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Previewing Alabama vs. Florida: The Gator defense

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If there's any team in the SEC that can match talent with the defensive unit of the Crimson Tide, it is the Florida Gators

The Florida defense is as physical as they come.
The Florida defense is as physical as they come.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A hard-nose, nearly-impenetrable run defense. A front-seven featuring several future NFL players. A secondary studded with world-class defensive back talent. A defense that forces opposing offenses to pick a poison, and then suffer from its lethal side effects over the course of four quarters.

The above could definitely be considered a description of the Alabama Crimson Tide defense. However, it could just easily apply to the unit Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has wielded in his first season with the Gators. Collins, known in some circles as the "Master of Mayhem," has taken former Gator head coach Will Muschamp's talent-laden roster and converted it into one that can favorably compare to the one that calls Tuscaloosa home.

The SEC Championship Game will be a battle of two stellar defenses. While the Tide may likely field the nation's best overall defense, the Gators are, at most, a quarter-step behind. Florida is aggressive and ferocious in the front seven, and the talent in the Gator secondary may even be better than the rotation of defensive backs filling out the Tide's roster.

Statistically, the two defenses are both among the best in the nation. While Alabama ranks second in total defense (264.62 yards per game), first in run defense (78.92 yards per game), 16th against the pass (185.7 yards per game) and third in scoring defense (14.3 points per game), the Gators are fifth (283.5 yards per game), seventh (111.25 yards per game), ninth (172.3 yards per game) and fifth (15.5 points per game) in those same categories, respectively.

Will either team be able to score against the opposing defense? For both offenses, doing so will be a tall task. Both teams are aggressive, physical, schematically-sound, disciplined and just plain nasty to line up against for four quarters. That said, the two teams go about achieving the desired result in different ways, and Collins' style of defense has been a burr in the saddle of the Alabama offense during his previous stint with Mississippi State.

There's no question Alabama will feature tailback and Heisman front-runner Derrick Henry in the game against Florida, but as teams who've faced Alabama's buzz-saw run defense this season have learned, being one-dimensional against a top-flight defense is an exercise in futility. To win, the Tide will likely have to test the Florida secondary, and that will be a challenge the likes of which the Bama offense has not seen all season.

So how will Alabama attack the Florida defense? How will the Tide achieve its cherished offensive balance against a unit not unlike the one Bama sees each day in practice? Will Florida be the team that can finally contain Henry? How will the vaunted Gator secondary figure into the final outcome? Let's take a closer look...

The Roster

While many of the Florida faithful consider the Muschamp Era of Gator football as a failure for the most part, the current Auburn defensive coordinator did a fantastic job of luring the best defensive talent outside of Tuscaloosa to Gainesville. To put it simply, the Gator defense is loaded with four- and five-star defensive talent. Alabama has made short work of lesser defenses this season, as was evident in the Tide's brutal mode of physical, running-game combat against Mississippi State and Auburn in recent weeks. Unlike those defenses, however, Alabama will probably not be able to run over, around and through the Gator D as it has its last few SEC West opponents.

Part of the reason is the sheer talent level found on the Florida roster. Take the defensive line, for example. The line has great size and tremendous athleticism...just like the one the Gator offense will face this Saturday. Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Caleb Brantley (6-2, 314 pounds) is massive, and he is built out with the skillset of a prototypical 4-3 nose. He takes on doubles, and he tangles up the interior of the line like a briar patch. Though his stat line isn't gaudy, one can tell how effective he is by viewing the stats of his running buddy, senior tackle Jonathan Bullard (6-3, 283 pounds), who has had a phenomenal season in 2015 while registering 55 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Bullard will likely be selected in the first three rounds of next year's NFL Draft, and he will terrorize the center and guards in crimson this Saturday.

The defensive ends are equally as elite when it comes to raw talent, despite their relative youth. Bryan Cox Jr. (6-3, 268 pounds) has a name that should sound familiar to fans of the Miami Dolphins, as the redshirt junior with the NFL pedigree has had a great season in his own right. Cox has accrued 36 tackles and 8.5 tfls in 2015, and with a high motor, high-level technique and a high degree of seasoning, Cox is a pass rushing nightmare who excels versus the run. On the other end, true freshman phenom CeCe Jefferson (6-1, 275 pounds) has had a great debut season, as the rookie defensive end has 28 tackles and 3.5 tfls since gaining more playing time as the season wore on.

