I will mince no words here, the 2015 Alabama defense is terrifying. With as much talent as anyone, and a system that has slimmed down to combat up tempo spread teams, Nick Saban, once again, coaches the best defense in the nation.
What does Alabama want to do?
When Nick Saban first began coaching the Crimson Tide the goal of his defense was to put three large defensive linemen up front, play pattern matching coverage behind it, and have everyone fly to the football. This led to large unblocked linebackers shutting down any hope of efficiently running the ball on standard downs, forcing teams to try to pass their way out of third and long. Once a defense knows pass is coming, half the battle is lost. Some defenses will give you chunks of yardage in exchange for the big play. Alabama wanted to suffocate you.
This remains true today. What has changed is the nature of the front Saban calls.
(Image via ESPN)
The Saban defenses of old relied strictly on two gapping linemen. This meant that they were rarely much in the way of speedy pass rushers because they could not relentlessly attack one gap; they had to maintain control over two. To an extent this remains true. A-Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed are two of the most stout rush defenders in the nation. It will be a tall task to block either, much less both, and their backups are no slouches. The pair have also combined for just four and a half sacks. They are aligned where 4-3 defensive tackles would be. What Saban has changed is he freed up one of his defensive linemen to play as more of a one gapping 4-3 end. The "hybrid front" has been written about to death, but the results have been dramatic. Defensive end Jonathan Allen has a dozen sacks. At a slim 283 pounds Allen also weighs in a full thirty pounds lighter than either Robinson or Reed. Saban defenses formerly lacked speed rushers up front like that.
Nick Saban defenses also formerly lacked outside linebackers who serve primarily as pass rushers. The complex nature of the zone defense Alabama runs meant that linebackers were recruited primarily for their skills versus the run and their coverage abilities. This has changed; the face of this change is Tim Williams. Williams has sixteen tackles on the season, ten and a half of them are sacks. Oh, and his backup added a half a dozen sacks as well. They will often align essentially as 4-2 ends, making this the second time in a row the Tigers play a team that plays 4-2-5 alignment with 3-3-5 personnel.
A-Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed will be tasked with eating blocks, freeing up the middle linebackers to tackle inside runs before they make much progress. On the edges Reed and Williams will be penetrating, looking to keep the play inside or make a tackle for loss. Run support in the secondary varies considerably depending on coverage, but every defensive back that will see the field is able and willing to tackle and usually flying downhill once they read run.
Alabama has long been famed for its defensive complexity, making it ironic that the Crimson Tide are mostly looking to line up and play either cover three or cover seven (their version of quarters). The thing that has always set the Tide apart is their devotion to pattern matching. There’s a quote from a high school coaching clinic in Mississippi regarding his days back at the Browns, serving as a defensive coordinator, that explains the genesis of the idea that went on to define the career of Saban (and really the direction of defensive football) ever since.
"This started with the Cleveland Browns, I was the defensive coordinator in the early 90s and Pittsburgh would run 'Seattle' on us, four streaks. Then they would run two streaks and two out routes, what I call ‘pole’ route from 2x2. So we got to where could NOT play 3-deep zone because we rerouted the seams and played zone, and what I call "Country Cover 3" (drop to your spot reroute the seams, break on the ball). Well, when Marino is throwing it, that old break on the ball shit don’t work."
From this Saban and Belichek worked together, developing pattern reading concepts. Saban himself explains it thusly.
"We came up with this concept; how we can play cover 1 and cover 3 at the same time, so we can do both these things and one thing would complement the other. We came up with the concept 'rip/liz match.'"
Rip/Liz looks much the same as cover three, but with defenders reading routes after the snap. Rip/Liz is also their preferred coverage for sending five man "fire zone" blitzes. The Tide will occasionally send cover zero blitzes, particularly on third and long.
What this means is that, in theory, Alabama should always have an answer. Whatever route combination your team prefers, Saban will have drilled it into his players heads how they are supposed to play them. There are enough possible rules to make your head spin. Now you can occasionally get a player open in the flats or complete a pass for a short gain, but the goal is to force the quarterback to throw the ball out of bounds or take a sack.
