LSU - Alabama: What to Watch For

First, a little mood music...


Would we rather it any other way?

LSU. Alabama. The irresistible force. The immovable object. Superman versus Batman. Ali versus Foreman. Hogan versus Warrior. South Park versus the Simpsons.

Two big, hairy, meaner'n'hell football death machines on a collision course. Two teams enter. One team leaves.

Have I fit enough clichés in there? Has that Drowning Pool song made Poseur's ears bleed? If so, we may continue...

What to Watch For On Saturday

The Razor's Edge

I don't know that I can really add any more when it comes to how evenly these two teams match up. In terms of the major statistics (total offense/defense/rushing, etc...) within the conference, the average gap in ranking is about 1.75 places and 36.4 yards/points/ratings points per game. Let there be absolutely no doubt, these are the top two teams in the SEC, running at what appears to be peak performance and near-perfect execution. Both fan bases have almost no choice but to acknowledge, that their team might be the second best team in the country, AND the second best in their own division.

Even if we go beyond the box score: the Crimson Tide have scored on 48 percent of their offensive possessions, LSU 49.5 percent; opponents have needed an average of 9.7 plays to score on the Tigers, compared to 8.7 versus Bama; LSU sacks a quarterback once every 13.5 pass attempts, while allowing one every 25; Bama, 14.2 and 19.

What's more, the overall keys to victory for both of these teams will come down to four simple areas on either side of the ball: winning battles at the line of scrimmage; executing in third down situations; avoiding turnovers; and a sound kicking game. Winning this game won't take rocket science from either team. It's going to come down to one side imposing its will and simply making the plays that matter, when they matter the most.

If you watch enough NFL games, there's a rhythm that you can pick up on. Obviously, turnovers or injuries are the ultimate X-factor, but when one team is moving the ball, staying on the positive side of field position and avoiding the big negative plays, even in a game that is close early, you'll eventually that team begin to creep ahead, and occasionally, blow things open. The difference in the close games and the blowouts are the degree of those discrepancies.

Chances are, that is going to be what this game is going to look like. Each possession, each play, every inch and every first down, will be a premium commodity. And chances are, the final result will come down to just a few of them.

Mirror Images

If these teams weren't close enough in results, they are in process as well. Both thrive on running the football and using a heavily managed passing attack to control the clock while the defense stifles the opposition.

For Nick Saban teams, that's a way of life. But it's a game plan that Jim McElwain has executed exceptionally well since his arrival in 2008, and produced increases in scoring every season. It's a classic Erhardt-Perkins "pro-style" offense, mostly centered out of the Ace, or one-back formation that features zone-blocking with some spread offense concepts sprinkled in, and fits in with McElwain's background in working with coaches like John L. Smith and Scott Linehan (who also served as Saban's offensive coordinator for a season with the Miami Dolphins), who have successfully blended those concepts in both college and in the NFL. Smith and Linehan are also well-known as influences on the offenses of Urban Meyer and Bobby Petrino as well.

At the nuts-and-bolts level, Alabama will rely on the same plays LSU's seen multiple times this season, the inside zone, the stretch, the trap and of course tosses and counters. The difference, of course, is that whereas Oregon did it with speedy guys, Alabama has a 230-pound bodybuilder at running back. We've covered what defeating zone blocking takes at the line of scrimmage before, and for the Tiger back seven the key will be the same as well -- honoring both gap and pursuit responsibilities. LSU's run defense has thrived with defensive backs leading the tackle charge, but the linebacking corps is going to have to get more involved in the act as well. Brandon Taylor, Eric Reid, Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne have been excellent in run support this season but the defense will have to help them out against Trent Richardson.

Neither one of these teams are going to come out slinging the football. LSU has also adopted an even more run-heavy style under Steve Kragthorpe and Greg Studrawa as well, and just like the Tide, the Tigers have seen the passing game flourish in efficiency by limiting its responsibility. An extremely important key to success for both of these teams brings me to my next point.

Tight Ends

There's absolutely no doubt who is the most important player on Alabama's offense. But the player who may be the second-most important, at least in terms of the schematics, might surprise you: H-back Brad Smelley.

Yeah, he's only touched the ball 17 times this season (16 catches and one carry), but he's the chess piece that sets up almost everything McElwain designs. At 6-2 and 230 pounds, he's slightly undersized for a tight end or fullback, and slower than the average receiver, but at any point LSU will see him lined up in the backfield, on the line, on the wing, in the slot or split out wide. By lining Smelley up in different spots, or shifting him around pre-snap, Alabama creates mismatches for other players by shifting the position strength of the offense (that is to say, the strong and weak sides of the formation) and changing defensive responsibilities. Shifts like that allow an offense to be varied and multiple by formation while still keeping the playbook relatively simple. Moving Smelley from, say, slot left to the right wing can alter linebacker and safety responsibilities and alignment or outright change defensive playcalls.

