Unlike the offense, grading a defense is a bit more difficult because of the nature of the scheme. Very often, a player’s job is to simply hold the point of attack to let someone else make a play. Thus, a guy who doesn’t show up on many stat sheets, like Tim Smith, could have an outstanding game on Saturday, and the results will only be revealed based on the aggregate results — or sometimes the numbers posted by his teammates.
So, I think we’re going to grade this across a few broad general categories, and then point out some strengths and deficits. Because when it has been bad, it has not only been very bad, it’s immediately noticeable who’s fault it has been too. Rarely has the Tide’s issue been in scheming, but in execution — and, dare we say, perhaps even talent?
Overall Defensive Output
Alabama’s strength of schedule this season is 30th overall — last year at this time, it was 56th. The quality and calibre of opponent that the Tide has faced has simply been better on a per-game basis than in 2021. So, numbers that are even comparable to last are by definition, almost an improvement.
Here’s what Alabama has done this year:
- Alabama is 10th in total defense — 295 YPG, which is down slightly from last year’s 304 YPG.
- Alabama is 7th in yard per-play defense, and has shaved a full half-yard per play off its output (4.27 from 4.77).
- Drive efficiency defense has dipped slightly, from 7th to 11th.
- Play efficiency defense is way down to 31st; last year, Alabama was 1st in the nation. This seems to be the effect of three things: better opponents overall, one quarter in Fayetteville, and the UT game. Removing the Vawls, Alabama rises back up to 6th in play-efficiency defense. But, you’re only as good as the aggregate of your schedule, and as the W/L record shows, that Tennessee game did happen.
- Scoring defense has improved from 20.4 PPG to 16.6 PPG overall. But, against quality teams at or above .500, the Tide defense has gotten worse in allowing scoring: up to 25.8 PPG from last year’s 23.4 PPG.
- Though, one would expect to see that given that the No. 3 (Tenn.), No. 6 (Texas), No. 8 (Miss. State) and No. 16 (Arkansas) efficiency offenses have appeared on the schedule already. Alabama’s defense did not face anything remotely that tough last season until the playoffs, when it would square off against the nation’s No. 2 efficiency offense, Georgia, and it would allow just about the same 26 PPG in two meetings. The previous best offenses that the Tide had played until then were Ole Miss (No. 10), No. 18 (Arkansas), and Mississippi State (No. 9): In those three meetings, Alabama surrendered 22 PPG.
TL/DR? Far better offenses on the schedule this year, and Alabama is allowing about a FG more per contest to them.
- If you want to do damage to the Tide, you better do it in the early downs. Somehow, Alabama has managed to improve on its ridiculous third down defense last year that was 7th in the country (32%). This year, ‘Bama is allowing just 26% conversions on 3rd downs — and please see above: against much better quality of play too. Alabama has allowed just 33 conversions on 3rd down through 8 games.
- Red zone scoring has greatly improved too, from allowing opponents points on 85% of their trips to just 71% so far. And TD percentage allowed has fallen from 55% to 50%.
- The kill shots that gave Alabama fits have been reduced as well; last season, opponents averaged a play over 10 yards on 12% of their snaps (64th nationally); that has been reduced to just 10% this year (22nd overall). But it is really showing up in huge gainers that have gone for 20+ yards. Last year at this time, Alabama had allowed 32 gains over 25 yards. This season, just 17.
- Even FG defense is better! This year, for the first time in three seasons, an opponent has missed a kick against the Tide. Twice, actually! (83.3%). Baby steps, baby steps. And teams are having to attempt them about 50% more often too — 1.5 PG, up from 1.1.
The Will Anderson Effect
Will Anderson is the best player in the country — I’m not backing down from that statement — though it may not be reflected this year with the gaudy stats he produced during his Fr. and So. seasons. After two dozen games, teams have finally wised up: If there is any one player on the Tide’s roster you must negate, it is Anderson. So, we have seen countless quick offenses and short drops in 2022, all designed to get the ball out fast, and away from his side of the play.
