Another year, another Alabama team that’s rolling like a machine.
As usual, the Crimson Tide are winning behind a great defense and a strong rushing attack. Their biggest issue has been hitting explosive plays on offense. Namely, Jalen Hurts’ struggles throwing the deep ball.
Under Lane Kiffin, Alabama’s offense has been built around a powerful running game and a vertical-strike passing game, concealed with a lots of window dressing.
Kiffin utilizes everything in the playbook to fool a defense: misdirection calls, sweeps, ghost motions and so on and so forth. Mostly, he’s uses constraint plays and perimeter runs to force the defense to move laterally before hitting them with a bomb down the field.
Hurts has given a new lease on life with Kiffin’s offense. He’s a genuine threat on option plays and can keep plays alive with his feet.
His biggest weakness has been accuracy down the field. Hurts has connected on just six throws that have travelled 20 yards or more through the air (27 attempts). With three of those coming on scramble plays — outside of the structure of the offense. Without hitting shot plays, Alabama’s offense becomes overly horizontal and much easier to defend.
It’s certainly not a question of talent. Hurts possesses one of the best arms in the SEC and the ball explodes out his hand. It’s the accuracy that has been lacking.
Alabama doesn’t demand much of its quarterback. The Tide have ridden that formula to all kinds of success. Under Kiffin, the “game manager” approach has been different, with quarterbacks being relied on to hit three or four big throws that will give them enough explosive plays to win a game.
Through disguise and misdirection, the hope is that Kiffin can scheme guys open and create easy throws. However, in tight games, Hurts will be relied upon to make big-time throws into smaller windows.
Alabama’s national championship team from last year is the perfect example. In the Tide’s only regular-season loss to Ole Miss, Jacob Coker and Cooper Bateman missed on plays deep down the field, resulting in turnovers that ultimately cost them the game. In the national championship game, Coker made almost every big throw required, hitting four passes over 20-plus yards on the way to his best individual performance and a championship.
To make another championship run, they need Hurts to hit a similar volume of deep balls — increasing the explosive play total that currently sits at 86th in the nation, per Football Study Hall.
Alabama’s deep passing game isn’t based on rhythm. Instead, it’s often slow-developing. The Tide use isolation routes and double-moves, with receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart trusted to win 1-on-1 on the outside.
Kiffin has done a good job of creating ways to give Hurts — a true freshman — more time to survey the field and find the best matchup, starting with utilizing deeper dropbacks.
On shot plays, Hurts has been taking five- to seven-step drops despite working primarily out of the shotgun (quarterbacks traditionally take one- to three-step drops from the gun).
Here, in the Week 5 matchup vs. Kentucky, Alabama is looking to work a 1-on-1 matchup for Ridley. Hurts is working touchdown-to-checkdown: If he gets the deep matchup he likes, Hurts takes the shot downfield. If not, he throws the ball into the flat. Kiffin uses both a play-fake and fake-bubble screen to challenge the eye discipline of the secondary, hopefully forcing a safety into an error and freeing up Ridley.
The throw is a poor one. It’s close to double coverage (though the safety misreads it) and Ridley is unable to make the catch for what would have been a 38-yard score.
Kiffin has also moved the launching point, buying more time as slow designs develop.
Here, vs. Ole Miss, the Tide run a play-action throwback pass. Hurts lines up under center close to the left hashmark (fi 1). He carries out the play-fake before rolling beyond the right hash (fig2), throwing back to a wide-open tight end running a wheel route (fig3).
He misses the easy throw, costing the team a touchdown and forcing it to kick a field goal.
On two plays, Kiffin designed favorable matchups, with no pressure in Hurts’ face. He missed them both, erasing two potential touchdowns.
Again, it’s not that he doesn’t have the ability. Although he’s a true freshman, Hurts has shown as much natural talent as any quarterback in the SEC.
In the fourth quarter of the Kentucky game he made a throw to Ridley that will rival any made this year.
Yet again, he takes a five-step drop from the shotgun. This time, he does a better job of holding a safety in the middle of the field by flashing his eyes initially to the left side of the field. Then he uncorks an outrageous throw to Ridley’s outside shoulder. The ball leaves his hand at the Alabama 42-yard line and lands in Ridley’s hands at the Kentucky 5-yard line.
It’s a rare throw that highlights just how egregious some of the simpler misses have been.
Hurts has flashed, but now he needs to find consistency. True freshman or not, completing 23 percent of balls down the field isn’t going to be good enough.