After a dominating performance against the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens last Saturday, the Alabama Crimson Tide (4-1, 1-1 SEC) return to Bryant-Denny Stadium looking to get the bad taste of their last conference home game out of their mouths.
At first glance, this seems like the perfect opportunity to do just that.
The Arkansas Razorbacks (2-3, 1-1 SEC) have suffered losses to the likes of Toledo and Texas Tech this year, and they aren't the kind of team that matches up well with Nick Saban's Tide squads (just ask Georgia and Wisconsin). However, the Razorbacks have been playing much better football since conference play began, including notching their first SEC road victory since 2012 last weekend against Tennessee. Coach Bret Bielema has done a terrific job preventing his team from throwing in the towel on the young season, and the Hogs seem ready to put their ugly September behind them.
On top of that, while Alabama may not be the ideal match-up for Arkansas, the Razorbacks have some looks on both sides of the ball that could lead to some success for the road dogs.
When Arkansas Has the Ball
Arkansas experienced a bit of an identity crisis earlier this season. Against Toledo, the usually dominant ground game was held to just 103 yards on 31 attempts. Because of their inability to establish the run, quarterback Brandon Allen was charged with trying to air things out, and while he threw for over 400 total yards, he couldn't make things happen in the redzone, and Arkansas was stunned by the Rockets 16-12.
Since SEC play began, however, the Razorbacks have run the ball 92 times for 507 yards, or 5.5 yards per carry. Part of this improvement developed from the emergence of running back Rawleigh Williams, who has given Alex Collins a much-needed sidekick in the backfield. Bielema's offense requires two good runners because of all of the action the running back gets in his offense. The sudden loss of stud Jonathan Williams right before the season hurt the Hogs more than many thought it would early on.
The emergence of a second reliable option in the backfield has helped the Razorbacks greatly in the run game, but it has also helped ease pressure off of Allen in the passing game. Arkansas has had some terrible injury luck in the wide receiving corps, and the lack of a true play-action game really prevented Bielema from doing the kinds of things that he likes to do in air, including drive, stick, and slant routes.
Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, their improved running game might not mean much against Alabama's incredible front seven. Lining straight up and trying to run between the tackles just isn't going to work more often than not against the Tide, as Georgia found out last Saturday. Arkansas is going to have to be a little bit more creative in order to establish the all-important run game that their offense thrives off of. Bielema knows this, and he has plenty of experience trying to free up his backs.
The Razorbacks are known for having the largest offensive line in all of football, the NFL included. Because of this, it makes sense that they are used to lining up and bludgeoning defenders between the tackles. However, Bielema actually has a variety of more skillful run and blocking techniques. One play that Arkansas loves running is the lead draw. In the above image, the Hogs come out in a typical 21-personnel heavy set. Tennessee will counter with a Cover Two look in their 4-3 Over formation. However, the Vols will try to get creative by sending cornerback Cam Sutton on a blitz and dropping the rest of their defensive backs into a Cover Three. Arkansas wants to use their enormous frames to clear up space in the middle of the field. However, they will do this by utilizing more technique than brute strength.
As Allen begins his dropback, the Vols start to drop their secondary back as well, as Allen does a great job of selling the quick fake before turning to hand the ball off to Collins. Meanwhile, the offensive line will begin to set this play up for big-time success. Notice that not one single lineman moves more than yard downfield, as they are trying to draw Tennessee's first and second level defenders to bite on the pass fake. Tennessee's ends and 1-tech defensive tackle have pinned their ears back and are rushing straight up-field, looking to apply a quick pass rush. The exterior offensive line will leverage the Vols' aggressiveness against them by using their up-field momentum to push them out and away from the middle of the field. This will allow the Razorbacks to try and get a hat-on-a-hat in the interior with the tight end, center, left guard, and fullback.
As Collins receives the hand-off, the lane has become clear. The exterior offensive line has successfully pushed four Tennessee defenders too far up-field, allowing Collins to blow right past them. Directly in front of Collins, fullback Kody Walker steps up to take on the linebacker, and left guard Sebastian Tretola is locked in with his defensive end. Tretola is actually starting to get beat a bit here by Corey Vereen, but much like his fellow tackles, Tretola is going to let Vereen's momentum on the stunt lead him too far up-field.
With Walker laying his block cleanly and Tretola shoving Vereen out of the play, it's time for Collins to show off his explosive cutting ability and spectacular vision. Collins will plant on his outside foot and cut right up off of Walker's block as he trudges his way downfield. He will then read his blocks from center Mitch Smothers and tight end Hunter Henry and grab himself a huge chunk of yards.
