Ed Note: Professor Ben Litvin is back with another Study Hall installment. This week, Ben schools us on what I thought was the bane of my Bammer existence: the jet sweep. Turns out, (and this may shock some of you), I was wrong for hating it with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns. Follow Ben on twitter @ben_litivin, if you know what’s good for you.
Alabama fans – and all football fans, really – like to complain about offensive play calling. For the most part, fans don’t like plays that don’t work. If their favorite team threw the ball a bunch and lost, well obviously they should’ve run it more. And vice versa. Conversely, there’s never a whole lot of bickering if the teams wins. It’s funny how that works. But, occasionally fans latch onto one very particular aspect of offensive play calling that they do not like and make a huge deal about it week after week. For Alabama fans, in 2015, that aspect was the jet sweep.
Lets first check out the three different types of jet sweeps that Alabama uses.
The type they used most often is a jet sweep with an outside zone-blocking scheme. Alabama comes out in 11 personnel. Kenyan Drake is lined up in the slot to the right, before coming in motion prior to the snap. The ball is snapped just before Drake crosses in front of the quarterback. The quarterback immediately flips the ball to Drake – you flip it, rather than hand it off, primarily so if the ball is dropped it’s an incomplete pass rather than a fumble – who catches it in stride and tries to get out wide. The entire offensive line and the tight end zone block to the left, while the running back acts as a lead blocker.
The next play is also a jet sweep but the blocking scheme is completely different. Instead of blocking for the ball carrier the blockers act as a decoy, blocking as if it’s split zone. At the snap Calvin Ridley moves down the line of scrimmage, bringing his defender with him to open up space outside of the hash for Drake.
The final play involves a pin and pull scheme. The tight end pins the end man on the line of scrimmage while both the left tackle and center pull outside and lead the way for the ball carrier.
But despite different blocking schemes, all three plays are attempting to accomplish the same thing: putting your best athletes in positions to make plays on the edge, in space. Now there are a few reasons why Lane Kiffin wanted to use these sorts of plays. First, Alabama had tremendous talent at the skill positions and Kiffin wanted to do everything he could to make sure that talent was fully realized. Guys like Ridley, Stewart, and Drake are home run threats every time they touch the ball and the jet sweep allows for this to happen without taking on any risk. That becomes especially important when you realize how unreliable Jake Coker was for significant parts of the year. Jet sweeps was one way you could be sure of getting the ball to your non-Derrick Henry skills guys.
Second, it was very important to stretch the field horizontally. The Alabama offense – thanks in large part to their issues at the quarterback position – was rather one-dimensional this year. The run the damn ball crew certainly got their wish … not only was the offense centered around running the ball up the middle with Derrick, at times it was the entire offense. In SEC play he averaged just under 32 carries per game. Over one four week stretch in the middle of the season he carried the ball a total of 124 times. Over a two week stretch late in the season he carried the ball a total of 90 times. These numbers are staggering. Week in and week out opposing defenses knew what was coming … Alabama was going to run their monstrous, Heisman trophy winning running back between the tackles. So in response opposing defenses stacked the box and played the run inside out, doing everything they could to make people not named Derrick Henry beat them.
Starting with the Georgia game – and with the Michigan State game as the lone exception – Kiffin didn’t really care … he was still going to rely on Derrick to move the football. But he needed a way to keep the defense somewhat honest and he did this by stretching the field horizontally and attacking the edges via jet sweeps and wide receiver screens. By forcing the defense to respect the space outside the numbers defenders were no longer able to play running plays up the middle with the same sort of aggressiveness that would prefer.
Further, it was important to attempt to consistently stretch the field horizontally because you can’t move the ball without stretching the field in at least one direction. Alabama only had a very small vertical passing game within their offense that, for the most part, was limited to throwing the ball down the field to Ridley on max protect play action passing plays on standard downs. Without consistently stretching the field horizontally the Alabama offense would be limited to attacking (with both the run and the pass) a very small part of the field, making things much easier on the defense.
So how successful was Alabama when using the jet sweep? Lets take a look at some numbers. These numbers only include plays from Alabama’s 12 games against P5 competition.
Total number of jet sweeps run: 33
Average yardage gained on jet sweeps: 5.09 yards per attempt
Total number of jet sweeps that went for no gain or a loss of yardage: 5
Total number of jet sweeps that went for between 1 and 3 yards: 8
Total number of jet sweeps that went for between 4 and 9 yards: 15
Total number of jet sweeps that went for 10 or more yards: 5
Worst play, by yardage: -8 yards
Best play, by yardage: 19 yards
Total number of jet sweeps with an outside zone-blocking scheme: 22
Average yardage gained: 4.68 yards per attempt
Total number of jet sweeps with a pin and pull scheme: 3
Average yardage gained: 4.67 yards per attempt
Total number of jet sweeps with a decoy-blocking scheme (typically inside zone): 8
Average yardage gained: 6.38 yards per attempt
Total number of Calvin Ridley jet sweeps: 16
Average yardage gained: 3.44 yards per attempt
Total number of ArDarius Stewart jet sweeps: 9
Average yardage gained: 5.44 yards per attempt
Total number of Kenyan Drake jet sweeps: 8
Average yardage gained: 8 yards per attempt
Some brief observations …
The overall yards per carry wasn’t bad at all. In fact, that’s only half a yard less than Derrick Henry averaged per carry this year.
Alabama easily enjoyed their most success when using a decoy-blocking scheme.
Calvin Ridley performed the worst but that may have been due to the fact that none of his jet sweeps were with a decoy scheme. Conversely, Kenyan Drake performed the best and he only benefitted from one play with a decoy scheme.
When Alabama used a decoy scheme it was almost always with ArDarius Stewart.
60% of the plays went for at least 4 yards.
One interesting observation is that, with few exceptions, Alabama only started to use jet sweeps with either a pin and pull scheme or a decoy scheme later in the season. Prior to the bye week they only ran three jet sweeps that weren’t paired with an outside zone-blocking scheme.
And here are a few plays where the jet sweep action was used as a decoy.
Derrick Henry touchdown run against Wisconsin.
A reverse against Clemson (that they faked this against Florida).
And finally, a quarterback keeper.
Last, I wanted to make a general point about Alabama’s offensive play calling in 2015. Most of the calls that probably frustrated you were a result of how weak Alabama was at the quarterback position. Throughout the entire season Coker’s limitations really hamstrung Kiffin and the offense.