Football game-planning can be complicated sometimes. Coaches and players spend long hours developing intricate strategies to outsmart the opposition.
The play Alabama used to sink Georgia in overtime of Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship wasn’t that. It was Alabama throwing caution to the wind and trusting its players to be better than Georgia’s, with a dash of deception sprinkled in to make the play work. The result was a 41-yard touchdown.
On this play, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa found DeVonta Smith streaking down the left sideline for the score that won the title. The play before that, the freshman took a bad sack.
He’d played smart and poised after relieving a struggling Jalen Hurts at halftime, but Tagovailoa let himself lose 16 yards on the first play of Alabama’s overtime possession. The Tide’s kicker, Andy Pappanastos, had just missed a 36-yard field goal that would’ve won the game in regulation. Georgia had scored three points on its opening overtime series. Alabama had to score a touchdown, or it had to trust an untrustworthy kicker.
So Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll went to the most “we need a touchdown” play of all plays — the one you might call in Madden when you’re losing by 10 and tired of trying to dink-and-dunk your way up the field.
The Tide call it “Seattle,” Saban said after the game. It’s more widely known as “four verticals,” which is just what it sounds like. Four guys go deep, with a couple of them running at angles that are designed to force defensive backs into hard choices.
There are different ways to run the play. Here’s how it looks in Alabama’s playbook out of a formation with three receivers — “trips” — to one side of the field.
Four verts doesn’t mean four receivers run in a straight line to the end zone. That might work sometimes, but it would be easy for defenses to diagnose the play. If everyone’s going deep, a safety can adjust easily to the ball in the air. Instead, the play includes inside receivers running post, corner, or crossing routes to make safeties decided whether to stay deep or cover something underneath.
Alabama ran the play to perfection, with Tagovailoa driving the car.
Here’s how the two teams lined up at the snap:
Alabama lined up with trips to the right, just like the Tide have it diagrammed. The Dawgs were in cover-2, with two safeties assigned to back up the guys covering Bama’s receivers in front of them. Smith lined up opposite a cornerback at the top of your screen.
In cover-2, the safeties are supposed to each cover one deep half of the field. They’re meant to be backstops if a teammate gets beaten, or cleanup men if there’s a bang-bang play in the middle of the field. That’s where Georgia failed.
A Georgia safety could’ve prevented the touchdown.
That was the one responsible for Alabama’s left sideline, where Smith scored: No. 24, Dominick Sanders. Tagovailoa explained what he saw.
“They had split safeties,” he told ESPN’s Maria Taylor on the field afterward. “The safety on DeVonta’s side, on the single-receiver side, he tried to disguise his coverage. I tried to look him off. He stayed in the middle. Then I went back outside. It was cover-2 on [the trips’] side, but he stayed inside. I took a shot downfield, and he caught it.”
The disguise Tagovailoa referenced was probably the couple of immediate steps Sanders took toward the front pylon of the end zone, where Smith was ultimately heading. Sanders’ final decision was to cover the middle of the field, where Alabama had a couple of receivers running more horizontal routes.
Smith ran in a straight line. Sanders, the safety, didn’t immediately go to him. Whether that’s because Tagovailoa looked him off, or for some other reason, isn’t clear.
Here’s an angle that shows roughly what Tagovailoa saw:
That left cornerback Malkom Parrish all alone to deal with Smith.
Defenses shouldn’t want that. Smith’s a true freshman like Tagovailoa, but both were five-star recruits. When Smith was dominating the camp circuit that has become the proving ground for high school football’s best talents, he ran a verified 4.46-second 40-yard dash. He has great hands, but his best strengths are speed and route-running.
Smith reduced Parrish to dust. He made a gorgeous out-then-in move when he was five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Five yards after that, he’d blown all the way past the cornerback. Sanders, the safety, was a country mile away when Smith got free.
Georgia defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter called it a “miscommunication” that Sanders didn’t go to help Parrish deal with Smith sooner. Whatever the reason, there were two defensive backs who could’ve done something about this play. One of those DBs eliminated himself with Tagovailoa’s help, and Smith eliminated the other.
Tagovailoa, then, just had to hit a window.
He didn’t miss it.