Analyzing Ways to Attack Alabama's Defense
"Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools."
Napoleon wasn't a football fan, but if he were, he'd loathe the distinction of Alabama's defense as an "immovable object." Every opponent, even the most accomplished and formidable, can be properly defeated—and that includes Nick Saban.
But that doesn't mean it's easy. No one, not even the most infernal troll of SEC football, is bold enough to make that claim. En route to its second national title in as many years, Alabama again had the undisputed best defense in college football.
It finished first (by a lot) in Football Outsiders' F/+ Defense rankings and first in defensive S&P+ against the run. Excluding games against Georgia and Texas A&M, it never surrendered more than 20 points, allowing an average of eight per game.
But the A&M and Georgia games (along with a narrow win over LSU) provided a blueprint on how to effectively move the ball on Alabama. It's much easier in theory than in practice—that is, most who study the blueprint might still be unable to execute it—but it's still worth taking some time to discuss.
Swing For Singles, Not Homers
Texas A&M punched Alabama in the mouth last November, scoring three straight touchdowns in the first quarter to take a 20-0 lead. The second came off a rare AJ McCarron interception and a short field, but the first and third were both results of long, methodical drives.
What sticks out about those possessions was A&M's ability to hit (and insistence on hitting) singles, or taking what the defense gave it. Johnny Manziel is celebrated for his big-play ability—and each drive did feature one long scramble—but for the most part he was conservative.
Manziel wasn't conservative in a bad way, though; he was conservative in a way that still ensured success on each play. As defined by Football Outsiders, which uses success rate to calculate DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average):
On first down, a play is considered a success if it gains 45 percent of needed yards; on second down, a play needs to gain 60 percent of needed yards; on third or fourth down, only gaining a new first down is considered success.
Taking the top off Alabama's defense is difficult. The Tide's stable of pass-rushers can get to almost any quarterback—even one hiding behind an elite line like A&M's—providing him less-than-adequate time to look downfield.
But the Aggies managed to keep running successful plays despite not attacking the deep (or even middle) third. Here's a play-by-play summary of their first and third possessions:
|1st and 10||5-Yard Rush by Manziel||Yes|
|2nd and 5||6-Yard Catch by Swope||Yes|
|1st and 10||15-YARD DEFENSIVE FACEMASK||n/a|
|1st and 10||3-Yard Rush by Malena||No|
|2nd and 7||29-yard Rush by Manziel||Yes|
|1st and 10||5-Yard Catch by Swope||Yes|
|2nd and 5||5-Yard Rush by Malena||Yes|
|1st and 4||3-Yard Rush by Malena||Yes|
|2nd and 1||1-Yard Rush by Michael – TOUCHDOWN||Yes|
|1st and 10||4-Yard Catch by Swope||No|
|2nd and 6||5-Yard Catch by Johnson||Yes|
|3rd and 1||1-Yard Rush by Malena||Yes|
|1st and 10||4-Yard Catch by Swope||No|
|2nd and 6||Incomplete Pass||No|
|3rd and 6||32-Yard Rush by Manziel||Yes|
|1st and 10||7-Yard Rush by Manziel||Yes|
|2nd and 3||5-Yard Catch by Kennedy||Yes|
|1st and 10||8-Yard Rush by Malena||Yes|
|2nd and 2||3-Yard Loss by Swope||No|
|3rd and 5||8-Yard Catch by Johnson||Yes|
|1st and 2||1-Yard Rush by Malena||Yes|
|2nd and 1||0-Yard Rush by Michael||No|
|3rd and 1||1-Yard Rush by Michael – TOUCHDOWN||Yes|
|TOTAL SUCCESS RATE:||72.7% (16/22)|
Having a QB like Manziel who can scamper for 30 yards at a time helps, but A&M's game plan was not predicated on those gains. In fact, of the 22 plays it ran on these drives, those were the only two that went for 10-plus yards.
But the Aggies still mustered a 73-percent success rate, picking up positive gains in bunches and stringing them together for touchdowns. And two of their six failures were four-yard gains by Ryan Swope on 1st-and-10—less than a yard shy of being successes. As far as failures go, those were as benign as it gets.
Playing this way puts the offense in control and takes away Alabama's strengths. The Tide defense excels on third downs—especially 3rd-and-longs, where it can pin its ears back and attack with superior athletes. But by stringing together singles on first and second down, a team can mitigate that talent gap with 3rd-and-shorts.
