Alabama by the Numbers: Offensive and Defensive Balance

Yesterday we touched on the importance of balance in the Crimson Tide offense and, earlier this week, we went into a dramatic amount of detail in explaining how dominant the Alabama defense was this season. What is probably most overlooked about this team is how these two aspects of the game performed in conjunction to produce victories.

Let's start with the running game. If you compare what Alabama was able to accomplish on the ground versus each opponents' corresponding running game in every game this season, a pretty clear pattern emerges.

Yards per Carry 2011 Season
Source: CFB Stats

Only Georgia Southern, Tennessee and LSU in November were able to boast a more productive running attack in their contest with the Crimson Tide. In the case of Tennessee and LSU, a big reason for that state of affairs was a gameplan designed around stopping Alabama's run game. Against Georgia Southern, it has to with a couple of "Ye gods!" huge runs.

The improvement in the quality of the running game over the past half decade is as noticeable as the 2011 Alabama defense's particular skill at stopping it.

Yards per Carry 2007-2011
Source: CFB Stats

As breathtaking as having both Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram in the backfield was, it paled when compared to what Trent and Eddie Lacy were able to accomplish this season. This dominance, in conjunction with the defense's ability to stymie opponent's on the ground, gave the Crimson Tide the ability to control the clock in almost every contest. In terms of time of possession, that translated into Alabama controlling the ball an average of 5:35 longer than the opposition per game over the entire season.

With control of the ground game and, by extension, the clock, opposing offenses would then be forced to the air to pull off the upset against Alabama. And, in so doing, putting the pressure on the Crimson Tide offense to use it's passing game to create first down opportunities and extend drives.

Yards per Completion 2011 Season
Source: CFB Stats

As you might expect, quite a few teams during the course of the season either matched Alabama in the air or simply out-threw the Crimson Tide. (Georgia Southern again skews the stats with the team's single completion of the game being a 39-yard touchdown strike.)

The one noticeable exception is the LSU game in November. Due to the closeness of the score the Tide found itself relying on the offense to produce and create scoring opportunities in order to put the game away. In this respect, the offense did exactly that (although it was unsuccessful in reaching the end zone) by putting the kicking team in field goal range no less than six times.

Yards per Completion 2007-2011
Source: CFB Stats

If there's another graph that more clearly illustrates the value Julio Jones brought to the Crimson Tide offense, I'd be interested to see it. Just three teams in college football had a better yards/attempt stat than Alabama in 2009. Last season the Crimson Tide was tied for 34th.

Again, the offensive passing numbers have to be seen in light of how effective the defense was at limiting the ability of the opposition to gain yards through the air and, in that respect, it's tough to imagine a team capable of doing better. In terms of yards per completion, opposing offenses fell a staggering 26% between 2010 and 2011.

And while the lack of yardage may seem troubling, the truth of the matter is that Alabama's receiving corps were extremely proficient in terms of catching the ball. Tight end Brad Smelley's catch rate was more than 80%, the best in the conference for any player targeted more than 50 times in 2011. Marquis Maze's 64.4% catch rate was exactly even with the far more lauded performance of LSU's Rueben Randle.

That kind of efficiency may not have produced many Sports Center highlight clips but it certainly kept the chains moving on passing downs over the course of the season. That kind of reliability meant Alabama boasted more than enough firepower to extend drives late in games to control the clock.

Allied with the Crimson Tide defense's dominance against opposing pass attacks meant teams behind on the scoreboard were hamstrung in playing catch-up late in games. That, allied with fatigue, usually meant costly mistakes and even more opportunities for Alabama to score.

So, to understand how the Crimson Tide defense was able to perform at such a high degree this season, it's important to understand how it was complemented by the performance of the offense. By stopping the run the Alabama defense typically was able to force opposing teams into passing situations which were staggeringly unsuccessful.

That put the ball in the hands of Alabama's offense that used the passing game to keep the chains moving to extend drives and the running game to control the clock. With the Crimson Tide offense on the field opposing passers had fewer scoring opportunities and the opposing defenses were pushed to the limits of their conditioning.

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