It's not like the Gators don't have depth up front, as they have several players in the rotation who have contributed, the most notable of whom is rush end Alex McAllister (6-6, 239 pounds). McAllister has been a monster on obvious passing downs, as his wingspan, burst and speed give him an instant advantage over lumbering offensive linemen. He is a sack machine, generating 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. Others who contribute for the Gator defensive line include redshirt freshman end Justus Reed (6-3, 240 pounds), redshirt freshman nose Khairi Clark (6-2, 321 pounds) and redshirt freshman tackle Taven Bryan (6-5, 292 pounds).

At linebacker, the talent is absolutely excellent. Senior Mike linebacker Antonio Morrison (6-1, 229 pounds) is the most recognizable name among the three starters, as the All-SEC performer is a dominant force in the Gator 4-3. Morrison is tied for the team lead in tackles with 86, and he has accrued 11 tfls on the season. He is a brutal, north-south attacker who shoots gaps and pounds running backs. Junior Will linebacker Jarrad Davis (6-2, 230 pounds) is another future NFL defender, a speedy sideline-to-sideline pursuer who tracks down the ball-carrier like a big cat and hits with equal ferocity. One could liken him - in terms of speed, skill set and athleticism - to former Tide linebacker and current Baltimore Raven C.J. Moseley. Davis routinely drops into coverage in Collins' defense, and he excels in locking down the flats on such occasions. Junior Sam linebacker Alex Anzalone (6-3, 244 pounds) rounds out the group. Anzalone is a heavy-hitter who makes good decisions and strikes like a rampaging Cape buffalo.

Though the starting three linebackers see most of the snaps, again, the Gators have decent depth behind the top trio. Redshirt junior Jeremi Powell (6-0, 224 pounds) sees time at Sam, redshirt senior Anthony Harrell (6-1, 219 pounds) spells Morrison at the Mike slot, and junior Daniel McMillan (6-1, 219 pounds) fills in behind Anzalone when the situation calls for it. All reserves are adequate, if not spectacular, in relief of the top line at ‘backer.

The Gators have an embarrassment of riches in regard to their secondary roster, as Collins can boast what is easily the most dominant set of defensive backs in the SEC, if not the nation. Junior left corner Vernon Hargreaves III (5-11, 199 pounds) will be a millionaire in the near future, as he is considered one of the top defensive backs in the nation heading into the 2016 NFL Draft. Thus far in 2015, Hargreaves has 26 tackles and four interceptions (which is tied for best among Gators). Hargreaves has everything a coach could want in a sub-six-foot corner, as his speed and ball skills are elite, to say the least. Hargreaves is aggressive and rarely makes mental errors, making him a formidable obstacle to any opponent testing the air.

Lots of teams have one elite corner, but what makes the Gators so good at defending the pass is that they have three elite corners (albeit one is routinely used as the nickel back). Sophomore right corner Jalen Tabor (6-0, 191 pounds) is the heir apparent to the Gator secondary of the future, and he has made the most of his opportunity this season, snagging four interceptions of his own to go along with 29 tackles. Like Hargreaves, Tabor is physical and fast, and the presence of two elite, future NFL corners on the field at any given time makes the task of passing the football against the Gators difficult at best. Backing up Tabor is the gifted sophomore Quincy Wilson (6-1, 204 pounds), another Gator corner who has recorded two interceptions already in 2015.

Senior Brian Poole (5-10, 211 pounds) spells Hargreaves at corner when he needs a breather, and he is the dedicated nickel when the Gators go to a five defensive back set. Poole is solid in coverage, but he is also called upon in run support. With corner speed in a safety's body, Poole is steady regardless of whether he is called upon in coverage, run support or the occasional corner blitz. Sophomore Duke Dawson (5-10, 204 pounds) also sees a considerable amount of time at nickel, situationally.

