I’m not trying to scare you all in advance of Saturday’s showdown between Alabama and LSU, but I wouldn’t be giving an honest evaluation of the LSU offense if I didn’t heap boatloads of praise onto them. In recent years LSU’s offense has been inconsistent at best, but under first year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron that has all changed. Now they’re one of the top offenses in the country – and one of the most balanced. They throw for an average of 279.4 yards per game and rush for an average of 200.6 yards per game. They average 40.2 points per game.
After struggling mightily for much of last season (except against Alabama, as you all know), Zach Mettenberger has taken a huge step forward in 2013. A strict pocket passer, Mettenberger combines strong accuracy with tremendous arm talent. He can make every throw, which has allowed LSU to expand their offensive playbook to incorporate the sort of route concepts that are typically reserved for the NFL. On the season he has completed 65.4% of his passes, and is averaging an exceptional 10.74 yards per attempt. He has 19 touchdown passes to go along with 7 interceptions. His weaknesses are both his lack of mobility and his relatively show release, which makes him more vulnerable to pressure than your average quarterback. It’s always important for the defense to pressure the opposing quarterback, but it’s even more important in this game. If Mettenberger is able to operate in a clean pocket on a consistent basis, you can be quite confident that he will carve up the Alabama secondary.
In my opinion, LSU has the best wide receiver duo in the entire country, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham. Both run full route trees, and can wreak havoc on all parts of the field. Their versatility, coupled with Mettenberger’s previously mentioned ability to make every type of throw, is a deadly combination. Beckham is already over 1,000 yards on the season (1,009, to be exact, on 48 catches), and is averaging an impressive 21 yards per catch to go along with 8 touchdowns. Landry has hauled in 58 receptions for 882 yards, for an average of 15.2 yards per catch. He also has 8 touchdowns. As the statistics show, Beckham is more of a threat down the field while Landry dominates the short and intermediate areas, but make no mistake, Beckham can beat you short and Landry can beat you deep. Both are also versatile in terms of where they line up, as they’ll spend plenty of time out wide and in the slot. Kadron Boone, their third wide receiver, is also talented, but he has been used sparingly this year. Tight-end Travis Dickson will also be used every now and then in the passing game, while their other tight end, Dillon Gordon, is mostly used as a blocker.
One aspect of the LSU offense that remains unchanged this year is a strong running game. They’re led by Jeremy Hill, who despite playing sparingly at the very beginning of the season (due to off the field trouble), has already amassed 922 rushing yards (7.2 yards per carry) to go along with 12 touchdowns. Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard, and Alfred Blue all share the backup duties. To date, Magee has been the most effective (7.5 yards per carry), but they’re all talented and compliment each other well. One thing that distinguishes the LSU running attack from their SEC peers (even the pro-style teams) is that LSU frequently uses a fullback. The starter is J.C. Copeland, and although he has missed the previous two games with a concussion, he is now healthy and expected to be at full strength for Saturday’s game. Connor Neighbors will also see time at fullback.
The LSU offensive line isn’t overwhelming, but they’re solid with no glaring weaknesses. They’re a strong zone blocking unit, and that’s what you should expect the majority of LSU’s running plays to be on Saturday. They won’t be the strongest unit Alabama has seen all year (definitely behind Tennessee, probably Texas A&M, and maybe Arkansas) but they’ll compete and likely won’t be dominated by Alabama’s defensive front.
As I mentioned above, the LSU running game operates mostly within a zone blocking scheme, something we’ve both discussed and seen plenty of over Alabama’s past two games (Tennessee and Arkansas). The different, however, is the use of a fullback, and the running back’s target point will often be the outside or inside shoulder of the fullback (essentially, he’ll be the lead blocker). But as is often the case with zone blocking schemes, the running back will have the freedom to change his target point, something we see quite often from both TJ Yeldon and Kenyan Drake. This suits Hill’s abilities well, as he offers an impressive combination of power, burst, and vision.
Over the last couple of games against Tennessee and Arkansas we’ve seen a lot of pre-snap motion from wide receivers, even on simple inside zones, in an effort to widen out the defense. You won’t see much of that from LSU. This is very much a no frills running game, which simply allows the talent of both the offensive line and running backs to take over. Against LSU most teams are forced to play two deep safeties to respect the vertical passing game, which, from a numbers standpoint, creates opportunities for the LSU running game. One of the most interesting things to watch on Saturday is the numbers game – specifically how often Alabama chooses to play an extra man in the box, and, if they do, whether or not it creates additional vertical opportunities for the offense.
