Is Derrick Henry One of the Best Ever?
- The biggest reason Alabama had success at times running the ball against us was #27 Derrick Henry! I knew he was good just from casually watching the game. But after breaking it down one frame at a time, I saw just how good he is!
Unless something weird happens he will win a Heisman or two and go down as one of the best RB’s ever. I know that sounds crazy, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a RB in the modern era better than him. He’s like Adrian Peterson, but with great vision (something AD lacked in college).
He made our tackling look terrible. And the holes he was able to find and squeeze through were really impressive, and not even a DE getting half a body on him slowed him down even a bit! That is scary!
- Against the other RB’s our tackling was fine. However, on the run bubble pass our DB’s struggled to tackle the screen receiver despite being in good position. I’m surprised Alabama didn’t go to this more often! It wasn’t just Sanchez, but most of the time Q. Hayes was the one missing the tackle.
It’s hard to fault the defense for struggling to tackle Derrick Henry, and other than the few run bubble passes we did really good tackling.
- The difference in the running game defense with and without Derrick Henry is almost night and day.
If you average the runs without Henry, the average run is below schedule to keep the chains moving (and that’s not counting the fumble). If you average the 7 Henry runs, the average run is somewhere between 4 and 10 yards.
I don’t average the total number of yards, because long runs or big loss runs can really skew the stats. Instead I average the types of outcomes which I’ve found to be much more accurate.
Why is that? Well, I think the main purpose of a running game is to be consistent. If you have a big 30 yard run, but then on the same drive have two consecutive runs of no gain you get in 3rd and long and are most likely forced to punt. If you just average the yards, you get an average of 10 yards a gain for those three plays. That’s very misleading.
Conversely, if a RB gets 4 yards on every run of a drive then there’s no pressure on the passing game to ever get more than 5 yards, the defense will never know whether you are going to run or pass, and you will most likely end up getting some kind of points! So a consistent average of 4 yards a run is much better than an inconsistent average of more than that (in this example, an average of 10 yards per run).
I should also mention that a RB who has a 30 yard gain on one run, but then has a run that loses 10 yards puts the team in 2nd and 20 which, way more often than not, will end up in a punt. It’s still an average of 10 yards a run, but it kills the offense! I think this was a big reason Barry Sanders’ teams always struggled and so often ended up kicking field goals instead of scoring TD’s.
Here’s the way I do it:
I give any run which loses yards a rating of -1, any run that doesn’t lose yards but is under 4 yards (in other words, not enough to stay on schedule) a 0. Runs between 4 and 5 yards I give a rating of 1 (in other words, just enough to stay on schedule), runs between 5 and 10 yards I give a rating of 2, and big runs (runs over 10 yards) I give a 3 rating.
So a run can have one of five outcomes. It either loses yards, doesn’t gain enough to stay on schedule, gains just enough to stay on schedule, moderate run, or is a big run!
I consider any average under 1.0 a success, and any average over 1.0 a failure (assuming we are trying to stop the run).
When you average the runs without Henry, you get 0.75 which is between no gain (0) and just enough to stay on schedule (1).
When you average the Henry runs, you get 1.71 which is between just enough to stay on schedule (1) and a moderate gain (2).
If you look at the median averages, runs without Henry just barely got a 1, while Henry runs got a 2.
Without Henry runs (F,-1,0,0,0,0,0,0,1,1,1,1,1,1,2,2,3)
Henry runs (0,1,1,2,2,3,3)
- Overall, I thought our front 7 (and most of the time we used 4 LB’s instead of 3 LB’s and a nickelback) played very well and held their own against the big Alabama OL.
- They were only in four 3rd and shorts, and they got past the first down each time (although one was a fumble). That’s not good, but we didn’t make it easy.
On short yardage we actually added 2 extra DE’s in place of LB’s. We would put Tapper and Chuka as the normal DE’s, and add Grissom and Chaz Nelson as stand-up DE’s. We were able to get off blocks and even get into the backfield on these plays, but the RB was able to just squeeze in and find enough of a hole while avoiding the free defenders to get the necessary yard.
