Despite operating the number one SP+ offense (an advanced statistical measure of efficiency—Ohio State is number two), Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian does not utilize a bevy of plays. Instead, he operates a few schemes that build off of, and are centered on, one core concept—the run-pass option.
With an RPO, the quarterback reads a linebacker or defensive back—either pre or post-snap—that the offense believes will be in a run/pass conflict (meaning that the defender has both run and pass responsibilities).
The offensive line and running back execute the run call. If that conflicted defender commits to the run action, the quarterback will pull the football and throw the designated route. If that defender stays back, the quarterback hands off—effectively using the pass threat to block the read defender out of the play.
As Sarkisian summarized at a recent coaching clinic, in essence, Alabama looks to run when a defense presents two high safeties, and pull and throw the RPO against one-high safety looks. In the run game, Alabama primarily features inside and outside zone plays and a heavy amount of G-Y counter trey (the backside guard and off the ball tight end pull, kick out, and lead).
Every run concept is then paired with an RPO.
This starts with screens. The Tide will throw an extensive amount of wide receiver bubble and smoke screens from a variety of shifts and motions—particularly orbit motion (the receiver or running back motions behind the quarterback).
Notably, Alabama will motion and move Devonta Smith around to feature him on screens. The Tide will also fake screen block and then throw downfield.
Alabama then uses second-level RPOs featuring quick routes downfield. The Tide will throw outs against inside leverage. But they are more dangerous throwing inside breaking ‘glance’ routes (meaning the wide receiver is given latitude to break to space) to the slot or single side wide receiver against a defender with outside leverage if there is not a safety or linebacker in the hook area to the inside.
Alabama will also go further and read third level safeties based on pre-snap alignment to determine whether to throw the football—even with the quarterback turning his back after the snap.
The ability to put defenders in run-pass conflict with RPOs and then gain yards after the catch is where the Alabama offense is most dangerous.
One way to defend RPOs is with cover 1 man-coverage. In theory, if a defense plays cover 1, it takes away RPOs because there is no conflict—five defenders play man on their assigned receiver and the remaining defenders play the run.
Because of this—although easier said than done against Alabama’s wide receivers—the Crimson Tide face a heavy amount of man coverage. In response, Sarkisian will then use deeper play action that builds and layers off the Tide’s RPOs.
Sarkisian uses play action passes that look like RPOs so that safeties will try to jump what they think are quick RPO routes—even having the offensive line operate the same blocking scheme as it would for the run action. For instance, one frequently used concept is a deep crossing route from the opposite side of double posts; where the deep cross starts off looking identical to an RPO glance route.
Alabama also uses a drop back, progression passing game predicated upon facing man coverage. One favorite is mesh, where the quarterback will first look for the running back on a wheel.
The heavy amount of man coverage Alabama sees makes for an interesting matchup with the Ohio State defense. At the same coaching clinic, Sarkisian stated that Alabama rarely sees cover 3 because of the Tide’s proficiency with RPOs (although Notre Dame played a decent amount of cover 3 against the Tide in the Rose Bowl).
But Ohio State lives in Cover 3. As discussed in my Clemson review article, the Buckeyes had a good plan to limit the Tigers’ RPOs from their 4-3 cover 3 scheme by presenting Clemson a ‘light box’ pre-snap and giving the Tigers a run read based on the following:
- Align in split safeties before rotating at the snap;
- Putting the outside linebackers in the overhang alleys between the slot and offensive tackle to take away inside leverage glance throws; and
- Have the defensive ends sit to encourage the inside run read.
Ohio State will need a similar game plan against Alabama’s RPO-heavy offense. Specifically, the Buckeyes must give Mac Jones a run-read based on pre-snap alignment by keeping their linebackers inside the glance route area, while relying upon their remaining interior defenders to limit the run game—where the Buckeyes excel in being able to cancel out every run gap in their one-high scheme.
Although Alabama had already built a comfortable lead, Notre Dame had more defensive success against the Tide once it relied upon its interior six to handle the Alabama run game (here defending counter trey) while maintaining inside leverage to limit the glance RPO.
Ohio State should also continue utilizing pre-snap split safeties so that it can mix in cover 3 buzz, with one safety dropping into the middle of the field to limit glance and crossing routes. And it would behoove the Buckeyes to play more nickel then they have shown this season; allowing Ohio State to mix in more cover 1 man on standard downs against Alabama’s RPOs.
Finally, the Buckeyes should be prepared to go light up front—bumping Haskell Garrett down to the 1-technique, a defensive end to the 3-technique, and using Baron Browning as a stand-up rush end (assuming that Justin Hilliard continues to play at Sam, given how sound Hilliard has been at playing wide receiver screens)—matching up Garrett against Alabama’s backup center.
Again, the goal should be to entice Alabama to run the football—assuming that Ohio State can limit chunk plays in the run game as they have all season. As Sarkisian himself talked about during his coach’s clinic, the key to offensive football is explosive plays.
It is not Sarkisian’s preference to engineer 10-12 play drives running the football. Where Alabama can really hurt Ohio State is on explosive plays off of RPOs and play action.
The Buckeyes thus needs to force Alabama to sustain drives; even if they surrender yards. When the Tide do throw RPOs, Ohio State must get off blocks and tackle wide receiver screens—while funneling glance routes into the cover 3 middle of the field ‘kill zone,’ taking good angles and making the tackle to limit gains. And when Ohio State does get the Tide into passing downs, the Buckeyes need to mix in simulated and creeper pressures that bring Browning off the edge and/or Will linebacker Peter Werner up the middle—looking to create pressure in Jones’ face so that he is forced off his spot.