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How the hell do you score on Alabama? Part 2: The stats behind the late-season "decline"

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As Bill mentioned last week, Alabama is on the verge of attaining the impossible, becoming the first three-peat champions of modern college football. The problem for our friends in Tuscaloosa, aside from history not being on their side, is that Alabama’s vaunted defense showed a worrying crack in its armor during the latter half of the 2012 season. That crack could be attributed to the shotgun spread offense.

Step 1: Have Johnny Manziel...
Step 1: Have Johnny Manziel...
Mike Zarrilli

Let’s begin this article with the anchor of the Alabama defense, the defensive line. Few defensive lines in the country had as much success as Alabama’s. One area of dominance for the line is evident when you look at Alabama’s ability to consistently pressure and sack the QB over the course of the 2012 season. This doesn’t mean the line accumulated all of the sacks, but they themselves either logged the sack or occupied the opposing line long enough for the LBs or DBs to get to the QB. In fact, Alabama ranked 17th in Adj. Sack Rate and finished the year tied for 16th in total sacks with a combined 35. But 19 came in the first six games, and only 14 came in the last eight.

When you factor in Alabama’s ability to consistently stop the run (Alabama held Missouri to a freakishly low of 0.9 yards per carry), the defensive line was an absolute force on any field it played. That force, however, was not equipped to chase mobile quarterbacks around the backfield. And as Bill stated in his article, "LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, and Georgia's Aaron Murray combined to complete 68 of 101 passes for 830 yards, four touchdowns and a pick."

During the first half of the 2012 season, Alabama’s defense held opponents to an average of 9.8 PPG, but that average rose to 19.5 points per game over the second half of the season. Part of this is surely the quality of the opponents (I don’t think anyone considers Florida Atlantic to be on the same level as LSU), but the other part was schematic, and unless Alabama adjusts its play to address the speed and space afforded by the shotgun formation, they might not repeat as NCAA champions at the end of the 2013 season.

As Alabama moved deeper into its 2012 schedule, it played teams that relied heavily on shotgun spread formations, and Alabama’s defense was unable to contain these spread offenses with the same consistency as they did in the first half of the season. For the sake of comparison, below are two offensive summaries for opponents playing against Alabama in the 2012 season. The first is the Alabama-Arkansas game. In Arkansas, Alabama faced a team that tended toward pro style formations with the QB under center. (Yes, Arkansas was playing with its backup quarterback.) The result for Arkansas was a disastrous 52-0 drubbing at the hands of Alabama. In the second example, LSU’s relied heavily on creating space for its athletic wide receivers and running backs, and the result was a much closer 21-17 victory for Alabama.

Category Arkansas LSU
Passing 11-for-25 25-for-36
Sacks 4-20 3-22
INT% 8.0% 0.0%
Yards per pass attempt 2.0 7.0
Rushes (not inc. sacks) 33 46
Yards per carry 2.4 3.5
Penalties 1-6 7-51
Turnovers 5 0

But these are only two examples from the entire season. In order to fully illustrate the schematic differences between Alabama’s opponents from the first half to the second half of the season, I have charted all plays run by Alabama’s opponents (at least the ones recorded by the Football Study Hall team) and broken them out into the following chart:

First 6 games Last 8 games
Category Plays-Yards Yards/Play Plays-Yards Yards/Play
Under-Center Passing 16-for-27 0.8 19-for-34 9.1
Shotgun Passing 61-for-121 4.1 100-for-170 6.8
Pistol Passing 0-for-2 0.0 5-for-7 6.9
Under-Center Rushing 43-125 2.9 109-322 3.0
Under-Center Option 1-2 2.0 0-0
Shotgun Rushing 68-239 3.5 78-364 4.7
Shotgun Option 15-15 1.0 8-16 2.0
Shotgun QB Keep Option 9-11 1.2 0-0
Shotgun QB Draw 10-40 4.0 0-0
Pistol Rushing 4-14 3.5 12-51 4.3
Pistol Option 6-9 1.5 0-0
TOTAL 306-1176 3.8 418-2272 5.4

Notice that Alabama’s opponents increased their efficiency in every recorded category during the second half of the season. Again, that could be associated in part by the improvement of the opponents on the schedule. The most striking increases, however, are those associated with running and passing out of the shotgun formation. This means the teams that are more successful against Alabama were the teams with mobile quarterbacks calling plays requiring Alabama to cover more of the field on each down.

Opponents learned early that running into the teeth of the Alabama defense does little more than run time off the clock. Instead, the successful teams spread the field and challenged Alabama beat them to the edge, maintain gap integrity, chase the QB around the backfield (that image of Johnny Manziel dancing around in the pocket comes to mind), and still cover three wide receivers.

Since the savvier, more skilled opponents are spreading the field, Alabama’s defense must perhaps compensate by pulling their renowned, very large, and very terrifying linebacking corps off the field and replace them with smaller, faster players. By doing this, opponents have found a way of exploiting Alabama’s defense enough to keep games close. If the SEC West can figure out how to shut down Alabama’s potent offense while exploiting Alabama’s weakness to the shotgun spread, Alabama will find the road to the three-peat to be much more difficult than the pundits may suggest.

Stay tuned because tomorrow Ian will explore these items in greater depth by examining the X’s and O’s behind Alabama’s struggles with teams like LSU, Texas A&M, and Georgia.