- Bama’s run blocking scheme largely centered on double teaming the down linemen and peeling one off at the last minute to get a body on the LB’s. They do this very well and allows them to get some push, although we did not allow very much push which is good!
However, this really puts the pressure on our LB’s to make the plays and they do a good job being able to block the LB’s despite the speed and agility we have at the position. Our LB’s did a good job avoiding blocks, but they still got us half the time and even when they didn’t the RB was able to get positive yards by either pushing the LB back or preventing a head on tackle (allowing them to fall forward for a couple of yards or so).
(video breakdown is at bottom of post)
- Trevor played a tremendous game throwing with accuracy! One thing he does needs to work on is going through his reads. Pretty much every pass play he stuck with his first read and didn’t go through a progression.
For example, remember that incredible TD pass he had scrambling to the right and throwing across his body in the end zone? His second read was actually wide open and would have at least gotten to the 2 yard line (if not a TD) easily. It’s the same play that Bell scored the TD to win the OSU game, only Knight didn’t throw to the corner route for some reason (it’s just off the screen so it’s hard to tell). The defender covering the receiver underneath dropped back to help out on the corner leaving the receiver wide open on about the 5 yard line right in front of the QB.
- Obviously, QB’s who can throw with accuracy can get by with not reading defenses well because when they are hot they don’t need a receiver to be very open to get the ball to them. Unfortunately, when they have off games they become ineffective. And you see them at times throwing into double or triple coverage and can end up throwing interceptions. There’s a much larger room for error when you can go through reads well.
I think that this might not be an accident. All of Josh’s QB’s (except maybe Bradford) have been like this and it might be by design. Let me explain…
- On the vast majority of plays this game the primary receiver was the one that was the best option. That’s due to really good gameplanning and play design/calling. This is something I saw change starting with the Baylor game. I have not been a fan of the passing offense up to that point, but the gameplan for Baylor (with the passing offense, not the running offense) was really good. Same thing vs OSU, and same with the Sugar Bowl.
Either Josh suddenly gained a lot of understanding that he didn’t have before, or someone else has been given more input in the process.
It’s very possible that their philosophy is to take care of the reads for the QB by designing plays that give the best chance of making the primary receiver open, and getting QB’s that are so good and accurate that they can complete passes to receivers who aren’t as open (or aren’t open at all).
There are advantages and disadvantages to this…
It allows the offense to have a whole lot more plays in their offense since the QB doesn’t have to perfect a bunch of reads.
It also allows a QB who only scores a 50% on the written test to have a chance at starting (like Knight did to start the season).
It makes pattern reading almost impossible, which is something Saban is notorious for.
You have to have a stellar QB to be successful (as opposed to other systems that can take average QB’s and make them stars). It also means they can’t start as a true freshman and usually requires a few years in the system to really be successful due to the large amount of plays and the requirement that you learn a bunch of brand new plays each week.
You are gambling that the defense doesn’t do something different than you expect. If they react as you expect you can have a big day. If not, your passing game is going to get killed.
It’s harder to make adjustments to how the defense plays you, so you have to keep running different plays instead of just having the QB hit the receiver who the adjustment leaves open.
If your QB is having a slightly off night (i.e. anything short of awesome) your passing game is going to disappear (something we’ve seen happen time and time again the last few years) and lead to more turnovers.
You have to keep your gameplan very very secret as it relies on the defense playing every receiver honestly.
The QB will stare down the primary receiver giving safeties and zone defenders time to get there before the ball does. Going through a read progression naturally “Looks off” defenders.
Having so many plays means the QB won’t have as many reps and thus won’t be as comfortable and confident running them.
It requires the coaches to be constantly making audibles and changing plays at the line, because if they aren’t in the right defense for the play we’re running it won’t work.
