Without doubt, 2022 has been one of the odder starts to a season I’ve seen lately. No, not with the team per se, rather with folks who think that 2011 is just around the corner; that defenses routinely can get away with keeping opponents under 150 yards of passing; that three-and-outs are the aim of the game.
None of those are true, of course.
Yet, every week, I look up on the scoreboard and see a Crimson Tide team that has not allowed 20 points in a game, one that has permitted a grand total of two touchdowns in three games, and one that has done so despite replacing every single starting corner in an era of pass-happy offenses. And, for all that, I read incessant complaints about Pete Golding and about the defensive performance, #FireEverybody! It’s simply baffling.
What if I told you that the 2022 Alabama defense is pretty damned good, actually? And that it begins with Pete Golding, and that even its statistical weaknesses are incidental to the plan?
Because it is. You’re just going to have to accept that in this era of modern football, the way Alabama plays defense now is how good defenses operate.
I brought the receipts. More importantly, Brent Venables did too.
There is no coincidence that Alabama’s evolution into its instant scheme coincides with the worst loss of Saban’s career. The 2018 season ended with an outstanding Alabama team getting blown off the field by another offense that could and did easily exploit a lot of ‘Bama’s 1-high and zero-man schemes. Conversely, Clemson was content to sit back in two-high, let the defensive line eat, force Alabama to drive the field sixty minutes, and then watch the Crimson Tide beat itself with impatience and mistakes.
Recall, Alabama moved the ball really well. But it also was deprived of Tua’s shots over the top. The Tide was forced to to drive the field all game, it was forced into mistakes, and had to settle for gambles and field goals too often. It got impatient, and it got beat.
What you see in Tuscaloosa 2022 is very much akin to that 2018 Clemson defense: disguise some younger or inexperienced corners with experienced safeties, shut down the run, drop two safeties, let an outstanding front seven get after the passer. Be very hard to score upon, even if you give up yards and completions all game between the 30s. And, above all, win games...and hopefully a title.
Nick Saban always says, “Never waste a failure.” This scheme, and Pete Golding, took that to heart.
In opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency, here is Alabama’s report card through a quarter of the 2022 season:
- 11th in total defensive efficiency
- 4th in forcing negative drives
- 5th in limiting explosive plays
- 18th in per-play defensive efficiency
- 10th in opponent-adjusted rushing efficiency defense
- 18th in opponent-adjusted passing efficiency
- Creates a disruptive play on 25% of all its snaps
- Allows an absurd .631 points-per-drive
- Has been outstanding in kick coverage defense, with opponents beginning on average at their own 26 yard line
- Has an 3rd down efficiency defense surrendering just 22%
- It has allowed two touchdowns all season, and surrenders just 8.7 PPG
- It is second in the SEC behind only UGA in both YPG (78) and YPA (2.15), yet has faced the third-most rushing attempts
- It is first in the SEC in passing YPA (148), 3rd in QBR, and with Kentucky is just one of two teams that has not allowed a passing touchdown
- It is first in total yards allowed through the air, and surrenders just 5.5 YPA, and allows just a 53.8 completion percentage.
- It is T-3rd in the SEC in sacks; T-2nd in TFL
- Alabama leads the SEC in long scrimmage plays allowed of 10+ yards — just 23 through three games
- It has allowed just one rush of 20 yards all season
- It leads the SEC in long passing plays allowed, just 17: and only 6 of those have gone for 20 yards or more.
- Nationally, in raw numbers, Alabama: is 9th in rushing defense, 7th in rushing YPA, 9th in scoring defense, 8th in passing YPG allowed, 17th in QBR allowed, T-1st with Kentucky in allowing zero passing TDs, and is 18th in YPA at just 5.5
- It is 7th in total defensive yards allowed, 6th in yards per play allowed, and is facing just 60 snaps a game.
And bear in mind, Alabama is doing this rotating new corners and with injuries in the defensive backfield.
That is pretty damned good, no matter how you slice it. Scruffy McPartypants knows his business.
Where there are “deficits,” they are very much by design (as we shall discuss below): Alabama is last in the SEC in passes defended and passes broken up, 99th in TOP, and sit at 68th in drive efficiency. But what if I told you that not only was this just fine, it’s by design — and, for modern defensive schemes, Alabama’s is just about as well executed under the circumstances as you can get?
Shape of the Modern Game
We tend to think of 2022 college football as a wide-open sport, where teams are hitting the high 40s with regularity and where shootouts are the norm. But that simply is not the case. In fact, that era of wide-open play, one-on-one coverage (and busts), and video game stats are behind us. The dirt secret is that they have been dying off for a while. Defenses have (or are) adjusting to the style of play, and adjusting accordingly.
While some teams are doing it with some schemes (like pattern-match zones, two-high quarters, etc.) the most common way teams are negating the bygone aerial bombardment is by simply outnumbering receivers...by a lot.
