Alabama’s win over LSU in Baton Rouge came with a combination of great talent and masterful coaching.
From LSU’s perspective, they showed they could nearly match the Crimson Tide on defense. But on offense the Tigers delivered another poor game plan. One that fell victim to the same traps and issues that have plagued them for years.
Steve Ensminger’s plan felt like a carbon copy from a year ago: LSU trying to line up and play power football against the best defense in the country, with Leonard Fournette being consistently dropped in the backfield.
There was no innovation.
It started pre-snap, where there was little movement. In an atmosphere like Saturday night’s, there’s often discussions about how difficult it is for an opposing offense to communicate. Well, the same is true for the opposing defense. The defenders are unable to hear each other, making verbal communication impossible. That can lead to coverage busts. But only if the offense forces them to communicate. The only way to do that is to continually move pre-snap, be it line shifts, moving receivers, or motioning players.
And where was the creativity? Just a week ago, Ensminger unveiled some new wrinkles to the offense, helping defeat Ole Miss.
Most interestingly, they used a two-back set that got both Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice on the field.
It’s a smart tactic. Fournette and Guice are LSU’s best playmakers. They should both be on the field as much as possible, regardless if they play the same position. The above formation, with Fournette at fullback, creates misdirection and freezes one linebacker purely through the offensive alignment.
The only real sign of creativity against Alabama was splitting out Fournette (the team’s best running back) to wide receiver and running screen passes to him (not his strongest skill).
Plus, there were a pair of third downs in which the Tigers showed a triple-option look. Though it was with a fullback on the field rather than Guice, and they never actually pulled it down to run the option.
Without any creativity, Ensminger made it a 1-on-1 contest up front. And his guys lost.
Then there’s the most egregious error.
How long will it take SEC coaches to figure out that play-action doesn’t work against Alabama?
The goal of play-action is to challenge the discipline of defenders, particularly those in zone coverage (who are reading the quarterbacks eyes), and give time for slow vertical concepts to develop. Against Alabama’s defensive structure, it’s futile. Too often the defensive backs are in bump-and-run coverage, with their backs turned to any play-fakes. And the pass rush is so dominant that the Crimson Tide are in the backfield before anything has time to develop.
Here, after a sudden change of possession, the Tigers go for a deep play-action shot.
Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne blows up LSU’s right guard at the snap, getting into the backfield before Danny Etling can even to read the coverage or set his feet to throw. And Alabama’s receivers are locked into man-to-man coverage.
Etling was forced to bail on the concept, escape the pocket, and throw away the ball.
Despite the first-half failures, Ensminger persisted with the tactic in the second half.
On the first play from scrimmage after the intermission, LSU looked for a splashy play down the field. This time they kept an extra blocker in to buy Etling more time. It made no difference. LSU’s right tackle failed to pick up a blitz from Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster.
By the time Etling was set, after turning his back on the fake, Foster was in his face.
Etling was forced to pull down the ball and was dropped behind the line of scrimmage.
Yet the Tigers persisted with the tactic.
On this play, LSU went with play-action again, with Etling taking a deep drop. Alabama lined up with off-man coverage, and blitzed out of the slot.
By the time Etling had completed the fake and was ready to survey the field, Alabama’s line had overwhelmed the Tigers, with a free rusher bearing in on the quarterback.
Etling forced the throw into triple-coverage and Minkah Fitzpatrick picked it off for a game-changing play.
In fairness, not all of the blame should fall on Ensminger. He can only work with what he has. And with an ineffective quarterback his options were somewhat limited.
But Ensminger did little to help the offense through design. He ran a game plan that played right into Alabama’s strengths and the Tigers failed to put up a single point.