Your eyes didn’t lie to you, and the statistics were not illusory.
The 2021 Alabama defensive line was outstanding. In fact, it was the most productive one since that generational 2016 Crimson Tide defense. But, where that team was led by a superstar, the 2021 iteration was one of veteran talent, improved second-year starters, and a quiet leader finally emerging. The end result was an-across-the-board group as good as any outside of Athens — and in some ways, even better.
Take a look at the splits here.
How do you top last season’s 3.13 YPC? Easily, as it happened.
Alabama surrendered an absurd 2.66 YPC this year, and it wasn’t just production against scrubs. Against teams with winning records? 3.15. In SEC play? 2.95. In the SECCG and Playoffs? 3.76. Even in losses, it was very tough to move the ball on the ground. Alabama surrendered just 4.67 YPC in Georgia II, and before Mathis’s injury, UGA was averaging closer to 3.25 YPC. And bad teams had no shot. Teams at or below .500 average hit just 1.96 YPC.
In fact, only twice did Alabama surrender 4 or more YPC — at Florida, and in the CFPCG. Not even the ground-first Aggies came near 4 YPC in their upset win.
On a very deep team that spread the love around, stats-wise, fully half of the top 10 ‘Bama defenders generating TFL were on the defensive front. 35.5 of Alabama’s nation-leading 121 TFL came up front. Given that the down linemen in Alabama’s system are meant to occupy more than make one-on-one plays, that’s jaw-dropping productivity. It’s also the most TFL by a starting front since — yep — the 2016 team.
For the season, Alabama’s rushing defense would finish second in opponent-adjusted efficiency, behind only Georgia, and it led the country in TFL.
To that run stuffing excellence, add an improved pass rush from the front four. Alabama led the nation in sacks in 2021, and that was not just the trio of Harris / Anderson / Turner. The defensive line was a large part of that reason. The Tide’s front was responsible for 16 of Alabama’s national-best 57 sacks. For a scheme where the line is meant to occupy space and control gaps for the linebackers, they camped out in opponents’ backfields. You have to go back to the Quinnen Williams / Isaiah Buggs / Raekwon Davis line to find one where the front accounted for such a high proportion of sullied quarterbacks.
While the Alabama defense was “only” 5th in opponent-adjusted pass efficiency, that cannot be laid at the door of the front. Alabama led the nation in overall havoc rate, was 1st on a per-play defensive efficiency basis, 3rd in per-play rush efficiency, and 6th in per-play pass efficiency defense. They were also second in the country in generating negative plays — 30.5% of the time, opponents lost yards, or were stopped for no gain.
So, how did the same players on last year’s unit go from very good to great? It began with big Phidarian Mathis finally having his breakout season. For the better part of three years, we have all pegged him as the guy to watch, the player who was going to elevate his game to stardom.
It may have took longer than expected, but in his Senior Season, patience paid off for Phil. Just your everyday, four-year-long, overnight sensation. Phil was stellar: He was second on the team in sacks (9.), he bumped his overall tackles from 31 to 53 — and his solo stops from 9 to 20. And he was doing this at the nose. When Phil went down after another questionable hit from the Dawgs then, and only then, did the ground game open up. That’s how much he meant and why replacing him is one of the most critical concerns for 2022.
Phil’s emergence paid off for other guys on the line too: LaBryan Ray finally became the solid strong-side DE we expected from him. Byron Young and DJ Dale’s production soared. Even guys like Jamil Burroughs benefited from his play to become a disruptive, run-stuffing, QB-eating machine.
So, while 2021 may have had some problems, this wasn’t one of them.
FINAL GRADE: A+
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