McElwain explained an example of this at Bama's 2008 coaches clinic (PDF links to notes here) with a display of the team's two-TE "hump" formation, which features Smelley lined up in a wing position off of the right tackle, and regular tight end Michael Williams aligned in a typical in-line position to the right.

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via 1.bp.blogspot.com

How the defense aligns to this set will dictate the play call. If the left defensive end lines up in five technique position on the tackle's outside shoulder, the offense should have outside leverage for a stretch or toss play. If the end splits out wide to a nine tech, the offense should have an inside gap.

Likewise, LSU's tight ends have been pretty important in the run game as well, and may see an increased role in the passing game. Deangelo Peterson, Chase Clement and Mitch Joseph may only have a combined 17 catches this season, but on a team that only throws the ball about 22 times a game, they haven't been needed the way Rueben Randle and Odell Beckham Jr. have. Bama's fantastic linebacker quartet may be the muscle that makes this python-like defense so powerful, but they're much better when they can attack up the field rather than drop into coverage. And if LSU can force the Tide to commit Mark Barron or Robert Lester into coverage in the short area or down the seams, that's more room for the receivers outside. Also watch for the motion/misdirection passing game, with Jordan Jefferson, to get involved as a way of targeting the Bama linebackers in coverage.

In the running game, the Tiger TE's will motion a lot themselves, especially in the wing set, to gain leverage and try and neutralize the "overhang," or odd line defender in Alabama's 3-4 front, typically Courtney Upshaw or Don'ta Hightower. We saw Clement and Joseph in particular excel at handling Von Miller in that position last year in the Cotton Bowl.

Defense, Defense, Defense

It's a drum I've been beating for probably as long as I've been writing for this blog, but I feel like Saban's defenses, both while at LSU and now while at Alabama, remain misunderstood by a chunk of fans. Local media in Baton Rouge (especially talk radio) has never helped in this regard. Contrary to popular belief, Alabama doesn't sit in man-to-man coverage and blitz on every down.

In fact, from the man's own playbook, the Tide will rush just four defenders in up to 90 percent of passing situations. Of course, the trick, especially with a 3-4 front, is figuring out which four defenders are coming. Obviously, that is a whole lot easier said than done. And few coaches do a better job of disguising coverages pre-snap, whether it's man-to-man, or zone.

On run downs, they will man up on the corners and run and fire-zone blitz to try and force those passing situations. The thought process being that if the opposing quarterback reads the blitz, he'll assume man coverage and go to a hot read, usually a fade or a slant, and throw the ball into zone coverage where the defenders will have their eyes on the ball. When they do use man, the Tide love to use a cover-one robber look, which features man coverage, and a "robber" in the middle of the field. Sometimes it's a safety, sometimes a linebacker with an extra safety deep.

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via smartfootball.com

It allows for the team to have up to eight defenders ready to attack the line of scrimmage, while having a defender in quick position to lay the wood to any quick throws like the slant. Another run-down look the Tide will use is an inverted cover-2 zone -- where both corners drop into the deep halves of the field while a safety comes into the robber position underneath.

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via assets.sbnation.com

Again, it allows for up to eight defenders to attack the line of scrimmage while still having a deep cloud of coverage if the offense audibles. The corners will often use press-bail technique as well, which involves pressing at the line of scrimmage like you typically see with man, before bailing into a deep zone (a favorite disguising technique of Saban). It fits the Tide's talent well too, with big corners like Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie that are essentially built like safeties anyway.

Attacking a 3-4 will always start and end with running the football right at it. By its nature it's usually a smaller front, which is why having a mammoth A-gap eating nose tackle is such a necessity. While Bama hasn't had that since Terrence Cody moved on, Josh Chapman is doing a pretty good job this season, as the Tide's ridiculous run-defense stats show. Penn State has been the only team to crack the century mark, and they did it mostly by spreading Bama out and mixing in orbits and other misdirection looks behind the inside zone. Don't be surprised if LSU tries a little of that with Russell Shepard and ODB. The key, of course, will be P.J. Lonergan's one-on-one matchup with Chapman. His success, and the ability for the Tiger guards and fullbacks to get to the next level, will be what dictates LSU's ability to run the ball inside the tackles.

