Ed. Note: In the running game, Clemson operates out of a multiple spread set that focuses on Wayne Gallman and designed runs for Deshaun Watson. In many respects, it resembles Mississippi State's scheme. In this July article, Parker shows how the Tide defends such a running attack (especially with support from the secondary,) while still covering receivers downfield.
Since Nick Saban has taken over in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide have boasted one of the top ranked run defenses in all of college football year after year. According to Football Outsider's S&P+ Rankings, Alabama has finished 3rd, 3rd, 14th, 2nd, 1st, 3rd, and 1st in the previous seven seasons, listed in chronological order. So outside of 2010, the Crimson Tide has had one of the top three rush defenses in the country every season since 2008, including the nation's best unit last season. There are a number of reasons why this has been the case: Nick Saban's genius schemes, elite talent, the development of that talent through arguably the most rigorous strength and conditioning program in college football, etc. No one can deny the amount of success Alabama has had stopping the run, no matter the scheme.
However, even the best unit in the country has room to improve, and with the loaded roster that the Crimson Tide returns in 2015, there is very good reason to believe that will be the case. The defensive line and linebacker units are as stocked as ever, and this year's line in particular looks like it could be a historic one. Earlier this summer, I dissected the 2014 secondary and where they will have to improve in 2015. That article focused solely on pass defense, but the secondary plays a big role in stopping the run as well. Fortunately, even that level of the defense has plenty of guys who are really good in run support, but the loss of a classic box safety with the level of talent like Landon Collins will be missed.
Where It Starts: Up Front
The 2014 Crimson Tide defensive line was the best group Saban has had at the position since he arrived in Tuscaloosa. A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen, and Jarran Reed are all stalwarts along the line. Furthermore, D.J. Pettway, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Darren Lake, back-ups in Tuscaloosa, could probably start at the overwhelming majority of schools in the country. Those six guys all return in 2015. Combine that unit with linebackers like Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster, Denzel Devall, Ryan Anderson, and the long list of talented back-ups at the second level, and it's easy to see why most expect Alabama to field the best rush defense in the country yet again.
Last season, Arkansas had one of the best rushing attacks in the country, yet Alabama was able to hold the Razorbacks to a measly 2.3 yards per carry. In the above image, the Hogs will come out in a power set, looking to outnumber Alabama at the point of attack with their massive lineman and the best all-around tight end in college football, Hunter Henry. They will also motion the receiver seen at the bottom of the screen, Jared Cornelius, in to add an extra blocker. Alabama counters with a 3-3-5 Over, with three down lineman (Robinson, Reed, and Allen) and the "Jack" linebacker (Anderson) with his hand in the dirt as well. Against most teams, Arkansas would run roughshod over this formation by manhandling the six in the box with their six, especially when utilizing a punishing runner like Jonathan Williams. Alabama is not most teams though.
Robinson is the key guy in this play, as he is tasked (as he often is) with clogging up two gaps: both the "A" and the "B" gap on the strongside. Ragland is sent on a blitz to fill the "C" gap, and Anderson will crash down on the "D" gap to the outside of the tight end. Allen and Reed both have to stop the play from the weakside in case Arkansas tries to run it that way or Williams decides to cut it back.
Immediately after the snap, it's obvious this play isn't going anywhere. Not a single Arkansas lineman has created any push at all. Robinson withstands the double team like a boss, Ragland and Anderson stuff their gaps, and the next-level players are all in position to clean up anything that could possibly open up. Collins has replaced Ragland in the middle, Trey DePriest is in great position to provide help for Robinson, and Jarrick Williams will be there to clean up a run to the outside, just in case Cornelius can somehow block Collins.
Anderson releases off of his block and all three of the next-level defenders immediately swarm right to Williams, totally shutting down the attempted run at the line of scrimmage. Alabama's front totally stifled a very good Arkansas line on this play, as they did so repeatedly the rest of the night.
Run Support From the Secondary
Good run-stopping defenses have to have players up front that can win the line of scrimmage battle. Great run-stopping defenses have players in the defensive backfield who can aid the big guys in support, both in the alleys and in the box. Collins was a phenomenal box safety in run support, but he isn't the only guy in the Crimson Tide secondary who could make his presence felt in the run game.
In last season's top five battle with Mississippi State, Alabama pulled off a perfectly executed, team-oriented safety to break the scoreless tie. Initially, Alabama is countering State's 11-personnel with another 3-3-5 Over, with Anderson again playing on the strongside of the line. The three down lineman are running their typical two-gap system, and the three corners look to be in a pattern-matching situation with the three State receivers. This way, Alabama will be ready for either the run or the pass.
Things change when Mississippi State brings wide receiver Fred Ross in motion across the field. This is a staple of Dan Mullen's Spread Option attack, which he developed under the tutelage of Urban Meyer. In essence, the Bulldogs are going to run a variation of the Triple Option, with the options being a jet sweep to attack the outside with Ross, an inside handoff to stud running back Josh Robinson, or a QB keeper to the strongside. Alabama is very familiar with this play, so it's no surprise that the Tide defenders are able to snuff this out. Eddie Jackson is going to signal the change in coverage, and nickelback Geno Smith is going to blow up this play beautifully. Jackson is basically handing Ross off to Smith, who will now use his knowledge of Mullen's tendencies to immediately sprint to the point of attack and prevent State from having many options. The safeties then call "Rip" so that Collins will pick up Smith's receiver and Jabriel Washington will now be the cover one high safety.
Alabama is going to blow this play up immediately, with a slight assist from the motion receiver, Ross. With Jackson staying home on the strongside of the play, quarterback Dak Prescott is going to elect to give the ball up, as Jackson would have been completely unblocked. Prescott decided to hand it off to Robinson, as Ross seems to be more of a decoy on this play. Tomlinson does the heavy lifting by knocking left tackle Blaine Clausell off balance and then standing up left guard Jamal Clayborn. The immediate bump from Tomlinson is going to allow Smith to beat Clausell off of the edge, and stuffing Clayborn is going to contribute to forcing Robinson outside. Reed and Allen both clog up their respective lanes, and Trey DePreist is awaiting Robinson in the only open hole available.
Robinson has nowhere to run between the tackles, so he elects to bounce out to the outside, where he is hoping to hit the hole Ross should have been clearing up. However, Ross is just leisurely trotting around in Robinson's way, which not only blocks Robinson's path, but also allows Smith to go straight for Robinson without even worrying about Ross. Smith ducks right past Clausell and lands the initial blow on Robinson, and the rest of the Tide defense isn't far behind.
Whether it's run out of the Spread Option, traditional Pro Style, or whatever formation the opponent fancies, it doesn't really matter; Alabama is more often than not going to win the ground battle. With elite talent in the front seven and really good support from the defensive backfield, the Crimson Tide will continue to be one of the best rush defenses in the country year after year, as long as Saban and company are around anyway.
However, there are definitely situations where Alabama can and needs to improve. The 2015 run defense could be one for the ages, but in order to put the last few pieces together to become that elite unit, there needs to be a few adjustments made. The best way the Crimson Tide can make progress in the future is to look back at mistakes of the past, and there is no other more glaring example of mistakes in the run defense than the 2015 Sugar Bowl battle on New Year's Day against the Buckeyes.
Stay tuned for Part Two of the 2015 Alabama Run Defense Preview.