Arkansas more than likely won't find a lot of success running the ball on standard downs, but utilizing a lead draw on a 3rd-and-7 or so could be pivotal for them. The Razorbacks nearly beat Alabama a year ago in part because they converted on third downs time and again, which allowed them to chew up clock and keep the ball away from Alabama's offense. Bielema wants to shorten this game, as he did with both Texas A&M and Tennessee, and coming up with creative ways to execute on third-and-5+ will be extremely important for them.
Passing downs will probably be the key to this game, as Arkansas will likely find themselves in quite a few of them. Allen's improvement at quarterback has allowed the Hogs to greatly increase their success rate in obvious passing situations. However, the injuries at wide receiver have really piled up lately, so the Hogs will be looking for some legitimate threats to rise up and challenge this Tide secondary. The good news for the Razorbacks is that they still have plenty of big-bodied, physical receivers like the aforementioned 6'5, 250 pound Hunter Henry and his 6'6, 255 pound partner Jeremy Sprinkle at tight end, as well as the emerging Drew Morgan at wide receiver. While most teams in recent years have been trying to spread defenses out more, Bielema's teams have been looking to create mismatches by combining big bodies with good, crisp route running.
The above image is a perfect example of what Bielema wants to accomplish with his passing game. At this point in the contest with Texas A&M, Arkansas had already gashed the Aggies with the lead draw play. So what do they do? Use that success to fool A&M with play-action, of course. The Aggies come out in their base 4-3 defense to line-up against Arkansas and their 12-personnel Ace Double Tight Bunch (Henry, Sprinkle, and Morgan are bunched together on the left side). Prior to the snap, Brandon Allen puts Sprinkle in motion to line-up in the backfield as a fullback, a motion that they use to set up their draw play usually. When he does this, he notices that cornerback Brandon Williams remains on the left side of the formation about five yards off of the line. With both safeties back and Williams staying put where he is, Allen is able to determine that the defense is likely running a zone coverage.
In fact, the Aggies are dropping into a Cover Four, where the defensive backs will split the deep part of the field into quarters and the linebackers will cover anything underneath. Arkansas is going to fake the lead draw and then look to exploit the zone coverage with a drive-post combination. Henry and Morgan will execute a drive concept (Henry runs a five yard drag and Morgan runs a ten yard in route) in order to try and high-low the linebackers in the middle. The post route by wide receiver Kendrick Edwards is meant to either free up space for Morgan on the intermediate in route, or, if the defense bites on Morgan across the middle. get free behind the deep safeties.
As Allen drops back to fake the hand-off to Collins, A&M's linebackers are locked in on the backfield. They don't want to get fooled by a draw play again. Henry and Morgan start slow in releasing off of the line in order to help sell the fake, and the Hogs' burly brutes do a great job of creating a clean pocket for Allen.
After the run-fake is complete, A&M's linebackers find themselves in really bad position. A.J. Hilliard has bitten completely on the fake and is engaging Sprinkle head on, Claude George finds himself out in 'no-man's land', and Shaan Washington panics and immediately jumps Henry's route. With all three underneath defenders out of position, Morgan has nothing but grass out in front of him in the middle of the field. Meanwhile, Allen has completed his dropback (in his extremely clean pocket) and is looking downfield towards the post route, trying to look off the deep defenders in order to open up more space for Morgan as he comes across.
Strong Safety Justin Evans, who is playing the middle-boundary portion of the field, actually comes over and very nearly makes a fantastic play. But Brandon Allen shows off his greatly improved arm and zips it right into where only his man can catch it, and Morgan now has a bunch of space to work with in front of him.
The Razorbacks will have to get solid play out of their passing game, but they need to be able to utilize play-action like they did in the above example. Otherwise, Alabama is going to be all over their receivers, as the position has gotten perilously thin.
When Alabama Has the Ball
The Crimson Tide played arguably their best offensive football of the season last week, despite the horrid conditions and stout defense they were facing. Much of this is because they decided to get back to playing prototypical Alabama football. They whipped Georgia at the point of attack, ran the ball with authority, and utilized play-action to hit Georgia for some big gains downfield. Message to Lane Kiffin: don't change anything. A slower, more deliberate Alabama offense is what this Tide team needs. Blake Sims and Amari Cooper aren't running out of the tunnel in Bryant-Denny on Saturday night.
However, this style of offense also plays into what Arkansas prefers to defend. The Razorbacks loss some serious talent from last season with guys like Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight all departing Fayetteville, but they are still very fundamentally sound in both the ground and passing games. Bielema and defensive coordinator Robb Smith have done a great job getting their guys in the right positions to succeed defensively. The defense started out pretty slow the first few weeks, especially against Texas Tech, but the Razorbacks leaned heavily on that side of the ball in last week's comeback win over Tennessee.
