The Alabama-Tennessee rivalry hasn’t been much of a rivalry since coach Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa — in fact, Tennessee has yet to beat ‘Bama under Saban.
The Crimson Tide lead the Third Saturday in October rivalry 52-38, and other than the 12-10 victory that took an iconic blocked field goal by Alabama defensive tackle Terrence Cody to win back in 2009, the games haven’t been close since Saban’s arrival.
Saturday, however, was different; Tennessee even briefly held a lead during the fourth quarter. But the end result was a yearly repeat of what we’ve seen over the last decade as Alabama was able to regain the lead and force a turnover that sealed the deal.
That’s the history and the game in a nutshell, but the SEC Film Room isn’t about recaps, it’s about reasons. ‘Bama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin did a nice job of staying true to his strengths while doing what he could to neutralize some of Tennessee’s in the process.
Let’s take a look at how that all played out.
Imposing Their Will: Neutralizing Jalen Reeves-Maybin & Vols Defensive Speed
When Tennessee’s defense has success, it’s because of to a series of one-on-one matchups going in its favor. The key matchups that must hold par in order for the Vols to contain an opposing offense are cornerback Cam Sutton against a team’s best receiver and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin containing any threat out of the backfield.
Both matchups were important, but Reeves-Maybin’s role was called on more often because of the nature of Alabama’s run-heavy offense.
Reeves-Maybin leads the Vols in tackles with 67, including a 21-tackle performance against Oklahoma, the most in a single game for any SEC player this year. He also leads the team in tackles for loss with 10. Kiffin found out why on Saturday.
Reeves-Maybin is one of the best linebackers in the country when it comes to shooting a gap against the run. Whenever there are moving or pulling offensive linemen, the possibility is open for there to be uncovered space as the play shifts to the outside. On this play, it took too much time for the left guard to move into the A-gap (the gap between the center and guard), and Reeves-Maybin made the play with ease.
Here’s how Kiffin countered that.
When you pull the offensive line to one side, you’re running the risk of being beat to a spot. As the entire line moves to the right or left, so does the defensive line and the linebackers. Defensive ends and linebackers are typically more explosive than offensive linemen, and that can leave certain spots vulnerable. The way you beat that is by taking away their room to move.
In the first video I showed of Reeves-Maybin making the play, the primary concern was getting the right guard to the edge of the trench to seal off the sideline. Priority No. 2 was plugging up the A-gap then left open by moving the left guard into the right guard’s spot. The primary block would have worked had the A-gap not been breached, but it was.
In the second video, however, the emphasis was on getting an offensive lineman to release to the second level (the area where the linebackers line up) and engage one of them immediately. To do this, the design again called for an offensive lineman to leave the line of scrimmage and go block somewhere else. But the design here was much more effective.
Alabama does this by shifting the blocking assignments of the entire line to the left. As a result, this left the right defensive end unblocked. But, the beauty in this design is that the tight end came over late, but in time, to stop any sort of chase down.
Keep all that in mind and watch the video again. The left tackle ran right at Reeves-Maybin and took him out of the play while the rest of the line formed the running lane which led to the score. There were a lot of moving parts, but that’s what’s needed to run the ball against a defense that knows its coming.
A possible reason we’re seeing more complex blocking schemes from Kiffin now may be because he learned a thing or two from an old foe, Ohio State.
Learning from Losses: Alabama Adopting Schemes from the Reigning Champs
The play above is called a Jet Motion Counter. That kind of blocking is something Ohio State executed with a lot of success last year — as explained in-depth here by James Light.
The concept is that you set the strong side of the field (the side where the tight end is) to side with the most space, motion a wide receiver to sell the play to that side, and use both the tight end and a pulling guard to move behind the trench after the snap and pave the way for a close-sided run where there is less traffic and smaller bodies (corners and a safety).
Here’s a visual.
This again is a series of primary and secondary blocks. The primary block is set by the pulling right guard who neutralizes the outside linebacker/nickel corner. The secondary block is then the tight end who takes away anything threat from the outside corner or the middle linebacker depending on if the run is between or outside the tackles (this one was to the outside). Finally the outside wide receiver (Stewart) is able to engage the free safety as the defender’s first few steps were towards the middle of the field when the receiver in motion (Ridley) started to go across the backfield before the snap.
All of that happened in a matter of three seconds, and all of it had to work in unison for Henry to have the space he did.
The old saying rings true: Death, taxes, Alabama running the ball. The weekly challenge for Kiffin is how he can continue to get the most out of his running game when the other team knows it’s coming. The Tide’s offense was once again up for that challenge this week, and taking plays out of Ohio State’s National Championship-winning playbook is a great way to continue that trend.