A Cut Above: Defensive Production in the Saban Era

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

The statistics analysis continues, and the results aren't always pretty.

It's the offseason.  Actually, it's worse than that.  It's the part of the offseason where there is nothing out there at all.  So what can we do to get us through this wasteland?  Look back and ponder on the deep truths that we can from derive from our intense navel-gazing.

STATS CHAT: ENGAGED

It's time for part two of our three part stat analysis "A Cut Above" series (Part one - Offense, can be found here).  Today we'll be talking about defense, and then we'll wrap up next week by hitting on turnovers.

But enough with the table-setting, here are the raw stats we'll be working with:

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So, at first blush, I think we can all agree that the 2013 pretty clearly compares rather unfavorably to the rest of the Saban units (2007 aside, of course).   Are the raw numbers misleading?  There's only one way to find out.  On to the analysis!

First up, let's take a look at scoring defense.

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Yep. Not great. Is anyone surprised?  In fairness to the 2013 team, their worst game (Texas A&M, where they allowed 42 points), came against the toughest offense faced by any of Saban's Bama teams.  If not for that outlier, this defense would probably rank in the middle of the class, instead of being one of the worst in the group.

It should also be noted that this "bad" defense isn't that at all.  For one, 13.9 points per game was good enough for the Tide to rank #4 in the country last year.

Also, it's no secret that the game is skewing in favor of the offenses.  Bama has really thrown a wrench into these particular evaluations, since the team has managed to buck the trend in a way that almost nobody else in the country has managed.  Since 2010 (including that season), only one team not named Alabama has allowed less than 12 points per game (2011 LSU).  So when we look at the chart, we probably see a defense that "struggled", when in reality, this was a team that only allowed 2 points more than what has been the absolute floor for everybody else in the country over the last half decade.

Maybe it wasn't a defense for the history books, but it wasn't too shabby, either.

Now, let's move on to analyze the yardage allowed.

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On a per game basis, rush yards allowed in 2013 was closer to the 2007 defense than any of Saban's  other Bama defenses (other than 2010).  I exclude 2010, but 2013 was actually very close to that defense, statistically.  Seriously, take a moment to revisit that first graphic and compare those two years.   Pretty much all the way down, you find an incredibly amount of similarity, right down to total number of yards allowed (3,723 in 2010, compared to 3,725 in 2013).

Next, let's look at yards allowed per play.

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Another category, another nearly last place finish for the 2013 squad (/insert "youtried.jpg").

Yards allowed per rush attempt?  Worst since 2007.  Yards allowed per pass attempt?  Worst since 2007.  How much more can we really glean from this?  Let's move on and look at touchdowns allowed.

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This chart isn't normalized for number of games played, so bear that in mind when looking at the chart.  When you do normalize for number of games played, you find that the "touchdowns allowed" metric is a bit of a mixed bag.  For instance, the 2013 team allowed 0.62 rushing touchdowns per game (a 13.85% drop from the 0.71 mark posted by the 2012 team).  On the flip side, the 2013 team allowed 1.00 passing touchdown per game, which was a 75% increase from the 0.57 mark achieved by the 2012 team.

The good news looking forward is that the 1.00 passing touchdowns allowed per game in 2013 is the highest mark since 2008.  With the returning players in the secondary (and the influx of new talent), I think that the 1.00 passing touchdowns allowed per game is probably the floor for the 2014 squad.  Oh, and a final side note on this issue and our corresponding feelings of despair - that 1.00 passing touchdowns allowed per game in 2013 was good enough to rank #10 nationally.  High cotton has truly spoiled us.

Next up, lets look at third down conversion rates.

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This chart looks a lot like so many of the others that came before it.  More than any Saban team since '07, last year's squad struggled with getting off the field.

The 2013 squad allowed 14.92 first downs per game, which was only better than 2010 and 2007.  Moreover, the 2013 squad seems to have allowed more explosive plays than previous teams, as evidenced by the fact that they faced the fewest third down attempts of any of Saban's Bama teams.

Let's take a look at how the defense did in the redzone.

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Mixed bag, I'd say.  Yes, the 2013 squad regressed from the prior year, but I would say the regression was minimal (opponent red zone scoring % increased by 3.79%, but that is largely attributable to increased field goal success, as the touchdown % only went up 1.5%).  On the other hand, the touchdown percentage for both 2012 and 2013 are way out of whack, compared to the three years prior.

So this is where we have to stop and think a bit.  Why are teams being more successful at punching the ball in once they get in the red zone?

As we ponder that, let's take a look at red zone attempts per game.

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Another chart that is a bit puzzling.  How does a team rank decently when it comes to not letting teams into the red zone despite allowing opponents to convert third downs (and punching the ball in once in the red zone) at one of the worst rates in the Saban era?  I think this is further evidence that the 2013 allowed more explosive plays.  Sort of the opposite of a "bend, but don't break" defense sort of a "don't bend... OH GOD YOU SNAPPED IN FREAKING HALF" deal.  Basically, the 2013 defense was great, except when they weren't.

As we wrap up this analysis, I have one last metric for us to evaluate.  In the comments of part one of this series, we had a reference to opponent-adjusted numbers, so I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at the quality of the opponents that each of the teams have faced.

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Now, at long last.  We see something that may help explain the ups and downs over the past half a dozen years.  As a quick explanation of what the numbers mean, here's the official definition of DSOS:

Defensive Strength of Schedule, the likelihood that an elite defense (two standard deviations better than average) would have an above-average DE rating against each of the offenses faced.

Don't feel bad if you don't understand what that means.  I don't understand it entirely myself.  But here's what we need to know - the lower the number, the harder the schedule.

With that being said, let's address the elephant in the chart.  The 2011 DSOS is absurdly high.  To put that figure into perspective, if the 2013 team had that same DSOS, Bama would have had the 76th ranked defensive strength of schedule (compared to the #28 that it actually was).  Is it any wonder that this defense was in the conversation as one of the best ever?  How would that squad have fared against the 2013 schedule?  How would the 2013 squad have fared against 2011's lily-soft slate?

After looking at that, we may next notice that the two hardest schedules Saban has had happened in 2010 and 2013.  Is it a coincidence that these were the "down" years?  I don't know how bold this question is, but I'm going to put it out there anyways - what if there really wasn't all that much fluctuation in Bama's defense over the last five years?  What if the team fielded an elite defense every year, and the lion's share of the statistical fluctuation is attributable to the natural fluctuations of schedule strength?

Now, trying to project for the 2014 season, I think it's pretty safe to say that there is basically no chance that the DSOS will be as hard as it was in 2013 (Bama faced 3 top-10 offenses (Texas A&M #1, LSU #5, Auburn #7).  At the very least, LSU looks to take a significant step back offensively this year, and who knows where ATM will be without Johnny Manziel.

So you can feel free to stitch me up a scarlet "G", but in my mind, the numbers and personnel seem to indicate that we are going to have a rather pleasant season defensively this year.  I'm expecting a sizable upswing.

**All raw stats for this piece are taken from cfbstats.com.   Defensive Strength of Schedule comes from Football Outsiders.**

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