It is unlikely that there is a defensive scheme that Nick Saban, at some point in his career, has not used. Traditionally known as a 3-4 coach, Saban and his Alabama defensive staff had adapted to the spread era.
Against Ohio State’s spread set, Alabama will likely primarily play a 4-2-5, with the nickel (what Saban calls the ‘Star’) going to the passing strength.
But the Tide will also intersperse odd fronts—a traditional 3-4 against certain run sets, and Saban’s 3-3-5 “Mint” front. The latter features both defensive ends in 4i’s inside the tackles, a standup weakside ‘Jack’ linebacker that often drops into coverage and the nickel frequently included as one of the four rushers in a ‘simulated pressure’ (meaning the defense brings four rushers but one of them is a back seven defender).
Saban’s defenses likewise use a wide variety of pattern matching coverage schemes. Pattern matching means that, even when playing zone, the defenders will distribute the patterns between them and then play man on the pattern they are responsible for, akin to matchup zone in basketball.
To grossly over-simplify (because Saban uses numerous coverages), Alabama uses two basic coverage types. First, the Tide will play single-high safety schemes—cover 1 man, but more frequently ‘Rip/Liz’ cover 3-pattern matching. In the latter, the safety will often rotate down away from the passing strength (what Saban calls ‘cover 6’).
Rip/Liz provides a way to cover four vertical routes from cover 3; meaning that, against four verticals, Saban’s cover 3 looks like man coverage. Otherwise, defenders will trade off receivers while playing man in their zones.
Second, Alabama will play variations of cover 4 quarters bracket coverage.
Although Saban has a variety of different cover 4 calls that tell the nickel, outside linebackers, and safeties how to relate to run fits and different pass patterns, at its most basic, the corner will generally play man on most routes by the outside wide receiver. The defense will then have one extra defender and combination cover the inside receiver(s).
So if the offense is in trips (three wide receivers to one side), the nickel, linebacker and safety will determine who fits the run and who covers what patterns by the inside receivers’ actions.
Alabama is generally more apt to play its single high coverages when it is focused on stopping the run, and bracket coverages against the pass. At its simplest, it is advantageous for an offense to run when Alabama is using bracket coverages and throw against their single high schemes.
For instance, one popular method to target Alabama—given Saban’s penchant to keep a plus one over receivers to a side—is to align in trips (meaning Alabama will look to keep 3-4 defenders over the three wide receivers) and then target the opposite side of the field with the run or pass.
Ole’ Miss—which is perhaps the most balanced offense Alabama has played this year—had success putting their formation into the boundary (FiB) and running wide split zone to the short field; akin to how Ohio State targeted the Clemson defense in the Sugar Bowl.
The key with zone schemes is establishing a double team on Alabama’s nose guard Christian Barmore before working to the linebackers. By having success running the football with split inside and outside zone, Ole’ Miss was then able to hit chunk plays with play action. For instance below, Ole’ Miss faked outside zone before hitting Y-cross for a touchdown, a staple Ryan Day pass concept.
Another method that teams use to target Saban’s defenses—if they are able to do so—is working against the outside corners who, as noted, are generally in man in Alabama’s pattern matching schemes. Teams will often target the single receiver side away from trips.
Look for Day to again place Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson opposite trips. Alternatively, offenses can target the outside receiver to the three-receiver side. Below, the Tide’s safety, nickel, and linebacker are focused on distributing the two inside receivers between them, leaving the outside receiver singled up on a corner.
Florida also had success throwing vertically against Alabama’s interior pass defenders. This included multiple slot fades as well as this post-dig combination below.
And the Gators placed Kadarius Toney in the backfield and put him on a wheel route away from trips into the boundary.
As Pro Football Focus’ Seth Galina outlined, opponents have frequently targeted the Crimson Tide in the middle of the field.
Day will assumingly call his progression-based, combination concepts that target cover 3 or cover 4 safeties. As Ole’ Miss demonstrated, fast tempo remains an irritant for the Tide. Like Clemson, by carrying a complicated scheme, Alabama takes time calling in and lining up pre-snap—particularly if the offense uses shifts and motion—which can create confusion in the back-end.
As Notre Dame and Florida both showed, teams also continue to have success using designed quarterback runs against Alabama by gaining a numbers’ advantage against the Tide maintaining a plus one over receivers.
The teams that have had the most relative success against Alabama use tempo, run the football well with zone runs to the boundary that successfully establish combination blocks at the point of attack, and then create chunk plays off play action. This formula fits Day’s offensive philosophy—if the Buckeye offensive line can control the line of scrimmage.
As against Clemson, it will be incumbent upon Ohio State to remain ahead of schedule to minimize Alabama’s use of creeper pressures—and when they do end up in must pass situations, for the Buckeyes to have another game of successful pass protection.