On passing downs Saban prefers to work out of a two high safety alignment, where he can run either Rip/Liz or Cover 7. Cover 7 is the Alabama version of quarters, and draws heavily from TCU’s influence. Both divide the field into halves and ask each half to play whichever version of quarters suit their needs at the moment. Whatever coverage Alabama is playing has adjustments to trips, as well as adjustments to those adjustments. Then throw in that anywhere from 3-5 pass rushers can be coming from nearly anywhere, with every linebacker of note and the nickel corner contributing at least a sack. It’s a complicated system, but when taught well and executed by a team as talented as Alabama is it is a nearly flawless one.
3rd and long defense
As stated above, Alabama's goal is to suffocate the opposing offense and force them into 3rd and long. When Alabama’s opponents find themselves in a 3rd and long, they like to rush 4 down linemen, do some kind of D Line stunt with those 4 linemen, and get after the Quarterback while the rest of the defense stays back in zone coverage which looks like man due to the pattern matching.
(Miss St vs Alabama film courtesy of CFBattle Youtube channel)
(Ole Miss vs Alabama film courtesy of RollTideSix10 Youtube channel)
Keep mobile QBs in the Pocket
One problem that Clemson is able to give Alabama would be Watson's mobility. One way that Alabama was able to contain a mobile QB, like Dak Prescott, was to keep him in the pocket. In the play below you can see that Prescott wants to roll out to his right, but the Alabama defense knows this and the play-side DE works to keep him in the pocket, thus disrupting the timing and design of the play.
How Does Clemson beat it?
I would not head into this game expecting a shootout. Clemson is one of few teams in the nation capable of blocking the Tide. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Tigers have allowed 1.1 sacks/gm, which is the fourth-fewest among Power 5 teams. Clemson QBs have only been pressured on 17% of their dropbacks this season, which is good for the second-lowest percentage among Power 5 teams. Every offensive lineman the Tigers play was nominated to the All-ACC team for a reason. The Alabama front is just as good.
Clemson has depth and talent galore at the skill positions. Alabama has depth and talent galore in the defensive backfield. This is an even matchup, perhaps even one that slightly favors the Tide.
The game changer, as he has been most of the season, is Deshaun Watson. Clemson is as good at anyone in the country at staying on schedule. Some of this is due to Gallman’s underrated mix of agility, acceleration, power. Certain runners shy from contact, Gallman relishes in it. This is fortunate, because Alabama’s linebackers like to hit as well. Increasingly Clemson is staying on schedule because of Watson’s deft running, with his left knee fully operational and the gloves off since the Florida State game. Earlier in the season Watson would carry the ball a handful of times a game, he had twenty four carries against North Carolina and Oklahoma. All of this is bolstered by Watson’s ability to make quick, accurate and intelligent passes. The Tide are a defense dedicated towards shutting down efficiency. The Tigers are an offense dedicated towards it. With Watson and Gallman fully operational behind an excellent offensive line the Tigers should be able to, if not stay on schedule as much as they would like, stay on schedule more than anyone Alabama has played so far this season.
Pre and Post Snap Reads
In the QB run game, post-snap reads are going to be extremely important. Watson must make the correct reads on zone read plays, otherwise he will find himself at the bottom of a pile of Alabama defenders in the backfield. Alabama has done well in stopping the QB run game all season, but no defense is really able to stop a zone read play when it is run to perfection. In this play below, Kelly makes the correct read with the DE crashing down, and the slot WR is able to get a crack block on the LB springing the RB for a big gain.
Watson's ability to read the defense pre-snap is going to be key in the National Championship Game. Alabama can be beaten in their schemes if the opposing Quarterback is able to read the defense correctly and make the smart play.
In the play below, Chad Kelly is able to see that the CB at the top of the screen is going to come on a blitz leaving the WR open for a screen pass with a one-on-one matchup with the Safety.
The Tide may also be able to shut Gallman down. The Boston College front is nearly as good as the Tide and Gallman only ran for 48 yards versus the Eagles. Now Gallman and the offensive line have improved dramatically since that game, and Watson was not yet a major part of the rushing attack, but shutting Gallman down is possible. The issue is that, to do so, Alabama will have to commit. Boston College sold out to stop the run, holding Watson to 32 yards as well. Deshaun Watson responded with four hundred and twenty passing yards. Teams have been able to make Clemson one dimensional before, no team has been able to respond to the counter punch. Alabama could stop Clemson from running the ball if they so choose, if they do will Watson be able to make the Tide pay?
