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Jalen Hurts and Defending Alabama’s New-Look Offense

In some ways, this IS your father’s Crimson Tide.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

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.

This season, Alabama’s offense finally made the transition from what’s typically been a one-back, pro-style offense to what we traditionally think of as “the spread offense” this year with quarterback Jalen Hurts. Heavy on the zone-read, power-read and “bluff” arc-blocking plays that we’ve become used to from coaches like Urban Meyer, Rich Rodriguez and the like.

The Tide had begun to work in run-pass options and use more spread formations under Lane Kiffin in recent years, but the passing game was still similar to what Kiffin had used at USC. Even to what Bama had done in the past under previous coordinators, just with some minor twists and features.

With some help from our own Seth Galina, the Tide running game largely revolves around these plays:

Zone read, sometimes with a midline/inverted veer look, or split blocking (images via Breakdown Sports);

Zone bluff, a Chris Ault Pistol offense staple;

This play uses the arc-blocking tight end of the split-zone play, only as a lead blocker for the quarterback to the second level, while he reads the backside defensive end with the mesh.

Power read; and

Jet-sweep/bash read (image via).

This is an easy way to keep blue-chip wide receivers involved while throwing it less. Receiver goes in motion, QB reads a defensive end and the receiver has a back out in front as a lead blocker.

Hurts has rushed for more than 500 yards and nine touchdowns, in addition to his 12 passing scores. And while the Tide have averaged some 43 points a game, that number is somewhat inflated by a whopping 12 defensive touchdowns. Factor those out and the number drops to 33 — although that’s still damn good.

Of course the Tide also run some constraints off these plays – the zone bluff play can lead to the zone “leak” in which the arcing tight end releases into the flat for an easy throw – and a number of fakes and window dressing. But the passing game has become very screen and RPO heavy. The jet-sweep/toss pass is a staple. With some help from friends at Pro Football Focus, charting has revealed that of Hurts’ 204 passing attempts, nearly a third (28.7 percent) have been thrown behind the line of scrimmage, and 54 percent (111, to be precise) have traveled just nine yards or less in the air.

Cameron Roberson

Defending this type of offense is something we’re relatively familiar with by now – Seth refreshed some of them last week in discussing Ole Miss. The block down/step down method is something we discussed as part of a series on LSU’s 2011 opener against Oregon:

this concept was popularized by the Jimmy Johnson Miami Hurricane squads for their games against the Barry Switzer Oklahoma wishbone offense. The wishbone often uses a midline read on triple option plays. When a defensive tackle feels the man in front of him (the guard if it's a three-tech DT, the center if it's the nose) leaving to attempt to block down to a linebacker, he steps down hard into his assigned gap. Against a triple-option play, this will essentially remove one of the options (the dive), and against a shotgun veer read, it will force the offense to continue outside. From there, it's up to the rest of the defense, especially ends and linebackers to continue to funnel the play outside while not allowing the ball-carrier up the field, and make the tackle. The key is to keep the offense moving in the direction it doesn't want to go -- horizontal, rather than vertical.

Alabama doesn’t run the triple-option very often, but the principle is the same – funnel the ball where you want it to go, not where the offense wants to take it. But it requires a very disciplined approach for a defensive line – linemen can’t just fly up the field or they may lose their gap and open up a different hole. Seth did a great job of detailing how LSU was able to do this against Ole Miss, a team that loves to use the power-read to set up a lot of the RPO portions of their offense.

This video shows one of the best examples of LSU filling their gaps, preventing the blocking to the next level and allowing the linebackers to spill to the play.

It’s going to be incumbent on end/outside linebackers like Arden Key to understand that sometimes their role will be to step down and attack a pulling blocker to help somebody else make the play.

Outside, the cornerbacks, especially nickel corner Tre’davious White, will have to be extra physical with the Tide receivers, both in on route releases and in winning against blocks. And Jamal Adams will be very active near the line of scrimmage with the Tide being so reliant on short passes.

We’ll continue to talk about more strategies and tactics specific to this matchup as the week goes on, but overall, look for LSU to try and crowd the line of scrimmage against the run and really sit on the short throws. If LSU can force some obvious passing downs, a nice mix of zone coverage should clog those short passing lanes and still have some eyes on Hurts if he scrambles.

One final stat to watch: Hurts has completed 14-of-26 passes for 162 yards on third downs of seven yards or longer, but only eight of those completions have converted for the first. Factor in just two conversions in nine rushing attempts at those distances, and Hurts has converted just nine of 35 third downs in long yardage — 26 percent.