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Previewing Alabama vs. LSU: The Tiger defense

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They are what they've always been: physical, aggressive and talented. Prepare for a battle.

The LSU defense is likely the best unit the Tide has faced to date.
The LSU defense is likely the best unit the Tide has faced to date.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The rumors of the demise of the Tiger defense, unfortunately for Alabama, have been greatly exaggerated.

When legendary SEC defensive coordinator John "Chief" Chavis left LSU for the supposed greener pastures of division rival Texas A&M, many projected that the Tiger defense would lapse into mediocrity despite a roster loaded with four- and five-star talent. As Chavis' heir, LSU head coach Les Miles selected former Bama assistant and Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, whose last performance as a DeCo was Clemson's shellacking in the 2012 Orange Bowl, an outing in which the Clemson D ceded a whopping 70 points to the Mountaineers.

While questions abounded during the off-season, and much mystery surrounded the type of defense Steele would install in Baton Rouge, Steele's amalgam of schemes with a 4-3 base has resulted in promising early returns. While the numbers are down slightly from the 2014 season, that drop-of has been minuscule at first look. The Tiger defense allows 315.9 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry in 2015, a marginal decrease from last season's 314 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry in 2014. That said, the 2014 LSU defense was below the par set by the Tigers' championship contending squads in 2003, 2007 and 2011, with 2011 being the gold standard in defensive play on the Bayou.

So how good is the Tiger defense in 2015? Is it really championship caliber? Those are legitimate questions, as the Tigers have had the fortune of playing a bevy of second, third and even fourth string quarterbacks in their previous outings. In fact, they've only played healthy first-stringers twice: Mississippi State's Dak Prescott and Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty. And the Tigers have yet to realize their own full potential, with all-star defensive backs like Tra'Davious White and Jalen Mills missing portions of the season to injury.

Do the Tigers have the ability to stop the brute force of Bama's running game? Can their pass defense do enough to hem up Bama's receiving playmakers in Calvin Ridley, O.J. Howard and Ar'Darius Stewart? The Tigers certainly appear to have the personnel to do so, even if the numbers indicate a waning of their secondary dominance. Time will tell. Once again, for both teams, the road to the College Football Playoffs bears a direct line through this annual grudge match. Can LSU stake their claim as the league's top defense, and its eventual SEC West title? Time will tell...let's take a closer look.

The Roster

LSU, like Alabama, depends on elite players to separate their defense from the myriad stingy units across the conference. The SEC is a conference known for hard-hitting, vicious defensive play, and LSU and Alabama represent the league's gold standard in that regard.

While maybe not as loaded with future NFL talent as the Tigers' 2011 team, the 2015 edition of the purple and gold has the makings of a stellar defense despite relative youth at some key positions. Since Steele's arrival in Baton Rouge, he has installed a multiple variations in alignment despite the 4-3 scheme that shows up on the official depth chart. In fact, through 2015, the defense has spent the bulk of the time in the nickel, whether a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5 variety. For the purposes of this discussion, we'll look at the depth chart in light of the 4-3 base alignment.

As always, the Tigers have fantastic talent along the defensive line. A D line unit that has turned out the likes of Glenn Dorsey and Booger McFarland, when one thinks of the LSU defense, the defensive line is top of mind (despite LSU's claim as "DB U".) The difference in 2015 is that despite talent, the grouping in rather young and thin in terms of experienced depth. Sure, there are stalwarts who have been in the LSU defensive culture for years. For example, guys like junior defensive end Lewis Neal (6-2, 264 pounds) and junior tackle Christian LaCouture (6-5, 301 pounds) represent the backbone of a defensive front hat has been tough against the run. LSU is currently ranked second to only Alabama in run defense in the SEC, allowing just 93.7 yards per game on the ground (Alabama is currently first in the conference, allowing 78.5 yards per game.) There's also steady senior journeyman Quentin Thomas, who is used in relief at tackle, but beyond those three, the line is young and relatively inexperienced.