It results in more 3 and outs and 3rd and longs because the QB either forces a pass into coverage or just throws the ball away instead of hitting underneath receivers and outlets to get at least a few yards.
It makes deep passes harder. Using reads you can take advantage of the way safeties are playing and defenders trying to defend the underneath routes. Otherwise, you have to use play-action to try and get safeties out of position or call plays where everyone runs deep routes (which requires a lot of protection). You can run things like hitch and go routes (like the long pass for a TD to Saunders) and out and ups, but that requires you to set them up and they only work once a game (maybe twice).
- Things that help:
We do run a 4 verticals play where the QB reads the defense and tries to hit the receiver who is most open. That’s good, but we usually run it out of trips which is harder to execute and we’ve seen defenses stop it all year (those third and long plays that the QB either tries to scramble or holds the ball too long and gets sacked because no one was open).
We also have a presnap adjustment where a receiver vs a press corner can run a fade route. This is what happened when we completed that 3rd and long after being 1st and 30.
We have some plays where each side of the line is running a different pass concept, one for man and the other for zone (or one for cover 2 and one for cover 3). The QB then reads the defense presnap and chooses a side based on the defense they seem to be running. This is really common among passing teams.
Through film study the coaches do a good job identifying tendencies and can thus call plays (or audible to them) to run against the defenses they know are most likely to be run. This definitely helps!
When going tempo it limits how creative the defense can be and often results in more predictable coverage.
- What we saw in the Sugar Bowl was this offense working at it’s best. The gameplan was good, the defense didn’t do anything unexpected, and the QB was very accurate. When that happens, our passing game will look brilliant!
Of course it’s also possible that the coaches expect their qb’s to go through all the reads but there’s just too many plays for them to be able to do that and most end up staring down the primary receiver.
I think I’ve heard Josh mention that he tells the QB’s to look for the receiver which the best leverage on the defender. So maybe they are taught to choose a receiver presnap (which can be misleading) and they have a natural tendency to stare down that receiver instead of progressing through the reads. Who knows?
- In the first half Alabama ran mostly zone defenses. I wonder if they studied the ATM game last year where their matchup zone defense killed us. Our passing gameplan in that game was terrible and our passing plays were not good at taking advantage of zone. The same was true in the TCU game this year with their matchup zone. And Alabama is always the best in the country at executing that very type of coverage.
However, we’ve been running much better passing plays the last few games that allow us to take advantage of the zone. This forced an adjustment in the second half where Alabama went to a man defense and their defense got more and more aggressive as the half went on as it became clear that the more aggressive they were the more we struggled.
- Our adjustments to the man coverage weren’t working. We were able to hit a hitch and go for a TD and a fade route vs press coverage for a bit first down, but that’s about it. (The crazy TD he threw across his body was against man coverage, but the scheme didn’t work, Trevor just made a crazy play!)
They ended up really selling out with little help deep and either our receivers couldn’t get open or the QB didn’t have time to get the ball to them.
Smartly, Josh eventually ran some timely (and brilliantly designed!) screen passes to take advantage of that aggression. Even though they didn’t gain a ton of yards, they were just enough to make important first downs and allow us to hold on to the lead.
Had Alabama run that aggressive man defense the whole game they probably would have beat us fairly easily. But, they didn’t and our coaches ended up winning that chess match!
Passing Game Breakdown (1st Half):
Passing Game Breakdown (2nd Half):
The running game presented a very interesting story. In the videos below I breakdown what was new in the running game and the adjustments made on both sides during the game. Why did Alabama stop the run so much better coming out of half time? What exactly was going on?
First Half Breakdown:
Second Half Breakdown:
[UPDATE: After further review, I noticed that of all the times we pulled a lineman in the first half, only once did we run it away from the 3 Technique (DT lined up just outside the OG) side. And on that one play the DT slanted toward the Center thus allowing an easier block. So, there was no reason to scrap it completely in the second half. We just needed to make sure that if a DT lines up as a 3 Technique that we run toward his side and not away!]
