Every year it feels like we get a new and evolved Alabama defense out of Nick Saban and his staff. Dominant still, yes, but flush with new wrinkles.
The raw principles remain the same, built around a notion born from an unprecedented run of recruiting success: We’re bigger, stronger, faster and smarter than you.
You know the script. The defensive line wreaks havoc, linebackers roam sideline-to-sideline, and the defensive backfield works in unison to run an intricate pattern-matching system at a near-Ph.D. level.
Together, they’re overwhelming.
But while the result always feels the same ― spoiler alert, they win a lot — the process can often differ from year to year.
It might not always appear like it given his stern demeanor, but Saban is a malleable coach. He’s willing to shift his ways from season to season if his talent dictates it. He won’t squeeze a classic two-gap defender into a one-gap system. No, he’ll build a multi-gap one.
The talent feeds the way the defense is constructed year by year, not the other way around.
Former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart gave voice to this back in 2014.
“We are a 3–4 defense,” Smart said to Chris Brown, author of The Art of Smart Football. “That does not mean we play 3–4 all the time. Last year , we ran the 3–4 front 25 percent of the time. The rest of the time we played 4–3.”
Everything is based on the maximizing the skill sets of the best available players for any given season.
It’s important to note that this is mostly up front. The back end typically stays the same. Everyone is indoctrinated into Saban’s complex pattern-matching system — a hybrid zone/man coverage that has defenders read the releases of receivers before deciding whether to convert from zone to man coverage.
The secondary gets game-plan specific tweaks, but nothing comprehensive. It’s up front where the real fun and creativity takes place, and where Saban adapts the most. Such is the case this season.
Let’s take the last two years as examples.
With a two-deep monopolized by early round draft picks with contrasting skill sets, the 2015 national championship team constantly rotated its front — shifting principles as it did so.
On early downs, the defense would stay in base formation. The big boys would come in to shut down the run, running a multi-gap system. On the front side, linemen would two-gap and hold the point of attack. On the backside, players were given free license to penetrate into the backfield, with a pair of off-ball linebackers whirling around to clean up any debris.
Jonathan Allen, A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed were the mainstays. It was a front built on mass and power — they were all selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.
However, once a third down or obvious passing situation rolled around, the front shifted. Reed and Robinson — the two big interior defenders — were taken off the field in place of Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, a pair of athletic dip-and-rip rushers. Their assignments were simpler: Get up the field and hit the quarterback.
The front was widened, with either a split front (two three-techniques) or a five-across look with an additional linebacker lining up directly over the center, making it difficult to double team any of the team’s elite pass-rushers.
(Allen’s rare combination of size, strength and agility made him a key component, and the best player, in each group)
That 2015 unit was utterly devastating. The big boys put opponents behind the chains, and the pass-rushing specialists came in to close the deal on third downs. They finished first in defensive S&P+ and conceded just 15.1 points a game.
The 2016 season was different. Reed and Robinson left for the NFL, and Anderson and Williams stepped into full-time roles ― out of the pass-rushing sub-package and into the base defense.
Saban adjusted. The front no longer rotated as much and began to feature “bear” fronts on early downs, covering all three interior linemen so that Anderson and Williams could still see one-on-one opportunities on the outside. There were fewer players, and fewer fronts, but the results were even more impressive. The team repeated as defensive S&P+ champions and conceded even fewer points per game ― 13.
Three games into this season, it appears Saban is going back to his championship-winning 2015 model and then some.
Saban threw everything at the Vanderbilt offense last week: every personnel grouping, front and sub-package imaginable. This portion of my game chart from the first half pretty much tells the story:
The goal is to get more speed on the field.
Isaiah Buggs, Da’Shawn Hand, and Da’Ron Payne are all starters and potential game wreckers. However, they’re natural power rushers rather than speed rushers. They’re players who push the pocket and hopefully can collapse it. What’s lacking is agility, players such as Anderson and Williams.
Saban’s fix seems clear: multi-gapping with big fronts on early downs, then going to a speed package in passing situations. Without Anderson and Williams to rely on, he’s going about it through scheme design.
Early down looks have vacillated between a 4–2–5 front (or 4–3 depending on whether the opposition runs a spread or more pro-style offense) and a variety of 3–4 looks.
In both instances, the interior players are asked to muddy things up, while the edge defenders set hard edges as the force and contain defenders. The off-ball linebackers then flow down and play mop-up duty, as the players in front of them reset the line of scrimmage.
On later downs, things get wackier ― by Saban standards, at least ― as the team rotates through a series of sub-packages to fulfill the coaches’ need for speed as he lets his linebackers loose to go quarterback hunting.
We saw a glimpse of the most utilized speed package during the season-opening win against Florida State, although the defense was surprisingly bland for much of the night.
It’s a “radar” front: a group of linebackers orbiting around a pair of down linemen. Interestingly, both the tackle and end are set to the same side of the formation, often to the strongside (the side with a tight end), rather than balancing out the front or playing with a head-up tackle over the center.
It’s a look that presents all manner of opportunities for the defense and problems for the opposing offense.
The potential pressure packages are almost endless: everyone could blitz, some could blitz, some could drop out, everyone could drop out. Or, linebackers could loop around one another and exchange gaps. And, every gap is covered, even if the front is lighter than usual.
Figuring out who is coming, and from where, is a communication nightmare for an offensive line. And it’s just as difficult for a quarterback to diagnose before he gets rid of the ball.
Against Florida State, the front neatly crafted a free runner on the Seminoles quarterback for what should have been a sack.
The strongside linebacker attacked the outside shoulder of the Seminoles’ H-back, while the end ― lined up between the guard and tackle ― slanted toward the tackle, drawing the attention of both linemen. The off-ball linebacker (furthest away from the line of scrimmage) looped in behind the end, causing a protection breakdown. That freed up the Crimson Tide’s edge rusher to run up unopposed to the quarterback.
Even with starting-caliber linebackers missing against Colorado State and Vanderbilt, the look has become a third down staple ― along with a split front and five-across look (albeit a tweak on the 2016 version, with a head-up tackle rather than a linebacker over the center).
Some of the looks have been quirkier than others. Below, an extra defensive back was slid between the tackle and end, with the tackle head-up over the center rather than being offset. A trio of on-ball linebackers flank either side to balance the front and cover each gap.
Given the injuries at linebacker, that dime look may be one we see more of. Perhaps not that extreme, but with a DB sliding down to a dime linebacker spot.
It’s a package Alabama rolled out four times on Saturday, with the dime linebacker acting as a green dog defender: blitzing if his man stays in to block, or converting to man coverage if that player runs a route.
That tweak doesn’t bring the ideal size. But it delivers speed and blitz options, and it is a better coverage package than throwing out inexperienced linebackers who would have to sort through trash against crowded formations.
It took time, but Saban finally gave in to the rise of the pace-and-space offense. Now, he’s helping head up the latest innovations on the defensive side of the ball. His original work ― building in multi-gap fronts and rotating through a rolling cast of elite players ― was a masterpiece. This season we’re watching the further evolution of those philosophies, one that’s taking place at all levels of the game: hybrid fronts and position-less players.
If the early signs are anything to go by, this could be the rare instance where the sequel matches the original. And we’ve all seen what that means for opponents of the Crimson Tide.