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Monday Morning Coordinator: Does Nick Saban need to change the Alabama Football Defensive Scheme?

You’ve aired your grievances. Now test your chops at recommending a solution.

Alabama vs Ole Miss Photo by Kent Gidley/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

Alabama just gave up arguably the worst defensive performance not just in Nick Saban’s tenure, but in program history. Sure, the offense won the game anyway, but it did require almost absolute perfection from them.

Many fanbases don’t understand how we Alabama fans can be mostly upset after a big win and a record-setting offensive performance. But for us, it’s not about this specific game. It’s about the national championship. We intuitively know that, as good as the Tide offense is, perfect is not sustainable, particularly as teams like Georgia, Clemson, and Ohio State loom as potential offseason opponents. As such, a defense that allowed an unranked Ole Miss team an 80% drive conversion rate (excluding end-of-half possessions) is, frankly, unacceptable.

If it were just a one-off game, we could excuse it as just Oxford and Lane Kiffin shenanigans packed into one stupid game. Unfortunately, it’s not been. The week before, an absolutely putrid Texas A&M offense lit up the Alabama defense with tight end passes up the seams and running backs out of the backfield.

It didn’t start this year, though.

The 2018 defense was statistically Alabama’s worst since Nick Saban’s first season in 2007.

• It finished 16th nationally in total defense. Only once since 2007 had Alabama finished outside of the top 10, No. 13 in 2014.

• Alabama was 12th in scoring defense, giving up an average of 18.1 points. It actually gave up more in 2014, 18.4, but finished sixth.

• The Crimson Tide was 23rd in passing-efficiency defense, a little better than 2014, but the previous year it had been second.

• The rushing defense is where Alabama took the biggest step back, finishing 19th in the nation. The three previous years it was No. 1.

Alabama’s 2018 defense was the worst of Saban’s career in most metrics. Most fans used LSU transfer cornerback Saivion Smith as the scapegoat (and it definitely wasn’t undeserved) for the Tide’s many defensive issues that were mostly covered up by Tua Tagovailoa and the dynamic offense... until they weren’t in a nightmarish hellscape of a beatdown at Clemson’s hands in the National Championship.

Alabama canned first-year defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi in favor of Pete Golding, and most expected a rebound in 2019.

Well, that didn’t materialize and Alabama’s 2019 defense was even worse than 2018 in pretty much every category. A trio of secondary players in Trevon Diggs, Pat Surtain II, and Xavier McKinney did keep the Tide defense an elite unit in not giving up big passes over the top, but other than that, they were decidedly average in most every category.

Except one. They were ranked 104th in the nation in getting stuffs (stopping runs at or behind the line of scrimmage). The defensive line was one of the worst in the nation at stopping runs, and they were nearly useless rushing the passer. Couple that with a linebacker group decimated by injury, and a potentially great secondary (two second round picks and a guy likely to be a first round pick in the next draft) for the Tide became an afterthought as offenses moved the ball seemingly at will.

The injuries, though. Alabama lost both expected starting middle linebackers before the season started, one of which was a Butkus award finalist the year before. Of the two outside linebackers, both had suffered multiple season-ending injuries in the past, with Terrell Lewis clearly limited for much of the season.

Former 5-star recruit and experience junior LaBryan Ray on the defensive line messed up his foot at the start of the season and missed the whole year, and the true freshman nose tackle that won the job in camp, D.J. Dale, messed up his knee early on and it got progressively worse as he limped through games and missed the last few of the season.

All of that led to 5/8 regular roles of the front seven being manned by true freshmen.

So, fair is fair. The front seven struggled, but the secondary showed a lot of promise. Even if that defense cost Alabama two losses by being unable to get a stop against LSU and Auburn even while the Tide offense hung nearly 50 points in both games, many were still willing to hold hope that Pete Golding would turn things around in 2020 with a healthy roster.

And, well, here we are.

Had the Ole Miss offense started every single drive without a defense to oppose them, they would have gained 777 yards. To their credit, Alabama held them to only 636 yards. 141 yards better than playing against air is something, I guess.

