Film Study: Run game, combo coverage ensures title for Alabama
It’s funny how the narrative changes with success.
With the Tide gearing up for a showdown with the University of Missouri in the Southeastern Conference’s championship game, it’s appropriate that we look back to look forward for the Tide’s inevitable trek to another national title.
Before the season started, many pundits and critics claimed that University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban was beginning to lose his stranglehold on college football after the Tide’s end-of-season collapse against the rival Auburn Tigers and the Oklahoma Sooners to close the 2013-14 season.
They also stated that today’s high-powered, hurry-up, no-huddle spread-based offensive attacks trumped Saban’s defensive scheme which is normally a power-based outfit designed to physically wear down offenses.
Additionally, many wondered how the Tide would capably function without long-time captains A.J. McCarron and C.J. Mosley — as there wasn’t much proven leadership on the team. And when it was discovered that fifth-year senior quarterback Blake Sims would be operating in McCarron’s stead, critics piled on saying he didn’t have the prerequisite skill set to lead the Tide to the promised land.
But in typical Saban fashion, he rose up, met and even exceeded the expectations of even of most staunchest of Crimson and White supporters.
The defense unearthed a couple of new stars in Reggie Ragland and Landon Collins and has proved to be one of the deepest of the Saban era — especially along the front seven. Sims, who has had one of the better seasons in Alabama history, has made Saban look like a genius by being the exact kind of leader a young team necessitates.
His ability to manufacture first downs, and explosive plays, has proven to be the recipe for success when all else fails. He’s shown a propensity for persevering in the face of adversity and in many ways he’s the face of a Bama team that began as an underdog.
He’s not up for any post-season awards, at the moment, but he has Bama right in the thick of the College Football Playoffs. And as much credit goes to Saban and Sims, it’s first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin who deserves a sizeable portion of the praise, as well.
The twice-failed head coach — most notably with the University of Southern California — is most certainly the assistant coach version of Sims. Saban was heavily questioned for aligning himself with college football’s version of Eddie Haskell (of Leave It To Beaver fame) when news broke of the hiring.
While Kiffin’s character can be used as fodder for comedic relief, his ability to get the most out of his offensive personnel should not be a part of said jokes. The fact of the matter is, Kiffin is one of the preeminent offensive minds in all of football.
Although his background is rooted deep in the West Coast offense, he’s shown that he’s versed in just about every scheme known to man: Erhardt-Perkins, Vertical, Spread, Option et cetera.
He’s known for putting his best options in position to virtually always be a difference maker, which is something that has continued at Bama with wide receiver Amari Cooper. While the Biletnikoff Award finalist was most certainly a good player under former OC Doug Nussmeier, he looks like a transcendent talent with Kiffin moving him all around the formation to ensure he sees favorable matchups.
Cooper finished the regular season with an eye-popping 103 catches for 1,573 yards with 14 touchdowns despite being the known focal point of the entire offense. Bama’s triumph over a game Auburn squad, in last week’s Iron Bowl, cemented that Cooper should also win the Heisman Trophy; his 13-catch, 224-yard performance was supported by another three TDs — as he torched, yet, another SEC secondary.
But that’s another story for another day.
Sporadically, other receivers like DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, ArDarius Stewart and Chris Black have contributed as well. But make no mistake about it; it’s a Cooper-centric offense.
Going into the season, many expected uber-athletic tight end O.J. Howard to become the conference’s breakout star, but with a disappointing 13 catches — albeit generating 226 yards — we may have to wait until next season before this beast is truly unleashed.
And most people believed if it weren’t Howard, then sophomore running back Derrick Henry — all 6’3″, 238 pounds him — would be the breakout player in the conference after his standout performance in last season’s Sugar Bowl.
While Henry has been very solid for the Tide, 139 attempts for 754 yards with eight TDs, it’s been the underrated T.J. Yeldon that has paced the team in yards and carries (170 attempts for 885 yards with 8 TDs).
But moreover, Yeldon has been used in spots where the difficulty is heightened, and he has demonstrated superb play-making ability; his versatility coincides well with the Tide’s philosophy on offense and should be on display against Mizzou.
Yeldon is arguably the greatest back of the Saban era, and his size, agility and vision will make him an extremely effective player at the next level.
Take note, Atlanta Falcons.
OFFENSIVE GAMEPLAN AGAINST MIZZOU
Mizzou’s defense is as underrated as it gets; it’s a physical defense, as witnessed by its 3.4 average yards per attempt allowed, which tackles well in space.
Based out of a “43,” it has shown the ability to be a heavy gap-pressing unit, and it has shown that it can sit back with more of a read-and-react approach. Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel should be commended for the job he’s done on a defense that lost two of its best players, all-world ends Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.
