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Alabama Football 2017: Defensive Tune-Up Week

Thanks to a rash of injuries, the Tide defense has some considerable problems heading into the toughest stretch of the season

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Alabama
Alabama will need a healthy and dominant Rashaan Evans for the stretch run.
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

In the second installment of “Fear and Loathing in Tuscaloosa,” aka Defensive Tune-Up Week, we take a look at Alabama’s newly-minted defensive woes following an unheard-of season-long rash of injuries and two consecutive weeks of regression for a defense that is typically considered the strength of Alabama’s team.

For eons predating the Saban era of Alabama football, the Tide defense has been the rigid backbone around which championships are built. And 2017’s unit started off as a defense held in much the same regard: despite some youth and depth issues, the Tide was formidable once again, and they demonstrated that early on with an impressive performance against a once highly-touted Florida State offense and dual-threat quarterback Deondre Francois.

Then, the loathsome spate of injuries began. Alabama mitigated the impact and held the bleeding in check for most of the season, but the unprecedented series of injuries to key players slowly and methodically began hobbling a Tide defense that nevertheless remained near the top of the national rankings in the major defensive statistics.

Now, after two consecutive games of sub-par defensive performances for the unit, it appears that Alabama’s defense won’t be the offense-toting juggernaut it’s been in years past. No, if Alabama is to compete for championships this season, it will now do so on the merits of its offense. It’s not that the Tide defense is bad, as it’s still a top-five unit in most major categories. But the injuries have revealed a chink in the crimson armor, and consecutive weeks of struggle against decent offenses have provided a game plan for future opponents to exploit.

While most of the regression of the defense can be pinned on injuries, there are other factors that interplay with that dynamic. Let’s take a closer look on what can be mitigated, and how the Tide can adjust to give its defense its best chance at success.

Positional concerns moving forward

The Safeties: Despite some struggles in the pass rush, Alabama still has one of the best secondaries (and the 10th ranked pass defense) in the nation. The safety tandem of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison is probably the best in college football, as they’ve proven repeatedly. One would be hard-pressed to find a better defensive player at any position than Fitzpatrick, and the Tide will count on him heavily during the stretch run for leadership and performance. That’s why his lingering hamstring injury is such a concern. If Fitzpatrick goes down, that leaves reserve (and Dime safety) Hootie Jones as his replacement. While Jones is a headhunter who is great as the third safety, he has definite liabilities in coverage (as demonstrated last week against MSU), and a greater reliance on him provides offense with a weak link they can target in the passing game.

To build further on the critical nature of a Fitzpatrick injury for the Tide defense, one must understand that opposing offenses scheme around a player of Fitzpatrick’s caliber. Harrison has had a great year as an opportunistic turnover machine, largely because he is the lesser of two evils in pass defense. Harrison gets (and to his credit, creates) more opportunities to make big plays simply because offenses want to steer clear of Fitzpatrick. Without Fitzpatrick in the line-up, one could postulate that Harrison’s numbers wouldn’t be nearly as impressive, and some of his flaws in coverage would be exploited more often.

Even with Jones and Harrison locking down the starting roles in the absence of Fitzpatrick, all hope wouldn’t be lost under normal circumstances. But given the attrition at linebacker, the lack of a dominant pass rush, and relatively thin, inexperienced depth behind Jones and Harrison, the Tide would find itself in an unusually perilous situation if further injuries to their star safety occurred. Bama would have to rely on the relatively green sophomore Deionte Thompson and true freshman Xavier McKinney in the second string…and that’s as far as the depth goes.

It’s scary to think of what the loss of Fitzpatrick could mean for the Bama secondary and the defense as a whole. He is a key player on the field, and his leadership is absolutely critical to Bama’s defensive success. While injuries can’t be avoided, this is one case in which Tide faithful better hope for the best.

