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What Happened on the Play That Won Alabama the National Championship Over Georgia

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If you are like me, you were up late Monday night into early Tuesday morning watching Alabama’s classic overtime win over Georgia to win the National Championship.

As the game ended on a 41 yard touchdown pass in overtime, you might have asked aloud the same question I did. “How is it possible Georgia had such a huge bust in coverage on a 2nd and 26 play with the National Championship hanging in the balance?”

Georgia kicked a field goal to take a 3 point lead in the top half of the first overtime period. A sack for a 16 yard loss on Alabama’s first play of the bottom half of overtime left the Crimson Tide in a dire place. Bama needed to put together a couple of successful plays just to get into field goal range to tie the game again and send it to a second overtime. Instead, they just won it on the next play.

Let’s take a look at what happened. As always, I was not in the huddle for either team so this is my best estimation.

Alabama was not conservative with its play call. They sent four receivers on vertical routes.

After the game, (Nick) Saban was asked during the trophy presentation if he knew the play would be a touchdown.

”I knew we were running Seattle, which is four streaks (four receivers running vertically),” Saban said. “And when I saw Smitty come open on the other side and Tua throw it, I said, ‘This is it!”

The play led to a Georgia coverage breakdown.

What happened on the defensive side of the ball? Before anything else, let’s talk about how Georgia’s defense works. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was Saban’s long-time defense coordinator at Alabama. As a result, these teams run similar defenses.

One staple of Saban/Smart defenses is how they approach coverage. You are likely familiar with the concepts of man coverage and zone coverage. In man coverage, a defender is assigned to cover one specific receiver. In zone coverage, a defender is assigned to cover one specific area.

Many of the Saban/Smart coverage concepts are neither fish (man) nor fowl (zone). Instead a defender is responsible for covering a route. Which route is each defender responsible for? That’s something the defenders have to figure out by reading the combination of routes the offense runs after the ball is snapped.

Conceptually what the defense does is cut the field in half. On one side you have four Georgia coverage defenders and three Alabama eligible receivers.

On the other side, you have three Georgia defenders in coverage and two Alabama receivers.

In a coverage scheme like this, you essentially can have two different coverage calls because the field is divided in half. When the defense is running one coverage on one half of the field and a different one on the other half, a read can become a lot more difficult for a quarterback. But it works for the defense. The offense is typically going to run a two man combination on one side and a three man combination to the other out of a formation like this. With four defenders against three receivers on one side and three defenders against two receivers on the other, your defense should be equipped to handle any sort of route combination as long as defenders made their reads correctly.

With the call Georgia has, they are equipped to handle four vertical routes. They have two cornerbacks on the outside to carry the deep outside routes receivers would run and two safeties in the middle of the field to take away the deep middle routes.

Things get a little tricky after the snap because the inside slot receiver on the right side of the formation (left side of the defense) runs a seam route across that middle line to the other side of the defense, and the back who was set to the left of the quarterback (right side of the defense) also crosses that line on a short route.

Things can get dicey here for a defense. Defenders need to communicate to make sure they see a new receiver entering their area and adjust their read of the routes accordingly.

Indeed, there is a little bit of a bust here. The orange linebacker was really responsible for the back’s route, while the yellow linebacker was responsible for the seam route.

In another life, this is a dump off to the back who has plenty of room to run as you can see. At the very least, Alabama would be in business back in field goal range with a manageble third down.

The good news for Georgia is the seam is covered over the top by a safety (yellow) as are the two routes on the right of this picture (orange). The bad news is the guy on the left of the picture (pink).

What happened here?

Go back to the start. Remember how we started the play with two receivers on the right side of the defense (left side of the offense)? Well, the back went to the other side, which changes the way the outside cornerback can play this route. His assignment can be simply to play the out route.

If the receiver breaks inside, it is the linebacker’s route.

And if the receiver goes vertical, the safety is over the top to take that route.

And this would be set up perfectly. There’s one big problem, though. We already established that isn’t the situation. As we stated earlier, the receiver on the seam route who started at the other side of the formation is coming down the middle of the field, and the safety is the guy responsible for taking him away over the top.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for his part stares at the seam receiver holding the safety in the middle of the field. If he leaves to go help over the top on the outside of the receiver, Tagovailoa is looking at a totally wide open middle of the field by the safety, and as easy of a touchdown throw as you can have.

For his part, this is really impressive stuff by Tagovailoa. There are some NFL quarterbacks who can’t do that. He did it as a 19 year old in overtime of the National Championship Game with literally one half of a competitive college football game under his belt.

The cornerback’s primary route to play was the vertical route by the outside receiver, but the receiver goes past him as he sits on the out route and goes into chase mode too late.

You can even seen the beaten corner incredulously throw his arms in the air wondering where his safety help was.

It was stranded in the middle of the field playing a different, correct vertical route.

As with many parts of football, complexity in a scheme can be a blessing and a curse. With a complex coverage scheme, a defense can adjust after the snap to handle any sort of route combination. Even by NFL standards, these coverage concepts are sophisticated, more sophisticated than many teams run.

But just as it is complex for the opponent, it is complex for the defenders running the system. Confusion and one bad read can lead to a bust and big problems.Defenses that master the concepts can be a nightmare to face like the dominant Super Bowl Broncos defense Wade Phillips developed two years ago.

Georgia’s opponent on Monday night, Alabama, runs those types of coverages. If you follow college football closely, you might note that when Alabama allows big passing games it tends to be against mobile quarterbacks. That has to do with the type of defense they play. It isn’t easy to make quick reads against this type of defense. It creates a natural camouflage for the coverage since assignments aren’t determined until after the ball is snapped and receivers are in their routes. Mobile quarterbacks extend plays, give receivers more time to beat coverages and allow them to break their routes. That is the only chance most college offenses have to beat such a complicated scheme.

But just as it is complex for the opponent, it is complex for the defenders running the system. Confusion and one bad read can lead to a bust and big problems.