How did we go from a terrible offense to one that scored 31 points in a half against one of the best defenses in the country. What happened?
The run game struggled in the second half. Why? I sought the answer to these questions. The passing gameplans have been very good the last few games, while the run game has been where I’ve had the most beef with the offense over the year. There were some very good things in this game and some negatives that result from the type of offense that we run.
In order to understand what happened, you have to understand what our offense is and how it works.
- One big problem I’ve had with our zone read (and been harping on all season) is that we run it where the RB and the QB go to the same side as the read man. The vast majority of the time the read man ended up making the tackle. And when I say the vast majority, I’m not just exaggerating or saying that out of nowhere. I mean literally. I’ve diagrammed every run play the entire season.
The only times it has worked for more than just a couple of yards (other than KSU, whose DE just wasn’t athletic enough) are when the RB bent it back to the backside (hence ending up with the QB and RB going to opposite sides).
As the season has gone along I’ve noticed that more and more often the RB has bent it to the backside like this. And in the last couple of games all of them have that bend where it looks like the RB’s aiming point is actually the backside guard instead of the frontside guard. Finally!
Josh said that it’s been a learning curve with the pistol zone read. I can’t help but wonder if this is a large part of what he’s referring to.
Even better, most of the zone reads we ran were new plays with the QB and RB going in opposite directions and it was much more successful (at least in terms of not allowing the read man to make the tackle).
We were still reading LB’s off the ball a lot instead of linemen which is another frustrating thing. I think this led to some of the problems we had running the ball in this game.
- I think there’s a misconception among many fans that all plays are called in the heat of the moment, as if there’s an infinite number of plays they can call (like a video game).
For example, the end around for a score at the end of the first half…it’s not that it was a great CALL (even though the timing was good), it’s that it was a good play package.
That play was set up by several different plays in the first half. Right before that on the previous possession 2 identical plays were run close together to make sure the defense would remember and react to it. They faked that play with the receiver sneaking around and going the opposite direction. They knew before the game started that they were going to call the play like that.
- I think there’s another big misconception about our team in regards to adjustments.
Because of our offensive philosophy we can’t really “adjust” like other teams. That’s why I was so concerned going into halftime. I knew Saban would make the right adjustments on defense, but we can’t. Sure enough, they made a few critical adjustments (which I go over in the video) that shut down our running game. And we weren’t able to run the ball much at all after that.
The reason we can’t adjust like other teams is because we don’t have plays that do that. You can’t just draw up a brand new play in the locker room and go out and run it. It has to be something that’s in your gameplan that you’ve practiced.
The great offenses all have something in common. All of their plays have a purpose and relate in some way to their basic scheme, their bread and butter play(s). They have a few plays that they know they can have success with against anyone. Plays they have perfected that they believe are really powerful and difficult to stop, plays that take full advantage of their players.
They also know everything a defense can do to stop it and they have plays that take advantage of these defensive adjustments. These plays look like their basic scheme to keep the defense from keying on the formation or player movement.
So, in games it becomes a back and forth chess match with the defense adjusting to take away something the offense is doing, then the offense will run something to take advantage of that adjustment, this forces the defense to either stop doing that adjustment or add another adjustment to stop this new play.
If the defense stops doing their initial adjustment then the offense goes back and runs their main play/scheme, forcing the defense to either go back to their first adjustment or try a new one. This back and forth happens the whole game.
- For example, in the first half Ford had a really big run on a certain trap play. When we went back to it, the DE squeezed down the line to fit inside the pulling guard, not allowing the trap. It ended up in no gain.
Ideally, you’d then run a play out of the same formation (or something similar) that takes advantage of the DE squeezing down (which makes him easy to reach block and/or seal inside) and once he stops squeezing down you go back to the play you had success with.
But, we have no such play. So, Josh just scrapped it and never went back to it again.
- Something I’ve noticed about Josh is that he is way too quick to abandon something that works. For example, in the first half we were having a lot of success running the ball by pulling a lineman. Most of the running plays we ran in that half pulled a linemen.