The Corners: Alabama’s Anthony Averett is having another solid year, but the diminished pass rush this season has led to exposure of some of his struggles in coverage. Offenses still shy away from him and towards Levi Wallace, but when teams have decided to challenge him, he’s had a few blown coverages. Again, the corners benefit from having Minkah in the line-up, as Fitzpatrick brings corner skills to the safety position. Averett is solid, and Wallace has been pretty good this year as well. But Wallace does have a few gaps in his game that a heady offensive coordinator will attack, as he’s not the fastest corner on the roster, and he tends to bite on receiver route-candy, thus falling out of phase at times. Wallace has impressed with his steady climb up the defensive back ladder, but if teams must choose between targeting him or Averett, they’ll pick on him every time.

Again, the Tide went into the season with a moderate depth issue at corner, as behind Averett, there were no presumed second starters. Trevon Diggs got his chance and is now entrenched behind Wallace, but outside of that trio, Bama is relying on the volatile Tony Brown and little-used sophomore Shyheim Carter at both corner slots. Again, if the Tide comes up against a pass-happy team in the playoffs, or if Alabama has ANY injuries at corner, this troubling depth issue could reveal itself.

The Defensive Line: The Tide’s starters on the defensive line were never questioned heading into the season. Da’Ron Payne is a proven (and dominant) commodity at nose, and Da’Shawn Hand was supposed to have a breakout season after sitting behind Bama greats the last few years. There was lots of hype around man-mountain Raekwon Davis as well, much of it justified if the early returns are to be believed in his first year as a starter.

But behind that starting trio, the same depth issues that haunt the secondary linger around the big men up front. Hand has failed to live up to the projections thanks to a series of unfortunate, nagging injuries. JuCo transfer Isaiah Buggs has been a nice addition to a Tide front in need of big, aggressive pass rushers. Josh Frazier is a gritty role-player behind Payne. Johnny Dwight, Quinnen Williams, and freshman LaBryan Ray have all seen playing time, but none has been dominant enough to frighten offenses the way Bama’s rolling wave of D linemen has for the last two years.

While Bama’s defensive line would be the envy of countless Power 5 teams, for the Tide this year, they’ve been somewhat underwhelming. There’s not much else Payne can do, as he excels as the Tide’s nose. Davis has had flashes of brilliance and has been the most effective pass rusher among D linemen. Outside of those two, only Buggs and Frazier have been dependable and aggressive enough to impress most casual observers. Alabama needs a more formidable pass rush to be successful through the playoffs, if they’re fortunate enough to make it that far. True, in the Saban defense, some of that responsibility falls on the outside linebackers. But the line should be the point of the spear, and they’ve not matched the performances of the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Bama front. While that may be too lofty an expectation to hold for a unit featuring so many new faces, the fact remains that while the Tide has 30 sacks on the season (good for 13th nationally), those sacks are not coming from defensive linemen. Of the defensive linemen in the two deep, only Davis (with 6.5 sacks) has more than two sacks on the season.

Outside of the pass rush, penetration for the defensive line has been an issue overall. The Tide ranks 41st in tackles for loss, which is acceptable but far from intimidating. Against the running game, the line at times has struggled to gain penetration, and last week versus Mississippi State was a perfect example of that.

With a depleted linebacking corps and a secondary lacking in experienced depth, it is critical that Alabama gets more out of its defensive line. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt does a great job of getting manufactured pressure from many positions, but at the end of the day, he needs for the big men up front to provide their fair share as well. If Alabama can ratchet up the heat from the big men, it will mitigate the injury disaster at linebacker, and help the secondary remain viable by shortening the time they are asked to cover the talented receivers they’ll face in every game moving forward.

Linebackers: What started out as the strength of the Bama defense this year has been rendered in ashes as the season progressed. Bama saw injuries to four contributors at linebacker (Christian Miller, Terrell Lewis, Anfernee Jennings, and Jamey Mosley) in Week 1. Miller and Lewis were lost for the season (or until the playoffs, depending on who you believe), and the rest have returned in some form or fashion. However, the injuries continued, with a beat-up Rashaan Evans playing at less than full strength, and Shaun Dion Hamilton once again missing the remainder of the season following a knee injury.

