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With the regular season of the 2016 college football season in the rear view mirror, the Alabama Crimson Tide are in prime position to make another run at a National Championship. Provided they can get past the Washington Huskies in the National Semifinal, another National Championship Game awaits. Alabama has put up some great numbers this season, but one number that tells a big story about their year is 245.0. That’s the average yards on the ground for the Alabama offense this season, good enough for second in the conference and 13th in the FBS. One of the core components of their ground game is the zone read scheme, and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has introduced a few different wrinkles to attack defenses from sideline to sideline while still pressuring the interior. The ability to stress a defense in this manner is a huge component of the Crimson Tide’s success on the ground.
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The Zone Read
The zone read game typically begins with the quarterback and the running back meeting at the mesh point in the backfield, with the QB keying the read defender and either handing the ball off, or keeping it himself, depending on which player the read defender decides to attack. One of the offensive players works as the vertical stretch, heading north or south while the other acts as the horizontal stretch, running parallel to the line of scrimmage. On this first example against Tennessee, the Crimson Tide face a 2nd and 14 on the Volunteers’ 45-yard line. Alabama lines up with 11 offensive personnel, with a stack-slot outside to the left and tight end Miller Forristall (#87) in a wing to that side. Quarterback Jalen Hurts (#2) stands in the shotgun with running back Joshua Jacobs (#25) standing to his right. That’s three freshman in the game for Alabama who play a huge role on this play:
The Crimson Tide run the zone read here off a split zone design. Forristall cuts back to the right side of the field while the rest of the offensive line flows to the left:
You can see the vertical and horizontal components to the play. Jacobs aims north and south on this play, and as Hurts takes the snap he opens to his running back to put the football in his belly and read the key defender, in this case defensive end Corey Vereen (#50), who is highlighted in the black rectangle. If the DE collapses on the running back or even slides inside just a bit, Hurts will keep the football on the horizontal, aiming for the right side.
That’s exactly what happens:
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Vereen slides inside and Hurts sees a change to attack the edge. He cuts to the outside and gets an angle on Vereen, beating him to the edge. That is when he picks up the tight end coming across the formation, who blocks out on the cornerback. Hurts gets one more big block from wide receiver ArDarius Stewart (#13) crack blocking inside, and then takes this play the distance.
Here’s an example of the same basic design against USC, only this time the running back is on the horizontal plane, while the quarterback serves as the interior threat to the defense:
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This time, Alabama pulls the backside guard, which is a trend we are seeing at both the professonal and college level, illustrated in this informative informative piece from Geoff Schwartz. Colton Hester (#66) lines up at left guard, and he pulls to the right side in front of RB Damien Harris (#34) seemingly to pave the road for the running back. But as Hurts takes the snap, he decides to keep the football vertically – attacking the interior of the USC defense with his legs. We also see Hester cut upfield as well, attacking the second level.
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Using a Two-Back Look
Kiffin has incorporated a two-running back element to the Alabama ground game, which provides the offense a few different wrinkles to this basic design. On this first example against the Volunteers, the Crimson Tide offense faces a 1st and 10 on the Tennessee 49-yard line. The offense lines up with 11 offensive personnel, with Hurts in the shotgun and Jacobs standing to the left of the quarterback. Stewart, the WR, shifts down into the backfield, and stands to the right of the QB:
Alabama uses a split zone design, with Jacobs heading to the right edge at the snap looking for the handoff. Stewarts cuts to the left, looking to block on the backside edge. The offensive line flows to the right on this play, and at the snap Hurts will either hand the football to Jacobs on the horizontal, or keep it vertically to attack the interior of the Tennessee defense:
Just prior to the snap, slot cornerback Rashaan Gaulden (#7) starts to blitz, on the backside of this play. Seeing this, Hurts makes the quick decision to hand the football off to Jacobs, and the decision pays dividends:
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Jacobs gets two key blocks on this run, with the first from Hester. This time the guard lines up on the right side, and in concert with right tackle Jonah Williams (#73), he gets a good combination block on the defensive tackle, before peeling off and getting just enough on the DE to keep him from the RB. In addition, Jacobs gets a second-level block from center Bradley Bozeman (#75), who heads to the playside linebacker at the snap and seals him from the runner. Jacobs cuts through the hole and is into the secondary before he is brought down, picking up a first down for Alabama.
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Incorporating the Jet
Finally, another wrinkle to this design that Kiffin is using with success involves the potential jet sweep, and using that as an extra horizontal threat to the defense. Here, the Crimson Tide face a 1st and 10 on their own 33-yard line. They line up with Hurts in the shotgun with Harris standing to his left. The offense has three receivers to the right before the play, but just prior to the snap Stewart comes in jet motion toward the football:
The offensive line blocks to the left, with the right tackle leaving the left defensive end, and at the snap Hurts puts the football in the belly of his RB at the mesh point, with Harris aiming for the right edge. But with Stewart coming in motion, the defense needs to needs to respect the threat of a jet sweep on the backside:
Look at the defense right after Hurts hands the football to Harris:
Seven Tennessee defenders are on Stewart’s side of the field, while only three defenders are on the play side in position to try and stop the run by Harris. In addition, the unblocked DE has to stay home, because of the vertical running threat posed by the QB. Hurts gives the ball to his running back, who picks up blocks from Forristall and Gehrig Dieter (#11) before picking up a big gain on the ground:
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Here’s the same design. In addition to the defenders on the backside who stay home because of the potential jet sweep to Stewart, watch Vereen, again caught between the quarterback and the running back on this play:
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These plays and designs all illustrate how the Crimson Tide offense is able to stretch a defense from sideline to sideline, while maintaining an interior threat with either the quarterback or a running back. On the potential jet sweep plays alone, you can see how the defense is so attuned to the threat of the handoff to the wide receiver that they lose the numbers on the playside, giving the running back space on the edge. Given the success of the Alabama ground game through the regular season, the proof is in the numbers on just how effective this Crimson Tide rushing attack really is. With Washington waiting for them in the Peach Bowl, this ground game and these designs are a critical component for a team that controls its own destiny.