Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts is a lot of things. He’s fast. He’s smart. He’s shifty. He’s got a strong arm. He’s accurate (at times). He’s indecisive (at times). The bottom line is that he brings more to the table than any QB the Huskies have faced this season. In watching (almost) all of the games of his freshman season we have concluded that his strengths and weaknesses are pretty straight forward.
Strengths: When his first read is available, he can make all the throws. When he decides to run, he has speed and an innate ability to split defenders and shed arm tackles.
Weaknesses: When his first read is covered, it’s usually time to take off and run. Sometimes, he takes too long to make that decision, and when he progresses and makes a throw to another target, it’s usually good news for the defense.
Let’s take a look at some plays we are likely to see on December 31st, and watch the Crimson Tide’s young gunslinger in action:
1st and Goal:
We will see this look for sure in the Peach Bowl. It’s a simple outside zone sweep play with the quarterback and a lead-blocking running back, not unlike a single-wing blast play from a two-back look that would’ve fit right in with football played 40 years ago. At the snap, all of the offensive linemen step to their right, and attempt to seal the defense off and back to the inside. Tight End OJ Howard (#88) is in motion to the right and frequently where Howard goes, the ball will follow in the running game. Howard is an excellent blocker; very athletic and skilled. The NFL has to be drooling over this guy. Pre-snap, the linebackers adjust to their left with Howard’s motion. The middle linebacker (#51) flows toward the motion, but is swallowed up by Howard’s block. The running back picks off the safety (#9), and it’s an easy touchdown.
How the Huskies stop this play: This is a pretty poor defensive effort by Arkansas, particularly from the run-support safety on the play side (#9) and the cornerback (the man running out wide to cover the receiver right before the snap). The outside linebacker is very deep at the snap, and never makes any attempt to get upfield to make a play; it’s not a complicated read for the defense to make (particularly due to the fact that Hurts has tucked the ball immediately at the snap and isn’t really a pass threat), so the defense has to attack. #9 simply runs laterally, and waits for the running back to block him.
The effort by the cornerback is simply terrible. He’s in man coverage, but the receiver clearly isn’t looking for the ball, and isn’t in good position to block, either. Even when he finally sees the run, he makes no attempt to close in on the tackle.
Damien Harris (#34) is not only a dangerous runner, but watch the block he makes from this angle. That’s a 205 lb safety (#9) who aids the block by taking a poor angle and simply waiting to absorb contact instead of making a play, but has no chance anyway as Harris knocks him into next Thursday. Hurts easily cuts inside the block for the score. The Alabama QB really looks like a true halfback the way he patiently sets up his blocks before making a cut.
2nd and 5:
So how do you stop Jalen Hurts when he runs? Make him go sideways. He is fast, but he’s not a 4.4 guy (4.65), and although he will break arm tackles, he’s not going to run over people.
This play is an inside zone read, and Hurts sees clear daylight to his left and pulls the ball from the running back’s stomach. What he doesn’t clearly see, though is that the tight end we praised above (#88, Howard) has failed to get the proper angle on his block. He’s outside of his defender (pushing him in to the play) instead of inside the defender pushing him out, and thus creating a hole. Instead, Hurts’ lane closes, and he’s forced to try to make something out of nothing.
How the Huskies stop this play: Exactly like this. Even if the tight end and made a good block, you can the second level of Arkansas’ defense was in position to force the play laterally. The pursuit is good, and the cornerback on the play side defeats his blocker, and eventually forces the run out of bounds. Washington’s defensive backs will be key in any sort of lateral running game.
3rd and 16:
Here he breaks the pocket to scramble. Be prepared to see this happen about 20 times against the Huskies. Arkansas only rushes three on this play, which creates natural scramble lanes up the middle of the defense. In this case, the zone defenders are all looking at the ball, so once Hurts passes the line of scrimmage, they’re all ready and able to pursue and hem him in. The defense actually does a great job of working in concert to make the tackle; had they attacked him too aggressively, they may have created cut back lanes.
How the Huskies stop this play: Even on 3rd and very long plays like this, the Huskies will typically rush four men. There are good and bad things with that: On the plus side, it limits the likelihood of that natural running lane right up the middle of the defense, and increases the likelihood that pressure will actually get to the quarterback. On the down side, it means one fewer defender able to pursue the QB if he breaks the pocket.
The coverage is decent on this play, but there really isn’t any pressure on the QB. He’s elected to run either due to phantom pressure, or because as a freshman, he simply isn’t a sophisticated pocket passer and will look to use his legs too quickly at times.
3rd and 9:
Over-pursue much, LSU? This is a little designed rollout we will see Lane Kiffen call plenty of times with receivers going downfield. Pretty much every Alabama play is scripted by the sideline. We didn’t see Hurts make many changes as far as we could tell at the line of scrimmage; he looks over the defense and identifies the Mike linebacker, then runs the play that’s been called. There will often be fake or a look-off of the intended target, but it’s all part of the called play.
Here, he’s looking downfield where he has two receivers working, but when he sees the middle open up, it’s tuck and run time. The run is great, but the play is really made by LSU’s defense losing its rush lanes, and over-pursuing laterally which creates natural cutback lanes.
From this look you can see that LSU has great coverage downfield, but two linebackers (#40 & #52) over-pursue massively and it allows Hurts to do what he does really well; split tacklers and skip through arm tackles.
How the Huskies stop this play: Fundamental football says that defenders can’t turn their shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. It simply sets up cutback angles all over the field. And that’s what has happened here; LSU loses gap integrity up front, and compounds mistakes by overrunning the play.
