Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s defensive front did what it always does. It swarmed, pressured, hit, and scored. It was another rinse and repeat performance from the best front in the nation.
The Tide’s defense as a whole sits fourth in defensive S&P+, and third in total havoc rate. Most importantly, it’s turning defense into offense. Saturday marked the 10th straight game in which the team has scored a non-offensive touchdown.
Everything the defense does is based off its overwhelming pass rush. It allows linebackers to shoot through gaps and cornerbacks to play bump-and-run coverage.
Stopping them for an entire game is impossible, but are there ways to slow them down?
The makeup of Alabama’s defense makes some of the traditional methods redundant.
Often an offense will look to move the defensive front laterally with outside runs in order to tire them out or to get them moving sideways. Alabama has such speed at its linebacker and safety spots that down lineman just have to hold the point-of-attack and allow the linebackers or safeties to sweep up any perimeter runs.
Texas A&M tried this early in Saturday’s game. It looked to work the outside to stop Alabama’s pass rushers moving upfield on every play. Linebacker Reuben Foster put an end to that, plugging holes that allowed lineman to disengage and shoot gaps.
Even if tiring out the front is the game plan, it’s a pretty pointless. Alabama has such depth and talent at the pass-rushing spots that tiring them makes no difference. It rotates, but only in order to maximize talent, not to give the first string a rest. Players like future first-round draft pick Tim Williams play limited reps. He’s brought onto the field only to hunt for the quarterback’s head in pass-rushing situations. That makes any attempt to tire the front futile, they’re designed to bring in specific players for specific situations.
Another common tactic is to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. And that certainly remains the most effective way of mitigating a great pass rush, if receivers are able to instantly separate. With Alabama’s talented defensive backfield, that’s a difficult thing to rely on.
Texas A&M found that out first-hand Saturday. The Aggies have as talented a receiving corps as anyone in the SEC, and they showed they could separate if they had enough time. But they couldn’t generate enough immediate separation on quick timing routes.
Then there’s the double-team question: Who exactly do you double? Some offenses have doubled Jonathan Allen whenever he’s inside. Others have slid towards Williams whenever he is in the game. Most have decided to keep in a chipping back who will pick up whichever player comes clean on the quarterback first. That’s all well and good in theory, until Allen undresses a true freshman guard and launches himself over the chipping back.
So yeah, it’s really tough.
Here are a couple of things that teams should try to give them a fighting chance:
- Constantly change the launching point
Watching Alabama vs. Tennessee and Texas A&M I was stunned by how often Josh Dobbs and Trevor Knight dropped back to the same spot.
Changing the coordinates to a pass rusher’s radar is a must. The offense should constantly move the launching point — the point at which the quarterback is supposed to release the ball. Varying the quarterback’s drop back is an easy way: moving between three-, five-, and seven-step drops. So is mixing in a number of roll outs and bootlegs, sliding the line and leaving the backside pass-rusher unblocked.
Facing this Alabama defense, a quarterback should never drop to the same spot more than two times in a row. Doing so allows the pass rush to key on the same spot. They’re difficult enough to handle when they don’t know where the quarterbacks going to be, so why signal it to them?
Even if an offense operates primarily out of the shotgun — like most do these days— they should mix between snaps from under center, the gun, and pistol, altering the angle and timing for the defensive front.
Gassing the defense isn’t the aim, but the pass rushers should spend the entire game running all over the field chasing the quarterback to different marks.
Part of moving the launching point should include using deeper dropbacks (9–10 steps). And those are traditionally coupled with max protections— keeping in two additional blockers —or heavy play-action schemes. Given how much bump-and-run coverage Alabama uses on the back end, play-action is largely ineffective. But max protections would allow the offensive line to double-team two pass rushers.
- Throw out the tendency chart and get creative
“You dance with who brung ya” is an old Texas phrase that you often hear around football.
Translated, it means that a team shouldn’t deviate from its usual style of play in a big moment or game. That’s what got them to the dance, so why would they change it?
Against Alabama, that’s nonsense.
Firstly, the Crimson Tide have better players than anyone in the country. So even if an opponent plays its best game with its usual style, there’s still a reliance on the Tide slipping up.
Secondly, the deep rotation of pass rushers allows those guys to spend all week studying the tendencies of one or two offensive lineman. Williams spends his entire game week studying and learning everything about each offensive lineman just on passing downs. If a lineman has a tendency, or a weakness, Williams knows it.
Because of that, it’s best to throw out the tendency chart.
That leads to the most important thing: getting creative.
To stop this dominant pass rush, offenses need to get the players thinking rather than just playing: where is the quarterback? What’s that formation? What did they just run? And hoping to force as much presnap communication as possible.
That means utilizing wonky formations and concepts that get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand quickly: throwbacks, double-passes, splitting tackles out wide and throwing quick screens, or switching up who is eligible on each play are all good methods.
Ole Miss forced a coverage bust earlier this year with a simple fake speed-option. The play got the ball out Chad Kelly’s hands quickly, moved the launching point, and it led to a blown coverage.
The design — faking the toss — made edge-rusher Anfernee Jennings sit down as though it was a run play, rather than rushing Kelly, while the rest of the offensive line walled off the other side of the formation with double-teams.
That gave Kelly the time to look downfield and find a wide-open Evan Engram for a touchdown, after a safety bit hard on the run.
It was the perfect combination of maximum protection, moving Kelly’s spot, and getting creative.
Stopping this dominant pass rush might be one of the most difficult things in college football right now. But if an offensive staff is creative enough, there are some ways slow it down, even if that just means preventing the Alabama defense from scoring.