At the other line positions, LSU doesn't have the luxury of a veteran roster. Starting opposite of LaCouture (who is arguably not at 100 percent due to injury) at the other tackle position is talented sophomore Devon Godchaux (6-4, 293 pounds.) Despite Godchaux's relative youth, he is one of the most talented defensive linemen on the Tiger roster, as he bolted past more veteran players in 2014 to start 10 of 12 games as a freshman. Godchaux is a beast, and his great size and quickness will give the Tide's interior linemen fits.

Rounding out the Tiger defensive line is defensive end Arden Key (6-6, 231 pounds), a freshman who has broken into the starting rotation as an end rusher. Key is your typical speed end pass rusher, with a long, lanky frame and vicious pursuit instincts. Key is spelled by the talented veteran junior Tashawn Bower (6-5, 240 pounds), a force on the edge who would definitely be tapped as a starter on any number of SEC rosters.

Probably the most veteran group for the Tigers is the linebackers, led by future NFL Draft Pick Kendell Beckwith (6-2, 252 pounds). Beckwith is a triple threat, as he is adequate in coverage in between the hashes, is a fireplug of a run-stopper between the tackles and is used as a proxy defensive end when the Tigers go into their third-down "Mustang-Not-Really-Mustang" dime defensive alignment. (More on that later...)

Beckwith is joined by senior Will linebacker Deion Jones (6-1, 227 pounds), who plays the Money role when the Tigers go into the nickel, and as such, he is free to roam sideline-to-sideline while hunting the ball carrier.  The linebacking unit is rounded out by senior Sam ‘backer Lamar Louis (5-11, 232 pounds), an all-purpose jack-of-all-trades who is adequate as a run stopper and in coverage. Behind the veteran starting line, however, the Tigers have little depth at linebacker. Juniors Duke Riley and Ronnie Feist provide some depth at Sam and Mike, respectively, but behind Jones, the Will depth chart is manned by sophomores.

As the self-purported "DB U," LSU has a roster that is quite simply loaded with typical future NFL draft picks. The secondary is stocked with talent and a veteran presence. One sure-fire future NFL player is junior corner Tre'Davious White (5-11, 191 pounds), who is the prototypical LSU defensive back despite his sub-6-foot frame. White, who wears the coveted number 18 jersey as the player who most exemplifies Tiger football on and off the field, has neither great size nor great speed, but he has tremendous ball skills, quick feet and the kind of fluidity in coverage that is coveted by NFL scouts. White can be counted upon to lock down the boundary in man 90 percent of the time, but he does have the tendency to overcommit at times, making him susceptible to the big play down field. Even still, ask any coach if he'd want White on his roster and the answer would be an emphatic "yes." He is well worth the occasional liability.

Playing the field corner position is junior corner Dwayne Thomas (6-0, 186 pounds), who is steady but given the talent around him is probably the weak link in the Tiger secondary. When the Tigers go into the nickel, Thomas is the fifth man, with freshmen Donte Jackson (5-11, 167 pounds) and Kevin Tolliver (6-, 197 pounds) stepping into the line of fire. Tolliver has been especially impressive as a freshman, with great size and range.

At safety, the Tigers are well-equipped...when healthy. Free Safety Jalen Mills (6-0, 196 pounds) is among the best in the SEC at his position, but his health has been an issue for most of the season. While Miles has said Mills will be ready to go against Bama this weekend, one must wonder if the future NFL defensive back will be at 100 percent against the Tide. Mills is a likely second to third round draft pick next spring, and given his status as the primary signal caller for the defense, his presence on the field will be a huge lift for the Tiger defense.

At strong safety, the Tigers have another in a long line of heavy hitters in sophomore Jamal Adams (6-1, 211 pounds). Proclaimed by Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu as the "best safety in college football" last December, Adams had an impressive All-SEC Freshman campaign in 2014, and he's not slowing down this season. Adams is arguably th best overall safety in the league at this time, and will likely be a short-timer in Baton Rouge when the NFL comes calling. A head-hunting lumber-layer in the middle of the field, Adams is reminiscent of past Tiger strong safeties, with solid coverage skills and a nose for the run game. And when he makes contact, the results are often explosive.

