Much like the expectations for a potent offense went bust somewhere around the Florida State game, the Tide's passing defense followed the now too familiar trend of "expect the unexpected" when it comes to Alabama Football. Coming into the season, the front seven was the big question mark of the defense, as most expected the secondary to be a beastly horde on the strength of both the returning starters and what was perceived as talented depth. Did it work out? Not really. The Tide ranked 48th in the country in pass defense and 9th in the SEC, allowing 221.31 yards per game, 12.4 yards per completion, and 20 TDs through the air (though we did manage to grab 19 picks as well). Compare that to SEC leader South Carolina, who ranked fourth in the nation and gave up only 168.75 yards through the air and 10.18 ypc. So what happened?
To begin with, personnel issues once again reared their ugly head, something that is fairly typical when a program undergoes a coaching change and the schemes undergo a massive overhaul. Beloved former DC Joe Kines ran an exceedingly simple defense that stressed fundamentals over scheme and, while that worked out nicely with a defense loaded with future NFL players, it collapsed once they were gone and the '06 Tide D, thin and inexperienced, wasn't able to match that production. Enter Nick Saban and Kevin Steele, two men known for their complex defensive strategies, walking into the same lack of depth that bedeviled Kines in his final season. Athletes were available in the secondary, sure, but for the Saban 3-4 defense to work, all of the parts had to click and Alabama simply wasn't able to do that.
The biggest problem, of course, was the front seven. Even though the line and LBs performed respectably against the run, finishing 4th in the league after giving up 124.2 ypg, the lack of depth generally meant that we stopped getting consistent pressure on the QB after a quarter and a half or so. Alabama finished 73rd in the nation and fifth in the SEC with 1.85 sacks per game, and I'd wager dollars to donuts that they were typically earned in the first half of play. Anyone that recalls the early going against Arkansas, Houston, and Colorado saw what the Nick Saban defense is supposed to look like, i.e. blitzes coming from anywhere imaginable, QBs forced to make too quick decisions, and roving LBs playing underneath blanketed receivers trying to fight off tight press coverage from the secondary. Both the Houston and Colorado games provided perfect templates for the kind of game plan we should be seeing from Alabama for the foreseeable future once the talent level is upgraded, but for now this team is only able to hold up to the kind of physical strain demanded of the new coaching staff and their system for so long. Which brings us to the second problem; the secondary just wasn't good enough to hold their coverages while the QB was given all day long to find an open man, and at times didn't even recognize where they should be.
Simeon Castille was supposed to be the star of the defense this year, and why not? He was the leading INT man last season, and excelled in the Joe Kines "Fly to the Ball" defense a nickelback/rover. The kid has great instincts for where the ball is and recognizes formations and plays well, but under the new system he was forced into a true CB role, i.e. playing man coverage or blitzing and that's about it. Opposing offenses routinely threw away from him, negating his game breaking abilities and placing a huge burden on the rest of the DBs that they either weren't ready for (i.e. true freshman Kareem Jackson) or were completely incapable of shouldering (like Marcus Carter and Marquis Johnson). In the case of the former, well, that's the kind of thing that can be fixed. Jackson had a stand out game against UT, picking off two passes, one to kill a promising scoring drive and all of the Vol's momentum in the game, but was exposed from time to time as the true freshman that he is. He had a fairly poor performance against Colorado in the Independence Bowl and was never all that great at run support, but he's a talented kid that can be coached up and should make a considerable contribution to the team in the coming years. Likewise, Rashad Johnson was a great surprise for the team, as the former walk on running back led the team in INTs and improved his performance at free safety by leaps and bounds over last year's. Unfortunately everywhere else was generally a disappointment. Marcus Carter didn't improve a bit from his poor showing last season at strong safety, and while backups like Ali Sharief and Javier Arenas saw time in nickel and dime coverage as the extra DBs, they weren't always able to make the right reads and be in a position to make a play. Especially disappointing was Lionel Mitchell, a talented corner who saw lots of time last season, but who's attitude kept him off the field in favor of less talented guys who did things the right way. Marquis Johnson started in his place against FSU and gave up the TD that pretty well sealed the deal for the 'Noles because he couldn't wrap his man up. Mitchell more than likely would have made that play, but instead he was benched for his poor performances during practice.
There is hope that these kind of issues the coaching staff can fix fairly quickly. Loads of talent and depth in the front seven are due in in the fall, and while relying on true freshman isn't something that will keep me warm at night, having inexperienced but fresh bodies to throw at an offense is better than having a few excpetionally talented starters and then significant drop off.