An Xs and Os Tour around College Football: The Alabama Crimson Tide Offense

By Ross Fulton on May 30, 2013 at 2:00p

With the college football season less than 100 days away, it is a good opportunity to analyze the schemes of various Big Ten and National Title contenders for 2013. This week I will start with the team everyone is chasing--the Alabama Crimson Tide and its offensive scheme. 

An Ode to the Hogs

The Crimson Tide offense utilizes a pro-style approach that is similar to most NFL offenses. Doug Nussmeier is 'Bama's offensive coordinator, a position previously filled by Jim McElwain during Saban's first two national championships. Both are descendants of the pro-style one-back coaching tree that stretches back to Don Coryell, Joe Gibbs, and Dennis Erickson.

As I previously discussed, the one-back offense is predicated upon mini-series--a run or a pass play protected by one or two 'constraint' plays such as a play action pass or screen. The system is versatile, in that it permits multiple personnel groupings, allowing an offense to both feature a tailback on downhill run plays as well as threaten a defense with four immediate vertical pass threats.

It is thus well suited to modern football's emphasis on a conceptual passing game, that being pass patterns that are put together to purposefully stretch the defense horizontally or vertically in a particular segment of the field, providing the offense more receivers than the defense has pass defenders in that area.

Alabama's offense, however, is more run-heavy than its NFL counterparts. 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. With inside zone, the offensive line will take an aggressive half step to the play side. If a lineman is covered (has a defensive lineman over him), he is responsible for blocking him to the playside shoulder. If uncovered, a lineman combo blocks to the play side with the nearest covered teammate.

Once a double team is established between the two offensive lineman, one of the two linemen combo blockers will come off onto the linebacker in their area. By making an offensive lineman responsible for an area rather than a man and having the linemen work in tandem, zone runs allows an offense to better account for the myriad of blitzes and stunts used by modern defenses. Zone run plays are thus ubiquitous for both pro-style and spread teams. 

From the I position, the tailback will aim for the outside foot of the front side guard. He presses the hole and then 'runs to daylight,' hitting the play wherever an opening appears. 'Bama will often use their second tight end or H-back to seal block the backside edge, creating a natural cutback angle.

Once a team begins to overplay inside zone, the Tide will employ either outside zone or counter trey. With counter-trey the running back takes an initial inside zone step but cuts back and takes the hand-off following a pulling guard and H-back.

The blocking scheme is  power-O blocking--the front side blocks down while the backside guard and back kick out and lead through the hole, creating angles at the point of attack. 'Bama often likes running these plays from shotgun to catch a defense flat-footed.

These base run plays constitute the core of Alabama's offense. The Crimson Tide use the run to set up other aspects and will rely upon running between the tackles until an opposing team can stop it. Saban likes employing massive, athletic offensive lines and physical, one-cut tailbacks to make it go.

The Crimson Tide's ability to run the football with zone and counter trey does not necessarily resemble an NFL team today. It is instead a throwback to another famous one-back team--the 1980's Washington Redskins under Gibbs featuring John Riggins and the 'Hogs.

Wear you down then look to strike

The Tide's passing game is fairly straightforward and is predicated upon the opportunities created by running the football. The Alabama passing game can largely be boiled down to two concepts. The Tide like to use short, quick throws such as spacing in their dropback pass game.

Alabama then looks to throw the football down the field off play-action, employing pass patterns such as four verticals, deep crossing, and post-corner routes. This short/long dichotomy is reminiscent of Pete Carroll's USC teams, reflective of Nussmeier's time at Washington with Steve Sarkisian.

Alabama is able to effectively push the football down field through a combination of holes created by defenses overly concerned with the Crimson Tide running attack and superior athletic talent. The 'Bama offense can stall when they are unable to effectively run the football because they are not designed to rely upon a drop back ball, control passing attack. They are instead looking to use the passing game for big plays.

Reflecting this tenet, Alabama under Saban has tended to have 'game managers' at QB -- players who can make throws but more importantly will make smart decisions and not undermine the ball control, defensive minded approach. 

Flip the Script?

Saban's philosophic approach to offensive football makes the 2013 Crimson Tide an interesting unit to watch. Alabama's returning strength is QB AJ McCarron and a wide receiver corps led by Amari Cooper. McCarron has demonstrated the ability to get the football down field and make key throws. T.J. Yeldon returns off a 1,000 yard freshman season and in my opinion may be the most talented running back Saban has had at Alabama, including Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.

But the 'Bama coaching staff faces no small task in replacing three starters from its offensive line, including top-15 picks Chance Warmack and DJ Fluker, and Remington winner Barrett Jones. The level of play by the Crimson Tide offensive line in 2012 cannot be understated. They were a dominant unit and the clear strength of the Alabama offense. When in doubt, the Crimson Tide could generally road-grade through their competition. The offensive line  usually provided McCarron ample time to throw vertically off play action. 

As such, Alabama's number of returning starters understates the challenge the coaching staff faces in reloading its offense. How Alabama fills those spots alongside pre-season All American candidate LT Cyrus Kouandjio remains to be seen.

