Last week, I analyzed why Nick Saban's Alabama teams have been so good at stopping the run over the years. By combining elite talent with the country's finest development program, the Crimson Tide have annually been one of the best run-stopping units in college football.
With the players that Alabama has coming back in 2015, the Tide's run-stuffers could become one of the all-time greatest units in history. However, in order to be able to make that claim, the team can't have another performance like the egg they laid against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl in January. Runningback Ezekiel Elliott lead the charge as the Buckeyes racked up 281 yards on 42 attempts, good enough for 6.7 yards per carry. Even if you take out Elliott's two biggest runs, a 54 yard scamper down the sideline and the 85 yard dagger in the waning minutes, the Buckeyes still managed to average 3.5 YPC. That may not seem like a ton, but keep in mind that's excluding the two largest runs of the game, and it's still more than Alabama typically gives up on the ground.
Fortunately for the Crimson Tide, many of the rushing yards given up to the Buckeyes came from mistakes that can be easily corrected. Considering Nick Saban's penchant for obsessive film review, there's no question that the team will have addressed these issues at length by the time the season rolls around. But there were definitely some mistakes.
Early in the second quarter, Alabama led 14-6 and J.K. Scott had just pinned Ohio State at the five yard line. The Buckeyes will come out in a Spread Option staple: an eleven personnel Wing T variation with the H-back lined up in the wing-back slot, just behind the offensive tackle. Alabama has seen this numerous times. Alabama lines up in a 3-3-5 Under, with the "Jack" linebacker lined up on the weakside of the formation. The three down lineman (Jonathan Allen, Jarran Reed, and Dalvin Tomlinson) and Denzell Devall will be crashing down towards the strong side, looking to disrupt Ohio State's zone-blocking scheme. Notice that the down lineman still have two gap responsibilities. Each lineman will need to step strongly to the right to set themselves and then read the offensive line's movement from there in order to accurately assess which hole to fill.
Geno Smith is in the box as a nickelback, and he is in run-pass conflict. Smith will either need to play man on the H-back, Nick Vannett, or set the edge on the outside, depending on what the Buckeyes decide to do. Eddie Jackson is running a pattern-matching coverage at the top of the screen; he has the responsibility to decide which receiver to cover. Nick Perry, who's off-screen in this shot, will call "Liz" and come to Jackson's aid to cover the other receiver, and Landon Collins (also off-screen) will be the cover high safety. Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest are the quarterbacks on this play. They will be responsible for either clogging up gaps in the run game, or dropping back into coverage.
Ohio State will bring Jaylin Marshall, one of the receivers at the top of the screen, in motion, similar to the play showcased last week that Dan Mullen and Mississippi State ran. At that instant, the play has changed. Saban clearly wanted to force quarterback Cardale Jones, in only his second-ever start, to make some mistakes. He has Jackson run straight to the center of the action, hoping to disrupt the play in a similar way to what Smith did against Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs back in November. The jet sweep motion from Marshall across the formation is clearly a decoy to freeze Smith, as it's clear he isn't going to be receiving a hand-off on this play. Jones has three options: hand the ball off to Elliott in between the tackles, keep it himself as Jackson bites on the inside fake, or pull it back and toss it over to wide receiver Michael Thomas, who is now wide-open on the top of the screen.
Look at Jones' head though: he has zero intention of doing anything other than handing the ball off to Elliott. He certainly isn't reading the free rusher, Jackson. Clearly, Jones sees the gaping hole in the middle of the field, as the Ohio State offensive line does a masterful job of stoning the Tide's defensive line at the point of attack, and decides to let it ride with Elliott. On the right side of the line, the Buckeyes simply outnumber Alabama four blockers to three rushers, and left guard Billy Price does a fantastic job of leveraging Reed away from the playside. Tomlinson has zero chance of making anything happen here. Not only is he tasked with trying to beat All-Big Ten left tackle Taylor Decker, he also then has to take on a fresh Vannett, as Decker releases to move to the second-level. That's really where Alabama loses this battle.
