Subtle Changes To Tide Offense Lead To Mid-Season Success
By Brett Beaird
Alabama’s offensive strategy has not changed much since Nick Saban was hired as head coach in 2007. Why tinker with success when a program has won three of the last four BCS National Championships? However, smart coaches realize when the offense needs to make subtle changes to take advantage of their personnel.
The Crimson Tide offense utilizes a pro-style approach similar to most NFL offenses. Saban has changed offensive coordinators three times. He started with former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite. After one year, Applewhite returned to Texas and Saban hired current Colorado State head coach Jim McElwaine, who had a successful tenure and helped win two national championships. McElwaine wisely used his accomplishments at Alabama to get hired by Colorado State. After McElwaine left, Saban hired Doug Nussmeier, who had a successful tenure with Steve Sarkisian at Washington. Sarkisian has put Washington back on the national map in college football in the last two years and Nussmeier played a major role in the reclamation project.
NFL Pedigree Defines Saban’s Offensive Philosophy
Saban uses a lot of one-back sets. According to Ross Fulton, former college coach and senior editor at Eleven Warriors, the one-back set utilizes modern football's emphasis on a conceptual passing game. Pass patterns are designed to purposefully stretch the defense horizontally or vertically, providing the offense more receivers than the defense has pass defenders.
Alabama's offense, however, is more run-heavy than most NFL teams. Under Saban, Alabama has featured a particular brand of the one-back offense — the use of multiple tight ends to create a downhill, power run game. The Tide's base run play is inside zone, either from under center or the pistol. The Tide's passing game hinges its success on the opportunities created by the running game.
The Alabama passing game is made of two concepts: short, quick throws and deep passes thrown off play-action. Fulton believes this passing strategy is similar to Pete Carroll's USC teams, reflective of Nussmeier's time at Washington with Sarkisian.
The Tide has achieved a lot of success because of holes created by defenses overly concerned with the Tide’s power running game and superior athletic talent derived from five consecutive Top-5 recruiting classes. The Alabama offense does periodically stall when it’s unable to effectively run the football (against Virginia Tech and Colorado State this season) because the offense is not based on a controlled passing attack. Until this season, Alabama primarily used the passing game for ‘chunk plays’ or big yardage. Because of this, Alabama quarterbacks such as John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy and now AJ McCarron have been tagged by college football pundits as ‘game managers.' Saban wants a quarterback who can make smart decisions, control the clock and play to the strengths of a nationally-ranked defense.
The biggest challenge for the 2013 Tide offense was replacing three starters from its offensive line, including two Top-15 NFL picks in Chance Warmack (Titans) and DJ Fluker (Chargers), and Remington Trophy winner Barrett Jones (Rams, fourth round). Most long-time observers believe last year’s offensive line was the best in history of the Alabama program. The offensive line consisted of ‘road graders,' big, athletic lineman who could manhandle most defensive fronts and then block the linebackers on the second level. The results were evident as the Tide rushed for more than 350 yards in the 33-28 win against Georgia in the SEC Championship and then routed Notre Dame, 42-14, to win the BCS national championship.
Utilizing Senior QB, Deep WR Corps
While the offensive line was a question coming into the season and still is a work in progress, Saban and Nussmeier have been smart to put the offense in the hands of a poised, smart senior quarterback and a deep, talented receiving unit in the meantime. The offense has adapted the ‘pass early, run late’ philosophy with success. A lot of defenses are covering the deep pass, thus McCarron has adjusted the receivers to more short and intermediate routes.
McCarron is not mentioned by NFL Draft experts as a first-round pick, but the senior from St. Paul High School in Mobile will finish his career at Alabama breaking the majority of the school passing records and could become the only quarterback in SEC or college football history with four BSC National Championship rings.
McCarron has become the ‘alpha male’ Saban must have to be successful. He has a commanding presence in the huddle, corrects rookie mistakes and believes in ball security, a mandatory Saban commandment. He has only thrown six interceptions in two seasons, including a scant three last season. McCarron’s record as a starter is 30-2.
Last week McCarron completed 21 of 35 passes for a career-high 359 yards against Kentucky and he could have easily become only the second quarterback in Alabama history to throw for more than 400 yards (David Smith passed for 412 yards against Army in the 1988 Sun Bowl) if not for seven drops in the game. At the mid-way point of the season, McCarron has completed 111 of 161 for 1,407 yards (a 68.9 percent completion rate), thrown for 11 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 161.2 quarterback rating. As the offensive line’s effectiveness has increased, so have McCarron’s passing numbers.
