Alabama is on its way to having the best defense in the nation. Again. The Crimson Tide are currently fourth in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings, with the number one run defense in the country as well as sitting in the top 15 in havoc rate.
They aren’t just shutting people down, they’re turning defense into offense: scoring as many touchdowns as they’ve allowed in 2016.
Let’s look at four game-plan notes on how Arkansas can attack that defense on Saturday night.
1. Limit Play Action Shots
Arkansas’ offense is built around its power run game. That leads to a heavy dose of play-action passes that are run from under center, as they look to fool the defense and carve out simplistic reads and easy throws for Austin Allen.
They were able to target Texas A&M’s coverage in Week 4 by using play action to set up double moves on the outside.
Against Alabama, play-action passes are far less effective.
For one, the play designs take more time to develop. That gives Alabama’s dominant pass rushers more time to beat blockers and make plays in the backfield.
Furthermore, Alabama plays as much bump-and-run coverage as any team in college football. Instead of cornerbacks’ eyes being on the quarterback, they’re jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage before running down the field. Whenever there are play-fakes, cornerbacks have their backs turned and they don’t see them, making them pointless.
Any deep shots need to come from deeper dropbacks, or when moving the launching point.
2. Beat Alabama at its own game
One of the best ways to attack Alabama is by mimicking some of its offensive concepts, namely: ghost motions and pre-snap movement.
The Crimson Tide does a lot with their safeties at the snap of the ball. They try not to tip any movements pre-snap. Instead, they rely on their great athletes to move and rotate at the snap of the ball (if they move at all).
Ghost motions and fake perimeter plays are one way to force poor decisions. Whether it’s a fake bubble-screen, toss play, or a ghost-drag motion (moving a player across the formation), they all create opportunities for a misreads and blown coverages.
Ole Miss did a great job in Week 3 of using fake screens and fake toss plays to move safeties off their spots.
On Evan Engram’s 63-yard touchdown reception, the Rebels fake a quick pitch to the outside. Alabama’s safety Ronnie Harrison rotates to play the run – part of their Rip/Liz pattern match call – and gets caught as Engram blows by him on the seam route.
Unlike play-action passes, these concepts are specifically attacking the safeties — you can see on the above play how the cornerbacks are turned and can’t see the fake.
3. Use Jeremy Sprinkle as a chess piece
Personal disclosure: I love Arkansas tight end Jeremy Sprinkle.
He is responsible for one of the best on-the-field GIFs of the SEC season. Here, against Texas A&M, he crushes Aggies defensive end Jarrett Johnson on a chip block before making a double move and catching a third-down throw from Allen.
The Razorbacks have talented receivers, but Sprinkle is their best matchup threat. One they use mostly as an in-line player. His job has been to stay in and help block or attack the seams and stretch defenses over the middle of the field.
Against Alabama, Arkansas should get more creative. He is the one player who can cause Alabama some miscommunication problems purely through his pre-snap alignment.
Ole Miss had success challenging Alabama vertically by moving tight end Evan Engram all over the field. Admittedly, Engram is essentially a wide receiver and a superior athlete, but the principles can be the same.
Moving Sprinkle into the slot, putting him at the top of stacks, and isolating him on one side of the formation, are all good ways to try to generate positive matchups with him covered by a linebacker in space.
Sprinkle was not flexed out once against TCU or Texas A&M. But you have to throw things at the Crimson Tide that they haven’t seen on tape.
4. Trust in Austin Allen
Allen has been terrific through five weeks, with a passer rating that’s third in the SEC (159.4), 10 touchdowns and 0 interceptions.
What has been most impressive is his command of the offense and his willingness to stay in the pocket and make throws while under pressure.
Dan Enos and his staff need to put faith in Allen and allow him to operate from more empty formations.
Empty sets require the quarterback to make quicker decisions (with just five players in to block) and diagnose defenses quickly.
Arkansas rarely, if ever, gets into empty sets. However, if the Razorbacks are unable to get the ground game going – currently 102nd in rushing S&P+ – using an offense that puts the focus on Allen and his decision-making would be a bold strategy that can create more favorable matchups.