One of the staple “Facts” about football teams is the offensive and defensive formations. Most are generic. “Pro Style.” What’s that? Once upon a time all NFL teams seemed to have the same offensive scheme, but no longer. Those “facts” list Alabama as a 3-4 defense, which is to say three down linemen, four linebackers, and four defensive backs.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban has pointed out in the past that the Crimson Tide’s regular defense, the 3-4, is hardly regular. For the past two years he has said that Bama was in that configuration no more than 20 per cent of snaps.
This year, with Bama having faced spread option teams most weeks and starting (and playing) games with five or even six defensive backs, Saban said, “On regular downs, I wouldn’t think we’ve played that much. I haven’t looked at the stats to give you a percentage, but we really haven’t played against anybody that plays two backs.”
That changes this week.
Alabama hosts Arkansas at 6 p.m. Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium in a Southeastern Conference game that will be televised by ESPN. Bama is 6-0 overall and 3-0 in SEC games and ranked first in the nation, while the Razorbacks are 3-4 overall and 0-3 in the league.
The Hogs are under new coach Bret Bielema, who has brought a physical mindset to Arkansas. That includes a power, downhill running game featuring Alex Collins, who averages 5.9 uyards per rush and 102.9 yards per game, and Jonathan Williams, who averages 6.5 yards per carry and 80.6 yards per game.
“We don't play in a lot of two-back, downhill run the way these guys play,” Saban said. “They've been able to run the ball against everybody. You've got to have the right mindset.”
And so Alabama looks to be in its regular defense, at least part of the time.
Saban said, “It's just as much of an adjustment for our players to play against two-back runs, regular personnel, two tight ends, two backs and one receiver as it is for us as it used to be against empty. It's just the style of play now and I think it's a huge advantage for teams who can run the ball, run downhill and be physical and play because most teams aren't used to playing against that.”
Those backs are operating behind a line that averages 6-6 (including 6-10 guard Dan Skipper), 325 pounds, led by Rimington Award nominee center Travis Swanson, who has started 45 games.
There isn’t any tricking them.
Saban says that Alabama will have to execute well. “You can run some bad stunts against it and run yourself out of plays, but if you don't strike blockers and control people up front on the line of scrimmage you've got no chance,” Saban said. “It's a physical game and guys have to play blockers and you've got to get off blocks and you've got to do a good job of tackling, you have to have good run support on the perimeter and good alley support and you have to do a good job of reading run-pass or they beat you with play action passes.
“It's about executing what you have to do and you cannot do it unless you are physical, strike blockers and everyone stays in their gaps whatever the call is. I don't think there's any scheme you can draw up that you're all of the sudden going to stunt some place and they're not going to be able to block you because you can stunt yourself right out of the play as well.”
Saban said, “I thought the players practiced a little bit better today. I think it's important that everybody realizes this is a really important SEC West game for us. This is a tough, physical team that we're playing that is certainly trying to establish their will on people. We need to have the right mindset to play in a game like this because it's going to be a very tough, physical football game.
“It's going to be about how we play on Saturday. That's what our players need to understand. Preparation and practice are important to that so that you have a chance to play your best game. That's the only way you can do it is continue to improve.
“I don't think we've played our best game. I don't think anybody on our team has played his best game. So everybody's got something they can do every day in practice to try and get better so they can play their best game.
“Sometimes good is the enemy of great. In other words, you do pretty good at something and you start getting pretty satisfied with it and you don't continue to pay attention to detail, you don't do the little things right. There's only that much difference between being really good and being great.”