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Individual Play Analysis: FSU Fiasco

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Now that we have made our way into the off-season and we don't have as many pressing subjects to discuss, we're going to bring back the individual play analysis feature that we have previously had from time-to-time on RBR. In this installment, we will be looking at John Parker Wilson sack and subsequent fumble in the Florida State game. You can follow along with this analysis by looking at the video of the play by clicking here or here. In the first video, the play can be found at approximately the fourteen second mark, and in the second video it is at approximately the 1:42 mark.

Background

With approximately 9:15 left in the fourth quarter, Alabama finds itself trailing Florida State 7-0. After taking a touchdown lead on the opening drive of the second half, the Seminoles were seemingly on the verge of breaking the game wide open, but a timely Price Hall interception temporarily saved the day. With disaster averted, however, the defensive struggle continued, and the Alabama offense remained unable to move the football with any degree of effectiveness. Florida State was pinned up very deep early in the fourth quarter, but they moved the ball out quite well near midfield. Finally, a huge stop by Ali Sharrief on a 3rd and 5 for the 'Noles has gotten Alabama the ball back.

Situation

After regaining possession at our own 13 yard line, things quickly go south, as Wilson was sacked on first down, and an incomplete pass followed on second down. Suddenly, Alabama finds themselves staring down the barrel of a 3rd and 15 from our own 8 yard line. We need to move the ball just past the 23 in order to keep the drive alive.

Pre-Snap

Facing a third and long situation, Alabama spreads the field as you would expect. John Parker Wilson (14) lines up in the shotgun, with Glen Coffee (38) alongside. It's a three wide receiver formation, with two split out to the left and one lone wide receiver to the right side of the formation. Nick Walker (88), the tight end, is down in a three-point stance on the line of scrimmage, just outside of right tackle Mike Johnson (78). In terms of formation, there is nothing especially unusual about what we come out in; it's your basic, vanilla shotgun formation.

Florida State responds about like you would expect them to, with a ton of defensive backs. They bring in only three defensive linemen, replacing the fourth lineman with an extra linebacker, and go with six defensive backs. The two defensive ends -- Alex Boston (98) and Everette Brown (99) -- are both split out wide, undoubtedly about to pin their ears back and go after the passer. In the defensive backfield, the 'Noles have three defensive backs loosely covering up each of the Alabama receivers, and three more defensive backs behind them.

Click the following photo for a full-size diagram of the pre-snap formations from both squads.

So, now that you have fully digested the previous diagram, what is the pre-snap read?

Fortunately for John Parker Wilson, the read is pretty simple. The three down linemen are almost guaranteed to rush the passer, and none of the six defensive backs are near close enough to the line to rush the passer. Moreover, given the alignment of the three defensive backs loosely over the wide receivers, combined with the three defensive backs behind them -- and considering that none of them will rush the passer -- you can relatively easily determine that the 'Noles will probably be playing a Cover Three over the top, and either man or an intermediate zone underneath the Cover Three shell.

Considering that you generally know what the defensive linemen and defensive backs will be doing, as ascertained from the pre-snap read, it really only leaves the two linebackers as an uncertainty. With them, they will either blitz the quarterback -- thus creating a five man rush -- or they will drop into pass coverage, which will give the 'Noles a three man rush with an eight man coverage.

The Play

The ball is snapped and Wilson drops back to pass. Alabama completely empties the backfield, sending both tight end Nick Walker (88) and tailback Glen Coffee (38) out on pass routes, leaving only the five offensive linemen to block for Wilson. Florida State does almost exactly what you expected from the pre-snap reads. They rush the three defensive linemen, play a Cover Three behind it, and the the linebackers drop into zone coverage of the middle (which is not surprising, they backed out late before the snap). And we all know how this one ends. Wilson is flushed from the pocket, gets hit, fails to protect the football, and a fumble ensues. But we all knew that, let's go deeper into what happens.

Click the following for the full-size diagram of the play itself.

The wide receivers, unfortunately, never seemingly become an option. They all run deeper routes downfield, and you can never really see any of them to develop with any promising possibilities. There are simply entirely too many defensive backs in coverage, and the windows are extremely small. A throw to any of them would be a very dumb decision.

There are two legitimate possibilities on this play however. Both tailback Glen Coffee (38) and tight end Nick Walker (88) are open.