In terms of dealing with the Bama blitz looks, most of the work will have to be done pre-snap by Jarrett Lee. Even if he can just figure out if the rush is coming from the field or the boundary, it can go a long way in creating room. LSU has thrown the least amount of first-down passes in the conference, but if there's a tendency that might be broken early in this game, that might be it, particularly with bubble and other screen looks. Wide receiver blocking will be extra important, including in the spread running and speed-option game, another way LSU may be able to create some gaps in the Bama defense (when Jefferson is in at quarterback, of course). When LSU does get into passing situations, they'll likely scale the passing concept to the protection. A lot of seven- or eight-man protections with two-man route combinations down the sidelines, which will give Lee the maximum passing window -- more time, fewer progressions to go through and simple concepts that either will, or won't, be open.

Another note, motion and no-huddle offenses have given this defense trouble in the past, due to the multiple checks and pre-snap adjustments involved. Don't be surprised if LSU comes out in hurry-up mode, similar to some of the drives against Oregon. Alabama's first quarter pass-defense efficiency spikes to 122.58, not even in the top half of the SEC. Of course, those slow starts have yet to produce anything more than a deficit of one score. If LSU does come out hot early, they'll have to try and put some distance between them and Bama.

Linebackers in the Crosshairs

LSU's been able to get by with a pretty inconsistent and unremarkable group of linebackers, mostly due to having such a dominant line and secondary. Alabama wouldn't be the first team to try and attack them, but they might be the team best equipped to do it. Not just through the use of the tight ends, but through Richardson's receiving skills as well.

His 18 catches are second on the team, and he had 85 yards receiving in one of Bama's marquee wins this season. Screen and flat passes might be a way for the Tide to create some more room for Richardson to operate and neutralize the Tiger defensive line. One play in particular that I think LSU may see a lot of is the play-action waggle pass. A waggle is a type of moving-pocket pass play where a running back comes to the line of scrimmage to either pick up or chip on an unblocked defender, often before drifting into coverage. You saw an example earlier in the "hump" formation diagram.

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The QB fakes it to the back before rolling right, the back comes up to chip a defender before drifting into a route. Playaction can be added to the play to get linebackers or a safety out of position. Richardson caught a touchdown on this sort of play in last season's game. Auburn used a similar play with Onterio McCalebb two weeks ago, with a little help from a pick route by the tight end. Richardson's difficult enough to bring down, but catching passes might be a way to get him the ball at full stride. Bama might also use Richardson in a wildcat package in order to get some extra blockers at the point of attack.

For LSU, Tahj Jones might be a key if he can build on his Auburn game (4 tackles, a sack and a pass break-up). Kevin Minter will be important as well, as he's easily the best run-stuffer in the group. And of course, if Ken Adams, Lavar Edwards or Barkevious Mingo are the unblocked defender on a waggle play, they need to attack the quarterback and get their hands up.

Do NOT Expect

This to be Easy

I hate predictions. Always been lousy at ‘em. Which is part of why I've been amazed at the confidence I've seen amongst both sides of this game (not so much among our commenteriate or our Roll Bama Roll guests, I'm talking about other online communities). Because my mind flips back and forth on what's going to happen Saturday, almost once an hour.  

As easily as I can picture Rueben Randle running under that perfect rainbow, I can envision Mark Barron settling under a floater. I can see Trent Richardson catching a well-timed screen with a lot of room and then later see Tyrann Mathieu knifing into the backfield to force a well-timed turnover. Will one coach pull out a calculated gamble, like Saban's favorite game-opening onside kick or one of Les' patented fakes?

This game may very well come down to one play, one drive, hell, maybe even one punt. And like I said in the opening, it is entirely possible that one of these teams is the second-best team in the whole country, but still second-best in its own division as well. Hell, the last four games in this series have come down to fourth quarter rallies by both squads with overtime included once for good measure.

But I do have to point out one thing. We talk about the contrast in styles when it comes to these two coaches. Saban as the emotionless blacksmith forging cold, hard football machines, and Miles as the agent of chaos, whose teams match his fast and loose personality. Hell, we have as much fun with Miles' image as anybody, and we certainly have this week. But the more I think about it...that's not this LSU team.

It hasn't fit the narrative, and maybe we here at ATVS haven't pointed this out enough. The Tigers haven't been hanging on for dear life, or flying by the seat of their pants this season. Through eight games, they've shown up, pulled out their biggest gun, and blown the other team away. Wins by 13, 46, 13, 26, 28, 30, 31 and 35 points in each of the first eight games. Despite a lot of distractions (admittedly some self-induced ones, but distractions nonetheless), and one of the toughest schedules in the last 20 years of LSU football. Powerful. Efficient (No. 1 in Brian Fremeau's ratings). Mechanical. Winning the line of scrimmage, executing on third downs, avoiding turnovers and a sound kicking game. That is the 2011 Tigers. Are they better than the 2011 Crimson Tide?

That's what we're about to find out.

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