Although they lost key talents to the NFL Draft this year, Nick Saban’s team expects to dominate the SEC again using familiar concepts that they know work. Mark Schofield turns to the tape to break down how the Alabama Crimson Tide attack the flat in the passing game, highlighting concepts you might see on the field this year.
Teams like Alabama do not rebuild from season to season, or even retool. They reload. While the defending National Champions lost some talented players to the NFL, including quarterback Jake Coker, linebacker Reggie Ragland, and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, the Crimson Tide return a number of experienced players to campus for the upcoming season. Chief among them are three of Coker’s favorite targets in the passing game: Wide receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart, and tight end O.J. Howard.
What stands out watching Alabama’s tape from last season is how often offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin would use these players in the flat to give Coker easy throws and, by the same token, give these targets room to run after the catch. Regardless of who takes the snaps for the Crimson Tide, you can expect to see these concepts every time Alabama takes the field.
One method Kiffin uses to get players free in the flat involves the creative use of personnel and formation. On this play against Louisiana State University, the Crimson Tide face a 1st and 10 at midfield on their opening possession of the game. Alabama has 11 personnel on the field, with Coker (#14) in the pistol formation with Henry (#2) standing behind him. The offense is lined up in a pro formation to the right, with Howard (#88) lined up next to the right tackle and Stewart (#13) split wide to the right. Ridley (#3) is the single receiver split to the left:
The slant / flat combination route is one of the more basic passing concepts in football. This typically is a mirrored passing combination, run out of a 2X2 formation. The inside receiver from each side releases to the flat while the outside receiver runs a slant. It should be no surprise that this is part of Alabama’s game plan. But on the this play, which is a mirrored slant / flat combination, the receiver that runs the flat route to the left side of the field is a WR coming out of the backfield:
Richard Mullaney (#16) lines up as an up-back in the backfield, and he releases to the flat. Because of the formation, he is initially matched up on a linebacker when he releases to the outside, and the slant route from Ridley creates some traffic, making it tough for nickelback Jalen Mills (#28) to converge on Mullaney. Coker simply takes the snap and flips the football outside to Mullaney, who makes the catch at the line of scrimmage:
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But thanks to the advantages given him by the formation (being matched up against a LB initially) and the route design (creating traffic for Mills to wade through), the receiver is able to make the catch, turn upfield, and dart into LSU territory with an easy 10-yard gain. A formation variation on a basic concept leads to a big gain for Alabama.
Backside of Zone Run
Another way that Kiffin’s quarterbacks can challenge the flat is if they see a free access situation created by a defensive back’s leverage pre-snap. This has been highlighted by two recent coaches on Twitter, and you may have seen plays like this cross your timeline. Both coach Ben Abitz (@CoachAbitz) and coach Mike Fitzgerald (@CoachFitzFball) have shown this next concept. When the Crimson Tide line up with the expectation to execute an inside zone play, they often tag the backside WR with a quick out route and give the QB a run / pass option. If the QB sees that the DB across from the receiver is using inside leverage, thereby giving the receiver free access to the flat, the quarterback will simply take advantage.
Here’s this design in action, first from Alabama’s game last season against Middle Tennessee State University. Facing a 2nd and 10 on the MTSU 46-yard line, the Crimson Tide line up with Coker in the pistol formation and Henry standing behind the QB. Alabama has 12 personnel in the game, and they line up with a bunch formation to the right, and a single receiver (Stewart) aligned to the left. Stewart has a reduced split in this formation. With the football on the right hashmark, the receiver lines up just outside the left hashmark, leaving him fairly close to the formation:
The Blue Raiders have their base 4-3 defense in the game, and they line up showing a Cover 6 look in the secondary. The strongside cornerback cheats down toward the line of scrimmage over the bunch formation, and the other three defensive backs align much deeper off of the football:
Look at the cushion given to Stewart at the top of the screen. The cornerback is eight yards off the line of scrimmage, giving Stewart lots of room to operate. Alabama has an inside zone running play called here:
The offensive line and the two tight ends flow in unison to the left, while Ridley looks to seal the edge defender. But given the cushion on the outside to Stewart, Coker decides to throw. Henry lurches forward expecting the handoff, but while everyone else in the offense is expecting the run, Coker and Stewart are on the same page:
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The QB flips the football outside to Ridley, who hauls in the pass. The cornerback makes a great recovery and open field tackle, preventing the receiver from turning this into a huge gain. But Ridley still picks up six yards, giving the Crimson Tide a very manageable 3rd and 4.
