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Vanderbilt Game: Individual Play Breakdown

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As promised, the individual play breakdown for the Vanderbilt game...

It'd 3rd and 4, and we have the ball at our own 31 yard line. There are approximately five minutes remaining in the first quarter, and we lead the Commodores 10-0.

We break the huddle, and we line up in a no back set. There are twin wide receivers to each side of the formation, with tight end Nick Walker (88) lined up to the offensive left of the formation, just outside of left tackle Andre Smith (71). Long story short, it's an obvious passing situation, with no backs in the backfield.

Despite us spreading the field and emptying the backfield, Vanderbilt responds with their 4-3 base formation. Nothing out of the ordinary here, it's your typical 4-3. The only difference is that the linebackers have wider splits, which is to be expected because they are lining up closing to the inside receivers.

The following is a diagram of the pre-snap formations. The black line marks the line of scrimmage, and the blue line marks the first down marker. Click the picture for the full-size version.

So what is the pre-snap read here?

Obviously, we're going to have a three-step drop, given the empty backfield, and a quick throw must occur. Vanderbilt remains in their base 4-3, and they give the look that they will be playing man on the receivers. But intuitively you must know that it's not going to be that simple. There's just no way the Vanderbilt coaches would be dumb enough to think that, in such an obvious passing situation, they could just rush the front four and expect two linebackers to be able to successfully cover two wide receivers. That's just something you must know. You have to realize that somewhere, somehow, Vanderbilt is going to blitz someone and play at least a partial zone behind that blitz. Just because the look is man doesn't mean that you should expect man coverage.

So what should you be doing?

The pre-snap read should be that they are showing man, but that they are without doubt going to do some blitz / zone combination. As a quarterback, you have to figure out very quickly where the blitz is coming from, then finding the hole in the zone, and then deliver the football to the receiver in the vacated area.

Unfortunately, it doesn't go as planned.

The following is a diagram of the play itself. As before, click the picture for the full-size version.

As Wilson should have known from the pre-snap read, Vanderbilt indeed does play a zone / blitz combo. It is indeed man coverage on the slot receiver to the offensive line with the linebacker, but on the opposite side of the formation, the linebacker nearest D.J. Hall (22) comes in on a blitz. To compensate for that hole in the coverage, Vanderbilt brings down the strong safety to play a loose zone in the middle of the field.

Alabama does as expected too. With an empty backfield, you must have a quick throw, and as a result four of the five Alabama receivers on this play run short routes that would get just enough to get the first down. Only the outside receiver to the offensive left runs a deep route, as he runs a go up the left sideline.

Unfortunately, the blocking up front breaks down. Right guard Marlon Davis (76) blocks the left defensive tackle, and right tackle Mike Johnson (78) blocks the left defensive end. The exact opposite is true for the left tackle (71) and the left guard (50). Center Antoine Caldwell (59) is in the middle looking for someone to block. Unfortunately, with both the right tackle and the guard engaged with defensive linemen, the blitzing Vanderbilt linebacker is able to shoot through the B gap untouched. Ideally, Davis would have kicked out and picked up the blitzing linebacker, while Caldwell would have blocked the left defensive tackle, but things didn't work out that way.

But the pass blocking isn't what causes this play to fail. To the contrary, John Parker Wilson causes this play to fail. I mentioned earlier that this was a blown play by Marlon Davis, and after reviewing the game film, I see that I was wrong. The pass blocking didn't help, but the sack here is squarely on Wilson's shoulder.

As mentioned earlier, Wilson has to get rid of the ball quickly. This is obviously a three-step drop, and they key number on the three-step drop is 1.3. As in the quarterback has approximately 1.3 seconds, and the ball must be out. If you hold onto the ball any longer than that, especially with an empty backfield, you are going down.

So, Wilson takes the snap, and immediately looks left. He never scans the field for zone coverage or blitzing defenders, it's as if he assumes that Vanderbilt really is going to man up their linebackers on our receivers. When the linebacker lined up near D.J. Hall (22) blitzes, Hall becomes wide open, with the nearest defender at least eight yards away from him. All Wilson has to do accomplish is the elementary task of seeing the linebacker blitzing, and then dumping the ball off to Hall. In doing so, we get an automatic first down, and we give the ball to our best offensive playmaker with a ton of room to work with. A worst-case scenario has us with a first down well out past the 40 yard line. And that's even with the blown block up front.

But it doesn't go as it should. As mentioned earlier, Wilson immediately looks left, and doesn't even scan the field for any potential blitzes. As a result, he never even sees the blitzing linebacker, much less a wide-open Hall. Wilson doesn't even look to that half of the field. The blitzing linebacker could be playing with himself and Wilson would never know it. He drops back to throw -- in a three-step drop with an empty backfield no less -- as if he's got all damn day to throw the football.

The Vanderbilt linebacker, however, quickly ends that fantasy, as he pops Wilson and takes him down for the sack. It's the exact same thing that occurred last year in the Iron Bowl with Quentin Groves -- Wilson gets "blind-sided" by a defender who should easily be in his field of vision.

D.J. Hall is visibly very upset with his quarterback, and was even waving his arms trying to get his attention to throw him the ball. But alas, the throw never comes and Wilson goes down. Hall's frustrating day of being wide open without his quarterback be able to get the ball to him continues.

It's punting time for the Tide. Five plays later, the Commodores are on the board with a field goal. 10-3 game.