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Defensive Front Seven is the Real Concern

The early struggles in the defensive backfield have been been both frustrating and concerning, but stepping back for a moment those struggles should hardly come as a surprise. After the early departure of Kareem Jackson and the suspension of Robby Green, it was clear that we would have to rely heavily on young and unproven players , and given that fact there was always a reasonable expectation that we would encounter some difficulties in 2010.

The early  struggles, then, should come as no real surprise to anyone paying close attention. We've rotated about eleven defensive backs throughout the course of the season, and nine of those eleven players came into this year with absolutely no meaningful playing experience at the collegiate level. The raw talent is there and in time that group will perform at a much higher level and on a much more consistent basis, but nevertheless it will take time. 

The defensive front seven, on the other hand, is another story entirely. Just look at some of the raw numbers.

We're 103rd in the country in sacks, getting only four sacks on 130 passing attempts. And three of those sacks, in fact, have been generated by defensive backs. The two-deep rotation in the defensive front seven has accounted for all of one sack in four games, a one-yard loss by Courtney Upshaw against Arkansas. We're actually even worse in terms of tackles for loss, tied for 116th in the country. New Mexico State is literally the only Division 1-A team below us in that category.

The run defense, too, as a whole has been somewhat shaky. The defensive line has struggled to control the point of attack, tackling has been an issue, and, by my off-hand count, we've generated all of about two stops on third-and-short situations. We're a solid 27th in the country in overall run defense, but having said that we're about 45th in the country in terms of rushing yards allowed per carry. In many ways, the biggest saving grace we've had to date is that we've faced some ineffective rushing attacks. Nationally, San Jose State, Penn State, Duke, and Arkansas are 113th, 61st, 72nd, and 104th, respectively, in rushing offense and that has helped hide some of our issues in run support.

On the whole, the end product has not been as expected. Yes there was attrition in the defensive front seven from a year ago, in fact there was lots of it. Even so, the expectations were high because those voids were going to be filled by players who, while not technically starters, were very talented players that had played key roles in meaningful situations in the Tide's past defenses, with most of those players being in at least their third year on campus. On the field, though, it just hasn't come to fruition. As I said on the Radio Hour last night, at almost every position in the front seven you can identify a specific individual contribution from the 2009 defense that we had then and that haven't had so far this year. 

Clearly, injuries haven't helped and in all honesty the Injury Gods have not been kind to the Crimson Tide. Courtney Upshaw was limited for the better part of a month with a high ankle sprain, Luther Davis was limited against Arkansas with a knee and ankle injury, Dont'a Hightower looks like a different player after his knee surgery, and Marcell Dareus limped through the second half of the Arkansas game and will not be 100% this weekend against Florida either. Even so, injuries cannot become a crutch or an excuse. You have to find a way to be productive in spite of the injuries, not become unproductive because of the injuries.

Nick Saban and company continue to shuffle personnel in search of a solution, and regardless of which moves are made progress needs to come quickly. With productive play in the front seven, combined with a 'Bama offense that should be among the nation's best, Alabama can largely weather the expected growing pains in the defensive backfield. If not, we may spend the balance of time against quality opponents simply hoping the offense can out-score the opposition. With Florida coming to town in two days, and off weeks galore set to kick in for opposing SEC teams, the time is near for the defensive front seven to live up to expectations.