Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bama O-Line: Uncivil War

By: @LivingCrimson

Duck and cover, offensive guru Bobby Petrino. Nick Saban’s knowledge bombs are coming at you, and turns out he knows a little somethin’ somethin’ about offense, too. The offensive line in particular. How do you think his defense is so effective?

“It’s too simple… If we can block the right guys, it will work out right. Just like my wife said, ‘Why did you run that play instead of a different one?’ She says that if that play doesn’t work, we should run another play. Well how about we just run that play right? Because when we run it right, we made 50 yards…” – Nick Saban

Sportswriters love to give the quarterback credit for amazing passes or applaud the running backs for explosive runs, but then overlook all the blocks that gave time to complete the pass or took out the linebacker that had a bead on the runner.

Successful offense starts with winning the battle in the trenches. And it can be a true battle of the bulge … with extremely large, physical players on the line. O-linemen must also bring a high level of intelligence to bear by knowing not only their own assignments and the assignments of the players lined up around them, but also anticipating the movement of the defense before the ball is snapped. The big guys up front must also practice deception and not tip off whether it’s a run or pass before the play (by stance, helmet reads or various other means).

When the building blocks are in place, the mission is straightforward: attack the living daylights out of your aiming point and protect your gap at all costs. It’s skirmish after skirmish in a bigger war, each one judged a win or loss by the location of the ball when the whistle blows.

The Crimson Tide O-line has had its ups and downs in the first three games, even though it hasn’t begun SEC play yet. The line has managed to engineer enough explosiveness to be 1st in the SEC for long rushing plays over 20 yards to +70 yards and give quarterback A.J. McCarron enough time in the pocket to earn 5th in SEC completion percentage. However, Bama is only 6th best in the SEC for touchdowns while being 1st in field goals. Obviously red zone conversion must improve to 6 points instead of 3 points or SEC play will be over before it starts.

“We stopped ourselves in the red zone by not executing what we were supposed to do… It’s not a systematic problem. [It’s] a lack of execution problem…” – Nick Saban

How can the offensive line improve red zone conversions? Run blocking has been effective for the most part, with all but two of the Tide’s touchdowns earned on rushing plays. The rushing average leads the SEC and ranks 5th nationally. The line is working now on avoiding negative plays.

Pass blocking, however, must improve quickly. Even though Bama ranks in the top half of the SEC for pass attempts and yards per game, it ranks in the bottom half for yards per attempt and touchdowns. In other words, it’s not exhibiting the same explosiveness in its passing game as its running game. And since Saban firmly believes in a balanced offense, the Tide won’t resort to a run heavy attack unless it has no other choice.

On pass plays in last weekend’s North Texas game, opposing linebackers consistently penetrated Bama’s backfield through the gaps between center and guard. Even with additional blocking from the skill players, the Mean Green had 4 sacks, 1 quarterback hurry and forced a fumble. There were even several overthrown passes influenced by McCarron sensing pressure on the pocket.

vertical line"When you're playing on your toes with your nose down and you whiff on the linebacker, what's that have to do with who's playing where?" – Nick Saban

Arkansas will be the first SEC game for Alabama and the first real test for the passing game. Saban sees improvement in the Hogs defense from last year, noting they return seven starters and rank in the top 20 teams in the country in scoring defense.

Expect the offensive line to make the necessary adjustments in pass protection, including executing fundamental technique and repositioning personnel as needed. Arkansas will face a physical, refortified battle at the line of scrimmage, and red zone conversion for the Tide should find its stride.

To the victors go the scores.

You can follow me on Twitter @LivingCrimson


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