It is no secret that in recent years Nick Saban and Alabama have evolved. The Crimson Tide now run a high flying offense full of run-pass options.
If Saban had his way, he’d rather stick with a team dominated by defense and a strong run game. However, if his choice is between winning and running a team his preferred way, Saban chooses winning every time.
I think where we figured it out was when Hugh Freeze was at Ole Miss and we were struggling with pace of play, we were struggling with RPOs, we were struggling with this new-age football. That’s when we started to figure out, ‘Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, you better join ‘em.
On this play the two players in the backfield cross each other after the snap.
The back moving from left to right (red) is the handoff option. The back moving from right to left (yellow) appears to be what is known as eye candy. In the run game, teams use all kind of deceptions to try and fool the defense about which way the ball is going. This player crossing over without getting the ball seems like he’s just trying to occupy the attention of the linebacker and keep him from crashing on the ball carrier.
However, if this linebacker stays disciplined, doesn't take the bait, and doesn’t follow this player into the flat, the defense has a numbers problem because there are two blockers and only two defenders on that side.
This linebacker ends up being the read player, and when he doesn’t get out to help, the pass goes to the flat.
It’s a completion for a nice gain even though one of the receivers doesn’t hit his block.
Here Bama fires the tight end and a receiver lined up tight to the formation out as blockers.
Because the tight end is gone, there is an unblocked player at the end of the line. This morphs the play essentially into a zone read.
If the unblocked defender crashes down to try to take down the running back, the quarterback can pull the ball and run.
If he stays at home and respects this, he won’t be in a position to stop the running back.
But since there are two blockers and only two defenders on the outside, the screen pass is ultimately chosen.
When you hear something about an offense being innovative (and for college football these days a play like this is not particularly groundbreaking), sometimes all that means is fusing two concepts that had never been put together before like a screen and a zone read.
This next play is a counter run with a pulling guard taking the end guy at the line of scrimmage and a tight end taking the playside linebacker.
The key player here is number 3 Gilbert Frierson. He plays a position Miami calls striker, which they view as essentially a hybrid linebacker-safety. If he crashes down to try and help the run, Alabama once again has a two on one set up on the outside for a potential screen, one blocker vs. one defender and an additional receiver to get the ball.
That’s just what he does.
Saban himself has discussed the difficulty in depending RPOs where the run concept is a gap play involving pulling guards.
"To me, it's easier to defend the RPO when a team runs a zone play than it is when they run - what I call a 'hat' play - which is a lead play, or power or counter."
"Because now, the linebackers are taught to step up and jump over, or jump over because somebody pulled. But now, you pull the ball and throw an RPO and now you've really displaced 'em."
Indeed that’s what seems to be happening here. Presnap Frierson likely had an outside contain role.
However, the pulling lineman and tight end reset the gaps and force the linebackers to shift.
This in turn moves Frierson’s run assignment inside.
The result is a very simple play to execute, an easy completion and a nice gain.
The last play we will look at adds a passing element beyond a screen. Yes, there are again options to handoff for an inside zone run and a screen to a wide receiver on the outside.
There also is a big play threat in this one, though, a slot seam.
When the defense edges up to take away the run, the seam is wide open.
It turns into a big play.
One thing worth noting here is how much easier college rules make it to execute a downfield RPO pass than it would be in the NFL. Downfield passes obviously take longer to develop, and if the linemen need to block as though it is a run play, they are going to get pretty far down the field at the point the ball is thrown.
In the NFL it is a penalty for an ineligible receiver to be more than 1 yard down the field on a passing attempt, while in college it isn’t a penalty unless a player is more than 3 yards downfield. You can see how that comes into play here.
The blue line (courtesy of CBS) is the line of scrimmage. The red line is 1 yard down the field. Past that point would be a penalty in the NFL. The yellow line is 3 yards down the field. That is the legal place in college.
This in turn is why certain concepts might be off the table for now in the NFL.
An offense that has become the envy of college football doesn’t have that problem. They have concepts that are simple for the quarterback to execute yet drive defenses crazy.