A Closer Look at the Alabama Running Game

In the preview for the Arkansas game, I expressed my concerns that we may have some trouble running the football against the Hogs. My reasoning was that we were a good bit smaller at the point of attack than we were a year ago, and that we had not yet been tested by a big, physical defensive front seven. And unfortunately, as Nico pointed out yesterday, my fears were confirmed. Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson combined for 26 carries on the day, and only nine of them were successes. Aside from Richardson's epic touchdown run -- which in all fairness should have been a three-yard loss -- the Hogs completely shut down the Alabama rushing attack.

So, with that poor performance in mind, I want to look a bit closer at our running game. First and foremost, I want to specifically look at our personnel at the point of attack and see how they have changed in terms of size, and then I want to see if the lack of success in the running game was really because the Hogs were committing so many defenders in order to stop the run. From there, we'll try to make some sense of it all.

First and foremost, in terms of personnel, I have compared the numbers and we are indeed a good bit smaller than we were last year at the point of attack. When we ran the ball in 2008, we generally did so out of two tight end sets, so the seven players we generally had at the point of attack were Travis McCall, Andre Smith, Mike Johnson, Antoine Caldwell, Marlon Davis, Drew Davis, and Nick Walker. Of course, though, of those seven players, only Mike Johnson and Drew Davis returned for the 2009 season, and the replacements for the five outgoing players are almost all smaller than their predecessors. Only Colin Peek is bigger than the player he replaced (Nick Walker), and he is only seven pounds heavier.

On the whole, if you look at the official weights listed on the 2008 and 2009 rosters, the seven players used at the point of attack this year in the running game is a full 59 pounds lighter than it was a year ago. And, frankly, there is reason to think that the current group is even smaller than that. It goes without saying that, of course, the official rosters can be misleading in terms of accurate height and weight measurements, and even if you assume that Andre Smith legitimately did play last year at 330 pounds and that Marlon Davis was only at 300 pounds -- neither of which many objective observers believe -- nevertheless Travis McCall and Antoine Caldwell, combined, weighed in at the Senior Bowl at 18 pounds over their listed weight, so if you factor that into consideration you are suddenly almost 80 pounds lighter at the point of attack than you were a year ago. At the very least, we are a good 60 pounds lighter this year at the point of attack, in all honesty we are probably more look 100 pounds lighter up front.

Watching the game film, it's hard to come a conclusion other than that our newly found lightness is hurting us in the running game. Simply put, we just don't have the ability to manhandle opponents at the point of attack like we did a year ago. We really aren't getting smacked around up front and allowing defenders to shoot into the backfield -- which is one reason why Ingram and Richardson's combined 26 carries, only two went for a loss -- but again we are not blowing opponents off the ball either. We are no longer just driving defensive linemen backwards, with linemen shooting out to the second level to pick off linebackers and safeties. Now we are, on a much more regular basis, fighting defensive fronts to a draw where no defender really shoots through, but where, by the same token, no real holes are created for our backs. There is more to that than just pure size, but in all fairness that does seem to be playing a pretty large role in it all.

So, what about the Arkansas defense?

I've noticed that much of the Internet chatter from 'Bama fans has been that we struggled to run the football against Arkansas because the Hogs were continuously stacking the box. But, of course, that's generally the standard excuse used when someone struggles to run the football, so I want to look closer to see if there is any validity to those claims. To that end, Sunday night I broke down the game footage and charted exactly how many defenders the Arkansas defense had in the box in each run by Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Those two, again, combined for 26 carries, and I charted 24 carries (two of Richardson's carries were, inexplicably, not included in the game video at the SEC Digital Network).

And what did I find?

Well, it's a tad bit complicated, actually. Arkansas did, in fact, stuff the box on several different occasions, and they weren't particularly shy about using eight (or more) defenders in the box in order to stop the run when they felt necessary. For example, watch the following two carries by Mark Ingram:



 

Now, with that said, however, to say that Arkansas consistently stopped the Alabama running by putting eight or more defenders in the box isn't entirely correct. In all actuality, Arkansas only had eight or more defenders in the box a grand total of eight times (i.e. only on one-third of all runs), and one of those carries is a bit misleading because it is the Mark Ingram touchdown run against the Hogs goal line defense. So, on the surface anyway, the notion that Arkansas stopped the Alabama rushing attack by consistently stacking the box with eight or more defenders really isn't on point because on two-thirds of the carries Arkansas actually had seven or fewer defenders in the box.