Before we get into the schematics of the LSU passing game, I just want to provide you all with a couple of examples of Beckham and Landry’s talent – the best pair of wide receivers Alabama has faced in a long, long time.
Beckham’s most impressive quality is his route running and footwork, which is incredibly advanced for a college player. Here he is running a simple comeback route. Watch how he doesn’t give the route away until he actually breaks it off, allowing him to create a lot of separation from the defender.
He’s extremely explosive, almost impossible to defend in isolation. If Alabama plans to allow any of their corners, even Deion Belue, to play man coverage against Beckham with no help, I think it may end up costing them. In many ways, he reminds me of Amari Cooper, particularly in terms of how polished a route runner he is, to go along with his explosiveness.
What stands out to me about Landry is both his catch radius and ability to secure receptions in traffic, two qualities that are essential for physical, possession receivers. Here he is making a highlight reel catch between three defenders.
Beckham and Landry are so talented that, at times, LSU will play max protect, and only have two or three receivers actually run patterns. This makes them particularly tough to blitz against, because if they max protect, the blitz is unlikely to get home. In turn this leaves Beckham and Landry isolated against defenders, and that’s particularly bad news for the defense. Lets check out an example of this.
And here’s my sketch of the play:
LSU is in a full house formation, with three players in the backfield. Landry is split out to the left and Beckham is split out to the right. Georgia is in their base 3-4 defense, and showing an eight man front with the strong safety having moved down into the box.
Georgia rushes five, and the eight blockers give Mettenberger a clean pocket. Georgia has six defenders to guard only two LSU receivers, but that’s not always sufficient against these two.
Beckham and Landry both run the same route – they angle toward the sideline before working back, sharply, to the middle of the field. It’s basically a comeback route, just with a slight variation. Landry gets free and Mettenberger finds him for a nice gain.
When LSU spreads the field, they don’t change personnel groupings. Instead of using four and five wide receiver sets, they flex backs and tight ends out wide. The effect this has is that it clears out the middle of the field, allowing the wide receivers (lined up in the slot) to operate in more space.
Here’s an example of this in the red zone, where it’s typically difficult to throw the ball on obvious passing downs.
And here's my sketch of the play:
LSU is in an empty set, with tight-end Travis Dickson split wide to the left and running back Jeremy Hill split wide to the right. Jarvis Landry is lined up just to the left of the formation and Kadron Boone is lined up to Landry’s left. Odell Beckham is lined up in the slot to the right of the formation. The Georgia defense is stretched really thin, with two backers having shifted out to cover Dickson and Hill. Essentially they’re in a combo coverage, with four defenders guarding three receivers on the left and three defenders guarding two receivers on the right.
Georgia has to prioritize here, and that means focusing on Landry and Beckham. Mettenberger’s progression is to his left the entire way, and it’s pretty simple. All three receivers to the left are running inside routes, with Boone trailing Landry and Dickson trailing Boone. Mettenberger’s progression is H – X – Y.
Georgia doubles Landry, so Mettenberger’s initial read is taken away. So he shifts his eyes to Boone, who has been his man off the line, and is wide open running into the area that Landry cleared out. From there it’s a simple pitch and catch for a touchdown.
Notice how, after flexing non-wide receivers to the boundary, LSU attacks the middle of the field. This will be a theme.
Here’s another example of this.
And here’s my sketch of the play:
Again LSU is in an empty set, this time with running back Alfred Blue split out wide to the left. Beckham is lined up in the slot to the right. Boone is split out wide to the right and Landry is in the slot to the right. Dickson is the tight-end. Georgia is playing man-to-man defense across the board, with two deep safeties and four pass rushers. There are no help defenders in the short and intermediate parts of the field.
The two receivers to the left (Landry and Boone) are running inside breaking routes, while the tight-end (Dickson) is running an outside breaking route. The running back out wide (Blue) is running a short hitch, while Beckham is running a skinny post.
Beckham breaks free of his man, and Mettenberger, knowing there is no help to the inside, throws it into the open area, hitting Beckham in stride for a nice gain.
Again they’re attacking the middle of the field. Now lets look at an example of them attacking the deep middle of the field.
And here’s my sketch of the play:
This time LSU keeps a man in the backfield, for pass protection. Boone is split wide to the left, while the tight-end, Dickson, is split out to the right. Landry is in the slot right, tight to the formation, and Beckham is lined up to Landry’s right. Georgia rushes five and has two deep safeties.