In the last three games, the Tide is throwing more on first down, leading to more manageable second and third-down situations. The controlled passing game is leading to long, time-consuming drives. After an 11-minute advantage against Kentucky, Alabama moved up to second in the SEC and sixth in the nation (33:47 minutes per game) in time of possession.
A total of 17 receivers have caught passes for the Tide this season. McCarron is ‘taking what the defense gives him’ and hitting open receivers. He normally hits between eight and 10 receivers per game. Freshman sensation Amari Cooper, who caught 59 passes for 1,000 yards last year, largely has been ineffective through the first half of his sophomore season, catching 12 passes for 163 yards. However, juniors Christion Jones and DeAndrew White have filled the void by combining to catch 42 passes for 547 yards and five touchdowns. The sure-handed Kevin Norwood has 16 catches for 226 yards and two touchdowns, including a 42-yard catch in the second quarter of the Kentucky game that seemed to ignite the offense.
Tight ends Brian Vogler and freshman phenom O.J. Howard have been active in the passing game, combining to record 16 catches for 209 yards. Howard is a matchup nightmare for most defensive backs at 6-foot-6, 230 pounds. He caught two passes for 35 yards against Kentucky and nearly caught two touchdown passes that were deflected in the end zone.
The Tide have targeted running backs more often this season, another subtle change in the passing game. This was especially evident in the Kentucky game as Kenyan Drake and T.J. Yeldon caught five passes for 74 yards and one touchdown. The backs would have made even more of an impact against the Wildcats, but a wide-open Yeldon dropped a sure touchdown on a wheel route and an open Jalston Fowler dropped a pass at the Kentucky 5-yard line. On the season, Drake, Yeldon and Fowler have a combined 17 catches for 154 yards and three touchdowns.
OL Improvement Helps Run Game
The Tide started the 2013 campaign by struggling offensively against what many consider one of the Top 5 defenses in college football, Virginia Tech. The Tide only gained 206 yards in the Georgia Dome and the offensive line took the brunt of the criticism. Alabama rebounded and gained 564 total yards (234 rushing) against a weak Texas A&M defense. But the following week, Alabama only gained 66 yards in 21 rushing attempts against Colorado State. At halftime of the Ole Miss game, Alabama had only gained 36 yards.
Since Chad Lindsay replaced the injured Ryan Kelley at center after the first half of the Ole Miss game, the Alabama rushing stats have improved dramatically. The Tide ran for 254 yards against Ole Miss (218 yards in the second half), 181 yards Georgia State and 299 yards last week in the Kentucky game. The Kouandjio brothers Cyrus and Arie, have improved their technique. Anthony Steen was named the SEC ‘lineman of the week’ against Kentucky. True freshman Grant Hill has impressed, playing tackle and guard.
Fumbles have been an issue with Yeldon and Drake this season, but both have been solid, if not spectacular, at times. Yeldon has run for 569 yards on 88 carries an average of 6.5 yards per carry, producing three 100-yard games (Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Kentucky).
Drake may be the offensive surprise of the season, emerging as a break-away threat. He already has run for 298 yards on 41 carries with a gaudy 7.3-yard average and five touchdowns.
Tide Offense Ahead Of '12 Team In Explosive Plays
According to Michael Casagrande of AL.com, one barometer of the improvement in offensive productive this season is more explosive plays (20+ yards). Through six games last season, Alabama's offense produced 26 explosive plays (17 passing and nine rushing). At the mid-way point this season, Alabama has manufactured 31 explosive plays (23 passing and eight rushing).
Alabama gained the second-highest offensive total in history against Kentucky with 668 yards and supplied 11 of the season's 31 explosive plays. The longest pass of the season is Kenny Bell’s 51-yard catch-and-run scored at Texas A&M. Yeldon's 68-yard touchdown against Ole Miss is the longest run this season.
Through six games, the offense still is a work in progress. Facing four teams with losing records in October will allow the Tide to fine-tune the offense. Alabama’s record in the month of October under Saban is 20-1. However, the Nov. 9 clash against LSU will be the ultimate test for the success of the subtle offensive changes.