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:
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.
It's not impossible. Denard used to bull's-eye womp rats in his T-sixteen back home. They're not much bigger than two meters.
You know you really sandbagged me back there.
Robinson will have to be on early with the passing game, this may open up some big runs later if his passing is accurate!
The content this week has been great. Defensively, I think stopping the run on first down is going to be critical so we can put Bama in obvious passing situations for Mattison to dial up some blitzes that hopefully will get through. Offensively, I think Denard has to have his best game "managing" the offense. It's going to be tough for him put up significant yards on the ground. Hopefully we are in alot of 3rd and shorts/manageable that we can convert on a good percentage of and eat up alot of clock. If we do that I think we'll have a legit shot at winning this thing.
I think avoiding negative plays is crucial against a defense like Alabama. Malzhan said it best, but getting in 3rd and 6+ is going to be tough.
It's going to take an epic effort on both sides of the ball for Michigan to win this game. But, I think we can do it. I am very pleased that our OC has has experience game-planning against Alabama in the past, and that our DC is the best in the business.
So much of this game is going to revolve around the maturation/development of Denard. His running ability will give him a bit more of a window than a traditional QB might get against Bama's defense. If he can pass well enough early, he might get a bit more of window through which to run.
Can't wait to see the effort our boys put in agains the Tide. Win or lose, it's exciting to have Michigan football back for the 133rd time!
Go Blue, beat Bama!
While Borges game planned against Alabama while at Auburn, only one of those games was against a Saban-coached Alabama, in 2007, Saban's first year. He did coach against Saban in 2004, his last year at LSU. Borges's team won both of those games, although they scored only 17 and 10 points respectively.
are in big, big trouble.
True. But, then again, I think Borges knows this fact very well, as does Denard. But, even more important than Michigan knowing it, is Bama knowing it. This might give Borges the crack in the scheme that he needs, i.e., Bama is going over emphasize stopping Denard from running. Again, it comes down to Denard executing the passing game. Also, Borges and Mattison are going to have to be right on top of their "adjustment game" to be successful.
If, for example, Michigan breaks tendency and comes out throwing, and is successful, there is no doubt that Saban will adjust. But, if Borges doesn't adjust right back, we might be right back where we started, i.e., playing right into the strength of the Bama defense.
It's going to be an interesting chess match coaching wise, and I like our guys in that department. Not that Saban & Co. aren't any good, they're very good, but I think Borges and Mattison have an edge there -- it's just that Bama has the edge in overall talent.
Maybe Borges supposed hatred of bubble screens has all been a front in preparation for this game.
.....not too much respect. Even if you're just reloading on defense, they still lost an epic amount of talent to the NFL. What we are seeing above is not what will be faced on Saturday night (and a thank youuuuuu for that). Plus, they have not seen a QB with Denard's speed before either. Don't know if I have ever seen a QB with Denard's speed before.
That being said, yeah, will be tough to win this one.
Agree with previous commenter on content this week. EPIC. Brian and Co probably don't realize that they have as much impact on Michigan's fandom as Brandon. I would argue this site has more influence on UM's fandom than any other source. But that's just me. Look how few MGoPoints I have. I know nothing!!!!
Would love to see them spread Alabama out, but if they're going to do that I want to see these guys in. Devin Gardner, Roy Roundtree, one of the smaller slot guys with great hands, and Devin Funchess. If they can get Devin squared out there spreading the field, I think it gives Michigan a MUCH better chance. I know this is just my opinion, but the passing game has to be successful.
I think both Devins give us a better chance because of their body types against Alabama. Devin Funchess is a match-up problem for them, and Devin Gardner is tall with good-great speed. Then you add in Roy, who has experience and one of the slot guys. Honestly, I think this gives Denard the best chance at success as well. It's a lot easier to make throws to guys 6'4" and up than to try and hit smaller targets. I just don't see the point in sitting a guy like Funchess because he's not necessarily big enough to block yet. He doesn't need to play TE, spread him out wide and let him go for this game. Not for endzone situations, but for all situations. He gives us the best chance in my opinion, and no one is really talking about that.