Here’s another example of this design from Alabama’s game against LSU. They open the contest with the ball on their own 28-yard line, with Coker in the pistol and 11 personnel on the field. One receiver is split to the right and there have trips to the left, with Howard in a wing alignment outside left tackle Cam Robinson (#74):
The Tigers’ 4-2-5 nickel defense shows Cover 6, with the cornerback in press coverage over Stewart, the single receiver split to the right. Mills is aligned in the slot, across from Mullaney, and he initially has outside leverage on the receiver, standing on the hashmark turned toward the middle of the field:
Prior to the play, Coker sends Howard in motion across the formation. Watch how the defense adjusts:
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With the run strength of the formation now shifted to the other side of the field, the linebackers shift across the formation as well, sliding with the tight end. Mills now drops inside, just to the edge of the box and well inside of Mullaney:
As with the previous play, Alabama runs an RPO design with a backside receiver (this time Mullaney) tagged with running the quick out to the flat. While the rest of the offense blocks for the inside zone run, Mullaney releases outside:
Once Coker sees the defense shift with the motion and Mills drops down toward the box and inside of Mullaney, the quarterback knows his receiver has free access to the flat. So Coker takes the snap and flips the football outside:
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After the snap, the run action distracts Mills for a moment, allowing Mullaney to run his route and gain separation from the defender. He pulls the pass in only one yard past the line of scrimmage but, because of the leverage afforded him pre-snap and the slight hesitation of Mills, the receiver is able to cut upfield for a first down.
Kiffin also likes to attack the flat off of play-action, and he uses two different means of doing so. First is using a split-zone blocking scheme to set up a receiver in the flat, and the second is by using play-action, sometimes with a naked bootleg design. When you factor in that the primary receiver is often the extremely talented Howard, this can lead to big gains for the Crimson Tide.
Here’s the first design in action. On split-zone running plays, the offense uses a blocker, often a fullback or tight end, to cut across the flow of the play and block a backside edge defender. After running the football using this design multiple times a game, the offense can then throw out of this design, with the FB or TE cutting across the formation and then releasing into the flat.
Against LSU, the Crimson Tide faced a 1st and 10 on their own 43-yard line, and lined up with Coker in the pistol with Henry behind him with 11 personnel on the field. They employ a pro formation to the right, and a single receiver split to the left. Mullaney lines up in the backfield, set as an up-back behind the left tackle:
The offense runs the split zone design here, with the offensive line moving in unison to its left while Coker takes the snap, turns to his left, and looks to hand the football to Henry. Mullaney aims to execute that backside block, cutting across the formation:
Coker does not hand the football to Henry, but instead keeps the ball and peels to the backside, where the offense has a nice sail concept set up. Howard knifes across the formation on a deep crossing route while Mullaney releases to the flat. This sets up a great high / low on Mills (who might have wanted to burn this game tape Sunday morning):
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As Coker peels to the backside, Mullaney cuts across the formation and is open in the flat – but Howard is open as well. Coker has his choice of receivers, but opts for the deeper route for a big gain.
Alabama likes to use this design in big situations as well. Later in the game against the Tigers, the Crimson Tide face a 3rd and 1 deep in their own territory and are trying to salt away a 14-point lead. They use a jumbo 12 personnel package, bringing in a reserve lineman as a second tight end, and they put Coker under center:
Again, they show the defense a split-zone design with the offensive line blocking to the right and Henry aiming for the right edge, while Howard blocks across the formation to the left. But Coker pulls the football and rolls to the right as his TE releases to the flat:
Coker shows some patience here, waiting for a deeper route to break open, but then he takes what the defense gives him, which is Howard in the flat for a first down to extend the drive:
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Finally, here is a look at how Alabama uses play-action and a naked bootleg design to get Howard open in the flat. In the National Championship Game, the Crimson Tide faced a 2nd and 7 on their own 20-yard line. They lined up with a 12 personnel package in the game, Coker in the pistol formation, and Henry behind the QB. Howard is lined up as an in-line TE to the right:
Given the personnel package and the situation, Clemson rightly expects the running play, and they show an seven-man box:
But the offense runs play-action here with a naked bootleg element. Coker takes the snap and the offense shows outside zone to the left:
Howard, on the right side, blocks down for a moment, before releasing to the flat. Coker keeps the football and rolls to the backside before hitting his TE with a short throw that turns into a long gain:
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Looking at the big picture, these various means of attacking the flat achieve a singular goal: They allow Kiffin (and his quarterback) to get the football to Alabama’s playmakers in space, often in favorable matchups. When you consider that these are short, easy throws that (as we have seen) can go for long gains, they are a great way to get a QB in rhythm and keep the offense on schedule. With the Crimson Tide looking to break in another new quarterback this season, you can expect Kiffin to dial up these plays – and rely on the targets returning to Tuscaloosa – for another run through their SEC schedule.
Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, or how Connor Cook is like comfort food, or potential 2017 NFL QB draft picks.
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