How LSU can stop the Alabama offense

Despite the wealth of talent in the secondary, the Tigers have struggled against the pass to a greater degree in 2015 than in recent memory. That fact is mysterious given the propensity of Steele and his defense to fall into a nickel alignment, a scheme devised to flood the passing lanes with athletic defensive backs and play makers.

So if the Tigers are so loaded with talent in the back end, why is the LSU pass defense ranked in the middle of the pack nationally? That anomaly can be explained in a word: injuries. Some of the best Tiger defenders, such as Mills, White and LaCouture, have missed time to varying degrees with injury. The absence of Mills for most of the seaosn has been especially telling, as the free safety is counted upon as the quarterback of Steele's defense who reads what the offense is doing, calls the plays for the defense and makes adjustments. Without his presence on the field, the Tigers have struggled with communication, something that has resulted in missed assignments and broken coverages that allowed teams to take advantage.

Though the pass defense has struggled at times this season, the run defense is on point, as has traditionally been the case in Baton Rouge. In essence, the system Steele runs in Baton Rouge is very similar to the one used by Chavis, as he depends on athletic, bigger framed defensive backs to make plays in space and support the run defense while letting his linemen and ‘backers create havoc in the middle of the field. He depends on his talented defensive backs heavily in man coverage, and despite their skill, gaffes in man coverage have led to a handful of big-play breakdowns for the Tigers this season.

How can the Tigers stop Bama's ground and pound offense? Let's start up front. There's no secret Alabama's MO will be to run the ball with Derrick Henry. Alabama's offensive line has been suspect at times this year, and those times have generally coincided with the home field advantage for Bama. In the Tide's Bryant Denny contests this season, there has been a drop-off in line play: confusion, lack of physical domination at the point of attack, needless and undisciplined penalties that snuff drives.

This could be a problem against the Tiger front, as defensive line coach Ed Orgeron has brought his particular brand of obfuscation to the swamp. Nowhere are these exotic looks more evident than when the Tigers drop into their reconfigured "Mustang" set on third downs, made famous by Chavis and LSU as one of the few defenses that could routinely stop spread HUNH teams in their tracks. Steele uses the 3-2-6 alignment on third downs in particular, as it puts some of his best athletes on the field while limiting the damage that can be done through the air. Orgeron adds his spin by creating odd spacing along the line, mixing up the traditional gap assignments for his linemen while employing a variety of stunts and blitzes. In addition to the spacing, the linemen shift around pre-snap, causing the opposing offensive line to have to diagnose and adjust in split-seconds. Out of this version of the "Mustang," Steele brings as many as seven pass rushers at times, drawing in defensive backs like Adams and Thomas to pressure the quarterback while remaining in decent position to make a play in the run game if necessary.Sometimes Steele will bring Beckwith to the end of the line with a hand in the dirt like a defensive end, with Jones providing pressure as a pass rusher as well. This gives an O line a lot to consider, and for a line that has at times been hesitant this season, it could prove difficult for the Tide to manage.

The defensive upside of such an attack is that it forces the quarterback to know his reads and run through his progressions very quickly. After all, even with a tight end and back staying at home, that's seven on seven in the pass rush, at best, and given the way the Tigers sprig their trap, the more likely scenario is that a defensive back appears on a delayed blitz after the offense doubles one lineman or another, leaving the DB unblocked. Such mental and physical pressure on the quarterback can lead to mistakes, which lead to turnovers, which can spell doom in a game as closely contested as this one is likely to be.

Sure, that sounds pretty daunting, but the execution has been somewhat suspect, especially against teams that have the ability to pass well. Even with all that talent in the defensive backfield, a lack of discipline and poor communication has doomed the Tiger secondary to giving up the big play relatively regularly. And that is given the Tigers' defensive stats have been buffered somewhat by the fact that the pass defense has rarely been truly tested while facing the second, third and fourth string QBs that LSU has had the good fortune of facing.