Keith Holcombe and Dylan Moses saw time after the Hamilton injury, and the report card has been a mixed bag. Neither player has been dominant, and both have displayed the foibles of new players cast into unfamiliar territory as starters in a complex defensive system. That said, neither player has been an unmitigated disaster, either, and despite the steep learning trajectory, the ability of those two players will help shape the remainder of the season for the Tide defense (barring further injuries). If Moses and Holcombe can become a workable tandem in the middle alongside a healthy Evans, the starting rotation should be decent enough to restore Bama as a run-stuffing monster of a defense. If not, however, Alabama doesn’t have much to fall back on, and the Tide’s usual strength on defense will become a liability. That’s to say nothing of the depth, which at this point, is paper thin.

At the outside linebacker position, the ship has largely been righted despite the loss of the explosive Miller and Lewis. Mosley is back, and Jennings has been ferocious. But again, depth is an issue. Behind Jennings is true freshman Chris Allen, and the depth at Sam includes rangy newcomer Mekhi Brown and Josh McMillon, two players who were touted come out of high school who have been awaiting their turn to contribute. They will likely get their chance in the coming weeks, and their play remains a largely unknown commodity. At this point in the season, unknowns are frightening, and the lack of role players in the linebacking corps should be cause for concern with the Tide’s toughest games of the season still on the agenda.

To-Do List

Despite the personnel issues, Alabama has a few things that need to improve moving forward to reestablish the Tide defense as the most fearsome in the land and support an explosive offense through the most difficult stanza of the season. They are:

  • Get pressure from the traditional points: Alabama needs to get more pressure – not necessarily sacks, but disruptive, affecting-the-passer-type pressure – from the defensive linemen. Davis has been a monster this year, and Alabama will need him to further pick up the pace as it faces teams with more developed passing attacks in the playoffs. Hand will need to stay healthy, and he needs to do the things that his five-star rating as a high school senior indicated he can do. Buggs needs to make his impact and play a more consistently aggressive style (one criticism against him is that he sometimes takes a play or two off). Williams needs to begin to make some of the impact that former Tide great Jon Allen predicted for him last season. If Alabama can increase the pressure up front, if the D linemen can soak up those double teams, it will make the job of the Jack and Sam backers that much easier.

  • Become a stone wall against the run: Of Bama’s next three opponents (if the Tide makes it to the SECCG), two of them have high-powered rushing attacks (no disrespect to Mercer). The Tide has given up 151 yards (LSU) and 172 yards (MSU) on the ground the previous two weeks, and that’s after averaging 66 yards per game and leading the nation in rush defense for most of the season. Alabama gave up three rushing touchdowns to Mississippi State last week, something that hasn’t happened since the 2006 season (predating Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa). For context, consider that Bama’s 2011 defense gave up three rushing touchdowns all season…let that sink in.

Many want to blame it on the new faces in the middle following the injury to Hamilton, but it also has something to do with the opponent. As Saban pointed out this week, the last two weeks were also the product of two offenses that are run-first units that keep the ball on the ground more than other opponents. Despite the overall high total of rushing yards, LSU and State still averaged under 3.7 yards per carry on runs, which is not that far off the Tide’s usual standard. Take out Darrell Williams 54-yard scamper for LSU, and the Tigers averaged 2.3 yards per carry.

That said, Alabama will need its young backers, and the D linemen in front of them, to lock up opposing running games once again. The issues with run defense the last two weeks have largely been due to younger, inexperienced players filling the wrong gaps, falling out of position, or exhibiting poor tackling fundamentals in the heat of battle. Those are all fixable issues, and likely, those issues will be repaired as the payers in question get more repetition (and the confidence that comes along with it). This week’s game will give them just that: even if the actual improvement is meager, the confidence gained against Mercer by guys like Holcombe and Moses will bolster them headed into what will be a daunting setting in Auburn next week. While the physical game is huge, the mental game presents the biggest challenge for young players, and Mercer will be a training wheels match-up that can help those newcomers feel better about their roles and how they should execute them.

