Lane Kiffin and Nick Saban have come together in an unholy matrimony of schematic arrogance.
Some would have you believe that the newfound glasnost of Alabama’s offensive system shows Saban’s humility and willingness to evolve.
I am a more cynical man than that. These two men know they have better horses than you do, and with an electrifying trigger man in QB Jalen Hurts, they essentially say, “Screw you. We’ll beat you any way we want.”
Little of what you see on the football field is “new.” It’s typically just a revamp with modern personnel and a little window dressing. Football is cyclical, and Saban isn’t the only Alabama legend to toss out one offense in favor of another that was en vogue.
Our LSU blog, And The Valley Shook, explains:
In 1971, Bear Bryant, coming off a 6-5 season and a decade of running a “pro-style” (at least for those days) type of offense, with quarterbacks like Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, made the conversion to the Wishbone that had begun to take Texas and Oklahoma to prominence. The change helped propel the Crimson Tide to three more national titles under the legendary coach.
In 2012, Saban clutched his pearls about hurry-up offenses:
“It's obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we're averaging 49.5 points a game. With people that do those kinds of things. More and more people are going to do it.
"I just think there's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?"
But Alabama followed the trends and exploited them to evolve into the offensive attack you see now.
It has a lot to do with the QB. Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron were not the athletes Blake Sims, Jake Coker, or Jalen Hurts are.
Ian Boyd described how and when things really changed:
In 2014, former spread critic Saban hired Lane Kiffin to update Alabama’s offense and include more spread sets, RPOs, and up-tempo pacing.
The message was clear: if the Tide couldn’t forever shut opponents down, Bama would be just as happy to outscore them. Years ago, Saban began to remake the roster and evolve the strategy.
It seems like Hurts has been the one to really unleash the full potential of Bama’s attack. Through eight games, Hurts leads Alabama with 95 rushing attempts and is second on the team with 65.1 yards per game on the ground. Only nine QBs in all of college football rush for more on average, and only four have more touchdowns (nine). He might as well be a second running back.
In the run game, Alabama used to just maul you with the same zone runs.
The scheme is straightforward in theory. If you’re a lineman and there’s a guy in front of you, block him. If there isn’t, help your fellow lineman immediately to whatever side the play is going. Once that defender is controlled, one of you goes to handle a linebacker.
When they wanted to get fancy, the Tide could hit you with pulling linemen, who run behind one side of the line to the other after the snap.
When things really got wild, they’d run from an unbalanced set.
This was not a fourth-and-inches play, mind you. This was second-and-4. The player I have an arrow on was flexed out wide at first, but motioned in to add yet another body.
Additional large bodies in the middle of the field counted for exotic in the pre-Kiffin era.
What’s changed is the window dressing to disguise how Alabama goes about its business, and believe me, business is still a-boomin’.
Since 2009, the Tide had over 5 yards per carry every year besides last season. They have been No. 11 or better in rushing yards per carry in every season except 2010 and 2015.
Bama runs just as much this year, at 44.3 attempts per game. Adjust it for opponent, and Alabama’s rushing S&P+ ranking is fifth, the highest its been since 2012.
I imagine Lane’ll have some tricks up his sleeve Saturday against LSU, but using tape from a few Bama games this season, here are some of the ways the Tide have beaten behinds.
Bama uses more motion now.
- Bring a guy from one side of the formation to the other.
This is Alabama’s first offensive play against Tennessee. Hurts will flip this ball to the motioning Ardarius Stewart, who gets a minimal gain. Don’t worry about it now; they’re setting something up for this play:
This time, the motioning man doesn’t get the ball. Hurts hands the ball to RB Damien Harris on a standard zone read. Hurts makes the correct read of the defensive end at the top of the screen, but the motion has pulled LB Colton Jumper (orange arrow) away from where he’s supposed to be. He cheats inside ever so slightly, and this play goes to the right for an 18-yard gain:
DB Rashaan Gaulden (top box) has set a decent edge. He takes outside leverage and funnels Harris inside. The problem is, Jumper isn’t there. He’s been sucked inside and taken care of by a lineman. This time, Bama gets big chunk yardage.