There’s been a lot of arguing between fans over what the issue is. Injuries aren’t to blame this year. And it’s not like Alabama isn’t recruiting at a high level (though the effects of the 2018 class being unable to secure much front seven talent are definitely real).

Is Pete Golding just a horrible defensive coordinator? If so, why has Saban kept him around for a 3rd season when he’s shown to be happy to kick coaches who underperform to the curb without much hesitation?

The defensive issues are so numerous you can’t even point to one issue. The missed tackles are a major problem, and one that’s independent of defensive scheme. The pass rush has gotten almost no pressure since the season opener against an overmatched Missouri, and the few times they have, they missed the sack and gave up a big pass anyway.

The run defense got absolutely shredded up the middle and on the edges.

And the safeties. Man. How many times can a tight end run absolutely wide open down the center of the field as the safety runs over to double cover a wide receiver already locked down by the only two consistent performers on this defense, cornerbacks Surtain and Josh Jobe?

The defense has been in steady decline for three seasons now, and Saturday’s game was the nail in the coffin, the straw on the camel’s back, whatever other idiom you like, etc. The Alabama fan base broke.

If we can’t blame injuries, can’t blame bad luck, can’t blame one specific position (though the safeties are making a case), and the defensive coordinator is, by all accounts, running the scheme of the defensive mastermind of a head coach.... What can we blame?

Is Nick Saban’s defensive scheme... The one that was the envy of college football from 2008 to 2017... The one that transformed and adapted in 2014-2015 while retaining its core tenants to combat the HUNH spread offenses... Becoming a liability in the current metagame of college football?

After the game, Saban sounded lost and seemed to say that he doesn’t see a way to possibly play good defense against the modern offense.

That’s not encouraging.

In a lot of ways. he’s right. If an offense can correctly operate an RPO while continually mixing in varying forms of play action, then there truly isn’t a way to stop a modern offense. Particularly with the college football rules having such loose blocking downfield and tight cornerback press coverage rules compared to the NFL.

But what if stopping the opposing offense isn’t the answer? With Alabama’s offense, they’re going to score... A lot. It’s not like the Tide is refusing to participate in those same rules that benefit offenses. They take advantage of them, and they do it with a full roster of 5-star athletes.

What if, instead of trying to keep the opposing offense contained in all facets (and subsequently failing to do), Alabama went full-chaos mode. Blitz the house and do it often. Give every defender man-to-man coverage, have them press the receivers at the line of scrimmage, and drop the two-gap scheme for defensive linemen in favor of letting them just attack.

I know Saban still has nightmares of the 2013 and 2014 defenses that gave up about a million 50-50 deep balls down the sideline, but Pat Surtain and Josh Jobe are no Brad Sylve and Jon Fulton. Play aggressive. Sure, the opponent might hit 50% of their deep shots against man coverage and Alabama gives up some big plays. But on the other 50% Alabama is getting a sack. And sacks turn into fumbles and interceptions.

It’s not like playing to not get beat over the top or give up big rushes due to open gaps is working anyway. The opponents are still scoring. So why not go full aggression? Let the defense attack. Use their 5-star athleticism and disrupt. College offenses will make mistakes with that kind of pressure on them, even if it’s leaving open holes on the back end of the defense. How many SEC QBs will consistently be able to hit those deep balls against man coverage with 6 guys blitzing him?

I’ll take 50% over 80% any day.

All that said, regardless of scheme, Golding clearly isn’t doing a good job of teaching tackling fundamentals after 2.33 seasons, so that in itself is reason for looking for a replacement.

And I hear a certain NFL head coach with a powerful resume of being an elite defensive line coach and defensive coordinator who failed to keep a program together after a horrific Super Bowl loss (and how many coaches in the history of the NFL have?) is about to become available.

So, what are your thoughts? Am I totally off-base here? If you had the decision making power to do so, what do you think would be the best approach for Alabama to fix the 3-season slide on defense?

Just saying #FireGolding isn’t enough.

Who knows, maybe one of you actually has a good idea and one of Saban’s many analysts happens upon it on this very blog.