i find this extremely interesting
Fee Fi Foe Film: Alabama
In case you've forgotten since last fall, FFFF is the weekly film breakdown of Michigan's upcoming opponent where I apply my (limited) knowledge of X's and O's—luckily, this week much of the technical brilliance is provided by Chris Brown.
College football fans should know a few things about Alabama: they're good (duh), they play a soul-crushing 3-4 defense, and they grind out wins with a glacial-paced zone running offense that's brutally efficient. I'll get into more detail below, of course, but that's the Cliffs Notes version if you hate to read. Given that it's the opening week of the season and Alabama is replacing several starters, this post will almost entirely focus on scheme; Friday's preview will go much deeper into their personnel.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Pro-style. Alabama mostly operates from under center, usually with either a fullback/H-back or second tight end on the field.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Though the Crimson Tide offense operates in the spirit of MANBALL, they actually utilize a lot of zone blocking—the inside and outside zones are staples of their offense.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Even with sacks removed, quarterback A.J. McCarron rushed for only 70 yards on 19 carries last year. He's mobile enough that he could escape the pocket and possibly pick up a surprise first down, but not much more than that. I'll give him a 3.
Dangerman: QB A.J. McCarron. Alabama loses most of their top skill position players from last year, but McCarron is often overlooked as one of the better quarterbacks in the nation, largely due to their run-heavy attack and defensive reputation. As a redshirt sophomore last season, McCarron finished 25th in the country in passer efficiency (147.27) and 24th in yards per attempt (8.0), most impressively posting a miniscule 1.5% interception rate. McCarron doesn't wow you, but he's the perfect quarterback for 'Bama's system: the proverbial "game manager" who rarely makes a mistake.
Zook Factor: This is my measure of how often teams have horrible ideas like "let's punt on 4th and 3 from the opponent 35" and so on. While Alabama is hailed as a conservative paragon, they've been known to break that habit in a big way:
Of course, the reason this works so well is because Alabama normally takes the safe route; earlier in the same game, they punted on 4th and 1 from their 46 despite the presence of one Trent Richardson.
OVERVIEW: Alabama has a new offensive coordinator this year as former Washington OC Don Nussmeier takes over for new Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain. The general strategy should be the same, however, and if anything the offense could become even slower: according to Football Study Hall, the Tide—quite uncharacteristically—had a slightly faster pace than NCAA average last year, while Nussmeier's Washington squad plodded along at a 39.6% adjusted pace. Chart via Football Study Hall:
Alabama's hard-earned reputation as a run-first outfit doesn't manifest itself on standard downs (First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less); instead, it shows up in their far-above-average run percentage on passing downs (second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more). The Tide don't often find themselves in that latter category, however, as they led the nation in all three advanced statistical measures (S&P+, Success Rate, PPP+) on standard downs. In other words, they stay ahead of the chains and rarely find themselves in a situation where they need to pick up a big chunk of yardage.
[Hit the jump for the rest of the breakdown]
This is where I let Chris Brown take over. Before the national title game last season he detailed Alabama's zone run game, which is the basis for everything else they do in their offense. The inside zone is their bread-and-butter. The Tide like to add a wrinkle by liberally utilizing their H-back to either seal off the back side or come across the formation and pick off a linebacker:
Photo via Chris Brown
From this set, Alabama likes to run to the side of their bigger and more traditional tight end, Michael Williams. But the key to effective offense is having concepts enough for your players to execute but varied enough to keep your opponent guessing. Smelley, the backside tight end lined up off the ball, gives them that flexibility. On a run play to the right, he can cut off the backside defensive end or pull toward the play side to "insert" into the blocking scheme and block one of LSU's linebackers. Or, he may take a few steps inside and then cut off the backside linebacker, hopefully drawing the linebacker away and opening a cutback lane for Richardson.
Alabama can pull Smelley all the way across the field and insert him on the playside linebacker, thus adding extra blockers to the playside — this is the vaunted "Power O" scheme from a one-back set. Finally, McElwain and Saban can always have McCarron fake the handoff to Richardson and hit Smelley in the flat or even up the field.