While the safeties may not be as highly-regarded as the oft-hyped corners, junior free safety Keanu Neal (6-1, 216 pounds) and redshirt junior Marcus Maye (6-0, 207 pounds) are extremely good at what they are asked to do within Collins defense. Maye is good in coverage, accounting for two interceptions this season, as well as 54 tackles. Neal is an athletic hitter at free who can range about the secondary in ball-hawk mode, a fact which is obvious in his 77 tackles, the most for any Gator DB.

How the Gator defense can stop the Alabama offense

Collins didn't come by his nickname by coincidence, as his defenses are extremely difficult to predict, diagnose and neutralize. What's not difficult to predict is Collins' focus on stopping the run, first and foremost. At Mississippi State, the defensive coordinator routinely put together some of the stingiest run defenses in a conference full of stingy run defenses, and with Florida's talent level, his schemes have been decidedly even more effective.

The Gator strategy under Collins is really simple: stop the run so that the opponent desperately goes to the pass, then allow the pass rush to attack, thus forcing the offense to throw into the teeth of the elite Gator secondary. The pressurizing combination of an aggressive, effective pass rush and a physically-gifted secondary playing a unique drop-zone coverage scheme often brings opposing offenses to their knees. The attacking Gator front will allow short gains on the ground, but they usually lock down and prevent the kinds of long run big plays that have been the calling card of Alabama's Henry this year.

The Gators will obviously be tasked with limiting the Alabama running game, which will more than likely be the mallet with which the Tide will strike the Gator defense first and foremost. Given the strength of the Gator secondary, such a game plan would be wise in the early going. In return, the Gators will attack the Bama front with intelligent aggression, letting the adept linemen occupy blockers and force the action inside, where Morrison, Davis and Anzalone will fit the run and limit gains as they've done all year.

On passing downs, expect to see the Gators alternate personnel up front (McAllister plays a lot on passing downs, for example) and create pressure using lots of stunts and twists while the linebackers blitz from unconventional vectors. The Florida front seven is adept at generating tackles for loss and sacks (tied for fifth nationally in team sacks and 13th nationally in tfls), which just happens to be something with which the Tide offensive line has struggled this season (Alabama is ranked 80th in tfls allowed this season, for example).

For the Gators to be able to do what other teams haven't in 2015 (namely, bottle up Henry and the Tide running game), that penetration will be key. On downs in which Henry loses yardage or is limited to modest gains, the massive tailback is almost always met with a collision before reaching the line of scrimmage. Expect to see the Gators use their skill at penetrating the offensive backfield to attack Henry and keep his gains short and staggered.

Collins likes to use his defensive linemen in traditional spacing for a 4-3, unlike the exotic alignments used by his defensive predecessor at Florida (Muschamp). In Collins' version of the 4-3, the coach will typically line his tackles up on, or outside the outside shoulder of the offensive guards. This gives the defense even spacing, and creates room for the linemen to use their athleticism as well as simplicity of assignments in controlling gaps. That said, sometimes Collins shrinks the spacing on the play side to create the impression of a "heavy" alignment on running downs, if doing so will give his defense an advantage when the offense is obviously setting up for a run.

Collins also uses his linebackers differently than Muschamp. Where Muschamp used his outside linebackers as pass rushers often, Collins uses his linebackers as the ultimate, versatile pivot points upon which his defense turns. The linebackers don't create pressure on their own, per se, but rather take advantage of the pressure created by the defensive line and defensive back blitzes. Collins demands that the linebackers be intelligent, excellent at tackling and tenacious in pursuit. Inside linebackers (such as Morrison) are counted upon to play north and south, hawking towards the ball, blowing up the gaps and crushing running backs. Davis and Anzalone are expected to roam sideline-to-sideline, stringing out runs to the edge while maintaining containment, and slicing across the hashes against outside zone runs.