- It’s not just Anderson alone: teams are trying to get the ball out a lot faster to negate the entire pass rushing package for the Tide. They’re having some success, at least in the prevention of negative plays. However, opposing offenses are having less success where it matters most: making 3rd down conversions to keep the chains moving and then hitting paydirt in the endzone.
- Sacks have gone down this year, from 3.8 per game to 2.9 per contest. Besides facing better quarterbacking as a whole, teams are scheming around Will Anderson to the best of their ability: they are using countless 1- and 3-step drops (even 0-step drops) to negate the most dangerous player on the field — and even then, it has not fully worked out. Alabama is still 22nd in the country in sacks generated.
- And because Alabama is facing better offenses, its TFL have dropped on the year as well — from 8.08 per game (3rd in the country) to 6.5 per game (32nd). There’s not much you can do about playing better opponents.
- All of that is being reflected in forcing turnovers too. Alabama has not forced many under Golding generally, it being a more reactive scheme. But last year Alabama had netted 22 TOs. This year, through 8 games, Alabama has forced just a miserly six turnovers all year. Somehow, one of the most talented teams in the country is sitting at -4 in turnover margin. I couldn’t even begin to count how many dropped interceptions this team has...
- QB Hurries are up 35%, from 3 per game to 4 — this pressure is still there, but teams are unloading faster and it’s not registering as a sack. This is, as Nick Saban often remarks, “affecting the passer.” Will Anderson in particular has been a monster. Last season, he registered 10 QBH through 15 games. This year after 8 games, he’s almost reached that same number: 9 QBH.
- Dallas Turner has seen a similar drop in stat sheet production, and at about the same clip as Will. But teams have picked their poison: they’d rather punt than try to hold on to the ball and win one-on-one matchups vs. Alabama’s linebacking corps.
- Despite the drop in production here, I’m hardly worried about their raw numbers. They’re doing their jobs and negatively affecting offenses.
Teams are running more at Alabama this year, and the Tide has gone from surrendering 61 RYPG to 93 RYPG. That is definitely one of the artifacts of better competition. Bad teams simply don’t get to run the ball often. And, when Alabama has had a lead, they have not allowed many teams to do so either. Overall, it’s almost identical. Last year, Alabama allowed 2.66 YPC on the ground. This year? 2.71.
What is troubling, is that among the quality teams Alabama has faced, those opponents have been able to have success. Four opponents who are / were ranked, have rushed for almost 128 YPG on the Tide, 3.86 YPC, and Alabama has already surrendered half a dozen scores on the ground. Last season against good teams, Alabama’s front was an immovable rock: Teams with winning records still didn’t move the ball on Alabama: Just 84 YPG, 2.86 YPC, and a total of 5 rushing scores allowed all season.
Plainly, the ‘Bama front has taken a step back with the loss of Phil Mathis. But the sky isn’t falling, though. Last year, when adjusting for opponent, the Tide’s rush efficiency defense was the 1st in the nation. This year it’s plummeted...all the way to 2nd.
One does have to be troubled though that quality opponents seeming have no fear of the Alabama interior line and are testing it far more often.
Alabama’s pass defense was a question mark entering this season. Teams rarely lose both starting corners and improve. But somehow, Alabama has gotten better in quite a few aspects back there. Yet, if there were any one phase of the Tide defense you could point to as being the least consistent, it is this one.
- Teams are gaining just about 200 YPG through the air, an improvement of 10% over last season’s 219-per (from 50th to 34th).
- Alabama has vaulted from a woeful 79th in QBR allowed (136+) all the way to 14th (109).
- Last season, the Tide surrendered 25 passing scores in 15 games. This year, Alabama has surrendered just 8 in 8 games, and 5 came in one contest. In the other seven games, Alabama has allowed just 2 TDs and have forced 3 INTS
- Teams have seen a 16% drop in per-pass production, from 6.8 to 5.9 yards per attempt.
