Most fans outside of the SEC circle are really tired of hearing about Alabama. They’re tired of the dynasty, they’re tired of the Crimson Tide always being at the top. They’re tired of watching them win; such a trend happens with any sports team that endures a long run of success. So when they dropped a game at home to Ole Miss earlier this year, some thought this would be a free year to write them out of the playoff picture.
Well, it’s not. At least not yet.
With Alabama’s dominant 30-16 win over its in-conference rival LSU, the Tide find themselves not only in the driver’s seat for another College Football Playoff run, but also the top overall seed for the second year in a row.
So how did they do it?
How was a team — even Alabama — able to hold LSU running back and Heisman Trophy front-runner Leonard Fournette to just 31 yards on 19 carries? Was it just an unlucky off night for the Tigers? The answer to that question is no, it was a forced off night for LSU, and it was also a night that may have taught us this Alabama defense is even better than last year’s.
Constant gap control
What made Nick Saban’s defenses so good for so long was his ability to perfect the 3-4 formation. Three massive defensive lineman would take up one or two blockers every play and leave fast, athletic, reliable linebackers the time and space to make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
This all began to change as college football migrated toward more of a spread offensive norm. Saban (and others) were forced to give up size for stamina as the no-huddle era proved to be too demanding on his bigger players, which drastically affected their ability to control the trenches.
Nowadays we see Saban’s defense in more of a 4-2-5 with four down linemen and two linebackers instead of three and four. But this change up front doesn’t mean he’s focusing less on clogging gaps.
The Vine above showed us how a six player box can still stop the run. What I saw a few times in the game against LSU was Alabama designate one linebacker to coverage, the other to a blitz with the strong safety playing spy in case of a handoff.
Observe the added gap control from the blitzing linebacker. At the snap, all four defensive linemen moved to make their push. One second later the linebacker found the area of the largest gap (which may or may not be where the back is running) and slammed into it. This left Fournette one-on-one with the delayed blitz from the safety with no blocking help. Gap control is about leaving a ball carrier without a blocker once he reaches the line of scrimmage. Saban is still finding ways to do that out of the 4-2-5.
Alabama is set up to beat teams like LSU and the above video shows us why. The Tigers’ offensive line has been one of the best run-blocking units in the conference. It has been a group that can consistently push its assignments one way or another to create lanes, and it’s done a nice job of getting to the second level with combo blocks.
Here we see LSU try to get big up front. With backs against the wall of their own end zone, the Tigers just needed to create some space for Fournette to get through contact and pick up a few yards. But the problem with that was Alabama loves it when teams go big — that means it gets to go big too. Let this be a lesson to any team who may face Alabama in the future. If you let the Tide put five defensive linemen on the field, you’re losing down in the trenches.
Mixing the front four
Just because Saban’s main focus is on gap control, doesn’t mean the big boys can’t make their way into the backfield themselves.
The play above was an inside stunt blitz. LSU, like many teams in college football, is starting to utilize split zone blocking plays where pulling guards and tight ends will block to the opposite side of the line from which the line up. Here we saw the Tigers get caught pulling two offensive linemen. The point of pulling linemen is you hope the area they’re pulling to is already blocked when they and the ball carrier arrive. That way the guards essentially become lead blockers for the running back as they go on to the second level past the trench.
But in the video you saw how the stunt was a perfect counter. Since the inside linemen already left their original spot, the remaining lineman took the man in front of him. But when Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson moved over and through, there was no one left to pick him up. Once a defense can make an offense pay for pulling its guards, it forces it to stay in its original spot. Once the guards do that, the defense can predict their gaps. And once that happens, well, if you’re Alabama, you’ve got them in the palm of your hand.