When an offense takes away 'Bama's strength, it doesn't allow the Tide defense to dictate the game. The opponent can start playing from a position of offensive preference. In A&M's case, that means quick passes from the spread:
Manageable second and third downs are the name of the game vs. Alabama. Not every 1st-and-10 needs to immediately beget another. There's no reason to thread a 15-yard post into traffic when the tight end is open with a six-yard hitch.
Just poke one into short center field, get to first base and take a small turn.
Trust Your Quarterback (and Have One Worth Trusting)
There are times, inevitably, when first and second down won't end in success—even if a team game-plans accordingly. Alabama's defense will win some battles at the line, call some perfectly timed plays and force enough errors to win those early snaps. And from there, the Tide will be able to dictate their will.
When they do, it's paramount—and here's where attacking Alabama gets tricky—to have a quarterback who reads the defense and adjusts on the fly. Those guys, obviously, don't grow on trees, but the team that has one is much more capable of scoring on Alabama's defense.
Why? Because the Tide use an ever-changing formation. When the opposing offense goes audible, so too does Alabama. Kirby Smart is a kinetic defensive coordinator who doesn't like quarterbacks to know what he's doing. He wants to use the element of surprise.
Here's a 2nd-and-10 play from the first half of the SEC Championship Game. Georgia is in the red zone and Aaron Murray reads what 'Bama gives him: a two-safety look.
But that look was a disguise. Right before the play, safety Robert Lester creeps up to become the eighth man in the box. Smart wants to either (a) stop a potential run or (b) get pressure and force Murray into a shorter, quicker throw:
Murray isn't fazed, though. He sees Lester's adjustment (even though it's pretty well-timed) and knows exactly how to attack it.
He knows his tight end, Jay Rome, is running a route to the deep right, and that Lester will be out of position to defend it. So long as his line doesn't butcher the pass protection, he only needs to make one, quick read and get Rome the ball.
Which is exactly how it plays out. Rome goes right by the oncoming Lester (who ends up in no man's land) and into open space. Murray picks his head up after the play-fake, knows exactly where to look and hits an open Rome before the other safety, Nick Perry, has a chance to come over and recover:
This whole exercise might seem obvious (or tedious), and it's certainly not always applicable. But against Alabama, it's the best (and borderline-only) way to succeed. Rigid playbooks and short-leashed quarterbacks cannot do well against Kirby Smart's defense. He's too...well...smart to allow it.
But a quarterback who's granted freedom to change plays at the line—or better yet, one like Murray who can recognize a defense's shift and attack without changing the call—has a chance at doing the improbable.
Alabama could beat most (if not all) offenses in a dogfight, but football is also a chess match. The quarterback playing against it needs to be like Bobby Fischer—possessed of elite awareness and able to plan two or three moves ahead.
Most of that comes from experience. Manziel was able to do it as a freshman last year, but he's a precocious outlier. In most cases, only well-seasoned quarterbacks have the aplomb to read and exploit a defense like the Tide's.
Here are the projected FBS starters they'll face in 2013:
|Name||Team||Career Attempts||Career Efficiency|
|Logan Thomas||Virginia Tech||846||123.9|
|Johnny Manziel||Texas A&M||434||155.3|
|Garrett Grayson||Colorado State||215||119.9|
|Ben McLane||Georgia State||274||103.6|
|Tyler Russell||Mississippi State||590||136.4|
What does that all mean? Basically, the five most complete teams on Alabama's schedule also feature its five most-experienced (and efficient) passers. That's not exactly a coincidence, but it's also a tad unlucky. Especially if Aaron Murray and his 1,131 career attempts are looming in the SEC Championship Game.
It's hard to beat Alabama without either a veteran quarterback or a transcendent one. The last three FBS QBs to hang 20 points on the Tide are Murray, Manziel and Cam Newton; the latter two both won Heisman Trophies and the former, if he matches last year's yardage total, would finish as a top-10 career passer in FBS history.
These are players who go beyond the normal bounds of quarterbacking. They're capable of doing things, seeing things, knowing things most of their peers can't fathom. There's a reason dropping 20 on Alabama becomes a lifelong feather in one's cap.
For a team that doesn't have such a quarterback, beating Alabama is extremely difficult. Not impossible, as Mr. Bonaparte would remind us, but highly unlikely without extreme good luck.
A quarterback that's willing (and able) to play chess, on the other hand, could help rewrite football history.
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