To the extent that the revamped defense was expected to reload and not rebuild, that expectation has simply not come to fruition over the course of the first two months of the 2010 season. As I've written in entirely far too many Initial Impressions pieces this year, we really haven't done anything consistently well on the defensive side of the ball, whether that be stopping the run, rushing the passer, or defending on the back-end. We've done bits and pieces of that at times in 2010, but never with the degree of totality and consistency that we need, and after eight weeks the "strength" of our defense, in so much it can be one, is our ability (or good fortunes, however you want to look at it) to generate timely turnovers in the red zone.
And I know some will chime in that if you look at our defensive rankings nationally they are quite good. Admittedly, the raw statistical rankings look great -- 3rd in scoring defense, 12th in total defense, 5th in pass efficiency defense, and 21st in run defense -- but those rankings have in many ways been somewhat of a statistical mirage, largely driven by facing a slew of bad offenses. For example, through eight games, the Alabama defense has faced only one team ranked in the top 40 in total offense (Arkansas), while it has faced four teams ranked lower than 80th nationally in total offense (Duke, Penn State, Florida, and Tennessee). Those four bottom-feeders have averaged less than a touchdown per game against the Tide, and in the end that has had the effect of inflating 'Bama's standing in the defensive rankings.
Statistics notwithstanding, struggles have been everywhere, and some legitimate complaint can be made of the performance of nearly every single defensive contributor to date. Josh Chapman has been solid, but certainly no Terrence Cody, and Damion Square has not been able to fill the shoes of Brandon Deaderick. It took Dont'a Hightower eight games to record a single tackle for loss, and Courtney Upshaw has spent more time on the training room tables than in opposing offense's backfields. Jerrell Harris struggled at Will before being moved to Sam and then to the bench. Nico Johnson was nowhere to be found for the first month, and we've relied heavily on true freshman C.J. Mosley in recent weeks. Dre Kirkpatrick has been soft and somewhat inconsistent in coverage, and while DeMarcus Milliner has played well by true freshmen standards, opposing defensive coordinators clearly love seeing him in the game. Only God knows how DeQuan Menzie has held up physically, and when not making key interceptions Robert Lester spends his time either taking terrible angles or disappearing for quarters at a time. Phelon Jones did not play a meaningful snap until we went to Knoxville, and the much ballyhooed Burton Scott still has not.
Even the two bona fide stars of the defense, Marcell Dareus and Mark Barron, have had issues of their own. Dareus, of course, missed the first two games of the season after being suspended for his role in the Agentgate scandal, and upon returning has fought through a variety of nagging injuries. Barron has played well for the most part, but he has struggled when isolated in man coverage against the better skill position players, and was the culprit of several key breakdowns in Columbia.
All told, it just hasn't come together like we had hoped. In hindsight, perhaps we were all a bit naive to think that we could make such a smooth transition with nine new starters. While it may be easy to casually assume that teams with bushels of highly-recruited players can reload at will, the defensive struggles we have had this season, not to mention the general struggles of fellow powerhouses Texas and Florida, point to that simply not being the case. It seems safe to say now that we should probably re-think that notion moving forward.
Nevertheless, despite some of the defensive issues to date, in the middle of the off week we find ourselves 7-1, in control of our own destiny in the SEC, and only two key losses from some teams of questionable quality away from once again controlling our own destiny in the national championship race. In other words, defensive struggles or not, we find ourselves in a pretty envious position.
The question for now turns on just how good you want to be and just how far you want to go. Even with a total collapse an 8-4 season is guaranteed, and even with some struggles it is hard to see us not getting to at least 9-3. If the issues that have plagued us to date persist in the final month, the odds still seem good of likely finishing up either 10-2 or 9-3. And if that's good enough, well, so be it.
If we want to go further, though, defensive improvement will be required. Say what you will about the quarterback problems of LSU, but their skill talent on the outside will likely prove disastrous for us if we cannot somehow find a way to rush the quarterback; we won't be able to cover them on the back end without assistance from up front. Likewise, if the issues with the interior run defense continue, Stevan Ridley will probably have a career day. And even if you can assume we'll do enough to get by Mississippi State, we're going to have to improve in almost every single way in order to slow down Auburn's prolific attack.
It's unlikely that we can get there with offense alone. Prior to the Tennessee game, our offense was averaging 22 points per game in conference play, a good result no doubt but in some ways further proof that they would not be enough of a juggernaut to put the entire team on its back and overcome any and all defensive issues to carry us to victory. That seems to be the case moving forward, and the truth is that if we find ourselves needing 24+ points down the stretch in order to win, that's going to be a losing proposition each and every time. The raw talent is there defensively, and for Alabama to take down LSU and Auburn, the Alabama defense must live up to that potential in the final month of the season.