Let’s start with the superlatives. Even though ‘Bama ‘aint played nobody, they have dominated everyone who has lined up in front of them so staggeringly that we might be watching one of the best teams of all time.
On offense they rank second in Offensive S&P, only behind the wunderkind Lincoln Riley’s OU offense, but far ahead of even the No. 3-ranked team (Ole Miss, lol). They are basically at the top in both efficiency and explosiveness. Their weakness is that they don’t create a lot of big plays on the ground but overall they are eighth in rushing. The passing game is tremendous and ranked second overall. On early downs they are second overall and if a defense can somehow get them into a passing down, it doesn’t really matter because they rank first in that category too. With Tua Tagovailoa at the helm, this offense has been revolutionized as almost a pass first team. They’re only 79th in “Standard down run rate”. Last year, they were 30th in the same category (of course that was with an option quarterback).
Nick Saban and OC Mike Locksley have unleashed Tua unto the world but, schematically, what they do isn’t that hi-tech. This is a heavy zone running football team with all the regular wrinkles you’d expect from this type of rushing attack. They do have a GT Counter that is fine with Tua as a GT read but much better when they run it with Jalen Hurts.
The zone game has the different ways to deal with the unblocked end. Here are some of my favorites:
- Jet Motion to freeze the end away from the zone
You can see how the jet motion gets two Arkansas players to widen away from the play creating a huge cutback lane.
- Arc Read to allow the quarterback to get outside
You can do this with the tight end coming across the formation on the snap or lined up on the backside of the zone already. He’ll leave the end inside of him to go work up on the next outside defender. If the defensive end crashes now the quarterback has a lead blocker. Michigan devastated Wisconsin on this a couple weeks ago.
- Split flow + Slant RPO
The h-back is going to “split” and block the defensive end while the QB reads the first linebacker inside the slant. This is tough to defend when you run the slant to the same side of the zone because the it’s hard for the linebacker not to be triggered.
- Zone with a lock call for the backside tackle + Pop RPO
Now the tackle is going to block the end straight up so that the QB can read the linebacker and toss it over his head.
- Zone with a lock call and a lead by the H-back
Same lock call by the tackle but the h-back will fit inside of it. It’s almost like a counter play.
With Tua in there, their play action slide/flood game will be out of the pistol. They’ll get a hard play action with Tua turning his back to the play before rolling out and having a hi/lo on the flat defender. With Hurts, you’re more likely to get a read on the end before rolling out.
If any of this stuff looks familiar it’s because it’s similar to a lot of what Bama has been running for a few years now. These are the bells and whistles that every team runs off their zone scheme. It’s not complicated but the offensive line can maul you and if you get distracted by the eye candy and don’t read your key, they’ll gash you.
I think we’ll be able to slow them down on the ground. We’re 21st in the country stopping the run according to S&P. We’ve also held them to way under their per game averages the last two years on the ground. I’m comfortable with that.
Where things get dicey is in their passing attack because of how good Tua is. He’s able to go through progressions, deliver accurate balls down the field and take the checkdowns when he needs to. I was blown away watching the film. I knew the numbers stood out. But the film makes it all the more impressive.
At the base of it, Locksley gives Tua a full field concept to work with most times he drops back. There isn’t a lot of quick game, half-field, one defender key reads. These are intermediate to downfield reads where he works directionally (from left to right or right to left) to eventually find the open receivers.
What they’ll do is pair a smash concept to one side (essentially a hi/lo read on the cornerback) with a shallow cross + dig concept to the other side.
I drew this out of 2x2 for simplicity purposes but ‘Bama will use a bunch of different formations to run the same concept. The main thing that changes from play to play is which smash concept they call. (Note: it’s not always “smash”, they run some other 2 man concepts but mostly “smash”)
Here’s a couple that I’ve seen:
Tua takes his dropback to look at the smash concept to decide if he can throw the corner route. The classic “smash” coaching philosophy is that if the cornerback stays high, you throw low and if the cornerback stays low, you throw the corner route. Alabama isn’t really looking to throw underneath. Most teams will be content with their quarterback just reading the smash side, taking the 6 yard hitch route and living to see another down. Tua is really just looking to throw the deep route on the smash side because he’s comfortable and confident enough to move his eyes across the field to the next two-man concept: the shallow/dig.
Alabama mostly has at least one tight end on the field. Irv Smith is fantastic and Hale Hentges is a pretty good backup. The tight end usually runs the dig or basic route. The receiver to that side runs the shallow cross because he’s the speedier of the two. Often from a tight split.
When Tua gets his eyes to this side of the field, he’s looking first for the deeper route. The underneath route is really just to hold any linebackers from getting too much depth. He can still throw it, but he really wants to throw the deeper one.
You can find this full field concept all over their film. It feels like this is all they run. They’ll adjust everything slightly but this is what they love to do.
The main reason they are successful is because Tua is good enough to handle this amount of processing. Most quarterbacks his age can’t deal with standing in the pocket and going through reads. I’ve written this many times about LSU’s quarterbacks over the years but going through reads is scary. You’re a sitting duck.
Of course, he has ample time to cycle through these progressions because of how stout the hogs are in front of him. He’s near the bottom in the FBS in terms of percentage of times he’s pressured according to PFF. Jake Fromm and Tua are about at the same rate in that stat The big difference is that Fromm’s passer rating is 47.2 when pressured. Tua? 127.5. That’s nuts.
LSU has been decent at getting to the quarterback this year. Their sack rate is middle of the pack. There’s no dominant edge rusher and we often only play with one edge guy on the field on standard downs so it’s not surprising. Aranda’s philosophy is to stop the run early and then come with exotic looks on later downs. Still, we’ll put more pressure on Tua than other teams have. We can also play better man coverage than other teams can.
Like their running game, the pass game also has some eye candy and double moves to create big plays.
When the safety starts jumping the dig route, you run the skinny post over his head:
When the corner jumps the slant, you run a sluggo. (Notice what’s on the backside of the concept)
This offense was dominant without a great passing quarterback so it is incredible that it might be even better this year. With that said, LSU and Aranda have been one of the few teams to consistently slow them down over the past couple years. I believe that will be the case again. I can’t imagine this team scoring 30-plus points against DBU.