When the Tigers have faced first-string passers, the results in terms of yardage allowed have been telling. Against Mississippi State, the Tigers allowed Prescott to torch their secondary for 335 yards and two touchdowns. Granted, the LSU run defense snuffed out the Bulldog threat on the ground, but Prescott found plenty of space before all those future NFL defensive backs.  It was clear that communication was a problem,a s the Tigers were caught out of position at times, thus resulting in completions. Even Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty (admittedly one of the more precise signal callers in the game today) lit up the Tiger pass defense, racking up 325 yards and three touchdowns, including at least one deep strike for a touchdown.

The Tigers' pass defense has regressed statistically under Steele...the statistics don't lie. LSU's pass defense gives up 221 yards per game through the air, good for 64th in the nation, an uncharacteristically low metric for the Bayou Bengals. But while the statistics don't lie, neither do they present the full picture. Part of this dynamic is due to the fact that the Tigers play a great deal of man, and the margin for error when doing so is slim to none. The other half of the equation is the fact that the defense is not producing sacks at the rate of prior LSU defenses, averaging only 2.6 yards per game (36th nationally). While not terrible, LSU's defense is one that relies on pressure and explosive plays by the secondary. When one component struggles, it tends to have a ripple effect on the rest of the defense.

Make no mistake, Alabama will have opportunities to make plays in the passing game, especially when they can get Calvin Ridley open on the edges. Like many of the defenses Bama has faced this season, LSU is content to give up the short dink and dunk passes in hopes of making an eventual big play. The Tigers aren't all that stout in the red zone, allowing scores on 16 of 17 opponent trips inside the 20, with 84 percent of those resulting in a touchdown. So if Alabama can manage to put together long, methodical drives that penetrate the 20, the chances of a touchdown payoff are not terrible. The other edge to that sword is that the more long drives Bama can string together, the fewer opportunities running back Leonard Fournette will have to touch the ball (and that can only be a good thing.)

That said, Alabama will have to play their cards close to the vest in the passing game. Though LSU's overall pass defense gives up a lot of yardage, they tend not to do so in large chunks. The Tigers are the best in the SEC at limiting big pass plays through the air, allowing only 16 completions of 20 yards or more on the year. So if Alabama scores, it will likely be the old fashioned way: with a pounding ground game mixed in with short slants and screens with the occasional play-action shot down field.

The Tigers will undoubtedly throw their defensive line weight at the Tide in an effort to control the running lanes and frustrate Jake Coker. Coker will have opportunities in the passing game, but also expect him to turn the ball over at least once. He's thrown seven picks in seven games thus far in 2015, and it doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that average. LSU has done a good job in the turnover department, entering the Bama game with a +7 turnover margin compared to Bama's +4. In a game like this one, a turnover could mean the difference, and one can believe LSU will be clawing at the ball and jumping passing lanes in hopes of making a big play defensively.

LSU's depth could be an issue if the Tigers begin to tire or suffer injuries, particularly at linebacker. If Beckwith or Jones go down with injury, the Tiger defense will be gutted of leadership. If Mills isn't at 100 percent, or if he is reinjured, not only will the Tigers lose one of their best playmakers on the field, but also the nerve center of their defense. The LSU first-string is among the best in the country defensively, but they are only an injury or two shy of falling a peg behind the likes of Alabama.

The Result

Despite the fury that the LSU defense can dish at the Tide, it's important to note that some of the Tide's greatest wounds this season, at least at home, have been self-inflicted. While the Tide rolls on the road, with success in the passing game and a steady dose of the run, at home the offense has fizzled. Take in this stat, if you will: on the road, Alabama is tops in the SEC with a 154.8 passing efficiency rating and a 74.3 percent completion percentage. At home, the Tide pass efficiency rating drops to 12th in the league at 125.3, and the Tide's QB's complete only 62.4 percent of their passes. Also of note, all nine interceptions thrown by Tide quarterbacks this season have come at Bryant Denny.

So while schematically, the Tide appears to have the ability to execute their passing attack against a struggling LSU secondary (as talented as it is), there's no evidence to indicate that the Tide will dissect said unit with the same laser-precision that Alabama has displayed on the road. Doubling that level of difficulty will be the return of a healthy White and Mills. In fact, quite the converse is true. One has every reason to expect the Tide passing game to struggle against the talented LSU secondary...and their own inability to execute on the home field.