Coffee comes out of the backfield and attacks the area between the two linebackers in zone coverage. And he does so with some success. He exploits the space between the two linebackers, and he is open. The play will not gain very much, and certainly not a first down, but it is a relatively safe pass that will likely put us near the fifteen yard line. If we can do that, a decent punt will give the 'Noles the ball on their side of the field with a 7-0 lead and approximately nine minutes remaining. It's not the flashy play, obviously, but it is a smart one.

Nick Walker, however, is the more interesting possibility. He runs a great seam route and does a wonderful job of exploiting the space between the FSU linebacker (7) and the two deep defenders on his side of the field. When the linebacker moves left to pursue Coffee, Walker suddenly becomes a highly attractive target. It won't be the easiest throw in the world, of course, but there is a relatively big window to throw it through, and it's a relatively safe throw, too -- unless Wilson just air-mails it far over Walker's head -- because Walker can use his body to shield the safety from the ball if he makes an early break on it. And, unlike the throw to Coffee, this one actually gives you a legitimate chance of moving the chains. At the very least, if nothing more, it's a no risk throw. A worst-case scenario probably has an incomplete passes that results in a punt.

Now those two things are fine and dandy... only one problem: Wilson never actually looks at either Coffee or Walker. You can follow Wilson's progression in this clip -- look specifically at the 1:42 mark -- and it is clear that he never actually looks at Coffee, and he never even looks in the direction of Walker, much less at him. Walker could have been over there playing with himself and Wilson would have never noticed. Wilson's progression begins by reading the safety in the middle of the field, and once he sees that he has retreated to cover the deep middle, he immediately looks to the left side of the field and never takes his eyes off of that area.

At this point, things go straight to hell for our beloved Crimson Tide. Wilson breaks out of the pocket to the left, continuing to look in that direction. The only problem is that we have two wide receivers in that area of the field, compared to five pass defenders. I'll let you do the math on that one. Even if he throws a pass in this situation, it's likely to be intercepted, and the time has come to make a smart play and either throw the football out of bounds, or turn it upfield and try to get back to the line of scrimmage. Of course, though, Wilson never been consistently possessed with a proclivity to make smart plays, so he continues to move out of the pocket, carrying the ball vicariously, and naturally it's only a matter of time before Everette Brown (99) reaches him from the backside and forces the fumble.

In all fairness, though, the offensive line didn't exactly put up its best showing. Antoine Caldwell did a nice job of blocking the Florida State nose tackle that was playing a zero technique on him, but the offensive tackles were plain ugly. Andre Smith, as per usual, struggles with the speed rush off of the edge, and though it looks ugly as hell, he gets the job done, barely. Mike Johnson, on the other hand, pretty much puts on a clinic of everything you should not do during pass blocking. He is slow getting out of his stance, his pad level is too high, he does not maintain proper balance, and as a result of all of that he cannot possibly recover. Once Everette Brown cuts to back to the inside, he easily leaves Johnson in his dust trail and his pursuit of John Parker Wilson begins.

The struggles of the offensive line, though, should not excuse the terrible play of John Parker Wilson in this particular situation. Though Mike Johnson ultimately whiffed on his block, Wilson nevertheless had adequate time to throw the football -- roughly four seconds -- and he never even looked at two receivers that were open. Moreover, regardless of how bad the offensive line play was, Wilson still had plenty of time to either run with the ball or throw it out of bounds, but he opted to do neither in lieu of loosely handling the ball while waiting for one of his two receivers to come open against the five defenders. And regardless of what play is called or how poorly any of the units perform, the ball carrier still has a responsibility to protect possession of the football, especially when inside your own ten yard line. Wilson almost wholly neglected that responsibility in this particular situation.

Either way, Florida State pounces on the fumble. One play later, FSU tailback Antone Smith scores on a touchdown run off of a toss left, and the 'Noles move ahead by two touchdowns with only nine minutes left to play. Defeat effectively becomes a certainty.

Editor's Note: Clarification

In the above diagram, I drew vertical lines for the three wide receivers, and did so to indicate that they all ran downfield routes. This should not be interpreted as the three wide receivers all ran go routes. It was a bit hard to get a lot of good video of the play, and I could never precisely ascertain the exact routes that these three ran. All that could be entirely discovered was that they all ran downfield routes, and that none of them ever came anywhere near open; that is what is intended by the diagram of their routes. Please do not construe that as meaning they all ran go routes. Had they been on go routes, I would have diagrammed their routes going much deeper. My apologies, I should have been more clear on that in the original story.