When No. 2 LSU travels to No. 4 Alabama this Saturday, it won’t just be a matchup of two potential College Football Playoff teams. It will also be a game that is sure to carry heavy weight when evaluating two Heisman candidates in Tigers running back Leonard Fournette and Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry.
Fournette leads the country with 1,352 rushing yards and is tied for the most rushing touchdowns from a running back with 15. His 7.7 yards per attempt is the most for any player with at least 150 carries, and his 87-yard touchdown against South Carolina shows he’s not just a big bruiser.
But even though Fournette leads the conversation in stats and Heisman hype, Henry isn’t far behind. His 14 rushing touchdowns as a running back is second to only Fournette and Northern Illinois’ Joel Bouagnan. Henry has the seventh-most carries in the country and has also eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in just eight games.
Saturday will be a matchup of two teams trying their best to slow down an elite run-heavy offense. Some say it’s not possible, but believe it or not, there are ways to slow these two Heisman hopefuls down.
Let’s break down instances this year where Henry and Fournette have shown they are human after all, along with times you just can’t stop them.
Let me be clear: I think it’s silly when people compare college running backs to Adrian Peterson. It happens every year or so, and it’s kind of annoying. However, I don’t know how else to explain Fournette other than by calling him Peterson-esque. Running backs who are 6-foot-1, 230 pounds should not be able to move like Fournette does. We rarely see a running back generate so much power in so little time when accelerating.
With that in mind, here’s what you don’t want to do when facing Fournette.
Teams cannot rely on defensive backs to make plays against Fournette. If a situation presents itself and a defensive back can trip him up, take that as lucky. But I’ve seen the play above happen more times than I’ve seen a defensive back successfully stop Fournette.
The physics just don’t favor the defensive back. A 230-pound running back moving with 4.5 speed is going to punish a 5-foot-10, 190-pound defender who is trying to go against momentum. Alabama has some physical players in the secondary, but it can’t rely on them to hold their own more than a couple of times. They need help.
There’s a song from a cartoon that goes, “F is for friends who do stuff together.” That’s essentially where you have to begin when creating a strategy to limit Fournette’s effectiveness.
It takes a small army to bring Fournette down, but if a team can use that knowledge correctly, there’s some hope. Alabama linebackers Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster will be called upon to slow down Fournette at the line of scrimmage, or at worst, the start of the second level (where the linebackers line up pre-snap). If there’s no contact by then, good night.
The first step to getting better is realizing there’s a problem — or, that there’s going to be a problem. Fournette is going to get his, and teams are just trying to make sure his yardage finishes closer to 100 than 200.
Despite giving up 244 rushing yards to Fournette (yikes), Syracuse did show some signs of success. The Orange made sure to get early contact on Fournette, whether that came from a defensive lineman or a blitzing linebacker. Fournette is most dangerous when he isn’t touched before that little gallop step with which he simultaneously changes direction up field and increases his speed. That is what defenses have to avoid — once he gets going, it’s over.
Establishing contact by a defensive lineman is key, but it’s admittedly tough to do so against LSU’s line. Here’s how Syracuse was able to get some disruption:
The Vine above illustrates how jumping in one direction off the snap can help get by offensive linemen. LSU’s offensive line is great at making the first move and determining where each battle in the trenches will go. The way teams can beat that is by having predesigned shifts or by pushing to the left or right. It can leave a defense vulnerable, but it can also lead to some quick first contact. That concept worked a few times for Syracuse. ‘Bama defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed must get consistent push for this to work.
The Vine above shows Auburn trying to rush its attackers straight ahead, which often doesn’t work against LSU’s run blocking. Watch the Vine in slow motion and recognize the blockers forcing the rushers one way or another to form the gap. Because the defenders are moving straight when the ball is snapped, they’re easily pushed away or neutralized to one side as the gap begins to form. This is a no-no when attempting to get early contact.
Fournette is an elite combination of speed, power, vision and balance. He and his offensive line have good chemistry, and anytime LSU can get him in the open field, it’s in business.
Thankfully for Alabama fans, the Crimson Tide boast a solid combination of defensive linemen and reliable linebackers. They should present a tough challenge for Fournette to find open space, and more importantly, should limit the amount of open-field tackling by defensive backs.
Down with Henry
Believe it or not, taking down 6-foot-3, 240-pound Derrick Henry is possible. You just need to know where to aim.
The knock on Henry has been that he goes down easy — that he is off-balance more than he should be, even for a guy his size.
After re-watching a good amount of his tape from this year, I can tell you those narratives are a bit outdated. Henry is doing a much better job of keeping his feet light and staying up when compared to years past.
However, he does still have a tendency to prefer contact with his upper body too much. This leaves himself vulnerable to a low tackle, hence why people assume he has bad balance.
The Vine above gives a good look at both perspectives. When Henry makes initial contact at the line, the tackle comes at him above his waist. He’s able to lower his shoulder while staying upright and absorbing the hit with his upper body — advantage, Henry. But as he bounces to the outside, he’s tripped up by a defender going for his ankles. That happens all the time in football, but what’s important to note is Henry’s body language before he goes down. Henry extends his arm and lowers his head as if this defender is also going to take him on high. This is what actually leads to Henry going down, not him losing balance on a low tackle.
The weak spot in Henry’s game seems to be that he’s relying too much on his upper body. He needs to recognize where he is feared. Defenders know his legs aren’t the tree trunks that we see in other backs (like Fournette). Therefore, they’re more inclined to take a shot at him low rather than wrap up at his waist.
What separates Fournette from Henry is that he can anticipate low tackles and react to them with more consistency.
LSU can slow down Henry by taking away his ability to use his upper body. Expect its safeties and nickel corner to be near the line of scrimmage and stay pesky by forcing Henry to hesitate with bodies by his feet.