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Alabama’s passing game isn’t broken, but Steve Sarkisian will try to fix it anyway

The Tide are going to lean less on RPOs and more on traditional pro-style passing concepts.

NCAA Football: Alabama A Day Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

While the ending was shockingly bad, Alabama’s 2018 season was impressive, especially on offense. Afterward, the Tide had yet another exodus of coaches and players to new opportunities, including five assistants and about half their starters. Amid the transition, Bama brought back former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who’d coached the team for one game (2017’s National Championship against Clemson) before leaving to become the Falcons’ OC.

Sarkisian is inheriting a pretty friendly situation. He has the Heisman runner-up QB hungry for redemption, four receivers who cleared 600 yards in 2018, a starting RB who averaged 6.7 yards on over 100 carries, and three returning starters on the line, all from an offense that finished No. 2 in overall S&P+ and No. 1 in passing S&P+.

The 2018 offense was historically explosive. The Tua Tagovailoa-led RPO spread system forced defenses to pick their poison between the run and pass, and most took their chances against the pass and got burned.

Mississippi State and Clemson had success by taking away easy pass options and keeping deep defenders over the vertical bombs. In 2019, Bama’s changing things a bit.

The challenge for Sarkisian is getting the Tide back to their 2018 level and then beyond, so they can expect to keep pace with a Clemson, Ohio State, or Oklahoma in the Playoff.

Under Sarkisian, expect a more pro-style passing game.

It’s possible that regardless of the situation Sarkisian had found back in Tuscaloosa, he’d have wanted to introduce more pro-style passing into the offense. That is the system that has propelled Sarkisian throughout his career. It’s what he knows best. At Bama’s spring game, Sark’s emphasis on “full-field progression reads,” as Tagovailoa called them, was a storyline. The QB said implementing them along with RPOs would be important.

The RPO was designed primarily to boost spread rushing attacks by preventing opponents from moving DBs into the box late to stop the run. It gives QBs quick pass options to the receivers those DBs are covering, and it also puts linebackers and safeties into run/pass conflicts. The endgame of the RPO spread era will either be defenses learning to disguise who’s in run/pass conflict until after the snap or playing the pass first and “forcing” the run on every RPO. Clemson did the latter in 2018’s title game.

The Tide’s preferred outcome, running against lighter boxes, might still be there in 2019 and might yield the best results. However, they also have a highly experienced and talented QB and WR corps. If they were going to rely more on drop-back passing, this would be the year.

Tagovailoa’s already used to making quick reads on Bama’s RPOs. Now he’ll have to make different kinds of reads more often.

As it happens, the RPO spread can make a pro-style passing game much more dangerous. If your formations force defenses to either yield easy reads and leverage in the passing game or default to man coverage, then it can be a paradise for a team that has the skill to be effective in progression-based passing. If the offense can dictate coverages or matchups, it can then start dialing up route combinations to attack them.

Sarkisian’s background in the West Coast offense and previous dabbling in the spread will have him equipped with a full arsenal of passing schemes. All are designed to attack man coverage or two-deep conservative zones of the sort that Alabama saw from Mississippi State and Clemson. The Tide showed a little of that in the spring game, with dual passing concepts on either side of the field for Tagovailoa to choose from.

In particular, they ran a ton of true TE sets, using trips formations with a TE to the same side as the two receivers. That would give Tagovailoa a different kind of choice than an RPO:

  • If both safeties stay deep, throw to the “trips” side, with a numbers advantage.
  • If one safety spins down to help over the TE, throw to the single-receiver side.

The Tide had their TEs running a lot of stick routes, a quick option route designed to beat up on middle linebackers:

In this example, they’re in a double-TE set with Cameron Latu, a 6’5 converted OLB, running the stick route. Fellow TE Miller Forristal runs a flat route to open up space for the stick. A powerful, smart, and quick-moving TE with good hands can be pretty tough to handle running seam routes like the stick, potentially commanding safety attention and opening up the other side of the formation for the WR there.

The timing here is pretty good, although the placement is a bit off. But these sorts of quick reads and throws are similar to the RPO games Tagovailoa has already mastered.

The only concern is Tagovailoa’s comfort level reading defenses this way.

This style of passing game isn’t easy and usually requires some time to master. There’s a lot the QB has to get right in order for the quick rhythm passing to become an indefensible machine rather than an error- and turnover-prone approach.

Even in the spring game, the Alabama QBs were struggling to get it right against Nick Saban’s defense, with back-ups Mac Jones and Tagovailoa both throwing picks and Tagovailoa having some of his own issues with the wideouts on route adjustments.

On this snap, Tagovailoa read a two-high coverage and tried to throw a corner route to the slot. But Jerry Jeudy ran up the seam rather than breaking outside, facing a nickel who had outside leverage.

In this next example, Tagovailoa gets the wrong pre-snap read thanks to a disguised drop by the strong safety and can’t get through his progression with the right rhythm. Even though his field slot WR is wide open on the crossing route, Tagovailoa’s footwork and timing don’t allow him to deliver the ball, because he started by looking to the other side of the field:

How that looks on a whiteboard:

There’s time for a lot of these route adjustments and reads to get cleaned up for the season but this style is more complicated than what Alabama ran in 2018. Tagovailoa hasn’t always shown the best decision-making when he’s had to scan through several progressions.

The quick rhythm game Sarkisian prefers may not offer Alabama the extra firepower, if needed, to beat a Clemson or Oklahoma in a hypothetical shootout. Combining West Coast passing concepts with spread sets in this fashion is old hat in college football.

The Bama RPO game can boost the effectiveness of these concepts, but it won’t put the Tide at the cutting edge of tactical innovation.

Nevertheless, if the Tide can continue to mix runs and passes from their RPO game and add an improved drop-back passing attack with a veteran QB and ultra-talented WR corps, they could get back on top anyway.