Running game key for Alabama offense

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- This week, as No. 1 Alabama prepares to face No. 6 Texas A&M, much will be written about the two quarterbacks. And rightfully so. AJ McCarron was the country's most efficient passer a season ago and Johnny Manziel was the most electrifying player in the game, dazzling on his way to the Heisman Trophy.

But it won't be all about what happens when the ball is put in the air Saturday in College Station, Texas. The running backs and the offensive linemen who clear the way will have their say as well.

In fact, Alabama's success depends on their performance. If the running game looks like it did against Virginia Tech, it could spell disaster for the Tide's chances.

At first glance, Alabama's 119 yards on 34 designed rushes in Week 1 don't appear disappointing. But further inspection shows otherwise: The Tide averaged 224.9 yards per game on designed rushes last season. The offensive line helped the running game average 4.1 yards before contact in 2012, compared to the 2.0 yards before contact T.J. Yeldon and the rest of Alabama's ball carriers got against the Hokies. There were only three runs of 10 or more yards in that game; the Tide averaged 7.1 of such runs per game last season.

Simply put, the holes weren't there -- 3.5 yards per rush isn't going to cut it.

Center Ryan Kelly put it best when he told reporters that the offensive line needs to be punishing again.

"This week is very important because we get back to what the Alabama offensive line is about and that's being physical and making the defensive line quit," he said. "I think that's what we're going to bring to Texas A&M.

"I don't care what anybody else tries to tell you, it's your first game starting and you're going to be nervous. But I think we started to open up a little bit at times. From the first game to the second game, it's going to be a bigger transition."

The talent in the backfield is there, but the push from the offensive line hasn't been.

Alabama ran for 3,171 yards in 2012, better than any team in the SEC. Yeldon was one of the best freshmen tailbacks in the country as a backup, carrying the ball 10 or more yards on 36 occasions. He wound up third in the country and first in the SEC with 55.9 percent of his runs resulting in 5 or more yards (minimum 150 carries).

Even the Tide's third-string running back, Kenyan Drake, put up good numbers. As a freshman, he averaged 6.7 yards per carry, placing him in the top 30 nationally among players with at least 40 attempts.

The Tide averaged 5.56 yards per carry and had the fourth-lowest percentage of rushes for zero or negative yards. This season, they are last in that same category -- 123rd out of 123 FBS schools.

Against Texas A&M, that will have to change, and players expect it will. With three new starters on the offensive line, chemistry has been slow to develop. Coach Nick Saban said a lack of communication and trust up front was to blame for the Week 1 troubles.

"There's a lot of things a lot of people have the opportunity to learn and grow from," Saban said.

If the offensive line improves, so will the running game. And in turn, so will the production of the offense as a whole.

As Alabama fans saw last season, the passing game is at its most effective working off play-action. McCarron completed 79 of 113 passes for 1,329 yards, 13 touchdowns and no interceptions on run fakes in 2012. Against Virginia Tech, McCarron was 2-of-5 for 9 yards on play-action.

So while McCarron and the passing game are put under the microscope in the lead-up to Saturday, remember that they're only half of the story on offense. For Alabama to be successful, it will need help on the ground.