In 2019, offenses were facing 7- or 8-man defensive backfields about 19% of the time. In 2020, that number rose to 27%. In 2021? It was up to 31%. (And at Alabama and Ohio State in particular, it’s been very high — The Buckeyes are staring at 7- and 8-man fronts 41% of all offensive snaps; for the Tide, it’s 39%.)
It’s simple. A bend-don’t-break scheme limits deep shots, it keeps plays in front of defenders, it nullifies YAC. It turns every opponent passing game into an air raid scheme, of sorts: Offenses throw a lot more, complete a lot more, but they are having to throw far more often, for fewer yards, fewer yards per attempt, and they’re doing it with a wall of defenders behind the receiver.
That lengthens the average drive, makes offenses drive the field more than rely on explosive plays, limits the overall number of drives — and defensively it improves the chance that there is a turnover, a longer field goal attempt, and in turn it shortens the game and reduces scoring.
And we’ve seen all of those happen over the last three-plus seasons.
Completion percentage and 3rd down conversions are up. On average for the last half-decade, 6.3 teams per season completed more than 2/3rds of their attempts. In 2021, twenty-four did. And this year, 44 are at that number. That increase in completion percentage has corresponded to a rise in 3rd down percentage. Just five years ago, only three teams had a conversion rate at or above 50%, last year six teams did so, and so far this season 26 teams are at that mark.
Kill shots are down. Only three teams were at or above 10 YPA through the air in 2021. However, in the half decade prior, almost twice as many teams did so from 2015 to 2021. (5.75). And space overall is becoming precious: The median YPA was 7.3 in 2021 and is now 7.4 in 2022 — as opposed to 7.5 to 7.9 YPA in the previous half decade. We’re losing a lot of YAC yards after catches, and it’s working out to a loss of about 12-13 yards per team, per game, as a result.
Field goal attempts are down, they’re longer kicks, and they’re being missed more often. FGA per game went from 1.7 in 2018, down to 1.5 in 2019-2021, and now sit at 1.3 attempts per game in 2022. Teams are being kept out of field goal rang. And where it is particularly interesting is in the made kicks. Just five years ago, teams were making 1.3 field goals per game. By last season, that number had dropped to 1.1. And this year, the kicks are down even more — just .7 made FGs per team, per contest.
Turnovers are up, particularly interceptions. In 2019, the median interceptions lost was 10. In 2021, that number was 11. Now, in 2022, through three games, the median is 5 so far — meaning we’re tracking for 20 interceptions lost. These in turn are affecting turnover margins, which went from an average of +.08 in 2019 and now sits at -.33 per game.
Fewer drives per game. Those TOs? Those shorter passes? They’re showing up in plays and drives. There are on almost 3 fewer drives per game as a result. And plays are way up. Last season, teams ran on average 64.3 offensive plays per game. In 2021, with about 1.5 fewer possessions per game? Almost 70 — 69.9 plays per game.
Scoring is down. All of those things have combined to mean that scoring is down, particularly at the margins: Since 2015, an average of 11 teams have hit 40+ PPG, with the scoring leader reaching at least 48 PPG every season. No team in 2021 was even at 48 PPG. Only one team even hit 45 PPG, and only five even hit the 40+ PPG mark. Overall, the average college football game is played at lower octane than it was in, say, 2018.
Alabama’s defense has even adopted it. Last season, the Tide was dropping 7- or 8- almost 25% of the time in 2021. In 2022, the Tide have dropped into 7-man looks on 31% of their snaps. Even without those numbers, Alabama is playing far more conservatively in defensive backfield. In 2018, from the 100 or so snaps across the season that I surveyed, Alabama was in a two-high safety look about 16% of the time. Since 2019, when Golding took over and evolved the defense into a straight 4-2-5 (with 3-3-5 variants), Alabama went from presenting a two-high safety look on 16% all the way to 44% this year.
Putting it all together
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. While it’s great to learn from Nick Saban, you can also learn a whole lot from a good ass-kicking too. And Pete Golding has absorbed every lesson that Brent Venables taught him that night on a molecular level. He is simply not allowing teams to beat the Tide with killshots and big plays. If that means dropping 7, he’ll do it. If that means keeping everyone in front of the defenders, and letting them complete half a dozen passes before the drive bogs down, he’ll do it.
There is nothing wrong with the Alabama defense — oh, sure, there needs to be better communication back there, you’d like more turnovers forced, and it would be great to have a settled DB rotation work itself out. But what you see on the field is by design.
If Brent Venables’s lesson that night is any indication — and if Alabama’s performance through 2022 is, as well — then it’s a design that’s working exactly to plan. And it works because this is the shape of modern football; it is a modern defense built to negate modern offenses, no matter how frustrating it may seem at times. Your issue lies with the modern game, then. It’s certainly not in how Alabama has responded to the shape of the game.
A safer victory or an exciting loss: take your pick. But you can’t have both, and you can’t argue with the results.
I had no idea Alabama’s defense was actually that good
True. There was a lot of surprising stuff in here.
False. I’m not one of the voices yelling about Pete and the defense.
I understand and understood it all along...but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.