Anatomy of Stagnation: 'Bama's First Third-Quarter Drive Vs. Tennessee

Context

Throughout the first half, Tennessee was seemingly banging their collective heads against the wall offensively -- lining up in obviously running formations, motioning receivers in towards the formation for crack-back blocks, then futilely running the football into the strength of the Alabama defense. It looked like a terrible strategy. However, with the aid of a few plays in the passing game in the second half, the Vols were able to control the clock by running the football, eventually possessing the football for much of the first 20 minutes of the second half. Had Tennessee been able to put points on the board during those two long drives, the outcome of the game might have been different.

The long drives were not possible without some ineptitude by the Alabama offense, however. On both of the first two possessions in the second half, the Tide offense was unable to pick up a first down, going three and out both times. The first drive even began with a great deal of promise -- the sensational 'Bama punt returner, Javier Arenas, broke two tackles after seemingly being boxed in near the sideline, then broke out to the wide side of the field for a huge return of 23 yards, aided by a 15-yard penalty on the Volunteers near the end of the run. The Tide began the drive inside Tennessee territory.

The Plays

1st and 10 UT 45

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Alabama starts the second drive in the Pistol formation with Ingram lined up behind McElroy, two wide receivers split to the top of the screen, and one wide receiver and a tight end split to the bottom. As usual in this game, Tennessee lines up with one more defender in the box than Alabama can block (a five-man front with two linebackers), with only one deep safety and the cornerbacks lined up in what appears to be man coverage. This is a man blocking play clearly shown by the low hats and three-point stance of the offensive linemen. From the position there are in, the offensive linemen would have little chance to pass block.

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  1. The left tackle must take a playside step and block the defensive end playing on the outside shoulder of the guard. This is not a particularly easy block because of the step that he must take and the fact that he doesn't have the help of a combo block, as he would on a zone play. The attempted block goes poorly early, as the tackle ends up with his shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage almost as soon as the play begins.
  2. The left guard releases downfield to the second level and locks in on the backside linebacker.
  3. The right guard gets pushed into the backfield by the three tech defensive end.
  4. The right tackle immediately releases to the second level and locks in on the playside linebacker.
  5. Notice also that the backside linebacker will attempt to slice through the gap opened by the right tackle and right guard and that it will be extremely difficult for the left guard to block him.

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The penetration into the backfield keeps Ingram from getting through the line of scrimmage quickly as the linebacker flies through the open gap, forcing to Ingram lose his momentum and make a cut. Ingram gained no yardage on the play.

2nd and 10 UT 45

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The Tide now move to a shotgun look with Ingram on McElroy's right and the tight end and two wide receivers to the wide side of the field, with Julio Jones as the split end to the bottom of the screen. There are now four down linemen for Tennessee with a safety walked up to the line of scrimmage to the strong side, with two linebackers once again and a single deep safety, with the cornerbacks appearing to line up in man coverage.

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Alabama play-action passes, while pulling the right guard across the formation to block for McElroy as he bootlegs left. Notice that both linebackers bite hard on the play fake, looking at the running back instead of watching their keys -- either EMLOS (End Man On Line Of Scrimmage). Both of them are clearly pass blocking and the Tennessee linebackers get themselves out of position because of a lack of discipline.

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The outside wide receiver on the strong side, Marquis Maze, releases downfield, while the inside receiver Martin Hanks heads outside to get a rub from Maze, then heads upfield himself before running a hitch -- a difficult play to cover man to man.

McElroy sees Hanks all the way and makes a nice, accurate throw on the run moving to his left for an eight-yard gain.

3rd and 2 UT 37

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Now with a third and short situation in which they feel comfortable, Alabama lines up with McElroy under center and a tight end and receiver to the short side of the field, with an H-back lined up just wide of the tackle and behind the line of scrimmage and another receiver to the wide side and Roy Upchurch lined up as a running back seven yards deep. Tennessee shows a five-man front with three down linemen and two linebackers, with a safety deep and the other safety walked up to linebacker depth, once again with one more defender in the box than Alabama can block. The H-back comes motion from right to left across the formation before the snap.

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  1. The left guard gets pushed back into the backfield pretty much as soon as the ball is snapped. Part of the reason is that the Tennessee defender is low enough to get under his pads, while the Alabama guard is standing almost straight up -- not a good position for an offensive linemen on a man blocking play.
  2. The right guard has a more difficult task -- he must deal with the defensive who is playing a one technique on the outside shoulder of the center by taking a playside step. Unfortunately for him, the defensive tackle explodes off the ball and away from the guard, giving him virtually no chance to make the block on the play.

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  1. The left guard continues to get pushed back into the backfield, now two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
  2. The right guard also continues to get pushed back into the backfield, now about two yards deep as well.
  3. The left tackle makes the strange decision to abandon his assignment of taking on the playside linebacker and attempts to block the backside linebacker -- the assignment of the center.
  4. As a result, the playside linebacker is able to slice through the hole and get to the ballcarrier, who has to redirect shortly after receiving the ball.

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  1. The left guard and right guards are both four yards or nearly four yards into the backfield -- that's being seriously blown off the ball.
  2. Since the left tackle missed his assignment, the linebacker is able to freely get into the backfield and stop the play for a three-yard loss.

The Verdict

It may come as a relative surprise, but Alabama runs much less I formation than one might expect from a team with an identity forged around being a power-running team. Instead, Jim McElwain prefers to use two tight ends or a tight end and an H-back, while also playing a lot with three wide receivers. Likewise, while Alabama does like to run power, many of the running plays use a zone-blocking scheme -- though Ingram and Richardson are most certainly downhill runners of the most physical degree, the offensive line spends quite a bit of time reach blocking.

In an effort to stop the Alabama running game, Monte Kiffin repeatedly loaded the box with one more defender than Alabama could block, leaving one safety deep in coverage and putting his cornerbacks on islands in man-to-man coverage. It was a calculated risk, but one that generally worked, as Alabama was mostly unable to gash them in the passing game. Texas will almost certainly employ a similar strategy in an effort to stop Ingram and Richardson.

On this drive, the interior offensive linemen were not able to make their blocks, getting physically dominated at the point of attack. They ran the same play twice in three plays and the right guard got knocked backwards twice and the left guard once. In addition, the left tackle missed a block in space by making a poor decision. The major surprise is to see Alabama get physically dominated in a situation in which they supposedly excel -- third and short.

The tradeoff for Alabama with that play is that if the interior linemen don't hold their own, then the play can get blown up quickly. Lamarr Houston and Ben Alexander have to be salivating to go up against the guards and center for Alabama because they know that they can win some of those match ups. But, if the interior can hold up and two linemen can get to the second level and get blocks on the linebackers, then these plays can go for big gains and the Tide can get the running backs matched up against defensive backs, a major advantage for Alabama. Who really wants to see Blake Gideon or Curtis Brown attempting to tackle Ingram two or three times a game apiece?

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