It’s beginning to become somewhat of a ritual, Alabama shutting down college football’s most potent offenses. Projecting Jeremy Pruitt’s defense to shut down Washington’s dynamic offense didn’t take a great leap of faith, but it was equally impressive nonetheless.
Washington entered the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl leading the Pac-12 in explosive plays, a conference built atop explosive plays. But the Huskies knew this matchup, against this team, and in particular this front, would be much different.
Chris Petersen and his staff thought somewhat outside of their own offensive box. Early on, they mimicked some of the concepts that Ole Miss utilized earlier this season to some success: moving the launching point, stretching the front horizontally and gambling with double-moves. And when those were combined with their traditional variety of personnel groupings, formations and pre-snap window dressing, they caused Alabama a few problems.
Perhaps most important, Alabama struggled early with communication. Without injured linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, Reuben Foster was entrusted to make every call and adjustment.
Washington’s constant movement prior to the snap caused some issues, with the Huskies getting the ball off multiple times while the Alabama linebacking corps and secondary still were trying to verify their assignments.
The whole point of moving and shifting pre-snap is for the offense to reveal coverages, and to force communication, with the hopes of creating miscommunication and the defense blowing a coverage. Well, Alabama doesn’t vary its coverage often, but the impact of having guys misaligned or not watching the snap was one of the few ways Washington was able to move the ball early in the game.
But it wasn’t close to enough. Instead, the Crimson Tide rectified their communication and went into full-on python mode: slowly squeezing the life out of the Jake Browning-led offense.
This isn’t the same defense as Nick Saban always has run.
Traditionally, Saban plays with a single-high safety, utilizing late safety rotations as the rest of the secondary mixes between press-man coverage and pattern-matching. However, this season has been different. The dominance of the front, and its ability to create overwhelming pressure by rushing four, has allowed Saban to use more split-safety looks, keeping seven guys in coverage and helping protect a weaker cornerback room.
Those two-deep looks allowed them to use more double-teams against Washington’s big-play threats and eliminate the down-the-field shots that are a staple of the Huskies offense.
Only once did the secondary get burned.
As usual, Alabama’s cornerbacks clamp down on the first-down marker. The corners have such faith in their front to put pressure on the pocket before slow-developing concepts can take hold downfield. The corners sit at the first-down line to take away the underneath. One of the few ways to attack it is to use double-moves, with receivers faking like they’re running an underneath route before breaking upfield. But those take time, and against this front, an offense has essentially 3 seconds to get the ball out if it is lucky.
Browning’s offensive line was under siege the entire game, but the unit held up long enough for him to hit one double-move for Washington’s sole touchdown.
As usual, the Huskies used a pre-snap motion to attempt to reveal the coverage and force communication. They flexed Dante Pettis from the left slot into a plus-split (outside the numbers) on the right side of the formation. Pettis is traditionally their gadget player; used like a space back, albeit with a wide receiver’s jersey number.
Motioning Pettis got him matched up with Marlon Humphrey, one of the corners who loves to jump on the underneath stuff. Pettis ran a stutter-and-go, with Humphrey breaking on the fake. Pettis burned Humphrey as he turned upfield, and there was no safety help over the top to save the day (it was a nicely designed three-receiver combination to take the safety to the seam).
It was the only true lapse from the secondary during the game, with most of those slow-developing concepts being shut down by the pass rush. Overall, the secondary was able to play by its base principles. That was in large part because of Washington’s inability to move the ball on the ground.
As usual, it was impossible to run on the Crimson Tide front. The unit plays with extraordinary gap integrity, and the down linemen have rare short-area quickness for their size. The hulking run-down linemen (who two gap on early downs) sat and anchored at the point of attack, challenging the Washington line to push them off the line of scrimmage. The Huskies line couldn’t compete physically, averaging 1.5 yards per carry.
Yet, it’s not like Petersen and his staff weren’t prepared for that. They found more inventive ways to get the ball to dynamic running back Myles Gaskin with some semblance of space, using the quick passing game and screen passes as an extension of a nonexistent run game (Washington had run fewer than five RB screens coming into the game). But that was also folly, with the linebackers and safeties cut loose and flying to the ball.
Furthermore, linemen began to sniff out the screen plays. On this tackle-tackle twist, Jonathan Allen (who was the best player on a field littered with future top-level NFL talent) exchanged his gap directly into the Washington screen.
Allen showed great awareness and recognition to read the offensive line, sniff out the screen and make a big play for a loss — the red arrow is where Allen initially would turn upfield after the exchange; the yellow is where he diagnoses and attacks.
With those concepts being shut down, the Washington offense did what most do against this Alabama front: It becomes more horizontal. That left the Huskies consistently behind the chains and allowed the pass rush to take over, doing what it does best: turn defense into offense.
Throughout the game, the Alabama coaching staff thought it could bait Browning into poor decisions. Pruitt dialed up a number of trap coverages and zone blitzes, not exactly what Browning would have seen from the unit on film.
Browning’s lack of arm strength is well documented. Pruitt believed that if he could bluff man coverage and play zone, Browning would not have the arm talent (or time) to pick apart the zones.
That’s exactly how it worked on the Ryan Anderson pick-6 that essentially sealed the game and was the unit’s 11th touchdown this season. It was a standard zone blitz. Anderson dropped out and took the curl/flat zone, Allen crashed down the line of scrimmage and Foster shot through the voided gap.
After the pass rush put the fear of god into the Washington line, dropping out edge rushers and crashing through linebackers was an exceptional move on Pruitt’s part. Petrified of the pressure off the edge and of Allen’s dominance inside, Washington’s right guard immediately tried to cut off Allen’s inside move, and the right tackle took a wide pass set to try to wall off Anderson.
As Anderson dropped, that opened a huge gulf for Foster to fly through and get a free shot on Browning.
Browning panicked, attempting to either throw the ball away or not seeing Anderson and throwing it to a running back in the flat. Instead, he threw it directly into Anderson’s hands.
In the end, though, it’s about players, not plays. And, for as often as you watch this Alabama team and read the recruiting rankings, it remained jarring just how much quicker the Crimson Tide are compared with another top-four team in the country: pass rushers were quicker out of the blocks, linebackers covered more ground and safeties closed throwing lanes immediately.
Washington tried different things, but ultimately it didn’t have the athletes or the answers to slow down an Alabama front that is as talented as Saban has ever put on the field.