Game of inches. Won and lost in the trenches. There exist certain cliches to state the importance of line play, but like most cliches, feel empty.
Monday’s BCS championship game, though, epitomizes football as a game decided in that tiniest of spaces where the linemen are positioned.
Few if any offensive lines are as ballyhooed as Alabama’s. All-American center-by-way-of-guard-by-way-of-tackle Barrett Jones is the face of this unit. Guard Chance Warmack emerged as a breakout star, a former 3-star recruit now an All-American projected as a top 10 selection in this spring’s NFL Draft. Anthony Steen is the third and least recognized of Alabama’s interior linemen.
While tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker face sizable challenges containing Notre Dame pass rushers off the edges, the Tide’s interior trio should decide the outcome.
Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defensive scheme is the centerpiece of the Fighting Irish’s undefeated regular season. The no-crease system tightly packs the front seven at the line. It’s a formation designed to prevent opponents from rushing — and indeed, teams average just 3.2 yards per carry and 92 a game on the season.
Manti Te’o’s rush pursuit from the inside linebacker position made him the team’s leading tackler and contributed to the stinginess of the rush defense, but the blitzing abilities of outside linebackers Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams soften opposing ball carriers in the backfield. Space-eating nose tackle Louis Nix III provides further pressure at the point of attack. The 6-foot-3, 330-pound man in the middle has an uncanny ability to harass quarterbacks and disrupt draw plays.
Up-the-middle rush plays are bread-and-butter for the Tide offense. The ability both of the linemen to create space, and the tremendously talented backfield duo of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon to generate extra yards makes a no-frills system particularly difficult to stop. Elimination of big gainers from the inside disables one key facet of the Tide attack.
Per the Tide’s zone blocking scheme, Jones’ duty is containing Nix up the middle. Warmack has the challenge of containing blitzes from the outside linebacker — typically Shembo or Williams. Steen must then contain the inside linebacker — that means Heisman Trophy finalist Te’o.
The statistical head-to-head that probably best captures that game of inches theme is that the Alabama red zone offense has scored touchdowns on 41 of its 57 opportunities. Thirty have come via the rush. Conversely, the Fighting Irish red zone defense has surrendered all of eight touchdowns inside 20 yards. Just two were off the rush. That most crowded of field positions is where the no crease 3-4 truly lives up to its moniker.
AL.com has a great diagram of the Alabama zone blocking scheme against both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. The scheme itself isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it’s been the catalyst of the Tide winning two national championships and challenging for a third over the past four seasons.
Alabama effectively employed its blocking scheme against a 3-4 its last time out, setting up Lacy and Yeldon for a combined 344 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia. The Bulldogs did get a few big plays from outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, though, including a forced fumble in the first half. With two defenses so capable of dictating tempo, moments like that will determine the crystal ball’s next home.