But on the first running play of the second half their DT aggressively shot like a dart into the backfield so that the center couldn’t have time to block him (the center has to block him, even though he’s lined up over the guard, so that the guard can pull). The DT came through unblocked and hit the QB in the backfield.
This might be because we were running the play away from the 3 technique DT side. The 3 tech DT lines up between the OG and OT, way away from the Center making it really hard for the Center to get to him. The DT on the OTHER side is lined up over the gap next to the Center. It’s possible that the solution would have been as simple as only running the pulling plays away from the 3 technique.
Regardless, from that play forward Josh didn’t pull a single linemen. This, probably more than anything, killed our running game.
But, there’s no reason to give up on it. At the very least sprinkle it in every now and then. The defender will forget about it as he’s busy trying to adjust to the other plays. Ideally, though, try to take advantage of this adjustment and scare him from doing it again so you can go back to what was working!
Thankfully, I think this is something that can be learned and is likely due to him being relatively new at calling plays. I can understand a young play-caller overreacting and over-adjusting like that.
- The way our running gameplan works is that we have a bunch of unrelated “packages” that are brand new and get put in every game. They are brand new formations and often new schemes. And those packages often consist of a few plays that look similar but attack different things.
That’s good, except we only run them once each and then that’s it. Then it’s off to a different package. If there’s a play that was really successful he might run it once, or maybe twice, later on in the game, but that’s it.
There’s no rhyme or reason to it, we just run all the plays once each. Even if they don’t adjust to the first play, we’ll still run the other play. It’s never a case of all 3 or 4 plays in the package working. It’s always only one or two that work. That makes sense seeing as how they attack different things.
But, running 3 or 4 plays only to have half (or less) of them work is not a good percentage. That means you’re wasting a couple of downs (or more) on a given drive.
Since all the different packages are completely different from each other, it’s impossible to predict which plays will have success. You can’t look at how they are playing and strategically choose which one will be most likely to work (and which ones definitely won’t). It’s just a crapshoot.
None of the rest of our more standard recurring plays have counters in the game plan. So, if the defense stops one of them all we can do is try something else and see if it works, and Josh usually abandons the previous one completely.
- In the sugar bowl we were fortunate that all the packages used in the first half worked really well (minus a play or two from each) and at very opportune times.
The packages were very smartly designed and difficult to stop! Kudos for that are definitely appropriate!
In the second half we had no more packages (or maybe Josh refused to run them because they involved pulling a linemen?) so we were left with our basic plays.
One adjustment he did make that did work (although only once) was to try the outside zone play which we hadn’t run all game. This makes sense to do when the DT’s are sprinting into the backfield at the snap and DE’s are pinching down. We ended up getting about 6 yards on the play.
However, it didn’t work after that. One time was because of a LB, but the other time it was because of the safety being really aggressive (the other big adjustment Alabama made at halftime), other than that the blocking worked great and would have been a big play had the lead blocker blocked the charging safety instead of helping out on a LB.
We never ran it again after that.
We did run one play from the first half that worked for about 5 yards. The rest were just base blocking which wasn’t very effective except for when Clay made an amazing play reversing field and going the other way. But that wasn’t scheme.
We didn’t run plays to take advantage of that overly aggressive safety, which would have been pretty easy to do with play action, I would think. We didn’t call running plays to take advantage of the blitzing in the 4th quarter (like the speed option or going back to the outside zone).
- So Alabama definitely won the adjustments battle on this side of the ball. But, our QB and RB made just enough big time plays, josh called a couple of brilliant screen passes, our defense came up big, and we were able to beat the mighty Crimson Tide.
Our OL did fantastic! Especially since they were so moved around. Savage did really well and will be great next year. I couldn’t be more proud of them! Really proud of the fight in our guys and the execution of the players. And I’m glad to see Josh growing in his understanding of the zone read! There’s definitely reason to be excited about next season!
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