For the second time in the College Football Playoff era, the Ohio State Buckeyes have reached the National Championship. And just like they had to in 2014, they'll have to get past the Alabama Crimson Tide if they want to win a title (although this time they're playing Bama in the title game itself after beating them in the semis seven seasons ago).
Both programs have been on a revenge tour this year. Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide have looked to re-establish their dominance after being left out of the playoffs last year for the first time in the CFP era. Meanwhile, Justin Fields and the Buckeyes have sought to prove that they are the best team in the country, despite only playing an abbreviated Big Ten conference schedule against what many nationally perceive as a lower level of competition than the SEC. In order to do that on Monday night, Ryan Day and his staff will again have to scheme to their strengths and look to attack Alabama where they could be vulnerable.
Here are three game plan X-factors for the Buckeyes that can help them join the Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers as the only programs to win multiple College Football Playoff National Championships.
Limit Explosive Plays in Run & Pass Game
Alabama has shown explosive ability consistently on offense all season, ranking first in yards per play at 7.84. They’ve also put up an average of 48.2 points per game, good for second nationally, and are in the top 3 in terms of 20+ yard pass plays with 65.
Broyles Award winning OC Steve Sarkisian has a treasure trove of talent at the skill positions to dial up his NFL concepts. QB Mac Jones, the Davey O’Brien Award winner and Heisman finalist, RB Najee Harris, the Doak Walker Award winner and Heisman finalist, and WR DeVonta Smith, the Maxwell, Walter Camp, Biletnikoff, and Heisman winner, are the headline players.
But it’s not just a three-headed monster – players like RB Brian Robinson, Jr., WRs John Metchie III and Slade Bolden, and TEs Miller Forristall and Jahleel Billingsley have all contributed significantly. And the possible return from injury of WR Jaylen Waddle, a likely first rounder in the 2021 NFL Draft, makes the Crimson Tide even more dangerous.
Alabama is too well-schemed and talented to be completely shut down, so the game plan here for DC Kerry Coombs is to work to limit the explosive plays (15 yards or more) in both the pass and run game. Last week against Clemson, the Buckeyes didn't give up a single play over 30 yards.
In terms of the pass game, I think we could see more zone coverage, mixing in split safety looks (Cover 2, quarters, quarter quarter half) with Marcus Hooker and Josh Proctor giving help to CBs Sevyn Banks, Marcus Williamson, and Shaun Wade over the top in passing downs. Alabama will use motion, formation, alignment, and multiple releases to try and scheme open voids in coverage in the second level. The Ohio State defensive backfield must play with alignment, assignment, and eye discipline – get to your landmark and do your job.
In terms of the run game, I think there is a possibility of seeing more Cover 3 in run downs, with the extra safety rolled down in the box to provide an extra player in run support and to counter RPOs. It sounds simple, but fitting run lanes with proper gap control and tackling will be critical to limiting Harris and Robinson, Jr. Both backs have excellent ball-carrier vision and tackle breaking ability, so it’s key that defensive ends set a hard edge against the outside zone path the Crimson Tide favor and funnel the ball back into the LB core of Peter Werner, Turf Borland, Baron Browning, and Justin Hilliard so they can get helmets to the ball and make a tackle in space.
Protect Justin Fields
Arguably the most impressive part of Fields’ 22-28, 385 yard, and 6 TD passing performance against Clemson was that most of it came after taking the hard shot to his right side and ribs. Fields felt the hit even if his numbers didn’t, leaving the game briefly and getting caught on the sidelines grimacing in pain on multiple occasions. I have no doubt that he will be up Monday night, but I also don’t think he will be fully recovered by then. This makes protecting him from a stout and multiple Alabama front seven critically important.
The Crimson Tide are talented and deep up front, and they can get after the quarterback with a standard four-man rush or with pressure packages. Defensive linemen LaBryan Ray, DJ Dale, Christian Barmore, Byron Young, and Phidarian Mathis are all powerful, heavy-handed, easy movers that can push the pocket from their interior alignments. Edge defender Will Anderson, Jr. can press the edge and condense the pocket with both speed and power, and leads Alabama in sacks as a true freshman with 7. And LBs Christopher Allen, Christian Harris, and Dylan Moses can close in space and win 1-1 matchups when blitzing.
This unit will present a challenge for OL coach Greg Studrawa’s group of tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere and interior linemen Wyatt Davis, Josh Myers, Matthew Jones, and Harry Miller (if healthy). Playing with a strong base and anchor to counter the power that the Crimson Tide have up front and effectively communicating and passing off rushers within the protection scheme will be critical to keeping Fields upright and effective.
The Buckeyes played a high amount of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs) against Clemson, and I could see Ryan Day and OC/TE coach Kevin Wilson going with that personnel grouping in volume again in order to keep one TE in-line and attached to help shore up the edges in pass protection. I also think RBs Trey Sermon, Steele Chambers, and Master Teague III (if healthy) need to be active and aggressive in pass protection, especially against blitzers coming from the A and B gaps.
Scheme Up the Secondary
Much like Clemson, Alabama’s defense is highly active pre-snap. However, the two differ in that where the Tigers move to primarily disguise, the Crimson Tide move to both disguise and get into the perfect defense every play. With each shift or motion from the offense, Nick Saban’s defense looks to immediately counter and match, much like teams in the NFL do. If you watch any Alabama game, when the offense motions you can see the linebackers and secondary looking toward the sideline and then gesturing and communicating the adjustment to the unit.
This is what a Nick Saban-coached defense looks like, and it dates all the way back to when he was the defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns. It’s a smart and aggressive way to play defense, but it can sometimes present problems at the college level. With a 20-hour per week cap on meetings and practice time, it can be challenging for defenders to perfect each check and adjustment based on the various shifts and motions opponents present on a weekly basis. It’s part of why Alabama defenders are so well-regarded and sought after in the NFL because they have experience with it already, but it also can lead to breakdowns in coverage that can yield explosive plays if it’s not executed correctly.
This season, the Crimson Tide rank in the bottom quartile of pass plays of 10+, 40+, and 50+ yards given up. Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson did an outstanding job of scheming up the split safety coverages of Clemson for Justin Fields to throw aggressively and decisively down the field, and a lot of those concepts could be back in play on Monday against Alabama.
I think the Buckeyes can use formation, motion, releases, and shifts pre-snap to get the Crimson Tide defense moving and adjusting, and then quick-snap it as they are in the process of re-setting to catch them off guard. Against a two high look, Day and Wilson can dial up post-dig, dagger, double post, double dig, double post wheel, and sail concepts to open up voids in coverage in the middle of the field for WRs Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave and TE Jeremy Ruckert. And when Alabama plays single high man coverage, Ohio State can counter with pick and rub concepts like mesh and shallow drive to test the eyes and communication of the Crimson Tide defense.
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