- Completion percentage is up — way up. Alabama surrendered just 53% last year, and this year is sitting right at 63%. However, as we wrote earlier this year, much of that is by design — the Tide is making teams drive the whole field, preventing big plays over their heads, keeping the ball in front of the young corners, and making teams earn it with long drives. The percentage play is that offenses will not be able to execute as effectively, will be forced to make a play in the kicking game or punt the ball, or otherwise give the Tide’s offense the ball back.
- Each week, teams are trying to pick on one particular defender to isolate. A few weeks ago, it was freshman Terrion Arnold, a test he passed with mostly flying colors. Tennessee made Hellams the absolute goat of the Tide’s loss in Knoxville. And this week, it was trying to isolate Eli Ricks — another gamble that failed.
- Why are teams doing this? Because Kool Aid McKinstry, for all of his penalties, has turned one side of the field into a no-fly zone. He leads the Tide with an ungodly 11 pass break ups in just 8 contests — last season, no one had more than 9 all year. That is good for 5th in the nation. He’s second in the country in passes defended (11). And overall, is 7th in the nation in plays-per-game made on the ball at 1.38. He’s dropped a few interceptions in his time at the Capstone, sure, but in terms of pure coverage, he’s every bit as good as advertised.
- Don’t expect to see this general trend change either, as teams stay away from Kool Aid even as they move their bigger bodies on Arnold and put their faster guys on Hellams. It would be very nice if Ricks could emerge as a solid DB2, so Arnold could move to his accustomed safety position and pick up the slack that Hellams cannot. Unless Hellams drastically improves, or the Tide schemes him some help, I just don’t see any way that he will not continue to be isolated on and victimized by elite wideouts — a tall task for even elite free safeties.
- The net result of conceding the underneath, and better offenses isolating a rotating cast of weekly victims, is that pass efficiency will necessarily drop. At the end of last season (including playoffs), Alabama finished with the 5th-ranked opponent-adjusted pass efficiency defense. This season it has cratered to a pitiful...11th — hardly Big 12 stuff.
TL; DR Bottom Line:
Old school football fans, and Alabama fans in particular have had a very hard time adjusting to a new paradigm of offensive football. The simple fact is that holding opponents under 200 YPG, long the Saban Murderball Standard, simply is untenable in the contemporary game. Holding them under 20 points is. Having success on third downs is. Forcing teams to attempt field goals instead of touchdowns is. Tightening up the red zone is. Making teams earn it instead of cashing in on cheap big plays is.
But, in the modern game, with rules and recruiting and coaching emphasis on skills players, the defense is always going to have its work cut out for it. If there is so much as a single weakness on the opposing roster, a quality offensive coordinator will spot it and gnaw on it like a cur with his bone. Ten guys can be outstanding, and one weak link can get you beat.
That is the new reality. You can’t hide deficiencies any longer. And if one player has an off-day, if one coach is having an off-night, then you will get beat.
There are some issues on this defense, for sure. Some of them have been talent. Hellams for instance simply is not good enough back there for the role he has been assigned. And many of those corners haven’t rounded into form yet. The defensive line will need to tighten up significantly too down the stretch — LSU, Auburn, and Ole Miss love to pound the rock. But you can also credit a lot of Alabama’s woes (real and imagined) to far superior talent and coaching by an opposing schedule that has been significantly better than in 2021.
When it has been scorched, Alabama has really been scorched, though. And I think it is those misplays in the secondary, the bad matchups that Alabama finds itself in, etc. that really obscure a mostly-excellent job that the Alabama D has done this year.
It is one of just three teams in the country with a Top 10 offense and a Top 10 defense for a reason, but the lapses have been memorable and have contributed to one Alabama loss already.
Still, the defense is operating as it was intended to: make teams drive the field and work for it, reduce big plays, reduce scoring. Want to know what an elite defense looks like? Alabama.
In that respect, and against better opposition, we can say that the mission has mostly been accomplished. So, stop whining.
Grade the Alabama defense through the halfway point of the 2022 season
This poll is closed
Lower (explain yourself).