Geno Smith is actually in really good position. He stays home to make sure the ball doesn't get to the outside, but he doesn't over-commit to setting the edge. He reads the hand-off to the inside, but then Elliott just runs straight past him. The biggest issue here is that Ragland, one of the best linebackers in college football, reacts way too late to the play. Notice how flat-footed he still is in the above image. Meanwhile, Decker has navigated his way up to the second level and is going to meet Ragland way too far up the field. Ragland needs to commit to filling the gap sooner. As soon as he saw that hole begin to open up, he should have rushed in to fill it. Instead, he let's Ohio State dictate what he is going to do. Elliott has himself a huge lane to run through and Ohio State picks up nine yards on the play, as DePriest is the first person to contact Elliot at the ten yard line.
Despite Alabama's many miscues in this game, the Crimson Tide were still in pretty decent shape to try and pull the game out late. Ohio State had been executing at a high level for most of the game, but sensational punter J.K. Scott had continued to put the Buckeyes in ridiculously bad field position. Unfortunately for Alabama, sometimes that just makes for a bigger back-breaker.
On this play, a 1st-and-10 from the 15 yard line, Ohio State is lined up in a more conventional eleven personnel shotgun. Alabama is once again in a 3-3-5, but this time the Tide will be "Over", with the Jack linebacker, Xzavier Dickson, lined up on the strongside, just over the tight end, Vannett. The three down lineman have their typical two-gap responsibilities, and the linebackers will be charged with cleaning up any possible openings. Smith is going to bring the blitz from the weakside, which will force Jones into handing the ball off in case of a read option.
Urban Meyer is about to take the Tide to school, unfortunately. Ohio State is going to run a zone read outside sweep, and with Smith coming in strong it's ultimately going to just be an outside sweep. However, unlike a traditional sweep play where the lineman step to the playside and look to open up holes by running more horizontally, the Buckeyes are instead going to run a "Power" version of the sweep, and attack vertically. They will pull this off by having the offensive line run the "Pull and Pin" technique, where the left guard, Price, is going to pull around the tackle, Decker. Decker is going to slide to his right and pin D.J. Pettway up against the rest of the line. Similar to the earlier highlighted play, the Buckeyes are going to negate all three of Alabama's down lineman by using leverage. Notice in the black circle how packed in everything is. That's not because Alabama has closed all the lanes in the middle of the field. That's because Ohio State wants to keep the Tide there. The gap they are looking for is either the "C" gap that Price is about to pull into, or the outside edge.
That's where the genius of this play comes into effect. Evan Spencer, one of the better wide receiver blockers in college football, is going to come straight across the "C" gap to land arguably the biggest block of the game. Shaun Dion Hamilton had recently subbed in due to Ragland's injury, and Meyer wasted no time in exploiting his inexperience. Hamilton never sees Spencer coming, and Spencer basically de-cleats the freshman linebacker. Not only that, but he does so right into DePriest, knocking him out of the play as well.
Meyer has utilized the Pin and Pull to basically create a two-on-two match-up between Price and Elliott, and Cyrus Jones and Perry, who's still off-screen in this play. Price is technically running a zone block, so he's going to first help assist Vannett by sealing off Dickson, but he then quickly turns up field and lays an easy block on Perry, who will come up to help in support. Cyrus Jones has been taught to turn the ball-carrier back towards the middle of the defense, so he's going to set the far edge and attack off the back of Dickson. Unfortunately for Alabama, Jones' instincts are going to take him completely out of this play. Meyer knows Saban's tendencies, and he knew Jones would try and funnel Elliott back inside. With Spencer clearing out space, Vannett winning his battle with Dickson long enough to give Elliott clearance, Price climbing to the second level to block Perry, and the rest of the line pinning Alabama's lineman away from the play, Elliott just has to use his elite-level one-cut burst to accelerate through the hole and torch the Alabama defense.
The Crimson Tide are as elite as a unit can possibly be when it comes to stopping the opponent from running the football. However, there are still areas where improvement can and needs to be made. Ohio State had a couple of runs that made the Alabama defense look silly, and the 85-yard back-breaker is the best example of that. Dickson was the only guy who came close to stopping Elliott on that final Buckeye touchdown, and he has moved on to the NFL.
Nick Saban has produced a top-tier run defense every year he's been at the Capstone, with the exception of his first season in 2007. 2015 may be the best one yet, but in order to claim that crowning achievement, the Crimson Tide must learn from the mistakes made in the Sugar Bowl. Another performance like that will likely end in another heart-breaking loss for an Alabama team that will rely heavily on the defense's ability to stifle the opponent's ground attack.