But again, though, it's not necessarily so simple. The "base" defense for Arkansas while trying to stop the run was to have seven defenders in the box, but if you look closely at the game film, you can see that the safeties (and at times the corners) were clearly looking to play the run. They may have not been lined up close enough to be considered "in the box," but they were nevertheless clearly playing the run and were looking to crash the line and pounce on any running play from the snap of the football. For example, look closely at the Arkansas cornerback in the following clip of Ingram's run, and the Arkansas safety in the following clip of Trent Richardson's long touchdown run.


 

So, in other words, even though Arkansas defense may not have been consistently stacking the box with eight or more defenders in an attempt to stop the Alabama running game, they were nevertheless expending a huge amount of resources -- via the usage of at least seven defenders in the box, plus safeties and corners constantly looking in the backfield to play the run.

And, interestingly enough, on the 24 rushing attempts I charted, only three times did the Hogs have fewer than seven defenders in the box, and on all three of those runs, they had exactly six defenders in the box. Furthermore, even more interesting, when Arkansas did only put six defenders in the box, the Alabama running game was highly successful. Those three attempts resulted in approximately 25 yards on the ground. The three following videos are the three rushes that came with only six defenders in the box:


 

I did find those three runs very interesting, and perhaps very insightful. Obviously those three runs are a very small sample size and thus not very telling in their own right, but there mere fact that the Arkansas coaching staff chose to have only six defenders in the box a grand total of three times over the course of an entire game ought to tell you just how dangerous they feel the Alabama running game can be if you do not have strength in numbers. And, frankly, it doesn't take the second coming of Bear Bryant to figure out why... with backs as big, strong, physical, and athletic as Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, if you give them match-ups against six man fronts they are likely to run over, through, and around those defenses. Combined that not so groundbreaking insight with the high amount of success that we had in very limited opportunities against a defense with only six men in the box, and you can pretty safely conclude that you will consistently need seven or more defenders in the box to slow down our running game.

So, enough talk, exactly what are we to make of all this?

From the outset, I do think we are clearly weaker at the point of attack than we were a year ago. We cannot manhandle defensive fronts in the same way that we could a year ago, and we do struggle to run the football against overloaded fronts. On the other hand, though, we do have two great tailbacks, and even if the offensive line is no longer dominating, it's not an outright liability either. Combined, it means that we can still be a very potent threat in the running game if the opposing defense is not committing a lot of resources to stopping the run. We cannot run the ball almost at will regardless of what you do, like we could for much of last year, but we still require you to sacrifice a lot to stop our running game.

And, interestingly enough, even though we haven't had as much success running the football this year, this has nevertheless opened up things greatly in the passing game. With seven or more defenders consistently trying to stop the run, that means you consistently have four or fewer defenders playing the pass, and that combined with the reality that Julio Jones almost constantly draws double teams means that you can almost always get single coverage in space on one or more Alabama receiver every time we drop back to throw the football. Greg McElroy has been nothing short of incredible this year, and he hasn't posted his mind-boggling stat line by throwing against defenses really keying to stop the pass, that much is sure.

All in all, while the running game struggled greatly against Arkansas, the offense nevertheless continued to do extremely well as a whole, racking up over 400 yards of total offense and 35 points. Clearly, given how things have played out to date, there is a concern if a team gives us real trouble in limiting our passing game (most likely with an effective pass rush from the front four), but a team that has to devote an extraordinary amount of resources to limiting McElroy and company will most likely get gutted by Ingram and Richardson. Despite our struggles running the football against Arkansas, it is clear that any defense that spends much of its time in nickel and dime situations is going to heavy, painful doses of #22 and #3. From the looks of things to date, it seems that if you truly want to stop our running game, you're going to have to devote a large amount of resources to doing so, and doing just that may very well result in you effectively picking your poison as, in turn, Greg McElroy and our wide receiver corps simply beats up on you by throwing it over your head.

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