A Deep Dive Into Alabama’s Rushing Offense and Defense After a Slow Start

Through Week 3, No. 2 Alabama ranks 55th nationally in rushing yards per game (179 YPG) and 45th in rushing yards allowed per game (114 YPG), which while based on a small sample size, is a far cry from where the Crimson Tide have been under Nick Saban.

It’s not like the Tide have faced a murderers’ row in Duke, New Mexico State and South Carolina, either.

In the last 10 seasons, on average, Alabama has finished roughly 23rd in rushing yards per game and fifth in rushing yards allowed per game, including five seasons in which the Crimson Tide allowed fewer yards on the ground per game than any other team in the country.

In an effort to diagnose what’s wrong with Alabama’s ground attack and run defense — as well as to find out in which scenarios it has succeeded — we embarked on a statistical deep dive of the Crimson Tide.

Here’s what we found.

Rushing offense

When you look at the Alabama players who have had at least one carry this season and list them in descending order of yards per carry, you’ll begin to notice part of the Crimson Tide’s woes.

Player Rush Attempts Rushing Yards Yards Per Carry
QB Tua Tagovailoa 6 55 9.2
RB Keilan Robinson 11 97 8.8
RB Jerome Ford 10 64 6.4
RB Najee Harris 31 158 5.1
WR Jaylen Waddle 1 5 5.0
RB Brian Robinson Jr. 28 99 3.5
WR Slade Bolden 1 2 2.0
QB Mac Jones 3 5 1.7

 

Heisman Trophy contender Tua Tagovailoa leads the team with 9.2 yards per carry, when ignoring sack yards that are counted as rushing yards in college football. Tagovailoa’s rushed for 55 yards on six carries, which includes a 25-yard touchdown run against New Mexico State.

Reserve running back Keilan Robinson is second, thanks to a 74-yard touchdown run in garbage time against Duke. Jerome Ford, who got the start against Duke due to fellow running backs Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. being held out initially for disciplinary reasons, is third.

That leaves Harris, the former No. 1 running back recruit in the country, fourth at a respectable 5.1 yards per carry. But that’s still a significantly lower average than his sophomore year average of 6.7 yards, when he split carries with upperclassmen Damien Harris (5.8 YPC) and Josh Jacobs (5.3 YPC), who are now in the NFL.

Najee Harris’ longest run this season is 19 yards (his longest run last season was 32 yards), and four other Alabama players have had a longer run this season than Harris’ longest rush, so even if the physical 6-2, 230-pound back is supremely talented, he may have limited “home run” capabilities.

Robinson, who’s second on the team in carries, has averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, which is certainly concerning given the role he’s expected to play after freshman running back Trey Sanders, a former five-star recruit, suffered a significant foot injury in mid-August that leaves him sidelined indefinitely.

While Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III’s 75-yard, game-opening touchdown off a screen pass against New Mexico State was technically a run because Tagovailoa threw it to Ruggs backwards behind the line of scrimmage, we didn’t count it for the purposes of this analysis.

The rate at which Robinson moves the chains is potentially concerning, or at least it’s magnified by the fact that the players behind him — Jerome Ford and Keilan Robinson — have just one first down and two touchdowns on 21 combined carries.

We’ve seen Alabama have two, three and even four players who you’d consider dangerous running threats, and that list feels like it could be pretty short this season.

Player Carries First Downs Touchdowns FD/TD%
WR Slade Bolden 1 1 0 100%
QB Tua Tagovailoa 6 3 1 66.7%
QB Mac Jones 3 1 1 66.7%
RB Najee Harris 31 12 1 41.9%
RB Brian Robinson Jr. 28 8 1 32.1%
RB Jerome Ford 10 1 1 20.0%
RB Keilan Robinson 11 0 1 9.1%
WR Jaylen Waddle 1 0 0 0%

 

The following chart shows the conversion rate of Alabama players who have had at least one goal-to-go carry, listed in descending order of the number of such carries they’ve had in three games.

The Crimson Tide have scored three touchdowns on nine goal-to-go carries. It’s a small sample size, obviously, and while a 33 percent conversion rate isn’t the end of the world — theoretically, it means that even if Alabama is stuffed on 1st & Goal and 2nd & Goal, it’ll score on third down — it’s potentially worrisome if the Crimson Tide’s offensive line can’t get the goal-line push its backs need or if its running backs can’t find the holes their line creates.

Player Goal-To-Go Carries Touchdowns on Goal-to-Go Carries Conversion Rate
RB Brian Robinson Jr. 3 1 33%
RB Keilan Robinson 3 0 0%
RB Najee Harris 2 1 50%
QB Mac Jones 1 1 100%
TOTAL 9 3 33%

 

The following chart shows the Alabama players who have had more than one carry this season and what percent of the time their runs have resulted in no gain or a loss of yards, compared to runs that resulted in a gain of 10 or more yards.

