Let's be honest here, shall we? No matter what base alignment the Alabama Crimson Tide operates from under head coach Nick Saban, there will be a great deal of success to come from it. With three National Championships under his belt since taking over the team in 2007 it's safe to say he knows what he's doing.
But when you look at the Tide's present roster—and take into account the personnel arriving this fall—it begs the question: Would Saban better utilize the talent by going to an even-front alignment?
In today's college football, a modicum of teams are having a great deal of success from spread attacks on offense. Whether it is from "11" or "20 personnel," teams are spreading out defenses and running, or throwing, for an ungodly amount of yards—all while ringing up points in the process.
Alabama's famed odd-front alignment calls for larger players up the middle of the defense with smaller athletic players on the edge at the outside linebacker position. While this is good in theory, most dominant edge-players are natural fits in a 4-3 coming out of high school and are usually converted to Bama's odd-front alignment.
Make no mistake about it; Alabama is multiple with the alignments it operates from. There is already plenty of even-front being run as it's mostly out of sub packages.
Here we see Bama in its basic 3-4-based alignment. This alignment is predicated on size and power up front to allow the inside linebackers to roam and make plays—for the most part.
"Sam" aka strong-side outside linebacker: This position is possibly the hardest to play on the entire front. Playing to the closed side of the formation, the Sam needs to be athletic enough to cover tight ends (and receivers at times), stout enough to set the edge in the run game as well as savvy enough to rush the passer. Adrian Hubbard played this role the past few seasons to mixed reviews. In his defense, at 6'6", 251 pounds, he would've probably been best as a hand-in-the-dirt end limiting his time dropping into coverage and also assisting him in gaining leverage against tackles.
"Jack" weak-side outside linebacker: This is the position that should be filled by the very best edge-rusher on the team. By being played on the open side of the formation the Jack is afforded the benefit of not having to drop into coverage as much. During the Saban era it's hard to point to any player that was a flat-out terror as far as pass-rushing is concerned. Courtney Upshaw was the closest, but his all-around game never amounted to high double-digit sacks (9.5 being his highest). Incoming recruits Da'Shawn Hand (6'4", 265 lbs) and Rashaan Evans (6'3", 220 lbs) both look like they could be the answer for the pass-rush woes from the edges, but both look like they would be a better fit in an even-front alignment—especially Hand.
"Mike" Middle Inside Linebacker: This player need to be both physical and versatile. At times it may take on lead blocks, other times it may have to drop into coverage depending on the scheme. Trey DePriest has held down this position for the last couple of seasons very effectively with the uber-talented Dont'a Hightower preceding him.
"Will" Weak-side Inside Linebacker: This is the money position on the entire defense. This player usually makes all the calls and is expected to be a leader. You have to have a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who is an extremely sure tackler and gap shooter. The departing C.J. Mosley played this position about as well as one could imagine. Preceding him was possibly the best defensive player of the Saban era in Rolando McClain.
5-technique Defensive Ends: In an odd-front alignment, as it pertains to Saban's defense, a 5-technique defensive end is usually a larger hand-in-the dirt player that two gaps (read and reacts) against the run. Jeoffrey Pagan is a fine example of the selflessness it takes to play this position. With any read and react role, sacrificing stats to keep the linebackers clean is the name of the game.
0-Technique Nose Tackles: This player is the centerpiece of the alignment. While the position is noted for having very large players that play a similar role to a 5-Technique, depending on the scheme, you can't just have any large player at the position—especially with the advent of spread, uptempo offenses. Bama may currently have its most talented player yet at the position in A'Shawn Robinson. The 6'4", 320 pound-monster is a good fit at a nose tackle position...but he could be a complete star if Bama were to fully evolve into a 4-3-based defense.
Most know that Saban cut his teeth under New England Patriots head coach, and future Hall of Famer, Bill Belichick. The two carved out principles earlier in their respective careers in relation to all things defense. They all but perfected the philosophy of the 3-4 when Saban was the defensive coordinator for Belichick with the Cleveland Browns. But while Saban has continued on with it, Belichick has fully transitioned into the 4-3 over recent years. And, partly, for reasons I see that hinders Bama at times.
"We wanted a lot of carryover between our run responsibilities and run fits, and some of our pressure defenses and things like that," Belichick told Pat Kirwin and Tim Ryan in a radio interview in 2011. "We'll transition and build into some of our odds fronts, but we felt like in trying to evaluate young players, asking them to learn one system in a 3-4 and then learn another system in nickel [was too much]. As you know, we were in nickel defense just as much as we were in a 3-4 because of teams using multiple receivers on early downs and two-minute and all those kind of things."
This is damning as Belichick quickly transitioned to a 4-3 to combat more aggressive, multiple offenses. When 3-4 teams usually bring in extra defensive backs against "11" and "20 personnel", it usually does so with a four-man front. By already having these players in a four-man front it cuts down on the learning curve it takes to oscillate between responsibilities.
It might also allow Bama to get its most effective personnel on the field with four, athletic down linemen and three off-the-ball linebackers.
Here we see how Belichick is able to incorporate some 3-4 principles into a base 4-3. This would be an absolute perfect scheme for Alabama considering the depth, and athleticism, on the defensive front.
- Although the right defensive end (6-Technique) is lined head up with his man, he's positioned a lot wider giving him a lot more room to operate opposed playing on the semi-interior at the 5-technique position. Keep in mind that if the tight end is absent the offensive formation, the 6-technique will be on the edge funneling the action back inside.
- The left end is lined up really wide at the 9-technique taking advantage of his quickness. This also funnels the action back inside if the end can hold up at the point of attack. Can you imagine lining up incoming freshman Da'Shawn Hand at the 6-Technique allowing him to use his strength against the run game, while allowing him the benefit of putting his hand in the dirt to get after the quarterback—opposed to standing him up having him drop in coverage at times and losing the leverage game?
- By having a 9-technique it would allow a phenomenal athlete like Rashaan Evans to use his get-off move to fly by tackles. And playing him next to a 3-technique, that can penetrate and two-gap, like A'Shawn Robinson, would be unfathomable from a pass-rush standpoint.
- This alignment also allows Bama to get three backers on the field at once. Could you imagine a line up with DePriest (Mike), Dillon Lee (Sam) and Reuben Foster (Will)?
Between Lee and Foster, Bama has a couple of linebackers that can operate in space, cover and rush the passer in sub packages. Lee has all the potential to be a superstar, but by putting him at an inside linebacker position next to DePriest you all but erase the possibility of Foster making an impact—or vice versa.
If Bama is serious about getting after the QB, it really needs to think hard about putting the best personnel in the very best position to do so. Having more one-gap opportunities would be a step in the right direction. Additonally, by getting three off-the-ball linebackers on the field it would further strengthen the run defense while giving the middle zone more size and adequate enough athleticism.
Regardless of how Bama decides to align its scheme, success is inevitable due to the abundance of talent at its disposal. But could a transition to an even-front alignment further take advantage of the personnel?