Despite the physical nature of his defensive backs and their pure ability, Collins doesn't often ask his secondary to play pure man coverage. Not that the Gators never go to a man look with a Cover 1, for example, but Collins seems to prefer a lot of drop zones that mix up coverage and force quarterbacks to make unfamiliar reads. For example, instead of having a safety simply play over the top to provide help to corners in man, he'll employ a drop zone and keep the safety in the middle of the defense as a soft zone robber who can sneakily slide between zones of coverage to catch quarterbacks off guard.

Collins is a master of the zone blitz, using designed drops to create mayhem for opposing quarterbacks. Whereas a passer may become accustomed to seeing certain players in coverage, Collins keeps offensive coordinators and quarterbacks guessing with his drops, thus creating hesitation. When paired with the use of an additional rusher (such as an athletic outside linebacker or safety/ corner), this tactic provides a deadly recipe for quarterbacks trying to quickly run through progressions against the Gator defense.

Once the offense becomes confused and/ or tentative in the passing game, Collins gives those stellar future NFL defensive backs the leeway to jump routes when opportunities present themselves. He trusts his corners and safeties to take calculated risks to create big plays (it's no coincidence that Tabor and Hargreaves have four interceptions a piece this year.)

One could sum up the Collins attack with a comparison to his predecessor: while Muschamp was aggressive in using pressure and power to overwhelm offenses, Collins is aggressive in using his pressure combos up front as well as the speed and illusion in the secondary.

This attack could create huge problems for Alabama, if the Tide cannot establish a significant running attack. Alabama hasn't really seen a team in the last 2/3 of the season that could manhandle its offensive front, and the Gators have the talent to be more disruptive to the Tide than any other foe since Wisconsin. If the Gators routinely penetrate the backfield, they will cause problems for an Alabama offense that still lives and dies with the rush.

The imperative nature of establishing the run is magnified by the fact that even though the Tide passing attack has improved from game to game, the Gators secondary is the strength of a strong defense. Jake Coker won't be able to flip the ball around with the velocity that made many wonder about a throwing arm injury in the Tide's recent game against Auburn. The Bama receivers won't see the kind of daylight they saw against Mississippi State, as the Gators are on top of their zone coverage P's and Q's and will clog the passing routes with an assortment of defensive backs and linebackers.

Alabama will likely struggle mightily in the passing game without a productive ground attack, but as in the past, that won't matter if the Tide can run the ball at will. If, however, the Alabama running game struggles, they won't have the luxury of taking chances against the Gator secondary through the air without eventually paying a price.

The Result

As good as the Gator defense has been this season, the front seven probably hasn't seen the likes of Henry and the Alabama line. After all, Florida gave up 180 yards and two touchdowns against LSU's Leonard Fournette this season.

Henry is a force of nature, and the Gators know he will get his yards. They will be happy, however, if they can limit him in regard to long scoring runs, ceding some degree of short-gain rushing success in the process. Last week in the Gators' game against FSU, the Gators allowed Dalvin Cook 183 yards. Assuming that Henry has been a better back than Fournette or Cook in the latter half of the season, one would expect that the Heisman hopeful will have better-than-average success against the Gator secondary.

If Alabama is able to run with authority, there's little doubt that the Tide can use the patented anaconda formula to choke out the Gators this Saturday. Specifically, they can strangle the Florida offense with an impenetrable defense, and let the offense hammer away until the Gator defense tires and lets a long run or play-action pass slip through. It's worked well against opponents with better offenses, and there's no reason to think Alabama will change its attack at this point.

Florida will make the going tough early, but beneath the weight of a near-constant bludgeoning over four quarters, the Tide will begin to see that rigid Gator wall turn into dust. There simply aren't many teams built to withstand what Alabama is dishing out offensively this season. It's not flashy, but it's effective the way a sledge hammer is effective in opening a jar of pickles.

There's little doubt that the Gator offense will struggle against Alabama's defense, so it will be up to the Gator D to keep Florida in the game until the fourth quarter, when a single big play (on offense or defense) could break a stalemate and lead to a shocking upset. If Alabama struggles to run the ball, the chances of such an outcome increase exponentially. But if Lane Kiffin can find the chinks in the Gators defensive armor and establish a solid foundation with the run, they can easily call their shots while hammering away with the knowledge that Henry will eventually will himself into the end zone.