Saturday’s game between Alabama and Tennesse featured a few great matchups.
On one side of the ball was Tennessee linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin versus Alabama running back Derrick Henry. On the other, ‘Bama linebacker Reggie Ragland took on Vols quarterback Josh Dobbs. But my marquee matchup going into the game was Tennessee cornerback Cam Sutton lining up against Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley.
This was set up to be a noteworthy clash because Ridley’s 11.3 yards-per-catch average and big-play tendencies contrasted how Sutton likes to defend his receivers. Sutton forces receivers to be strong at the catch point; he isn’t going to give his assignments much room to make catches, and loves to make them catch through contact.
So let’s recap the battle between these two.
I have to open this breakdown by showing an unfortunate hindrance for it. Sutton wasn’t an assignment lock on Ridley no matter where he was lined up. Sutton exclusively plays as the sideline corner, so if Ridley was ever in the backfield or in the slot, Sutton wasn’t the one covering him. In the screenshot above, Ridley was a mere three yards away from Sutton. But he wasn’t the outside man, so we miss out on those plays.
There’s more to a matchup like this than just catches and passes broken up. Each player has a job to do, even when the ball is not thrown their way. For Ridley, this was to seal Sutton on blocks. For Sutton, it’s obviously to break initial contact and give himself a chance to make a play on the ball carrier.
This is a part of Sutton’s game that he has to improve. Ridley had him locked up for four seconds. That’s too long. By that time, he’s most likely already out of the play. I know defenders have to keep their eyes on the ball carrier and time when they break off, but Sutton doesn’t have the raw power to do that at will.
Here’s a play where they could’ve used him.
Ridley got his hands up underneath Sutton’s pads with good leverage and held him long enough for Henry to run right past him. In terms of “off-the-ball” plays, Ridley came out on top.
There are three key plays I want to observe between Sutton and Ridley, all of which held their own kind of significance.
The first was early on in the game, when Sutton and Ridley matched up against each other more often. Sutton’s bread and butter is how aggressive he is when pressing receivers. He likes to get them off-balance early and make them really concentrate to not only finish a route, but secure a catch.
This play by Ridley was ridiculous. He beat Sutton off the press to the sideline, turned at just the right time, and not only had the awareness to jump and take the ball before Sutton could turn around, but also got his feet in bounds as his body fell away from the field. This round went to Ridley, and I’m not sure there’s anything Sutton could’ve done to change that.
The second play appeared to be a win for Sutton. CBS commentator Gary Danielson noted that this was the same play the Seahawks ran against the Patriots in the Super Bowl — the one that was intercepted by Malcolm Butler. Sutton played the Butler role, minus the interception.
After a closer look, we saw Sutton didn’t actually make a play on the ball or on Ridley.
This one turned out to simply be a drop from Ridley, and that closer looks turned what would have been Sutton’s top play of the game into another missed opportunity.
As the game clock ran down in the second half, Alabama coordinator Lane Kiffin realized Tennessee wasn’t rotating Sutton outside of his spot. So for most of the second half, he called plays designed to get his best receiver away from Tennessee’s best defensive back.
This play was one of the only matchups that featured Sutton on Ridley in the fourth quarter.
It again netted a poor result for the Vols’ cornerback.
Here Sutton failed to knock Ridley off course which gave him the chance to swing inside on a slant route. Sutton’s subpar tackling was another knock against him.
Overall, Ridley was clearly the victor. This matchup will surely be looked at by NFL scouts, who will be evaluating Sutton’s potential if he declares. Sutton will need to learn from this moving forward.
For Ridley, it was another solid performance and a good foundation for future success. Ridley is much older than your typical freshman — he turns 21 in December — so we need to factor that into his production. However, you still have to be able to win where you’re supposed to. Ridley has certainly done that this season.