The Tide use motion here to get a cornerback to follow WR Robert Foster to the wide side of the field, vacating the short side. LBs also take a small cheat, negating what angles they could have had to tackle RB Joshua Jacobs.
And Jacobs nearly scores a TD from 58 yards out.
But it’s not just in the run game.
In an adjustment to this motion, the Rebels rotate the whole secondary. That gives Calvin Ridley some separation and a step on the DB.
You don’t want Ridley to have some separation and a step. It’s a 45-yard completion.
Bama’s pass catchers are ruthless blockers, not prima donnas.
We need to appreciate folks on the perimeter blocking their tails off.
TE Miller Forristall doesn’t cross the formation until after the snap. Because of horrendous defensive alignment, coupled with the fact that this is a zone read (negating the defensive end and “blocking” him without assigning a blocker to him), Alabama is essentially playing five-on-three on the right side of the line.
Forristall and TE O.J. Howard do the light work, and Hurts has an easy TD.
They just execute, folks. This isn’t doctorate-level football theorem.
Just find your man and move him.
Back to that “blocking somebody without blocking him” thing.
When you have a mobile quarterback, sometimes you can just read a defender instead of blocking him, taking him out of the play and still freeing up your blockers to attack elsewhere.
Alabama is going to be very unkind to the young man in the red box, Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett. The play is designed for him to be wrong no matter what. Bama did this to him quite a bit; typically, it’s a fun way to neutralize a good lineman, and I wouldn’t want to have Garrett always blowing up my blockers if I didn’t have to.
On this play, the DE heads inside instead of coming upfield. If he were to come upfield, Hurts would hand it off to Harris, who would take the ball between the tackles. Instead, Hurts does the running himself:
The beauty of the option is you can choose which defender to read. There’s a variation of the option referred to as the midline, where the QB reads a defensive tackle. Get it, because the DT is in the middle of the line? Yeah, it’s a super creative name.
Hurts gives this ball to Harris because the DT stays home and doesn’t crash toward the RB. Harris runs for 30 yards. It was the second play of the game.
But there is yet another variation of the option that Alabama uses now. It’s called the inverted veer. It’s a play Cam Newton used to break college football in 2010.
You can block it a couple different ways, but here, it’s blocked seemingly like a normal zone read, and we’re still making a defensive end wrong, because it’s an option play. So what’s the difference?
Essentially, the common roles of a zone read are flipped. In the inverted veer, the quarterback will take the ball between the tackles if the DE stays put, and the running back will take the ball outside the tackles if the DE crashes inside. It gets your speed on the outside of the tackles quicker.
Also, in a typical zone read, the QB is reading the backside defensive end, or the one opposite to the offensive line’s main path. Here, it’s the playside defensive end.
Bama’s also partial to running split zone.
It has the benefits of a normal zone run, but it comes with a spice of misdirection. This is something that’s been in Bama’s toolbox for a while. The play’s going to the left, every offensive lineman’s initial step is to the left, and it’s blocked like this:
But the blocking back crosses the formation after the snap and kicks out the backside defensive end at the bottom of the line on your screen, who would otherwise go unblocked.
That DE is probably too far away to make a play on a run going away from him. But that blocker crossing the formation can serve the purpose of getting defenders’ eyes going the wrong way and can suck them into more advantageous blocking angles for the linemen. Also, if the RB wants to cut back to the right, he’s got a blocker going that way.
End result of that play is a 32-yard gain.
You could also run play action off that blocking look as well.
You betcha Alabama’s done that, too.
Alabama’s crowning achievement is meshing subtle deception and the same bludgeoning nature.
OK, this is truly schematic hubris.
I cackled at the pure au-damn-dacity it takes to run the same play from the same formation twice in a row. The initial one only gained 7 yards, so if at first you don’t succeed ...
Ridley comes in motion here (gotta get some of those defensive eyes undisciplined). Hurts gives to Harris. Harris follows his blocks for 67 yards on that old staple: the counter trey. The play was popularized in the 1980s by the NFL’s Washington. Two backside blockers pull, and Mr. Harris has a convoy on his way to what was nearly a touchdown.
So this is how the Tide rolls in 2016.
Expect the expected, but expect it to look unexpected.