That said, Alabama will need the running game to produce, if not early, at least in the second stanza of the game. As previously mentioned, LSU is strong but thin in terms of experience in the front seven. This is precisely why Henry will need to be the war hammer of Lane Kiffin's offense in the second half, pounding away and wearing down the Tiger big men up front. Henry won't have the size advantage he has enjoyed over many previous defenses, and the Tide line will need to play its best game of the season to open holes in a salty LSU front.

Henry will match-up well with the Tiger safeties if he can clear the first level, as one of the main knocks pro scouts have against Mills is his struggles in run support. Specifically, Mills has a tendency to take poor angles in pursuit, and he has trouble finishing ball carriers once he makes contact. Mills is already dinged up, and even healthy, he cedes 40+ pounds to Henry. Smaller defenders, bad angles and poor tackling are the components of Henry's favorite recipe...a dish known as pain. Adams will be a force to be reckoned with in the running game, and there are simply no two ways about that. The key will be getting Henry through the maelstrom at the point of attack, as LSU has size and strength the likes of which Bama only sees in practice against its own defense. That said, one must believe that Bama's best path to victory involves a heavy dose of the running game, even if for no other reason than to set up the play-action passes that could be the game-breakers in the second half.

Expect at least one Bama turnover, probably an interception. Coker's thrown seven this year (with two more credited to Cooper Bateman early in the season), and Coker's biggest miscues have come at home. With a +7 turnover margin, it's clear to see that LSU's focus on creating turnovers hasn't changed despite the change in coaching. With five or six defensive backs clogging the passing lanes (especially on third downs, where the Tide has struggled to only a 33.3 percent conversion rate - good for 109th in the nation), Coker will be challenged mentally to quickly get through his reads and dump the ball efficiently, even if the gains are of the three to four yard variety.

The word for the Tide offense on the day will be patience. LSU has shown themselves prone to breakdowns in coverage at times, and Ridley, Stewart and Richard Mullaney have proven themselves capable of executing when such opportunities present themselves. O.J. Howard could have a huge day, as the Tiger linebackers and safeties just aren't equipped to deal with his combination of size and speed. Howard famously torched the LSU defense for a long touchdown reception the last time the two teams met in Tuscaloosa, and there's no reason to believe that there won't be chances for the Tide to see a rerun of that success again this season.

For Alabama, it all starts with the offensive line play. If the Tide big men can diagnose the chicanery of the Tiger defensive line and pick up their exotic blitzes, the Tide will have the success it needs to have a chance of winning. Coker tends to hold the ball too long, and it will be up to the offensive line to keep the Tigers at bay in pass pro and buy him the time he needs to connect. The offensive line will need to get some push at the line of scrimmage to get Henry in motion. With a dinged-up front and still-questionable starting lineup for the Tide offensive line, that is not a guaranteed possibility. Starting right tackle Dominick Jackson will be limited if he does indeed start, as Coach Nick Saban described his injury as similar to the one that has hampered Cam Robinson for most of 2015 (and we've all noticed the drop-off in Cam's play as a result of the phantom injury). If Jackson can't go, he has a steady veteran backup in Brandon Greene, but such shuffles at this point of the season do nothing to bolster the hard-earned team dynamic of the O line.

In summary, Alabama will need balance to impose its will on the Tigers. The run is important, but the likely vector to victory will come through the air, as the Tide has weapons in Ridley, Howard, Stewart and Kenyan Drake. Alabama will need to exploit the stretched edges of the Tiger defense after establishing the run to a degree. The Tide will need to keep the LSU defense off-balance, as once locked in, only Alabama's defense could arguably be more formidable than the unit the Tigers put on the field.

Make no mistake, the game will be a war, as is to be expected between two perennial title contenders. If Alabama shakes off the shackles of their previous debacles at home, their chances of winning are good. If, however, they repeat the gaffes of the past, LSU has the defense to drop the hammer on the Tide's title hopes in the course of one Tuscaloosa evening.