Since its loss against Ole Miss, Alabama’s defense has been challenged in a variety of ways. Against Tennessee it was forced to deal with the two-headed read-option attack of Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd. Against LSU, it was asked to shut down a player who many believe to be the best running back in college football in Leonard Fournette. And, most recently, when they traveled to Starkville, Miss. the Tide had the task of trying to contain the SEC’s top dual-threat quarterback in Dak Prescott — which they did.
All of these strategies, and opponents, had one thing in common: They couldn’t crack the code of Alabama’s defense. Week in and week out we’ve seen Alabama’s players adapt to strategies they know an opposing team will try to use as a counter.
This past Saturday was no different. Not only did Alabama pick up another win, it did so by bottling up an offensive game plan Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn thought he could use to be both unique and effective. However, in the end, it turned out to be the Alabama defense busting a few myths of how teams think they can get past the Crimson Tide using sideline speed.
Myth one: Run-stopping linebackers are slow
All across the country, the appreciation for Alabama’s front seven (the defensive line and the linebackers) has grown throughout the year. We’re now to the point of accepting the Tide may have four of those seven players go in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
The counter to avoiding those monsters in the middle is to get the ball away from the trench and to the outside. The most common way to do that is by calling handoff sweeps (the one above) or wide receiver sweeps (the video below).
The video above was the very first play of the game. Malzahn decided to waste no time when trying to thin out Alabama’s defense by stretching the field as far as he could. When plays are called to the outside, the general idea is that a ball carrier is going to get matched up with a smaller defensive back in open space rather than a hard-hitting, sure-tackling linebacker/defensive lineman in a crowded area. However, in this play we saw that was not the case as linebacker Reggie Ragland was still able to fly to the ball at the sideline and meet the offensive player right at the line of scrimmage.
In year’s past, Nick Saban’s traditional 3-4 defensive used bigger, stronger but slower players who could dominate in the middle. Usually the front seven players weren’t the ones called upon to follow a running back all the way to the sideline. That’s why catching the edge near the sideline to turn up-field could’ve possibly had success. But here we saw that’s not the case with this Alabama front seven. Its linebackers and defensive ends not only have the strength to stand you up in the trenches, but also get from set up to the sideline with top pursuit speed.
Myth two: Cornerbacks aren’t reliable tacklers
The play above was a wide receiver sweep. The reason this play was different, however, wasn’t because of the receiver’s role, but rather how Alabama’s corners showed the ability to get off a block and make a solid open-field tackle. Remember the entire concept of these stretch plays is to get a matchup with a corner hoping he’s either blocked or misses the tackle. Here we saw cornerback Marlon Humphrey not only get off the block, but make the sound tackle.
This kind of look really tests the physicality of your cornerbacks. Not only can they not be pushed around by wide receiver blocks, but they have to be fearless when attempting to make a tackle. Saban uses toughness as a top principle when recruiting and coaching defensive backs, not only for tackling purposes as shown above, but also because Alabama’s coverage functions with press coverage on the outside.
Myth three: Alabama will eventually over-pursue
The final characteristic of Alabama’s outside contain is that there’s always help. It’s very rare when a team can block all of the Tide’s defenders around the ball, and that’s because they’re taught to always be moving in that direction — they never know when a trick play could all of a sudden call on them to make a stop. You figure that’s a staple in any defense, which is true, but what allows ‘Bama to blanket a potential weakness in containment on the outside is that it’s better in run support than any other team in the country.
In the play above you saw safety Eddie Jackson already moving towards the line of scrimmage once he recognized the run play. Even though it was a reverse to the opposite side, Jackson was already up and in position because of first steps up toward the line. Intelligence and recognition are what makes it seem like there are always more ‘Bama players in the area than offensive blockers.
When it comes to running the ball, there’s not much room to flourish other than challenging the Tide’s front seven with strong offensive line play. However, though Alabama’s defense is stout in all areas, there are ways to pick up the yards you need to move down the field. We’ll break that down later this week and see if Florida has what it takes to do just that in the SEC championship game.