Najee Harris has had one run of at least 10 yards for every carry in which he’s stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Brian Robinson Jr., however, has had more than twice as many carries for zero or negative yards compared to his number of explosive runs of at least 10 yards.

That’s another sign that while Alabama could split carries between three talented backs with different skillsets last season, it may experience a significant drop-off when it goes to its secondary option out of the backfield.

Player Carries Runs for No Gain or a Loss of Yards Percent Runs of 10+ Yards Percent
RB Najee Harris 31 5 16.1% 5 16.1%
RB Brian Robinson Jr. 28 7 25% 3 10.7%
RB Keilan Robinson 11 1 9.1% 1 9.1%
RB Jerome Ford 10 1 10% 1 10%
QB Tua Tagovailoa 6 0 0% 2 33.3%
QB Mac Jones 3 1 33% 0 0%

 

One reason for optimism for Alabama’s ground attack is that it’s 5-for-5 on fourth down conversions when it runs the ball, and those carries came from four different players. Tagovailoa is 2-for-2 on third down conversions on the ground and 1-for-1 on fourth down, so even if Alabama’s backfield is thinner than it was in previous seasons, it has a mobile quarterback who can pick up short yardage if necessary.

We’ve seen Alabama’s offense operate with a lethal efficiency on slant routes out of RPOs, so the combination of Najee Harris, Alabama’s wide receivers, Tagovailoa’s arm and his ability to run if he has open field in front of him is a lot for opposing defenses to think about, even if this version of the Crimson Tide doesn’t have two or three clear-cut future NFL running backs who are healthy.

Run defense

Each of Alabama’s opponents has rushed for more yards per carry than the last. Excluding sack yards, Duke rushed for 3.7 yards per carry, New Mexico State ran for 4.2 and South Carolina averaged 5.5 yards per attempt. Collectively, the Crimson Tide’s opponents have ran the ball 87 times for 382 yards, an average of 4.4 yards per carry.

Here’s a look at which players have had the most success on a per-carry basis against Alabama.

Player Team Carries Rushing Yards YPC
WR Drew Dan New Mexico St. 2 22 11.0
RB Rico Dowdle South Carolina 12 102 8.5
RB Josh Foley New Mexico St. 7 52 7.4
RB Brittain Brown Duke 7 36 5.1
RB Deon Jackson Duke 7 35 5.0
QB Matt Romero New Mexico St. 2 10 5.0
RB Mataeo Durant Duke 7 31 4.4
QB Josh Adkins New Mexico St. 3 11 3.7
RB Tavien Feaster South Carolina 10 33 3.3
RB Eli Anderson New Mexico St. 3 10 3.3
QB Quentin Harris Duke 9 21 2.3
WR Shi Smith South Carolina 1 2 2.0
RB Christian Gibson New Mexico St. 9 16 1.8
QB Ryan Hilinski South Carolina 3 5 1.7
RB Jason Huntley New Mexico St. 4 4 1.0

 

On an admittedly limited sample size, Alabama’s defense has allowed its opponents to run for a first down 60 percent of the time on 10 third-down runs this season. New Mexico State was 3-for-3 on such runs.

Speaking of first downs, Alabama’s opponents are averaging roughly 4.7 yards per carry on first down on 48 rushing attempts during first down. Almost 40 percent of the time after a first down run, Alabama’s opponents faced 2nd & 5 or better.

The complete breakdown is below.

Yards Gained on First Down Run Number of Runs Percent
10+ 5 10.4%
5-9 13 27.0%
3-4 7 14.5%
1-2 17 35.4%
0 2 4.1%
Loss of Yards 4 8.3%

 

Alabama’s defense has stopped an opposing rusher for no gain or a loss of yards roughly 12.5 percent of the time on first down runs, while the Crimson Tide’s rushers have been stopped for a loss or no gain on 17.5 percent of its rushing attempts on first down.

A positive for Alabama’s run defense is that the Crimson Tide are allowing opponents to get a first down or score a touchdown on just 18.4 percent of their rush attempts, compared to Alabama’s 35.2 percent first down/touchdown rate on its own run plays.

That means that on average it takes just over five runs plays for Alabama’s opponents to move the chains/score a touchdown, while it takes slightly less than three run plays for the Crimson Tide.

The Crimson Tide have also been stout in defending the goal line.

Alabama’s opponents are 0-for-5 on goal-to-go conversions when they ran the ball.

Let’s be clear, Alabama is as talented as any team in the country and hasn’t been in danger of losing any of its three games this season — although, South Carolina made things kind of interesting for the first half last weekend.

But after crunching the numbers, it’s fair to wonder how exploitable the Crimson Tide could be on the ground — on offense or defense — against top competition like LSU, Georgia or Clemson.

MORE: Alabama Spent the Second-Most on Recruiting in 2018. Who Was First?