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The Offensive Line: What To Do Moving Forward

"They just kinda outplayed us up front, if you wanna know the truth." ~ Nick Saban

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday the Alabama offensive line was terrible, particularly on running plays. We’re not talking about a mediocre performance, nor are we talking about a below average performance. This may sound like an overreaction, one full of hyperbole, but truth be told, it’s quite the opposite. As OTS pointed out on Twitter, out of 38 rushing attempts 26 went for no more than two yards and 16 of those were for no gain or a loss. A pro scout on hand to watch the game told Alex Scarborough, an Alabama beat writer for ESPN, that “the o-line got their ass kicked”. Nick Saban, who is quoted above, appears to feel the same way. Now that the quality of their performance has been established, lets look at why it happened and how this problem can be rectified moving forward.

A couple points must be made in order to adequately answer the ‘why’ question. The first point is that Virginia Tech’s defensive front is both talented and experienced. As has been noted numerous times, Alabama’s offensive line specifically had issues with their lateral quickness at the snap. They often overloaded one side of the formation and then slanted back to the other side, outmaneuvering the Tide at the point of attack.

The second point is that this group of offensive linemen were starting their first game together. Cohesion at this unit is particularly important, and a lack of familiarity can prove to be a major impediment to consistency and success. This issue is made even worse by the fact that they were introducing three new starters, whose only game experience had come at the end of blowouts against mostly second and third stringers. This was baptism by fire.

The third point, which is easily the most troubling, involves the talent level on the offensive line. Anthony Steen is a very good player, who played well. Cyrus Kouandjio is an excellent player, who simply had a bad day. We need not be concerned about those two players. The same cannot be said for the other three players. Arie Kouandjio and Ryan Kelly really struggled, and Austin Shepherd was average at best. Often times they were essentially non-competitive. Growing pains are to be expected, but these were severe to the point where you have to honestly contemplate how effective they will be in the near future. What I mean is, if Saturday told us anything it’s that these players, while not lost causes by any means, are simply not talented enough to be expected to perform at a high level immediately.

I could spend time breaking down individual plays, showing how different linemen got beat, but I think that would be redundant. None of this is about complex schemes. It’s about one group of players out-performing another group of players. You all saw this on Saturday … you don’t need me to break it down any further.

Some improvement between now and both the Texas A&M and Ole Miss games should be expected, but whether that improvement will be enough is very much up for debate. Those two defensive fronts may not be quite as good as what Virginia Tech has, but should Alabama show up during either one of those games and perform in a similar fashion then it won’t much matter. If that were to be the case, the very best they could hope for would be a stalemate in the trenches, and, given Alabama’s style of offense, there’s at least a decent chance they could lose one, or both, of those games. Because of this I’m hoping that Coach Saban and Coach Nussmeier adjust their offensive strategies to help mitigate this problem, rather than sticking with the same strategies and simply hoping the players perform better. Taking that sort of risk would worry me quite a bit.

Under Coach Saban, Alabama’s offense has been as pro-style as they come. The bulk of their formations are 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends, and 2 wide receivers) and 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 tight end, 2 wide receivers), to go along with some 11 personnel (1 back, 1 tight end, and 3 wide receivers). As we’ve discussed in previous posts, Alabama typically uses the run to setup the pass. But while all offenses rely on solid offensive line play, this style of offense relies on it most heavily. Despite mixing it up they’re still the kind of offense that really doesn’t care whether the defense is expecting the run … they’ll run it anyway, and trust their offensive line to execute. Think about how many times we saw this against both Georgia and Notre Dame last year. Furthermore, when you play with 12 personnel and 21 personnel, there will always be more defenders in the box, even if the defense doesn’t bring in an extra man. Even with the extra blockers, this puts additional stress on the offensive line. Not only are there more guys to block, but because of that, how they’ll act at the snap becomes less and less predictable. The more players in the box the more options the defense has, in terms of confusing the blockers (conversely, the fewer defenders in the box the more vanilla the defense is forced to be in their play-calling). For an experienced and talented offensive line this might not matter. It certainly didn’t to Alabama last year and in years past. But for this offensive line it did on Saturday, and that may continue in the future.

The very best offensive coaches, despite having a core philosophy, adapt their scheme to their players. In previous years Alabama’s offensive personnel allowed them to deploy a pro-style, run based attack. They’ve had elite running backs and very talented offensive lines, but they’ve also had limited talent and depth at wide receiver and a quarterback that fits the ‘game manager’ mold more than anything else. This year the running backs are still elite, but everything else is different. The offensive line is inexperienced and less talented. The wide receivers are both very talented and very deep. The quarterback is a third year starter coming off an exceptional 2012 season. It’s easy to see how that sort of personnel lends itself to a different offensive approach than in year’s past. Saban has acknowledged this on numerous occasions, yet we didn’t see much of a difference against Virginia Tech. That may have been by design, or it may not have been. But that doesn’t much matter going forward. What does matter is that, in my opinion, that style of offense, for this personnel, is untenable ... or, at least, far from ideal.

I’m not advocating for a full on spread and shred approach, but I think it would be wise to combine some air raid concepts along with some spread to run concepts. In terms of personnel groupings, that means lots of spread, both to pass and run. That serves four main purposes (which I’ve mentioned previously in a comments section):

1) Takes the pressure off the offensive line, in general.

2) Stretches out the defense, which should limit more exotic blitzes, again helping the offensive line.

3) Allows Alabama to maximize their talent at wide receiver … which, obviously, is plentiful.

4) Creates more space for the running backs.

Keep in mind that this transition should be relatively smooth. Alabama already uses spread concepts, it’s just not their main style of attack. The players have practiced these concepts, and have successfully implemented them in games, on numerous occasions (remember my post about Three Verticals … and that’s just a small piece of the puzzle). They’re also embarking on a full week of practice without an opponent looming next weekend. If there was ever a time to tweak the approach, it’s right now.

And this doesn’t have to be a permanent change. As the season moves along and the offensive line develops more and more cohesion, the coaches can transition back to a more pro-style approach. That’s another transition that should go smoothly.

Furthermore, I want to stress that this call for change is not simply a reaction to Saturday’s game. As stated above, it’s a reaction to the kind of offensive personnel that Alabama has this year. Saturday’s game only serves as additional evidence.

The nature of college football doesn’t allow for the luxury of patience. If a team aspires to win a national championship, and Alabama certainly does, each game presents a new opportunity for the season to be ruined. With two very difficult opponents on the horizon, now seems like a good time to make the necessary adjustments.