Cliches never more true -- protect the ball and execute the fundamentals well.
If at the end of the day Michigan is on the losing side of the score, but we can look at the film and honestly say, "You know, they played a hell of a game ... they just ran into a team with more on the field than we had" ... well then, okay.
If they protect the ball and play fundamentally sound football and win ... well then, hell yeah!
and agreed on the great site content this week.
A couple of notes:
1. Borges did run quite a few QB play actions last year but they just weren't as crisp or effective as they were in 2010. For some reason we kept throwing the ball short on curls rather than attack the safety up the seam. As an example, check the first series against MSU last year.
2. It's quite scary that the things Malzahn believes can hurt Alabama are what Borges seems to dislike the most. I find it highly unlike we're going to utilize tempo (even though we should) and Borges seems to be allergic to many outside running plays or extensions of the run like the bubble.
3. I could actually see some of our deuce and other trick packages being useful against Alabama but I just don't have much confidence in our ability to adjust after the offensive debacle that was the Sugar Bowl. Teams were allowed to stack the box much of last year because of our lack of constraint plays. That has to change if we're to have any chance.
we're going to get a good early look at he and Hoke's flexibility here.
We now have the luxury of an extra year in which to install tricky stuff. Its not the level you can run when you have starters four years deep in the system, but it should get us a little more versatility in the playbook.
As it was execution. There were guys open in the passing game, which is Boges' job... DR just didn't get to them.... At least that was my interpretation after the UFR
Well done. Thanks for taking the time and displaying all of the info and film. Hard to imagine not having Mgoblog during game week. We truly are spoiled.
...does Michigan have any? It seems that every preview I've read is doom². Somebody give me hope.
Denard. Alabama can play disciplined defense but it's hard to catch talent. Lesser teams had as many as EIGHT guys within five yards of the LOS to contain Denard and they did, but that allowed Borges to tear up the softened pass coverage (when he wasn't in the damn power I, anyway). The key to stopping Denard is pressure -- he's hesitant to run and makes mistakes when he throws -- but I'm hoping he's improved with a second offseason working with Borges. Practice time counts for a LOT between a QB and an OC. Anyway, I don't care how good Alabama's D-line is; trying to stop Denard with a 3-4 means you'll need a DE to catch him on more than one occasion. That will NOT happen. They won't need 7-8 guys in the box either, but Denard should force them out of their base formations and that's when things will get interesting.
Kovacs. Not surprising I'd mention the co-captains, but when Kovacs is given room he almost never misses a tackle, even at full speed. Last season Mattison quickly noticed it and used all sorts of packages to get Kovacs to the ball. He's not the strongest or fastest guy on the field, but what I marvel most about him is he's so consistent. His positioning is almost always perfect, he takes great angles and pursuit speeds and he always hits the ball carrier with the right move. Go for the sideline and he'll shove you out. Try to juke him and he'll barrel into your knees. Try to power through him and he'll wrap you up perfectly -- you may get a couple extra yards, but that's all he's giving you. He's enough of a playmaker that teams drew up and executed plays specifically designed to draw him away from the point of attack. With Kovacs taking away the freebies, Alabama is content to grind out yards but that plays right into Mattison's hands. Speaking of which. . .
Mattison. Alabama is what Michigan was in the ye olde days of Yost -- they had the talent to beat anyone and rammed it down your throat. But they're not cocky; they're fundamentally sound and execute well. They're not stubborn or overly predictable, either. They may not throw to the post route often, but they will the first time you fall asleep covering it. That's naturally why everyone's cautious about Michigan's chances. But they don't have Mattison, who may well be the best defensive coordinator in the country. This guy has experience stopping the best offenses in the NFL. Alabama's O-line can handle just about any standard D-line attack in the book, but if anyone can prepare a scheme they aren't ready for, it's Mattison.
