Moving on to the defensive side of the ball...
Personnel and Formations
In terms of personnel, much like with the offense, we really did not substitute very much until later in the game. All told, it was generally the same basic player groups on the field at all times. Sharrief came in a bit at safety, but the front seven almost never changed. The look itself changed (more on that later), but it was almost always Gilberry, Greenwood, Washington, Saunders, Knight, McClain, and Mustin. The corners were basically the same too, with Castille, Mitchell, and Jackson. We saw a lot of other players later in the game, but there was very little variance in terms of the playing rotation in the meaningful parts of the game. Lorenzo Washington, in particular, played almost the entire time, while Chapman and McCullough didn't really come on until much later.
In terms of formations, nearly everything was a variation of the base 3-4. I've posted before on the flexibility of the 3-4 as a scheme, and the fact that it can quickly morph into a variety of other formations with very small shifts by the defense. We personified that flexibility quite well on Saturday night. Again, almost everything we did was out of the base 3-4, but we really moved into some different things as the night went on. Saunders put his hand on the ground nearly all night, and that gave us a 4-3 look, and then on occasion Knight would put his hand on the ground, which gave us a 5-2 look. Then, on other occasions, Saunders would put his hand on the ground, and a safety would walk up, giving us a 4-4 look. It was really just nice to see the variety of formations that we came up with.
I also found it interesting as to what we switched to in long-yardage situations. Many times, we moved Gilberry and Greenwood inside (though honestly Greenwood played inside a lot all knight), and then put Knight and Saunders down as defensive ends. Basically, we rushed the passer with a four man front that consisted of two defensive ends and two outside linebackers. I like that look for future reference, that's a lot of speed and athleticism for an opposing offensive line to have to block, especially considering those guys can almost completely neglect any gap responsibilities in terms of defending the run. I like how it could generate a good deal of pass rush in long-yardage situations while still having seven defenders to drop into coverage. That has the makings of a very effective pass defense in long-yardage situations.
Much like with the offense, I think things were a bit vanilla on Saturday night, but perhaps not to the same degree as the offense was. With that said, however, it was nevertheless easy to see that this defense has almost nothing in common from what we saw a year ago with Joe Kines. As mentioned earlier, we morphed into a variety of different formations, and as a whole we were just a good bit more active than we were a year ago.
The soft zones were a thing of a past -- at least last Saturday, anyway -- and it was replaced by man coverage on the outside. The safeties, in particular, were much more active and involved. In the Kines' scheme, safeties were literally that, safeties. They generally played deep, attempted to prevent the deep pass, and that was about it. Saban's safeties -- as expected -- were much more active, and they were in the box all night long.
Still though, despite the safeties being in the box a good bit and us manning up on the outside, things were pretty plain and vanilla. We blitzed some, but we barely even caught a glimpse of the blitz packages that Saban is notorious for. Moreover, we never really utilized the Jack as we will in coming weeks. Beyond that, there were very few stunts, etc.
It was plain jane, as expected. Still, plain jane as it was, there is no doubting the fact that this scheme is going to be very different than it was a year ago.
All in all, execution was pretty good. Obviously, we only allowed six points.
Still, there is a good bit of room for improvement. Lorenzo Washington looked very good at times from his nose tackle position, but he had some plays where he was beaten pretty bad. Moreover, the run defense was a bit suspect. We did well, for the most part, stopping the inside running game, but they had a good bit of success running to the outside, and I found that surprising with our team speed.
The pass defense looked pretty good, but there's work to be done on defending the quick slant. I have no clue as to why we couldn't defend a simple quick slant from such a poor team, but we couldn't. The cornerbacks (mainly Simeon) were just slow to react, and I don't know where the linebackers were. What makes it worse, we didn't tackle well once they got the reception. That said, though, it was a small sample size (only three plays or so), so we shouldn't read too much into it.
- Lorenzo Washington looked pretty good, though he was going up against poor competition, obviously. He has some room to improve, of course, but he looked promising.
- Rolando McClain is simply the real deal, no two ways about it. Saban raved about this guy, talking about how he called the game the entire way with no help and no problems. His actual performance, too, was very good. I don't think we've had a big, physical linebacker of this caliber since Dwayne Rudd over a decade ago.
- The gap between Lorenzo Washington and the rest of the nose tackles must be pretty large. Whenever Washington went out, either Gilberry or Greenwood moved inside, while Chapman, McCullough, and others stayed on the bench. That's honestly probably not a good sign.
- Simeon Castille was the ultimate boom or bust player on Saturday. He either looked great, or looked really bad. His play on the inside slant that went for a touchdown was very bad. Getting beat is one thing, but not making an easy tackle with no one behind you is wholly unacceptable.
- On that theme... with the safeties in the box so much, the corners were often on an island. In a situation like that, if a pass is completed, the cornerback absolutely must make the tackle, no ifs ands or buts about it. If you whiff on the tackle, as we saw with Simeon Castille, it's going to be a huge play, and possibly a touchdown. We can't afford to have whiffs like that in big games.
- Interestingly enough, Ali Sharrief was the first safety off of the bench. And, moreover, he played a pretty good bit early on as well. That's interesting stuff, and unfortunately it really shows the lack of progress from Justin Woodall. Nonetheless though, Sharrief looked pretty good, and should be commended for his play.
- Marcus Carter probably looked a bit better than he did a year ago, but being quite honest, there's still a lot of concern with him.
- Rashad Johnson played well, and that was a refreshing sight. As I've posted before, it's not that he did anything bad last year, it's just that he didn't really do anything good either, and at the end of the day you need production. At bottom, you've got to do something more than just not screw up, you've got to make something positive happen. He had some production on Saturday, though, and frankly looked pretty good.
- Zeke Knight looked fantastic. As I've said with him before, he's got as much talent as anyone on our entire team, and frankly he's finally at the position that he should have been at all along. He looked good against the run, in pass coverage, and he rushes the passer really well. This kid has legitimate NFL caliber talent, and it's nice to see him finally producing.
And that's about it. As was the case with the offense, you really can't say much, honestly. The opponent was just so poor, you shouldn't read much into anything. At bottom, we looked pretty good, though we have some stuff to improve upon, and we'll have a much different look next week. Much like with the offense, we'll really find out about the defense in the next week or two.