To beat the Tide you need to have big plays. For all of the Tide’s strengths over the years their extreme devotion to shutting down efficiency has left them open towards giving up big plays. Usually the talent in Crimson and White is good enough to mask this. On the occasions they have lost it has not been.
Someone will need to break off a long run or two. Alabama is too good to beat with consistency alone, someone has to make plays. Gallman, for all of his strengths, is not a massive of a home run threat. Watson is much better at making people miss in the open field but he possess doesn’t game breaking speed either. I’m loathe to type this, as it has become code for "announcers praising a white guy" but both are genuinely more quick than fast. For Clemson to win, one or both will have to have a few big plays.
Deep passing game
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Alabama ranks 57th among 65 Power 5 teams in completion percentage allowed on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield (39.3%). Watson has completed 42.6% of such passes (Power 5 average: 36%) with 16 TDs on those throws, which is the most among power 5 QBs. This has shown to be key in beating Alabama because in the last four seasons, Alabama is 8-5 when its opponent scores a TD on a 20+ yd throw, compared to a 41-1 record when the opponent is unable to do so.
The second Ole Miss play is an example of Alabama's weakness in covering slot WRs even though the pass falls incomplete. This weakness is created by their pattern matching zone coverage explained above, which can leave the middle of the field open.
In the play below, Dak Prescott is able to look off the safety to the left and throw a pass deep down the right sideline. It takes a lot of skill from the QB to complete this pass, but Watson has shown that he has the necessary skills to accomplish a tough play like this.
Clemson is lacking a true deep threat for this game. Both Leggett and Peake have shown the ability to play the role at times, but losing both Williams and Cain hurts here. The Tide secondary doesn’t have a starting member above 6’0, either Leggett or Peake will have to beat someone deep. Both have the height advantage to do so. Trevion Thompson is the only other player on the roster tall enough to be a threat like that. Artavis Scott is fast enough to catch the deep ball, but the question is if he can get open quickly enough, and there is a good chance he will be able to exploit Alabama's weakness in covering slot WRs.
Screen passes, slants, stick routes and the like are all of major importance. We know the ball is going into Artavis Scott’s hands early and often. As stated earlier, tne weakness of the Alabama defense this year has been their inability to cover WRs in the slot, as you can see in the play below. The question is who else will contribute in the passing game? Jordan Leggett has been a monster in some games and quiet in others. The same can be said of Peake, Renfrow, Hopper etc. Some of this is due to extreme depth, which creates no need for anyone to be force fed the ball. Some of this is due to inconsistency. For Clemson to win someone will need to be able to get open underneath and gain four, five, six yards on first down. Someone will also need to make people miss. Artavis Scott and Ray-Ray McCloud in particular are dangerous with the ball in their hands. Artavis Scott is probably better than anyone in the country at turning screen passes into long gains.
3rd and long offense
One way to beat Alabama is to stay ahead of the chains and not allow the defense to come after you with their D line stunts in a 3rd and long situation. Odds are that Clemson is at least going to find themselves in a couple bad situations where they are behind the chains, and they need to convert a 3rd and long. Alabama has been susceptible to scrambling QBs in that situation this year if the D line is unable to get to the Quarterback in time. Deshaun Watson is as good as anyone in the nation at avoiding the sack. With their LBs and DBs in their pattern matching coverage, or what is in essence man coverage, they are often focused on the WRs they are covering, and take their eyes off of the Quarterback, which allows the QB to scramble out of the pocket and pick up first downs.
Another way for Clemson to possibly pick up a first down in these 3rd and long situations would be to hit the checkdown receiver. Alabama's scheme allows the opposing offense to complete short passes and their LBs sometimes have trouble picking up the back out of the backfield.
In short, this is a battle of strength vs strength. The Tide shut down efficiency, and the Tigers are as efficient as anyone in the nation. The Tide give up the occasional deep play, but the Tigers are not particularly explosive. I do not believe the Tide will shut down Clemson entirely. I do believe that, in order for Clemson to win, a few things have to break right, and a few players will need to make explosive plays. This defense can be beaten, but they are the number one unit in the nation for a reason. I’m mildly pessimistic by nature, but this game looks like it’s nearly a toss up. If Clemson is able to make a couple big plays on offense, they'll set themselves up well for a tight game down the stretch. This was the one team in the playoffs I wanted no part of, and it sets up for an exciting national championship.