On this play, Tennessee is spread out in a 10-personnel Shotgun with four receivers split out wide. They are attempting to spread the Razorback defense out in order to outnumber them in the box and pick up the easy first down. Or so they think. Arkansas appears to have taken the bait, utilizing their 4-2-5 nickel package to defend Tennessee's spread set. Quarterback Josh Dobbs is going to run a zone read with Jalen Hurd. The idea here is that they are looking to get a hat-on-a-hat with their five down lineman and then read the strong-side defensive end in order to clear up space. Arkansas is going to make that a little bit more difficult by giving the Vols' offensive line a little bit to think about. Defensive end Tevin Beanum is going to run a stunt to the weak-side A-gap while tackles Taiwan Johnson and DeMarcus Hodge fill their respective inside gaps. This overload on one side is going to create some havoc up front. Meanwhile, strong-side defensive end Jeremiah Ledbetter is going to set the edge. He will either have to make a tackle if Dobbs pulls the ball, or he will just force Dobbs to hand it off to Hurd, right towards the overloaded side of the line. Linebackers Brooks Ellis and Josh Williams are the fill players, and nickelback Henre' Toliver will be the force defender on the opposite side, just in case he needs to come up and set the edge.
At the snap, both tackles get a great jump on the ball and create some penetration on the play-side of the formation. Ellis comes crashing in to fill the strong-side B-gap, and Tolliver and Williams keep their eyes in the backfield in order to be in position in case they need to crash the edges. Meanwhile, Beanum is going to execute his B-gap stunt, right in between two separate Tennessee double-teams.
With Ledbetter and Williams setting the edge on the read-side, Dobbs has no choice but to give the ball up. Heard receives the hand-off and quickly realizes that he has no where to go. With Ellis and Johnson sealing up the middle of the formation, and Hodge spinning through the double team towards the outside, Hurd has only one lane: the lane right into Beanum's stunt.
These kinds of techniques give Arkansas the type of edge they need in order to do battle in the trenches with a team like Alabama. Dominick Jackson and Alphonse Taylor have had some issues picking up stunts on the right side of the line this year, and the Razorbacks will surely look to exploit that. Bielema's team lost some extremely talented players in the front seven from last year, but these guys are well-coached and very sound in their technique.
Another staple of Bielema and Smith's defense is to force opposing quarterbacks into making difficult throws. They know that, more often than not, they will not have the kind of athletes that can play bump-and-run coverage against guys like Laquon Treadwell, Josh Reynolds, and Calvin Ridley. In order to make up for that deficiency in talent, the Razorbacks again focus on technique when trying to stop opposing passing attacks.
Here's a great example of the Arkansas pass defense. Texas A&M will set up on offense in a 10-personnel Shotgun Trips Left. A&M is looking to exploit their man-to-man match-ups by utilizing their superior talent to beat the Razorbacks downfield. Arkansas is in a 4-1-6 Dime package with two deep safeties that are just off the right of the screen. The Hogs aren't going to shy away from A&M's receivers though, they are going to play man-to-man underneath the two deep safeties in a classic Cover Two. They will also line-up their two defensive ends in a 'Wide 9' technique, looking to keep quarterback Kyle Allen in the pocket.
As Allen drops back to survey the field, check out the technique being utilized by the defenders. First, both Ledbetter and Beanum are going to do an excellent job getting upfield and forcing Allen to stay in the pocket. Meanwhile, both tackles are able to close up the interior of said pocket, as the front four are looking to collapse the pocket on Allen. Most importantly though, look at the highlighted defensive backs. They are playing with their backs towards the middle of the field. The reason why they are playing this way is because they are looking to force Allen into a difficult throw. Keeping their hips parallel with the sideline will allow them to deny any possible routes toward the middle of the field, thus forcing Allen to try and make a deep throw down the sideline. This is a difficult pass for anybody to make. With the pocket closing in on him, Allen is going to launch one up to Reynolds on the wide-side of the field, hoping that he can go up and make a stellar catch over cornerback D.J. Dean near the sideline.
By taking away the middle of the field and preventing Allen from moving out of the pocket, Arkansas is able to force him into making a very low percentage throw. Jake Coker should expect to see plenty of this on Saturday, and he will be tested on some difficult throws. One way Alabama can avoid getting into this situation is to pack more guys in closer, thus making it nearly impossible to prevent the Tide from getting guys into the middle of the field. O.J. Howard could play a particularly important role in this regard.
Arkansas may be Alabama's homecoming opponent this year, but they are by no means a pushover like most of the Tide's recent homecoming exhibitions. The Hogs got off to a poor start early in the year, but they have played pretty good football the last two weeks, taking a Texas A&M team that Arizona State couldn't hang with to overtime and beating Tennessee on the road in regulation, something Oklahoma couldn't do. This is a well coached team, and Bret Bielema will have his guys ready to go Saturday night. Alabama needs to avoid a possible let-down after the big win in Athens last weekend, otherwise this game could be a little bit trickier than Alabama fans want it to be.