
For the first month of the season, Burrow, LSU’s senior quarterback, completed 80% of his passes under pressure, compared to the national average of 44%. Burrow can also perform in crunch time when his team needs him to convert – in one-possession games over that same stretch, his completion percentage was 83%, according to FiveThirtyEight.
To complicate the issue for Alabama, Burrow has the pocket presence to know if, or when, he should escape the pocket.
“The guy we’re facing this week has outstanding mobility,” coach Nick Saban said. “So it’s going to take disciplined pass rush and the execution of what we’re trying to do to control them in the pocket. … He can extend plays, but at the same time, he likes to keep his eyes downfield, and I think that’s what makes him good.”
Allowing mobile quarterbacks to extend plays has been an issue for the Crimson Tide this season. Ole Miss’ John Rhys Plumlee and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond rushed for 109 and 90 yards, respectively, against Alabama.
But against LSU, Alabama must account for Burrow’s elite passing skills along with his mobility. For the Crimson Tide defense, Lewis and redshirt senior outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings have blossomed into fearsome pass rushers who will be counted on to pressure the Heisman hopeful quarterback.
Most recently against Arkansas, Lewis showed his stunting skills late in the second quarter when he exploded off of the line of scrimmage, took two steps toward the outside of the right tackle and spun inside to force an errant throw by quarterback Nick Starkel.
The pass ended up in the hands of senior cornerback Trevon Diggs, who returned it 83 yards for a touchdown.
“When they collapse the pocket like that, they give the quarterback no chance,” senior defensive lineman Raekwon Davis said. “He’s not going to come through the middle, so he’s either got to throw it away or take a sack.”
The LSU offensive line has been vulnerable in its last two SEC games, in which Mississippi State and Auburn each had three sacks and six tackles for loss. Nonetheless, Burrow threw for four touchdowns and 327 yards against the Bulldogs and one touchdown and 321 yards against the Tigers, completing over 75% of his passes in both games.
To force Burrow into tougher throws, the Crimson Tide will need to balance pressuring Burrow, maintaining the coverage downfield and respecting Burrow’s ability to scramble.
“I think anytime you pressure people, the best way to get tackles for losses is to move people and stunt extra guys into the run fits, and when you do that, you compromise the back end of the coverage to some degree because you’ve got to play some kind of middle-of-the-field coverage to do it,” Saban said. “So you get more one-on-one situations. You try to pick your poison a little bit and how effective you think it can be against that particular formations and sets, plays, whatever.”
As the season has progressed, Saban and defensive coordinator Pete Golding have gained more trust in freshman linebackers Christian Harris and Shane Lee in sending them to stunt at the line of scrimmage. Lee has three tackles for loss and two sacks in the past two games. Combined with the play of Lewis and Jennings, the Crimson Tide linebacking corps will be looking to pressure Burrow into a rare interception. He has 30 passing touchdowns to just four picks in eight games.
“I think the players have more experience,” Saban said. “[We’re] playing with a lot of young players. The players themselves make plays, and when you have guys like Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings and those kinds of guys, they cash in on those opportunities maybe more than a less experienced guy.”
Alabama combined sacks and tackles for loss by game, 2019 season
Duke – 2
New Mexico St. – 7
South Carolina – 8
Southern Miss – 7
Ole Miss – 7
Texas A&M – 7
Tennessee – 7
Arkansas – 5