All he’s done is cooked up two more ends that look every bit as good as their predecessors in Markus Golden and Shane Ray.
Golden, 6’3″, 260 pounds, is a complete animal. It’s rare that you find an edge-rusher that enjoys getting his hands dirty in the run game but that’s exactly what you get with this fifth-year senior.
He plays with fantastic leverage and will be a complete nuisance for Tide right tackle Austin Shepherd. His counterpart Ray is a technician; he has a vast array of pass-rush moves and will be the best player that Tide left tackle Cam Robinson has faced this season — although fellow frosh Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) is the most talented one he’s opposed.
The interior linemen are pretty stout — most notably 3-technique Lucas Vincent — and do a good job of keeping the linebackers clean. There’s some talent in the secondary, and for the most part that unit has been very solid.
The University of Georgia laid the blueprint as to how to attack the Tigers on both sides of the ball, in a 34-0 smashing at Mizzou, and they did so running much of the same schemes that Alabama has come to be known for.
The Bulldogs did it predominantly on the back of breakout star running back Nick Chubb– meaning they took it to the strength of the Tigers defense and showed that they were the most physical team on the field that day.
Kiffin has been a bit pass happy in the Tide’s last few games, but this could be the game where the run game makes a comeback to the forefront of the Tide’s offensive philosophy.
Here we see UGA going to its power game out of “21 personnel.” While the Bulldogs are known for their between-the-tackles prowess, they had the most success bending the edges against the Tigers.
The Tigers love to get upfield, so sealing the edges for outside runs becomes even more effective. Yeldon and Henry both have the ability to take inside runs and bend it back whether it be designed or organically.
Additionally, the Tide’s use of outside-zone runs will work in their favor as Mizzou flows extremely fast to the ball; this is the perfect time to pull out the Counter and Trap schemes, as well.
UGA piled up 210 yards on an astounding 58 carries; Mizzou simply had no answer. Once the run is established, the Tide can further put the game away behind Cooper.
Do the right thing, Kiffin.
Disguising The Defense/Manufactured Pressure
I wholeheartedly believe the game will be won on the strength of the Tide’s defense or, conversely, Mizzou’s offense. With Auburn piling up over 600 yards of offense, most of it through the air, Bama may have seen its own blueprint being laid by its heated rival.
Auburn QB Nick Marshall turned in his best performance, from a throwing standpoint, when you consider Bama’s top-five ranking in defense prior to the tilt. He proved that his abilities far surpass being a great athlete; he’s a great thrower of the deep ball.
He understands how to let his receivers run under passes by putting enough air on them as he trusts they will make the play or keep the defensive back from making the play. He has, perhaps, two of the three best receivers in the country to throw to in Sammie Coates and Duke Williams, and both force defenses to defend all quadrants.
Mizzou has the same exact setup with QB Maty Mauk and receivers Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt. In fact, Mizzou — under offensive coordinator Josh Henson — may be the most aggressive downfield-throwing outfit in the entire conference.
Mauk has an even stronger arm than Marshall, and his receivers are both capable of chopping the roof off of defenses.
However, Mauk has had trouble in the past figuring out complex/combination coverages, especially those in which the defense presents him with multiple looks pre and post snap. Once again, Georgia provided a blueprint behind former Alabama defensive assistant — now Georgia DC — Jeremy Pruitt.
Here we see Georgia showing Mauk a potential “Casino Blitz,” only for one of the inside backers to become a flat defender. (Note: Inside backer Ramik Wilson, No. 51, was deployed as an edge-rusher, further providing Mauk with, yet, another look.)
Georgia runs the same exact scheme as Bama on defense as you can plainly see the Saban influence in Pruitt’s philosophy. Personnel wise, both UGA and Alabama can boast having superior athleticism along their front sevens; both have secondary personnel that’s equally adept at playing different coverage shells with different coverage principles.
If Bama plays its cards right, it can certainly confuse the mess out of Mauk.
Here we see Mauk being confused by a combo coverage. Originally it looked as if the coverage would be Quarters, but somehow it morphed into more of a Cover 3 with man underneath.
Additionally, the Bulldogs stayed in nickel coverage even against “10 personnel,” sending an inside linebacker into man coverage with the assumed hot route. When you have half the unit in zone, and the other half in man, you can bet your bottom dollar that a QBs brain will spin like a ceiling fan.
Mauk finished a putrid nine-of-21 for 97 yards with four INTs!
While it won’t be easy, as Mizzou matches up very well, Alabama has the scheme, personnel and ability to execute like no other. If it runs the ball and creates confusion with its different coverage packages, it will take home the SEC championship trophy.
Either way, it should be a great game between two highly talented teams; is it game day, yet?