Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A personnel unit with a lot of native talent makes as many big plays as they do mistakes; winds up actually being structurally weaker than we thought; and is ultimately undone in the end by injuries and lack of developed depth.
Wide receivers? Tight Ends? Offensive line? Special Teams?
Alas, today that familiar story belongs to the secondary, a group that had as many highlights for opponents as they did for their own Combine tape; a DB corps that had many structural weaknesses disguised by Alabama’s record, pass rushing, and run-stuffing. This was truly an instance where you had to see it with your own eyes to figure out what was going on.
So, let’s start with the good.
Alabama’s DBs played in position most of the year and were generally in phase with their man; there weren’t a litany of opponents scampering freely through the secondary like gazelle in the Garden of Eden. Unlike 2019, the DBs were very ball aware too — players weren’t getting their heads around late on passes, and giving up easy conversions (that way, at least). And there were actually some good (or at least decent) things to like out there.
- Alabama was T-14th in the country in INTs forced, picking off 15 in 15 contests.
- Alabama was a respectable 29th in YPA, allowing 6.9 per toss.
- The secondary were very good tacklers, as well. In 15 games, only 21 missed tackles were attributed to them, and 11 of those came on running plays. Given last year’s repeated whiffing, that was a tremendous improvement.
- In opponent-adjusted efficiency, Alabama’s secondary looked a little better. It was 53rd overall, which was a marked step up from the raw numbers at least.
- 3rd down completion percentage was very good, particularly on shorter passes where the positional play was able to be exploited.
- Coverage at linebacker was a marked night-and-day difference from last season. Henry To’oto’o has completely changed the landscape in this aspect of the pass defense.
- Jordan Battle once again was an absolute rock. He is going to be missed far more than we realize.
- Daniel Wright finally found a position that suits him: close to the line, in the box, where his physicality, tackling ability, and playmaking are best suited. DW3’s main problems arise when he is asked to cover one-on-one down the field. He does lose position beyond 10-15 yards. But, playing him off the line made him a better defender.
Take your pick:
- Is it the 63rd-ranked pass efficiency defense?
- Or the fact that Alabama surrendered 25 passing scores — the 8th worst in the country?
- Was it the fact that only 9 teams allowed more yards than Alabama through the air?
- How about DBs surrendering the 5th most completions of anyone in the country?
- That Alabama was 50th in yards per game allowed?
- In games against ranked opponents, Alabama had just two INTs — and they both came in one contest. The rest of those tilts, they surrendered 10 passing scores. A 5:1 TD/INT ratio is not winning football.
- Perhaps it’s that Alabama was 90th in the country in completion percentage allowed, with their opponents completing nearly 64% of their passes?
- How about the fact that when teams wanted to pass, they basically could. Here’s the total list of opponents who had a worse completion percentage against the Tide than their average: Mercer, Southern Miss, LSU, Mississippi State, Cincinnati, Georgia I (barely) — if you’re keeping track at home: that’s a team with a lame duck coach who got fired, one of the worst teams in the nation, a Mike Leach clown offense, an FCS opponent, an outmatched G5 team, and a Georgia squad which barely completed 64% of its passes on the year (even then, Stetson Bennet would wind up with a 5:2 ratio in two games,and a very healthy 13 yards per completion). Every one else fared better, and in some cases much, much better.
- And, speaking of the mediocre failson in Athens, he literally won a national championship by throwing up 50-50 balls and counting on Alabama’s inability to make plays on the ball.
This is painful, but you must watch it, because most of the failings of the Alabama defensive backs will become manifest in one brief clip:
So, what happened? Why did the secondary look like Ghost of 2014?
In some fairness, part of the workload the defensive backs faced (and the raw stats allowed), arose because the front seven was that good at stopping the run. Only Georgia fielded a more ferocious group of run-stuffers (data-wise, and with your eyeballs). Against the Tide, teams had a negative or no-gain play almost 34% of the time. When you are in a 2nd-and-11 hole, or starting down 3rd-and-10, you’re going to throw obviously. Thus, one unit became a victim of its the success of another phase of the game, to some degree.
But that half-hearted defense ignores the three glaring issues that were responsible for most of the Tide’s unsteady output this season.
Malachi Moore’s Sophomore Slump. Look, there’s no shame in having a year where you regress, particularly when you aren’t being protected by PSII. But, with Alabama’s pass rush in front of him, there was absolutely no reason for Moore to allow 72.4% of passes thrown his way to turn into completions — not when he was batting 58% the year before. He can do this job. If MM13 wants to see the field this year, Alabama needs a more polished version of his Freshmen season, and not just an older version of his Sophomore one. That way leads to the bench and likely the transfer portal.
I say this out of love: we want to see you succeed, Mal. But, if you can’t, there are plenty of hungry guys on the bench who deserve the chance to do so.
Coaching. I really like the work outgoing Jay Valai did as far as coaching the outside. ‘Bama corners particularly were almost always in phase with their man, had good leverage, inside position, and were otherwise put in a position to succeed. They timed their strips well and that borderline split-second contact to separate receivers from the ball. It has been some the best overall in-phase coverage we’ve seen in a while.
But, lord, the man cannot coach playing the ball in the air. When you have a receiver on your hip, your head is turned around staring at the incoming toss, and you are stride-for-stride with your man, you cannot fail to contest the pass. And Alabama has not contested passes in the air, or broken on the ball well, since the loss of Derrick Ansley.
Those PBU and PDU and big plays that Alabama made on defense were the result of being in position, and not a matter of going out and making a play. One is passive, one is active, and this was not an active unit. And, not coincidentally, Valai is no longer on staff.
Injuries and Depth. In many ways, the DBs mirrored the wide receivers. A few of the starters were very good. But, there were other role players who weren’t that great; a notable key piece took a major step back; new starters weren’t able to completely fill the shoes of their predecessors; and there were far too many injuries to field a coherent scheme.
There were plenty of things out that you had to like, to be sure: Kool Aid is going to be a star when his game is polished. Khyree Jackson has legitimate tools, and like McKinstry, I think it is a matter of getting the reps to improve his game. But both were pressed into service either far too soon or without the benefit of easing into playing time. Next man up applies to everyone on the team, and while I think the DBs generally fared a little better when their number was called given the more difficult position and the more difficult situations, like the wide receivers, too many players were not game-ready.
How do we evaluate the 2021 secondary? I think we have to recognize that the numbers aside, there were both strengths and weaknesses that prevent us from saying that it was a good team or a bad one. Perhaps the most charitable summary is that there were a lot of strong pieces, but not nearly enough to offset the ones who were not ready to fill their roles or who regressed...and it contributed directly to two losses, one in the season’s biggest game.
But, like the wide receivers whom the DBs mirror, it is also a group long on talent on the two-deep. And with the right coaching and preparation and reps, they could have a ceiling that is as high as they want it to be. So, I’m not ready to burn it to the ground, because while the receivers seemed to be an issue of personnel, DBs appear to (mostly) be matters of coaching and/or inexperience. The new staff has a lot of promising weapons in their arsenal.
Final Grade: C-
Grade the 2021 Alabama Secondary
This poll is closed
A-ish. Thanks for reading, Zach Calzada and Stetson Bennett!