With the calendar soon approaching June, the true off-season is drawing nigh. The sweltering summer will bring fruitless famish to all who dream of Fall nights under the lights of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Fear not, however, as RBR looks to be the oasis in the desert for all that seek refuge in the refreshing waters of football features. Do not be fooled and fall prey to false prophets and the dry hallucinations of click-bait articles. The temptation is great, but the informed reader must stay strong.
In reference to click-bait articles, some of the hottest takes that have filled the Internet have stoked the Crimson flames of many Alabama fans. Namely, that Nick Saban suddenly forgot how to coach defensive backs, and that the days of Alabama's dominating defenses are now over. Instead of inciting loyal readers by insulting their intelligence with outlandish statements, RBR will look to the film to try and focus on the reasons why Alabama's secondary has had issues, and how these erratic defensive performances can be corrected moving forward.
There is no better place to start than with arguably the Crimson Tide's worst secondary performance of all-time: last season's Iron Bowl. In order to truly improve, one must learn from his/her mistakes, and boy, were there plenty of mistakes after Thanksgiving last season. Here are a number of areas Alabama must improve if they want to return to the championship level pass defenses of yesteryear.
Better One-on-One Corner Play
This might be the obvious area that needs improvement, but that doesn't make it any less significant. The Crimson Tide have had issues when leaving their corners on an island with some of the nasty receivers they have faced in recent years. Auburn's Sammie Coates and Duke Williams had field days against Alabama corners in last season's meeting, which was the number one reason why Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall had a career outing that night.
Early in the game, Auburn had failed to convert on multiple trips into Alabama territory. However, that all changed a few minutes into the second quarter, as Marshall and company lined up in a four-wide set from the 34-yard line. Alabama countered with a Cover 4 look, with the two outside corners and both safeties splitting the deep part of the field into quarters, and the linebackers and nickelback splitting the intermediate part of the field into thirds. While this is clearly a zone defense, Eddie Jackson ends up in what is basically man-to-man coverage with Coates at the top of the screen. Coates takes five steps and then commits to an all-out fly route to the endzone. The reason Jackson ends up getting toasted is because he takes too long to realize his opponent's decision and displays poor technique. Jackson takes far too long to open up his hips and run with Coates... and it cost him dearly.
As the ball reaches it's apex, Coates is a good two steps behind Jackson. With Marshall throwing beautiful deep balls all night, this one is no contest. Coates gently glides underneath the ball, and Auburn takes their first lead of the game.
Tighter Zone Coverage
With Alabama struggling to run Saban's preferred Cover One Man due to the less-than-inspiring play from cornerbacks not named Cyrus Jones, Kirby Smart and company decided to dial up a lot more Cover Two schemes last season. With the Cover Two look, Alabama could keep two safeties back to prevent the opposition from dropping bombs over the top of trailing corners.
Auburn lines up with trips to the far side on yet another 2nd-and-long. Alabama decides to not leave Jackson on an island again, and deploys a Cover Two Robber out of their Nickel package. The two safeties will split the deep part of the field into halves and the corners play man coverage. Trey DePriest has the responsibility of keeping his eyes in the backfield and shading both Marshall and running back Cameron Artis-Payne, which he spent a lot of the night doing. Landon Collins is actually lined up at linebacker, which was used with great effectiveness most of last season. Collins is the "Robber" in this case, as his role is to drop back into a zone in the middle of the field and then jump the underneath route. His role is, in essence, to "rob" the quarterback in this regard.
Unfortunately, that's not what happens. Williams, lined up in the slot (as seen in the previous image), runs a simple slant route inside. Auburn is looking to attack one of the weaknesses of the Cover Two: the deep middle of the field. At first this seems perfect for Alabama. Collins, the All-American, will surely jump the underneath route and rob Marshall of what he thought was his best look, right? For whatever reason (probably because he doesn't trust his safeties enough), Collins hesitates, and Williams runs right past him. To make matters worse, Nick Perry (seen on the bottom left of the image) is way out of position. It isn't seen in the above image, but Cyrus Jones stonewalls Coates offscreen. Coates is taken out of the play, but for some reason Perry is playing the deep left side of the field, as if Coates is running unguarded down the sideline. There is simply no reason why he should be sitting out there. Jabriel Washington isn't in a position to make a play on the ball because he was playing the deep right side of the field, as he should have been with three Auburn receivers streaking down that area. Collins doesn't jump the route correctly, and Perry is floating around in no-man's land. Again, the deep middle of the field can be exploited in Cover Two, but even Dr. Bo Wallace could have completed this pass on a bad day.
It's nearly impossible to play capable defense in today's era of hurry-up-no-huddle (HUNH) spreads without proper communication. Nick Saban's defenses have always been known as some of the most complicated to learn in football. That's part of their genius. However, the difficulty of the defense can backfire, as it has on multiple occasions for Tide secondaries.
After Blake Sims' third interception of the game early in the second half, Auburn was once again in beautiful position to score. On 3rd-and-five from the six yard line, Auburn once again lined up with three receivers to the outside. This time they employ the abilities of tight end C.J. Uzomah as well. Alabama lined up in the good, ole Cover One Man. However, the Tide have replaced Jackson with Tony Brown at the top of the screen. Gus Malzahn and company wasted no time in going straight for the true freshman.
The Tigers decide to execute the pick (or rub) play. With Perry lined up on Uzomah and Brown lined up on receiver Quan Bray, both playing man-to-man coverage, Auburn executes the rub brilliantly. Uzomah runs straight into Brown's way as Bray comes underneath the tight end; neither Brown nor Perry recognize what is going on. Meanwhile, DePriest (highlighted in red) has his eyes squarely in the backfield once again. While being in the right position, DePriest is not cognizant of what is going on around him. Marshall isn't even trying to hide where he's going with the ball or the fact that he's looking pass all the way. Marshall isn't running anywhere; he is staring down Bray, and his shoulders are square to Bray. DePriest is in the best position to blow this play up and force Marshall into an uncomfortable second read. Instead, nobody communicates, and the result is a touchdown for Auburn made far too easy.
Defending the pick in football requires the same defensive technique as in basketball (or any other sport where there are set plays with offensive players running interference to open up scoring opportunities.) There has to be some sort of 'switch' call between the two defenders. As soon as Uzomah and Bray started crossing paths, either Perry or Brown needed to recognize what was happening and make the call. DePriest is so locked-in on preventing Marshall from making anything happen with his feet that he ends up just floating around while Bray makes an easy stroll into the endzone. We have poor communication by the secondary, and a lack of field awareness by the middle linebacker.
The 2014 Iron Bowl is instructive in that all the woes plaguing Alabama's secondary were on display that night: lack of recognition, lack of field awareness, breakdowns in communication or even failing to communicate, poor execution of scheme, and, in far too many cases, some or all of these issues. Secondary coach Mel Tucker's emphasis on back-to-basics is one that is long overdue, as the Tide must improve on the mental aspect of pass defense.
Alabama has many areas where it needs to improve if the Crimson Tide want to return to the College Football Playoff in 2015. The defensive backfield is an obvious question mark, and Saban and Smart have their work cut out for them. Fortunately, Alabama does not lack stud defensive backs, but improvement in these areas is still a must if the Crimson Tide hope to repeat as SEC Champions this upcoming season.