Gary mentions on the broadcast that the Georgia defenders seem confused, and I’m inclined to agree – I’m not entirely sure what they were trying to do on this play. First, there was no one lined up on Boone. Second, the trio of defenders on the right side seem unsure of themselves. This can be one of the byproducts of flexing non-wide receivers out wide – the defense might be unsure exactly how to adjust within the play call. Communication is key here, for the defense, and hopefully the absence of Vinnie Sunseri doesn’t prove costly in situations like this.
Anyway, the tight-end (these players are almost always decoys, mind you) runs a short, inside breaking route, in order to draw at least one defender away from the deep part of the field. Beckham runs an out and up and Landry nods to the corner before breaking to the post. They’re the two primary targets on this play.
The safety to that side of the field moves toward the boundary to defend Beckham, leaving Landry one on one with his man. Mettenberger sees this, shifts his eyes to Landry, and from there it’s another simple pitch and catch for a touchdown.
These wide receivers are tough enough to defend as it is – but defending them man-to-man in the middle of the field with no help is basically impossible.
Lastly, lets see how they use this same concept to get Jeremy Hill involved in the passing game.
And here's my sketch of the play:
LSU has two wide receivers to the right, one tight-end to the left, and two backs on either side of Mettenberger. Georgia counters with their base 3-4 defense.
Just before the snap the fullback (Connor Neighbors), lined up to Mettenberger’s right, is motioned out wide to the left. The first problem for Georgia is that the linebackers are confused – they’re unsure of their responsibilities. At the last second they decide that the MIKE backer will cover Neighbors, the WILL backer will cover the tight-end (Dickson), and the SAM backer will cover Hill.
Hill, one on one with the SAM backer, with no help in the middle of the field, is a colossal mismatch. Mettenberger recognizes this immediately, and hits Hill on a circle route for a huge gain.
LSU gashed Alabama last year on a half-back circle that also went to Hill, which you may remember.
What’s obvious, at least to me, is that against these concepts it’s very difficult to play man defense. The middle of the field is wide open, leaving Beckham and Landry far too much room in which to operate. I can’t guarantee that Alabama won’t trust their corners to hold up in man coverage in these situations, but with Deion Belue less than one hundred percent and the boundary corner situation in flux, my guess is that Saban and Smart will hesitate to isolate any one defender against Beckham and Landry.
To that end, Alabama may respond to these sort of formations by keeping their backers in the middle of the field. The downside of that is it gives away to the offense that you’re playing zone, because otherwise you would have linebackers one on one with receivers, and that would be untenable for the defense. So there are pros and cons everywhere, which explains why this is such a solid offensive strategy – and why Alabama uses it as well.
Some final thoughts ...
I talk a lot about Bill Belichick, not only because Saban learned under him but also because, in many ways, Saban emulates Belichick. But one area in which they diverge from one another is how they handle star wide receivers. Against an offense with one or two great pass catching weapons, Belichick’s strategy has always been to do everything possible to take that player (or two players) away. Of course the downside to this is that it leaves you vulnerable in other areas, but Belichick believes in challenging the lesser players on an offense to make meaningful plays – a method that has worked for him many times over (and has also failed, on occasion).
On the other hand, Saban rarely employs this strategy. Instead he’ll only make minor adjustments to defend star players, mostly playing his normal defenses, regardless of the opponent. This is a strategy that has worked for him many times over, but on occasion hasn’t (Mike Evans). I bring this up only to drive home the point that, in all likelihood, Saban won’t do anything special against these star wide receivers, instead trusting his regular defensive schemes (tweaked slightly for the opponent) to stop them.
As for blitzing, one of Alabama’s biggest issues in last year’s game, on those third downs, was that their blitzes were generally poorly timed. They blitzed throughout the game, because that’s what Saban and Smart do, and, for whatever reason, it was always just too late. As I discussed earlier, it’s tough to blitz against LSU – if you blitz against 21 or 12 personnel you might be caught against a max protect call, meaning that Mettenberger is likely to have a clean pocket and the receivers are going to be isolated against defenders. If you blitz against a spread look it puts a ton of pressure on the corners and safeties/backers to hold within the first few seconds of the play, because if you don’t, you’re giving the offense a chance to hit a huge play. But if the coverage does hold up and the blitz gets home, Mettenberger’s struggles against pressure are likely to rear its ugly head and mistakes should follow. The easy solution for Alabama is simply to get pressure with their front four – but that’s not their strong suit, and you can expect them to blitz early and often. Lets hope the problems from last year’s game have been identified and rectified.
Lastly, I know this was a really long article, even by my own standards, so if you stuck with it all the way to the end, I really appreciate it. I wanted to do a thorough job for the LSU game, and I hope you all came away from this a little bit more knowledgeable about what to expect on Saturday.