How the Alabama defense shut down Leonard Fournette
Coming into the Alabama game, Leonard Fournette had gained 1,352 yards on 176 carries (7.7 yards per carry) and had gained at least 150 rushing yards in every game this season. The lowest average per carry figure he had before facing the Crimson Tide was 5.7, from Week 1 of the season.
Alabama held Fournette to 31 rushing yards on 19 carries, and 18 of those yards came on one play. He averaged 1.6 yards per carry and gained 30 of his 31 yards after contact. Take that one half-decent carry out of the equation, and Fournette was averaging just two-thirds of a yard per carry, and gaining almost all of that himself, independent of the blocking.
This was the very definition of being shut down, while on the other side of the ball Alabama ran riot. Derrick Henry ran for 210 yards — though it did take him 38 carries to get there — and Kenyan Drake chipped in with another 68 rushing yards from his attempts. At the rate he was going in this game, Fournette would have needed to carry the ball 174 times to match their combined rushing yardage.
So what happened? Why was one Heisman candidate able to run the ball so easily and the other able to get nothing done?
In short, Alabama’s defensive front absolutely overpowered the LSU blocking, and LSU seemed to run right into the buzz saw willingly.
LSU invited a stacked box here by lining up with just one wide out but two tight ends and a fullback. They pitched the ball to Fournette expecting to open up the kind of holes they have much of the year, but this proved to be a different task altogether against Alabama. You can see here lineback Dillon Lee (No. 25) is destroying the lead block in the hole, forcing Fournette wide and sideways where the pursuit from (among others) Shaun Dion Hamilton (No. 20) can box him in and take him down. He gains two ards on this play, both of which he earned through contact in the tackle.
One of the biggest issues LSU had in this game is that quarterback Brandon Harris never did anything to make them respect the pass and back off the line. On second-and-eight on that first drive he ran a play action pass and had an open receiver, but flung the ball high and wide of the mark under no pressure. Harris has been able to make these passes all season long and they power this offense — but without that threat this week, it was like blood in the water for the Bama defense, who went into a feeding frenzy around Fournette.
Alabama simply won at the point of attack consistently all game long. Take this simple zone lead play as an example. From the first shot all looks good. LSU players are on their blocks and there looks to be a clear hole developing.
The illusion of sound execution comes crumbling down the second Fournette makes it anywhere near the hole, with the Crimson Tide defenders either shedding or simply forcing their blockers towards the point of attack and collapsing in on the run.
Alabama was able to win at the point of attack seemingly at will. When you look at many of these runs, they were often blocked relatively well except for the key block at the point of attack. That could seem like coincidence, but in reality it’s a product of the way Alabama’s defenders were playing. Often controlling two gaps, the Tide defenders had the measure of the LSU blockers and were merely reading the run play. They’d only destroy the block when the it came close enough to them, almost baiting Fournette in by showing him a clean path through the line before slamming the door shut on him as he arrived.
Alabama weren’t trying to penetrate, but to seal up the line of scrimmage. This is why he routinely arrived at the line to be met not necessarily by Alabama defenders, but by a wall of blockers and a solid mass of bodies. On many of these plays the runs were walled off, spilling Fournette to waiting perimeter defenders who did an admirable job of bringing him to the ground one-on-one.
You may ask why he wasn’t able to break more tackles (two on the day) on these runs. Any time a running back is forced to go east-west rather than north-south, he becomes easier to bring down because he has far less opportunity to make moves and make guys miss. With Fournette sprinting to the sideline to avoid the mess behind him, the free defender can chase him down and make the tackle because he knows he can’t turn back towards the pursuit. If Fournette had been coming more directly at him, then he would have a bigger problem with two sides to defend and the prospect of simply being trucked by a 230-pound guy running with a head of steam.
The stats realistically should have spoken for themselves. Fournette is a dominant force at running back and didn’t stop being one just because he ran into Alabama. When a player of that caliber gains 31 yards on 19 carries, you know there has been a complete and total breakdown in the blocking.
As much as other teams would like to copy this blueprint, the necessary components for succeeding in this game plan are players with the ability and dominance of this Crimson Tide front. Strategically, it can certainly be said that the best way to defend against Fournette may be to try and block up the line, rather than penetrate and risk creating gaps. However, there aren’t many teams out there that could succeed two-gapping against a team like LSU.
Contrast that with the holes that Alabama was able to open up for their rushers and you see the difference. Alabama’s run blocking was far from perfect – 160 of the 278 yards gained by Henry and Drake came after contact – but the difference is they were opening up viable holes more often than not and giving talented runners somewhere to go with the football.
Running backs as good as these don’t need yawning chasms to run through, but they need somewhere to go when they reach the line — just enough to get up a head of steam and have a chance to attack the smaller players at the second and third level of the defense. Without that, it doesn’t matter how talented the running back is — because he’s not going anywhere in a hurry.