With a running quarterback, the defense not only has to match the offense physically, but also needs to then play fundamental, smart football. It’s no easy task.
3rd and 15:
Third down and long you say? How about a designed QB keeper to get the first down? Alabama made this play call in 3rd and long situations several times this season, usually from around this spot on the field. They’re avoiding a turnover, getting some yardage for a better shot at a field goal, and if Hurts makes a guy or two miss, getting the first down.
This play is the quarterback counter run. While Hurts is initially looking to his left, this run designed back to his right the whole way, behind the inside power block of the guard (#66) and the seal block of the running back.
How the Huskies stop this play: For starters, this isn’t a defense you’ll ever see the Huskies run. LSU has five down linemen (although at least a couple of them are actually linebackers playing with their hands down), and are obviously coming hard at the quarterback. The Huskies will likely have their standard four rushers (and will blitz out of that). The Huskies’ defense line will likely be playing a two-gap defense as well. On this play, you can see that #46 plays a one-gap technique (whether by design or not), and has no ability to affect a play inside his right shoulder. For the UW game, this play will likely be run at a two-gapping tackle like Elijah Qualls, or toward a defensive end with an inside linebacker right over the top of him.
But again, while Alabama is physically dominant, you can see that a lot of what makes this play work is actually poor execution by the defense at critical points.
2nd and 4:
For Husky fans, this is something of a scary play, because it’s a matter of the Alabama offensive line dominating up front. Physically, and with execution. In this case, there’s a nice design wrinkle in the play as well. Alabama has stacked two receivers wide to the offense’s right. This serves to pull Texas A&M’s secondary out wide, and creates something of a soft spot in the middle of the defense.
The play is a zone-read. Texas A&M’s tackle (defense’s right side) forces the handoff. Between the tackles, though, Alabama simply becomes heavy equipment. Every man wins his matchup, and key blocks are also made on the second level.
How the Huskies stop this play: The key mistake by the defense is from the left defensive end (it looks like it’s #10, one-time Husky commit Daeshon Hall). He gets way too far up the field at the snap, effectively running himself out of the play. For the Huskies, this would likely be Psalm Wooching. Wooching has had a similar issue with overpenetrating; this will be a good game for him to JUST NOT DO THAT. If the end stays home, the running back isn’t afforded such a clean hole, and probably doesn’t have as much momentum as he passes the line of scrimmage. If the end can’t make the tackle on his own, hopefully he can slow the play enough to allow the rest of his teammates to get to the ball.
Once the end gets too far up field, the offense has the edge pretty well sealed. You can see the right guard and center double team the defense’s left tackle before the guard leaves to attack the second-level linebacker. That tackle for the Huskies will be Greg Gaines, Elijah Qualls, or Vita Vea. They need to occupy the double team for the entirety of the play so the linebacker is left free to attack the ball carrier. Or, if the double team leaves, they need to have the wherewithal to go ahead and make the play themselves.....
1st and 10:
This is a well designed play-action pass to a tight end that typically works once a team has established its running game. Alabama shows the look of a power read play with a pulling guard and an option read from the quarterback. If you remember, this is the running play that Arizona’s Brandon Dawkins burned the Huskies for an 80 yard touchdown run back in September.
The tight end (Howard, #88) is in a tight slot to the offense’s right. At the snap, he feints cracking back on the inside linebacker on the back side of the play, before releasing down the middle. Hurts holds the ball in the belly of the running back, but instead of handing off or keeping the ball himself, drops back one step and throws to the wide-open tight end. The pass isn’t good, but Howard is so wide open it’s still an easy 20 yard gain.
How the Huskies stop this play: Supreme awareness from the inside linebackers. And probably some safety help on the tight end. That the Huskies can and will play so much man-to-man coverage on the outside of the defense will certainly help, as it likely allows another defender in the middle of the field to read things and help in coverage. But the key is those inside linebackers seeing the tight end not making a block and looking for him in coverage on a play just like this. In this instance, Arkansas is so focused on stopping the run they just lack that awareness. Repeated success on the ground can certainly lead to that. It’s going to be an issue on New Year’s Eve. The Huskies are going to have to be ready for a play like this one on every snap, while still stopping the run.
As we mentioned above, Hurts has a great arm and can make all the throws. He is at his best when his first read is available. Sometimes it looks like he is going through quick progressions, but they are more like fakes to one side and a throw he was planning on making all along to the other side of the field. He isn’t on target with these throws all the time, but more often than not when he is able to make the throw he wants, he can put it in there. That said, there were plenty of WTF throws all season that were no where near his receiver from a clean pocket on his initial read.
Here’s a sampling of Hurts hitting his first read:
When the first read is covered, Hurts can panic. That panic can turn into an electrifying TD run, but quite often it ends in a win for the defense:
Alabama’s offense has certainly grown more diverse the last five or so years, but it’s still not overly complicated. While they won’t line up with up to 14 tight ends on the field the way Stanford has done over the years, the Crimson Tide offense is still more like the Cardinal’s than, say, USC’s in that they rely more on execution of the simple things coupled with physical dominance, over deception and sophistication. Jalen Hurts is a lot to deal with, but he is not the kind of QB that will regularly “Sam Darnold” the Husky defense by moving in the pocket and finding second and third options downfield.
Whereas Stanford would look to overwhelm defenses with sheer numbers of bodies at the point of attack, though, Alabama is much more content to spread defenses out and win a few key one-on-one battles. Which they do, with regularity. If Alabama wins with physical dominance, then they were simply destined to win. If the Huskies have a chance to pull the upset, they need to match the Crimson Tide physically to the absolute highest degree possible, and still play their smartest game of the season. It’s the ultimate test.