Well, football fans, we made it to Championship Saturday. On one side, this weekend’s game in the Georgia Dome will feature Alabama, a team many predicted to win the SEC and even the national championship. On the other hand, its opponent is a school that hasn’t played in an SEC Championship game since 2009, and a team many media members predicted to finish near the bottom of its division. Welcome to Atlanta, Florida.
One aspect of this contest that appears to tip the scale in favor of Alabama is that the Crimson Tide have a player many believe is the front-runner for this year’s Heisman trophy in running back Derrick Henry. With 1,797 yards on the ground already this season, Henry has been nearly unstoppable against varying styles of defense.
Alabama is going to run the ball. You know it, I know it and Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins surely knows it. But week in and week out, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has done a great job of staying effective in the run game while the other team knows what Alabama wants to do. But what gives Florida hope is that Alabama has yet to play a defense as well-rounded as the Gators.
With the help of defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard, defensive end Alex McCalister and linebacker Jarrad Davis, this Florida defensive front has the personnel to attack and contain top talents. It’s just a matter of getting the game plan right and executing it for 60 minutes.
Whether it’s pressure inside, pressure off the edge, extra blitzes or a combination of it all, it’s fitting that the only defense capable of adjusting its attack to contain Henry would be his last test for a conference title. So let’s examine a few instances in Alabama’s season where Florida might find an answer to stopping this Heisman hopeful.
Versus edge pressure: Carl Lawson and Myles Garrett
Lucky for us, Alabama had the task of facing some of the best defensive linemen in the country earlier in the season. The first matchup we’ll look at has to do with edge pressure, and a good example of that is Myles Garrett from Texas A&M.
Garrett is a premier pass rusher, not only in the SEC, but among the NFL draft hopefuls. Observe how the defensive line was set in such a way to give Garrett a one-on-one matchup. They had three other defensive linemen shifted towards the left side of the line, which gave Garrett maximum space.
But this battle was more about left tackle Cam Robinson than it was Henry — the ‘Bama running back just happened to get the yards for the work. Robinson being stout on the edge is key because it buys time. Alabama likes to use its guards as workhorse players to create gaps in the middle for Henry to use his size and burst. Setting the edge allowed Henry to pick the right gap without hesitation. Robinson had Garrett quiet all game and when it came to run blocking, he made sure edge pressure was never a problem.
Carl Lawson of Auburn fell to the same fate. As Lawson (defensive end closest to your screen) got a good jump, Robinson was able to hold his own and only lose a foot or two of ground before locking Lawson up. This allowed Henry to make one cut toward the middle of the trench and through the gap.
Garrett and Lawson are two of the best edge rusher the SEC has to offer, but just because they themselves couldn’t rack up the tackles for loss against Alabama’s linemen, doesn’t mean all of their production was for not.
Florida will see Alabama motion its receivers a lot on Saturday. One area where Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp had success against the Tide’s run game was when those receivers motioned to the opposite side, the communication between the secondary was good, and it allowed the defensive back originally covering the wide receiver to blitz into the back field.
Though Alabama has good chemistry along the line, plays like the one above are sometimes unavoidable. With Lawson on the edge closest to your screen, the right tackle couldn’t afford to shift down and potentially leave a gap for Lawson to jump in between the right tackle and the right guard.
Edge pressure from the defensive ends is still important, even if he doesn’t record a stat. Here’s another example:
Lawson’s pressure from the edge actually turned into interior pressure when he penetrated straight toward the middle. The reason his rush was designed that way was because Lawson knew a blitzing defensive back was behind him. However, that defensive back — as well as the safety who trailed in — missed the tackle and Henry was off for a first down. This was a frustrating play that should have worked for Auburn’s defense.
When teams are facing Alabama, all they can do is work for their shots, and when they come, capitalize. Auburn did that a few times in the first half that game, but didn’t on this particular play.
Relying on edge pressure from one player by itself isn’t enough, but creating interior pressure generated a few chances for Auburn to contain Alabama’s run game. That helps us transition into our next category.
Versus interior pressure: Robert Nkemdiche and aggressive back up
Interior pressure is king in football. If a defensive lineman can blown up the middle of the pocket, it affects a quarterback’s drop back, a running back’s handoff and an offensive line’s chemistry. Any kind of disruption from the middle that causes a double team should be a win for the defensive front. Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche is one of the best pure defensive tackles in the conference, but right behind him is Florida’s Jonathan Bullard.
The initial push in the play above forced two offensive linemen to occupy Nkemdiche’s rush. The important thing to note is that Nkemdiche was positioned between the guard and the center. That meant the center was the one who had to double team Nkemdiche. This is important because of the delayed blitz up the middle with the linebacker. As the center helped on Nkemdiche, the middle was freed up, and Henry was tripped. The play above was textbook on how to win from the inside.
But getting too comfortable with how you attack Alabama’s offensive line can get you in trouble. In the play about we saw four players on the defensive line with a corner up toward the line and two linebackers just outside the screen. Because Ole Miss just tried to go straight up the middle with no left or right direction, Alabama pulled off a great counter play where it pulled its guard and tight end without giving up a block.
Here’s what that looks like on paper:
Alabama doesn’t run to the outside too often, but when it does, it likes to get creative. Try and line up what you see on that play sheet with what’s going on in the video above.
When Ole Miss didn’t switch up where its rush was coming from, Alabama could predict it. Once it could do that, it knew when and where it could pull offensive linemen and not get blown up on the inside. This is what makes Alabama so dangerous; the Crimson Tide are smart. If a team is dominating on the inside, they have the plays and the athleticism to get around it.
Florida’s formula for success
We’ve seen examples of how both interior pressure and edge pressure can have success at times, but how can Florida turn those glimpses into a full game plan for success?
Here’s what I believe needs to happen for the Gators to do just that:
If Florida is to have any chance at containing Alabama’s run game, the four key players on its defense are Bullard, Davis, and defensive backs Keanu Neal and Brian Poole. Bullard has to play the role Nkemdiche did. Without interior pressure, the Gators won’t be able to seal up the A and B gaps (gaps next to the center and the guards) well enough to keep Alabama off the board. Davis needs to be aggressive from the linebacker spot. He needs to be the one shooting those gaps in the middle when Bullard draws the double team. He’s the guy who needs to finish the production Bullard provides. Both of those components have to succeed for interior pressure to matter.
McCalister, Bryan Cox and CeCe Jefferson will play a role in this game off the edge as defensive ends, but don’t expect them to record many stats; they’re simply the first (and necessary) wave. The second wave — and the way Florida makes a difference against Alabama’s run game — is on those plays where Kiffin motions his receivers across the field, Poole and Neal will be the ones set free on blitzes. How well they finish the free shots they get — and trust me, they’ll have their chances — will go a long way toward holding Henry under than 100-yard mark.