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After a Rocky Season, Alabama's O-Line Rose to the Occasion and Solved Georgia

A week after the Tide's pass protection broke down vs. Auburn, it was key to Bryce Young's big day in the SEC title game.

ATLANTA — While Alabama was running into its tunnel at one corner of Mercedes-Benz Stadium at halftime, a roar went up. The Bama contingent was outnumbered in the building, but a vocal minority shook crimson and white pom-poms anyway. The Tide were up seven on Georgia after a blazing offensive second quarter.

In the other corner of the stadium, Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart was saying the obvious about how the Crimson Tide had done what nobody else could: score a significant amount of points on his vaunted defense.

When asked by CBS’s Jamie Erdahl what was perplexing his defense, Smart replied: “Well, Bryce Young is. He’s doing a great job, he’s making plays with his feet. … We’re not getting pressure. At the end of the day you’ve gotta get to him or he’s gonna get you.”

Alabama's offensive line blocks against Georgia

Young looks to pass while his offensive line blocks.

A week after only scoring 10 points against Auburn in regulation, Alabama found itself down that exact margin to a considerably better football team on paper early in the game. The Tide were 6.5-point underdogs, the first time in 92 games that they hadn’t been favored, and all week Alabama got rat poison yummier than the mountain of Chick-Fil-A sandwiches outside of its postgame locker room. But Alabama repeated as SEC champions, scoring one-third of the total points Georgia has given up to all 13 opponents this season. During a 31–7 run in the middle of the proceedings in which it scored on five straight possessions, Alabama snatched the game, the SEC title and a Playoff berth during the 41–24 win.

The run began three plays after Stetson Bennett and the Bulldogs marched eight plays and 97 yards. Alabama quick-striked to get on the scoreboard with a 67-yard pass to Jameson Williams.

The operative thing to notice about Williams’s long romp—beyond the blazing speed of the receiver—is the squeaky clean pocket quarterback Bryce Young was given to operate within and deliver a strike in rhythm to exploit a Georgia coverage bust. Alabama’s right guard,

Emil Ekiyor Jr., got his hand on No. 88 Jalen Carter to disrupt a line stunt, and a thumping blitz pickup by running back Brian Robinson and left guard Javion Cohen on rushing Georgia linebacker Channing Tindall gave plenty of space (as well as left tackle Evan Neal’s stoning of No. 95, Devonte Wyatt).

“I think the offensive line really answered the challenge that we sort of put to them in terms of them being more physical in this game,” coach Nick Saban said in his postgame press conference. “They probably prepared a little better than I’ve ever seen them all season long in terms of studying the guys they had to block and the things they had to do. I think we did a little bit better job as coaches in terms of having some protection multiples that maybe we didn’t always get as many guys out in the pass routes, but we also gave the quarterback time to operate.”

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On the very next drive, Young’s OL gave him so much time to operate that he sat back and pointed wide receiver John Metchie III to a spot in the back of the end zone and connected to make it 14–10.

Bama’s pass protection has been flat-out bad in multiple games this season, whether it was communication issues in the loss to Texas A&M, an inability to handle pressures LSU hadn’t previously put on film for the Tide to study or just getting whipped by Auburn last week. This has been jarring to see for a program that churns out offensive linemen to the NFL—Neal will likely be a top-five pick next April as well. Just last season, Alabama’s OL won the Joe Moore Award for the best unit in the country, but it has not been easy to return to form this season after losing multiple parts from 2020’s group. Injuries have jumbled things at center, with Seth McLaughlin starting his second straight game at that spot.

Coming into Saturday’s game, Young had been the third-most pressured of any quarterback in the country, per Sports Info Solutions, but he was not sacked at all by the Bulldogs. It was the first time all season he had not been sacked, and it came off the back of Alabama allowing seven sacks in the Iron Bowl. The offensive line, of course, was not perfect in Atlanta, but nobody could expect it to be against Georgia’s impressive defensive front. That front has been missing its best pure pass rusher, with edge Adam Anderson on indefinite suspension after being charged with rape. For as good as Georgia’s defense is, it finally faced an offense talented enough to test it like it hadn’t been all season. Young had the time to throw, and Georgia’s defensive backs could not hold up outside.

Young finished with 421 passing yards, which many believe means he has one hand grasping the Heisman Trophy. When he didn’t have enough time to throw he was scrambling for some of his 40 yards on the ground or getting loose just enough to pull off a heady lateral to Robinson out of nowhere.

“That’s a great [Georgia] front a, great defense, and we knew that coming in, and I think they just kept hearing it and hearing it,” Young said after the game. “[The offensive line] accepted the challenge and they really stepped up to the plate in the biggest moment in the season. All of the success that we have offensively, it always starts up front. … People try to only say negative things about offensive lines in general and about our O-line but you don’t understand, every time there’s a positive play whether it’s the run game or the pass game, whatever it is—nothing starts without our O-line.”

Five plays out of halftime, Georgia failed to do what its head coach warned going into the break. The right side of the Tide’s offensive line—a major sore spot in the Iron Bowl—stood tall again, with right tackle Damieon George Jr. helping to pick up a line stunt and protect Young for a long-developing route to Williams again.

As Williams romped every step of the 55 yards to paydirt, the southwest corner of the stadium erupted again, the Tide took a 14-point lead and the score never got closer the rest of the evening. 

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