When offenses have free rein to run and pass, Alabama’s defensive depth issues become more of a liability. If Alabama can keep the opposing offense in tight quarters and fight them in a phone booth, to use the parlance of pugilism, then they effectively cut that offense off from its usual options. With Fitzpatrick dinged up and Evans showing signs of wear, it will be up to the remainder of the defensive front seven to protect the secondary and force offenses into one-dimensional play-calling.

  • Limit first-downs: Given the depth issues, the Tide needs to find a way to limit the first-downs that offenses generate. Last week against the Bulldogs, Bama gave up eight first-downs on 15 attempts, providing MSU with additional chances to control the clock while keeping the defense on the field for an extended period. Alabama must find a way to win time of possession once again (it didn’t do that against LSU or MSU) to limit the exposure of its dwindling defensive roster. For Alabama, winning third-downs has typically meant winning first-down. Alabama puts teams in a hole early, setting the stage for limited play-calling options that result in a lower rate of success on second- and third-downs.

The Tide needs to refocus on first-down plays to make sure that the job is easier on second- and third-downs, thus keeping the limited defensive roster fresh and shrinking the number of opportunities opposing offenses get for explosive plays. Doing so also has the byproduct of exposing opposing defenses to more of the buzz saw that is the Alabama offense, and that can never be a bad thing.

  • Depth and experience: With all the depth issues (and the injuries to key players), the Bama coaching staff would do well to sit the majority of the usual defensive starters against Mercer to let them heal while giving some of the unseasoned depth much needed reps. Alabama has no shortage of talent on the roster. What it lacks, however, is experience. An opponent like Mercer is tailor-made for a live-fire drill, and guys like Deionte Thompson, Shyheim Carter, Chris Allen, and Xavier McKinney can benefit greatly from additional reps against a team that has no chance of challenging Bama’s supremacy. One can’t manufacture depth or experience on the short term, but Bama can play who they have and set the stage for a more comfortable transition to a larger role if the future warrants it. There’s a real possibility these relative unknowns will be needed against Auburn, and if Bama wins that game and proceeds to the SEC Championship Game and beyond, those new players will need every snap they can get.

Let’s face it: there’s nothing Alabama can do about the injuries at this point in the season. No use crying over spilt milk. The hand has been dealt, and the Tide coaching staff must play it through to the end. Alabama’s defense, especially the linebacking corps, will be a patchwork of dinged veterans and healthy newcomers for the remainder of the season…it’s as simple as that.

What the staff can do is put the defense in a position to be successful by managing opponent time of possession, being aggressive on first-down to get offenses behind the chains early, and refocus attention on the pass rush and run defense. The secondary will be fine if the previous two houses are swept clean. Because of the need to keep the defense fresh and off the field as much as possible, a more aggressive tack, particularly on early downs, can be expected. As was demonstrated last week against MSU, when the Tide plays conservatively and falls out of attack mode, it is not at its most effective.

The road to the championship round has become imminently more difficult thanks to the attrition across the defense, and it’s clear that Alabama won’t be able to lean on the defense as it has in years past. Therefore, it is up to the coaches, and the offense, to shield the unit from exposure against the high-powered opponents of the future. The Tide defense can’t soak up a broadside from an opposing offense as well as it once could, so they’ll need a little help from their friends to be sure.

(As usual, feel free to let flow with your own healthy dose of piss-and-vinegar in the comments section below. Com’on, you know you have an opinion (and it’s probably wrong), so why not air it out here? No shots below the belt, no stabbing, and no ridiculing anyone’s mother…let the games begin.)