Remember when everyone was freaking out that the College Football Playoff committee overrated Alabama at No. 4 in its first playoff rankings of 2015? Yeah, that was fun, wasn’t it?
Since then, Alabama has shut down two potential Heisman Trophy finalists in LSU running back Leonard Fournette and Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. In Saturday’s victory over the Bulldogs, the Tide defense held Prescott without a touchdown, something that hadn’t been done in 32 straight games. The defense also recorded nine sacks, something it hadn’t done since 1998.
It was a game I’m sure most people (sorry, Lee Corso) believed Alabama would win, but the frightening takeaway isn’t that Alabama picked up another victory. It’s that this defense, which was considered the best in college football two weeks ago, is still getting better each week.
Establishing pressure against play-action
On the first play of the game, the Alabama defense lined up in the 4-2-5. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said before the game that it’s key to create pressure up front with just four defensive linemen. When Alabama can have success disrupting the pocket without using an extra player to blitz, it can adjust its coverage to start forcing turnovers.
Prescott is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the SEC, so Alabama knew it had to be ready for play action and read-option plays. Both are designed to create hesitation. When a quarterback goes through the motion of the handoff, it normally freezes the defensive end. He has to account for both the running back going one director and the quarterback keeping it to run in the other direction.
In the video above, however, we see Alabama shift that responsibility to the coverage linebacker. Watch the linebacker on the close side of the screen keep his head on the quarterback until he pulls the ball back to himself. It’s not until then that the linebacker turns his head and fully commits to the receiver in his area.
This allowed all four defensive linemen to attack the pocket without a secondary responsibility. The result of the play was a sack, which not only showed Alabama’s dominance up front but also hinted at its confidence in its linebackers to make open-field tackles if a quarterback keeps the ball on read-option plays. Placing the primary play-action or read-option contain responsibilities on a linebacker could leave Alabama vulnerable to defensive linemen over committing, but it also lets them loose, which, to Smart, is more important.
If a team finds itself with 10 yards or more to gain on third down, its chances of converting aren’t great. But when we’re talking about facing Alabama, those chances go from not great to virtually zero.
In the video above we see Alabama run an inside-out stunt blitz that focuses on getting defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson an open lane to the quarterback from the edge. Prescott was able to recognize the outside pressure and step up in the pocket, but he still went down without a throw.
When the Tide have their opposition in this position — when they know all they need is pressure to force a fourth down — this is the kind of attack they’ll use. A stunt blitz aims to achieve delayed pressure. These plays are designed to give a quarterback only one or two seconds to get rid of the ball, because a wide receiver’s route can’t develop enough for the first down in that time. Once those few seconds are up, the pressure comes from angles and areas a quarterback isn’t used to seeing, so he’s forced to move around and drop attention from his reads down the field.
Only getting better
This is the main way Alabama is improving its defense every week, by forcing teams to do what it wants them to do. It starts with establishing pressure in different ways, but it becomes a combination of pressure up front and press coverage in the back.
When a defense can combine great pressure with good press coverage, it forces an offense to throw the ball more quickly than intended.
On short passes, that looks like this:
Prescott had to release the ball before he knew his receiver’s route was complete; if he didn’t, he would’ve been sacked. He just had to give his guy a chance, but it went for an incompletion.
Alternatively, teams can try to throw it long when forced to get rid of it early.
This often causes passes to be outside of a receiver’s reach — not only are receivers still getting bumped off their routes, but a quarterback may also not have the option to step into the throw, as shown on that play.
Combining pressure and press coverage is why Alabama is limiting opposing teams to a 31.7 percent conversion rate on third down (14th-lowest in the nation). When the Tide can force teams to do what they want, they get a result like we saw Saturday.
Though the Tide are, in my opinion, the toughest defense to overcome in college football, there still are cracks in their fortress. We’ll break down exactly what those look like in tomorrow’s SEC Film Room.