The question becomes how does Nussmeier and his staff implement a strategic framework for this group. Does the coaching staff become more of a pass-first squad, placing more responsibility upon McCarron? Or do they simply reload up front and continue with the same script that has won Saban and company three national championships in four years? This debate will be one of the interesting story lines of the early 2013 season. 


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Chief B1G Dump's picture

This website is OBSESSED with Alabama...
I bet if someone counted, Bama would nearly as many mentions as OSU on here.
Anyhow, nice breakdown as always Ross.  I fell like I'm ready to run some offenses now.

Basso Profondo's picture

This is true.  But whether we like it or not, they are the current king of the hill and have been for some time.  Know thy enemy..

Earle's picture

I don't know, I think 'Bama gets a fraction of the attention given the the SEC as a whole, ESPN (if there is a distinction), and Mark May in particular.
Alabama is the king right now.  You have to kill the king to be the king, so I don't mind a little chalk talk on how they get it done.

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

Bigbutterbuckeye's picture

I don't know. I think no matter how much they would probably deny it, Coach Meyer and his assistants think "How would I plan for Alabama if we play them?" at least a little bit every day. 

ESPN starting the SEC channel to concentrate on the SEC is like Baskin-Robbins starting a new store to concentrate on selling ice cream.

Orlando Pancakes's picture

I don't remember Trent Richardson winning the Heisman Trophy but I've been wrong before. As always though, great write-up Ross as I will have an intriguing aspect of Alabama's offense to look towards when the season starts. 

Borrowed Time's picture

you're right, it was cam, rg3, and manziel who won the heismans after ingram

Ross Fulton's picture

Good catch--mangled that one.

ohst8buxCP's picture

TJ Yeldon is f*cking scary, that kid is the definition of a playmaker especially when put in Saban's run heavy scheme. If we play them at all it's going to take one hell of a defensive effort.

KingKosar's picture

Great analysis, Ross!  I think you hit the nail on the head there towards the end; their dominance on the offensive line not only allowed them to create holes for the running game, but also - when defenses would stack guys in the box - create openings in the secondary. 
I would think that as long as Alabama is able to successfully run their base inside or outside zone, they will be able to give McCarron options.
Case in point: Last year's loss vs A&M: Alabama (as a team) only managed 122 yards of rushing for the whole game, and they were constantly forcing the pass (led to 2 interceptions). 
Of course part of that was due to A&M jumping out to a quick 20 point lead after the first quarter...

Earle's picture

Well, that's the game plan against them.  Get ahead early and don't let them control the ball, grind you down with the run and then take shots downfield.  If I recall, 'Bama didn't give up on the run when they were down early, and their running game was a big part of them getting back in the game.  But A&M kept putting up points, and they really had to start chucking it when they got down a couple of scores in the 4th quarter.
Therein lies the key against them in my mind, you have to be talented and dynamic enough on offense to put points on the board against their D.  They are not built for shootouts or come-from-behind heroics.  They get ahead of you, beat you into the ground, and turn their athletes on defense loose against you when you are trying to catch up.

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

yrro's picture

Pretty much the game plan against any defense-first and then run the ball football team. Just like the game plan against Oregon is "slow them down." Good luck with either of those.

buckeyepastor's picture

Interesting to me that with all the talk about "SEC SPEED" and athleticism, everything that I read here about 'Bama's offense, and what I've read elsewhere about their defense, is that Alabama success is not about stellar, out of this world athletes so much as it's about pressuring the middle of the field and a variety of looks on defense and simply out-numbering at the point of attack (for rushing) or an area of the field (for passing) on offense.   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

yrro's picture

It is about stellar, out of this world athletes. They're just all playing on the offensive and defensive lines. They had two first round draft picks just on their O-line last year!

hetuck's picture

Finally. An offense Vrabel can game plan. He never saw the spread stuff in the NFL, but he's very familiar with this & I have no doubt he'll add his two cents when the time comes .

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

nickma71's picture

If you want to know how effective zone blocking is, see the Denver Broncos under Mike Shanahan and his plug in a running back and get 1000 yards scheme. The line was coached by Alex Gibbs. Besides the zone blocking technique, he also used the full assortment of legal plays inside the tackles at the time, like rolling a defender under the knees known as chop blocking.

buckeyeblur5's picture

The system Alex Gibbs used to so much success in Denver and Atlanta is different than Bama's.  Gibbs really focuses on the Wide (Outside) Zone as his bread and butter and uses the Tight Zone more as a counter.  His system stresses horizontal movement and bets that a defense cannot keep its run fits while being stretched to the sideline.  Then, when he gets them flowing outside he hits them with the inside zone for a gashing cutback run.
Bama on the other hand uses the inside zone as their base and they run it more as a vertical play than Gibbs.  Their linemen take heavier steps and use their physicality to manhandle the opposition whereas Gibbs has always favored smaller, quicker men who could beat an opponent with body position and leverage.
These differences may appear slight but to a defender they are like night and day.