Whether they're running from an ace formation, the I-form, the pistol, or a shotgun set, they'll pound the defense with the inside zone, mixing in the outside zone to keep the defense on their toes*. This works quite well on a team that boasts a stable of five-star running backs and the biggest, baddest offensive line in the country.
When a defense dials in too hard on the running back is when the Tide's play-action passing game comes into play. As Brown outlined above, one of their more effective plays involves leaking the H-back out into the flat. Let's go to the play breakdown to see another way they utilize play-action.
Alabama sets up their play-action by running, of course. Here's Trent Richardson ripping off a big gain on an outside zone—note the offensive linemen taking a big step to the outside right off the snap:
On the very next play, McCarron fakes the give to Richardson as his linemen again start to head to the outside, then pulls and throws a bubble screen to Marquise Maze:
The concept is relatively simple but extremely difficult to stop when faced with such an effective running game. The safeties and linebackers take a step towards the run fake, and by the time they can recover the receiver has the corner and an easy first down. Alabama won't go over the top too often; they don't need to when they can march down the field with simple zone runs and play-action. It may be an offense that works in large part due to their overwhelming talent, but that isn't a problem—again, they have overwhelming talent.
What can Michigan do to defend Alabama? Unfortunately, the key is the play of the defensive line, the biggest question mark on the team. The weakside defensive end—Jibreel Black, probably—cannot allow himself to get cut down at the line against those zone runs, or Alabama's backs will have a field day cutting back against the grain. Of course, the defensive tackles can't get pushed off the ball, either, or the Tide can simply attack right up the gut. Then the back seven have to stay disciplined to prevent getting gashed by play-action—I'm more confident Michigan can do this since they played very sound in the secondary last year.
*I'll link to Smart Football again: Here's the definitive article on the difference between inside and outside zones.
Base Set? 3-4, though they'll often have a fourth defender with his hand down; this is a defense that isn't afraid to show several different looks over the course of a game.
Man or zone coverage? Zone. Saban's favorite coverage is the Cover 1 Robber. Normally the Cover 1 is a man-to-man defense with one deep safety; Alabama adds an underneath zone—the "robber"—and has their defensive backs play "pattern reading" zones—think of it as a matchup zone in basketball, with DBs reading the route patterns on the fly and sticking close to receivers who come through their area instead of dropping to a particular spot. They'll also mix in Cover 2, Cover 3, and a little man-to-man.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Alabama is able to generate using just four rushers; like Mattison's Michigan defense, the issue isn't how many defenders rush, but where they're coming from.
Dangerman: The Tide are replacing either six or seven starters, depending on how you categorize NT Jesse Williams (a functional returning starter, so we'll say six), but they still don't lack star power. Linebackers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosely were overshadowed by Donta Hightower and Courtney Upshaw a year ago, but as you can see below, they're still stars in the own right, not to mention very well-coached [HT: Smart Football, of course]:
Johnson is listed as the co-starter at both MIKE—along with former Michigan recruit Trey DePriest—and WILL, where Mosely lines up as well.
SABAN'S PHILOSOPHY OF DEFENSE
- He's a disciple of Belichick ... he was a defensive backs coach under Belichick
- He tends to favor a 3-4, though he'll often go 4-3
- His stated goal is to stop the run on first and second downs
- He focuses on defending inside first, then outside
- He is very aggressive on passing downs
- He is attentive to technique and details
- His favorite defense is a variation on a "Cover 1" which Saban calls a "Cover 1 Robber"
- He tends to play zone with his secondary
Throughout this chapter, Chris Brown makes it clear none of this is particularly revolutionary or "tricky" in any way. At its core it is a relatively simple defensive approach that relies on execution and athletic ability. Alabama clearly gets good athletes. As to execution, Brown ends the chapter with, "Saban demands perfection and has no qualms about spending the grinding hours working on the finer details to make it happen."
Saban and DC Kirby Smart run a lot of Cover 1 Robber, but they also throw a fair amount of Cover 2 and Cover 3 zone out there, and they're quite adept at disguising their coverage.