If Denard's dual-threat attack can shake Alabama's D out of its comfort zone and Mattison finds a way to confuse the O-line so they can't rely on athleticism and fundamentals alone, Michigan's got a chance.
Wow. I was feeling pretty confident until I read this. Obviously Denard has to play one of his best games, but Borges needs to call one of his best games ever, too.
Damn the torpedos!
I've got $200 on Michigan (+14)!
Go Blue or Go Home!
I know we keep saying that their defense has reloaded, but if we are gonna require mistakes by the defense to help us score, doesn't experience means so much more than talent? If these green db's don't have much experience in big games, I fully expect them to make mistakes. I just hope our senior, experienced qb takes full advantage.
Looks like Alabama brought back 3YAACOD (3 yards and a cloud of dust). It's a sign a program has supreme confidence in its superior talent. Talent they shouldn't have because of oversigning and other crap, but I digress. It's there, and Michigan's gotta deal with it.
KEY ON OFFENSE: Overload the zones. The weakness of zone is that no matter how disciplined you are, you can't be in two places at once. So the typical way to beat a Cover-1 or Cover-2 is to overload a zone. I'd start with trips on the strong side with Smith to Denard's left. Corner takes the wideout, robber covers the slot, but if they're all only about 5-10 yards down the deep safety's useless so SOMEONE will be open. On the strong side Denard starts out facing that direction so he can sling it right out of a pistol set before any help can get there and looking at his eyes won't help because all the receivers are in the same zip code. When they start cheating to the strong side, Denard can take off to his left behind Lewan and Smith. If 'Bama goes with a nickel package that's just proof it's working; we WANT them to go small. If that happens, time to break out some option runs. Run when they expect the pass; pass when they expect the run -- Sun Tzu's Football 101. What I dread is Borges getting stubborn with the run before things open up. If he runs on every first down we're dead. He needs to use the pass to open up the running game, which is the WCO philosophy in the first place.
KEY ON DEFENSE: Free up Kovacs. He's a sure tackler who can bring anyone down, if not instantly, but he can't punch his way through the O-line and they can't expect the D-line to hold on every play. If we try to match power with power their bigger O-line will grind them down, so at times Mattison's going to have to get creative, and that's just code for getting Kovacs to the ball. A TFL or sack on 2nd-and-4 that brings them back to a passing down takes 3YAACOD out of its comfort zone. 3YAACOD doesn't expect to get beat. The experienced secondary, if it stays composed, can limit the big plays, trickery and play action. Unfortunately Alabama is great at combination blocking, while Kovacs excels at tackling in space. So Mattison and the D-line will have to execute a form of role reversal, where they block the blockers -- they need those linemen to stay on them to give Kovacs a clear path to the ball carrier. They did that quite a bit last season and Mattison's good at keeping things confusing. Expect some stunts and Okie packages purely designed to overwhelm one side of the line, so a couple guys get double-teamed while others wind up blocking air. It doesn't need to be done often -- and in fact it should be used sparingly and deceptively -- but it needs to be a drive-killer. Michigan can't give Alabama 5-8 yards per run, and that's gonna be tough to do without giving them something they're not prepared for.
Looking from the other side -- what Alabama sees when they look at Michigan is the same things we see -- the principal vulnerability is the defensive line, and Alabama's opening drive will be focused there. I doubt Saban sees any reason to get cute -- they will go straight at Michigan's weakness.
Agree with dragonchild above that Michigan has plans to compensate for the D-Line being overwhelmed, but the question for me is as follows: Do you give the line a chance to prove itself, or do you immediately throw the kitchen sink at whatever Alabama is doing?
Most coaches will do the former, because you can't have players thinking you don't believe in them, but there's something to be said for keeping Alabama off balance from the get-go by refusing to follow the standard script.