The X's and O's: Good, Not Invincible
How LSU can attack Alabama’s defense
By Billy GomilaPosted Oct 31, 2012
It’s not news to say that Alabama Coach Nick Saban (with Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart) consistently fields some of the best defenses in college football that excel in taking the fight directly to opposing offenses with an aggressive attacking style.
But as good as the Crimson Tide have been at forcing offenses to abandon their best game plans, they are not invincible. Every defensive scheme has its weak point, and it is occasionally exposed when it employs a common blitz package – the field pressure.
In football vernacular, the “field” and the “boundary” refer to the wide and short sides of the field, which are determined by hash marks on which the offense is aligned. If the offense is aligned on its right, the field would be to its left, boundary to the right, and vice versa, if aligned on the other side of the field.
Saban’s usual field pressure tactics usually involve bringing blitzing defenders – either linebackers or defensive backs – from the wide side of the field, while rolling defenders into zone coverage behind them. This serves two purposes. Most modern spread offenses prefer to run the football toward the wide side of the field in order to get the ball to a playmaker in as much open space as possible. Also, when passing, most quarterbacks are taught to throw the ball behind a blitz because when defenders are attacking up the field they usually leave open space for a receiver behind them. So, by design ‘Bama is in position to attack the run with extra tacklers, while also having zone defenders in position behind them in case the offense passes. But this clockwise flow does create some vulnerability on the boundary side of the field.
As you can see from the model, there is almost a clockwise flow to the defensive movement, and it creates a natural mismatch to the boundary side, where the cornerback can be engaged with a wide receiver and the defensive end dropping into coverage can be exploited with a mismatch. Two plays that should be familiar to LSU fans that play to this area of the field include the running back screen pass and the speed option.
Screen passes come in a couple of varieties and involve a pass behind the line of scrimmage during which the receiver has a group of blockers forming a “screen” out in front of him. One of the more basic varieties of this play is the running back screen. The quarterback takes a snap, and a portion of his offensive feigns blocking and essentially allows the pass rush up the field. After a count, usually of one or two seconds, they will all then pull out into the flat, while a running back drifts out behind them. The QB is tasked with inviting that pass rush towards him convincingly before tossing the ball over their heads to the waiting runner. In this case, LSU can create a matchup advantage with three blockers versus two defenders, while the rest of the defense will have to turn and pursue.
The option is a touchy subject with most LSU fans, especially when it’s run to the shorter side of the field, but it can be a valuable tactic here. Likewise, Zach Mettenberger is hardly the type of athletic quarterback most teams would prefer to run on this play. But when it comes to speed options out of a shotgun, spread look, he doesn’t have to be. Most times, plays like this essentially become long handoffs that get the ball to a speedy running back on the edge of the defense. It’s why a lot of spread offenses, like Oklahoma State, have had some success occasionally running the play, even with stationary quarterbacks like Brandon Weeden last season.
The play is fairly simple. The quarterback will take the snap and run directly at the end man on the line of scrimmage, be it a lineman or linebacker. The offensive line zone-blocks, with the playside tackle leaving that end man unblocked and pursuing up the field to the next closest defender, who is likely a linebacker. The quarterback attacks the unblocked man, forces him to commit, and then pitches the ball off to the running back who should have a long running alley. Most times, all of this will take place in about two or three steps, which is why the quarterback doesn’t necessarily have to be the fastest. Simple and very effective – in fact, LSU has had quite a bit of success running this play, even with Mettenberger.
There isn’t a magic bullet for attacking any great defense, especially Alabama’s. But if timed correctly and used in the right situations, screen passes and speed options are plays that LSU can pop for big gains this week. The offense must still rely on its running game to set the tone, but LSU can use these tactics to get the ball into the hands of fast runners like Jeremy Hill and Michael Ford with room to work.