Now, how do you go about attacking Alabama's D? Watch this video of Gus Malzahn breaking it down on a stunningly insightful Sportscenter segment [HT: Yep, you guessed it]:
To sum up the above:
- Alabama is extremely stout up the middle. Williams is 6'4", 320 pounds, and Mike Martin-strong at the nose; their defensive ends weigh in at 286 and 282 pounds. Running up the gut will be a difficult proposition, especially if Fitz Toussaint can't go. Thomas Rawls is not going to bowl these guys over.
- Kirby Smart dictates where the opposition can run by frequently blitzing from the field (wide side); if he doesn't bring a man off the edge, he usually rolls up the strong safety, making it difficult to find any room to the outside.
- Saban and Smart adjust with the best of them, so it's unlikely Borges will find a money play and be able to repeatedly run it with success.
- Getting to the outside requires misdirection, and the only room to the outside is usually on the boundary, away from the blitz. Malzahn accomplished this with a reverse and a speed sweep by the slot in the video above. Borges will have to come up with something similar to create big plays on the edge. This is where the throwback screen to Vincent Smith could come in very handy.
- Malzahn's solution to finding room in the middle is to play at a high tempo, keeping the defensive tackles from getting a breather and hopefully forcing them to gas out or make a mistake. Problem: Michigan played at a very slow pace (41.8% adj. pace) last year and did not often go to the hurry-up. We'll see if Borges makes an exception here.
- The key to scoring against the Tide is to create big plays in the passing game. Again, Malzahn's solution goes against Borges's nature; he utilized a play-action fake not with his running back, but with Cam Newton. With Denard Robinson, Michigan could easily do this, especially if they set it up with the inverted veer—one play that could create some success up the gut. The issue is that they haven't done this in a year of Al Borges Denard Fusion Cuisine. Regardless, success with play-action is critical to creating big plays against Alabama.
Just listening to Malzahn gives a good impression of just how good this defense is; their ability to play stout run defense while rushing just four makes it very difficult to find room in the secondary, and to get a big play involves patience until a defender makes a mistake, which isn't often under Saban/Smart.
If Toussaint isn't available on Saturday, Michigan becomes limited in their options to attack. Handing it off to Rawls and Vincent Smith 30 times isn't going to go well, and with the lack of a dynamic playmaker at running back Michigan won't be able to keep the Tide from keying on Denard. If the Wolverines are going to put up enough points to win, they'll need Robinson to have one of his best games from a passing standpoint; he's got to be able to pick apart that Cover 1 Robber and force Alabama to respect his arm and play more aggressive. Can he do this? Not if he's the same passer as a year ago. Let's hope a full year under Borges equals major development.
Arkansas only mustered one scoring drive in their matchup with Alabama last year. They did so by spreading the field and pushing the pace, and they actually reached the end zone twice on this drive; the play below was called back due to a hold:
The draw came after a string of five straight pass attempts—even though the previous play was an incomplete pass, Tyler Wilson rushed Arkansas back to the line. Since he'd connected on his previous four passes, Alabama had to respect the throw, and as a result their defensive tackles get upfield too quickly and leave a gaping hole in the middle. The hold was blatant but unnecessary, as the lineman was in position to seal off the linebacker. This big play opportunity came as a result of going up-tempo and should've gone for a touchdown.
Arkansas managed to punch it in a few plays later. They'd found success on this drive with quick passes to the perimeter, and that's what would get them into the end zone. Alabama lines up in a Cover 2—you'll want to watch the top of the screen:
At first I thought this was a blown assignment by Alabama's middle linebacker (#30), but after a few viewings I think this was just a great job of flooding one side of the Cover 2 by Arkansas. The wide receiver and tight end on the strong (in this case boundary) side head straight upfield on the snap. The wideout cuts off his route and starts blocking, so I'm not clear on what he was supposed to run, and the tight end begins to run an out at the goal line but also shifts into blocking mode. The leaking tailback makes for three receivers against just two underneath defenders, creating an opening for the catch and run.
Michigan will have to catch Alabama in a Cover 2 if they want to replicate the play above. Expect Michigan to show a lot of four-wide looks to spread out the defense, especially given the lack of a proven tight end. Again, Denard Robinson is going to have to step up big time if Michigan hopes to have a shot; he has to be able to recognize the defense and make quick, intelligent choices with where he throws the ball. This doesn't play to Michigan's strength, but it's the only way to successfully attack this defense.