The headline may seem a bit negative — leading with a statement about the defensive linemen regressing. But context is important here. As we wrote last year, statistically the 2021 DL unit turned out the best performance the Crimson Tide saw since the star-studded 2016 group, led by Jon Allen.
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.
It’s hard to reprise that performance. The loss of big Phil Mathis and role players like LaBryan Ray were were expected to take a toll on the line, and they did. The schedule was also tougher; good teams have the horses to compete up front.
So regression was expected. That’s not necessarily bad in itself. But I don’t think that anyone expected quite the performances that we saw in 2022. We ominously sounded this tone last year:
When Phil went down after another questionable hit from the Dawgs, then – and only then, did the ground game open up for UGA. That’s how much he meant and why replacing him is one of the most critical concerns for 2022.
My god, was that accurate, and my god, did this unit fall off a cliff.
Here’s the breakdown. I fear we have to start with the bad, because there is so much more of it.
- The defensive line gave up over a full yard more on runs; it went from surrendering 2.66 YPC to 3.83 — and generally anything at or near 4.0 is aggressively average. And Alabama went from second in the nation to 36th.
- In 2021, Alabama was 4th in the nation against the run in YPG – surrendering just 86 YPG. But in 2022, the Tide added almost 50 yards per game to that: all the way up to 130ish. The sky isn’t falling; that was still top third in the country (35th). But the numbers are far worse where they count
- Against SEC opponents, the Tide surrendered a stupid 4.13 YPC; whereas they were just under 3 YPC against a mostly soft OOC slate: the Utah State’s of the world are making these numbers look even better.
- In Alabama’s two losses, the Tide gave us a gross 5.03 YPC (119th) and 183 YPG (105th) – please note: this doesn’t even include the Auburn game, where the Tide was gashed for 7.4 YPC/318 Yards and three rushing TDs.
- And let’s talk about those rushing TDs. In 2021, Alabama allowed 9 rushing scores through 15 games. In 13 games, the 2022 version gave up 50% more: 15 ground scores.
- As the year wore on, Alabama got worse too. It allowed 1.85 YPC in September; 3.55 in October; and 4.99 in December and January. Contrast that with the 2021 unit who got much better with each game: 3.86 in September, 2.21 in October, 1.68 in November, and even allowed under 4 YPC in the two matchups with UGA (3.79).
- What about that individual production? In 2021, half of the top 10 producers in negative plays were on the defensive line – in 2022, you have to go through five linebackers and DBs to find someone (Byron Young). Only 2 of the Top 10 in producing TFL were in the front four.
- Surely, it showed up in the pass rush then, right? You’d be wrong. For the entire year, the entire defensive line generated 9.5 sacks. In 2021, Phil Mathis had 9.0 by himself. Sack production was down almost 50% from this group.
- The end product was an opponent-adjusted drive efficiency that fell from 6th to 37th; per-play efficiency dropped from 1st to 7th (and you can thank the passing defense for that); a defense that went from being 2nd in producing negative drives all the way to 10th; and one that fell from 3rd best per-play, opponent-adjusted rushing defense all the way to 15th.
Not that the NFL draft is a measure of anything beyond the ability to specifically fit into the NFL, but I think the combine numbers and senior bowl really bore out what we saw on the field. This was a soft, fat, slow group that got their shit pushed in sideways...and seemingly at will. Oh, sure, Tim and Egboigbe had their moments – but the latter was hurt, the former inconsistent. Jaheim Oatis flashed some serious potential. But, really, it was the Byron Young Show – and you never want a role player to be your star up front. One 3rd round selection: that’s what was drafted off the Alabama defensive line.
I was looking for something good to say about this group, and I find I am having difficulties with it; the numbers are having an even harder time doing so.
I guess there were some bright spots in shutting down Bijan Robinson, which was impressive. UT had just 79 rushing yards, and the 7th overall pick in the NLF draft was held to just 57 yards on 21 carries (2.1 YPA) and one score. And the Tide did well stymieing running QBs at both Ole Miss and Arkansas: KJJ and Jaxson Dart were non-factors.
But when it was bad, it was really bad, and it was bad too often against any quality opponent — every single ball carrier for the LSU Tigers was at or above 5.0 YPC. The Rebels’ Judkins had a field day, with 25 carries for 135 (5.5) and two scores — when Alabama knew he was getting the ball. The “one-dimensional” Volunteers rang up almost 200 yards on the ground — with Wright averaging almost 6 a pop. Arkansas’s Sanders ripped off a tidy 100 and two scores on just 22 carries. K State had their way with the Tide, with everyone averaging at least 6 YPC. Wanna talk about that Iron Bowl? Ashford: 121 on 17 (7.1), Hunter for 134 on just 11 (12.2). Alabama did decent on Tank – but still he cranked out 4.5 a tote.
See what I mean? There just weren’t many individual bright spots, and far too many memorable gaffes as a unit, for me to give this unit a passing grade of any sort.
There were too many busted assignments, mistackles, poor technique, lack of awareness, inconsistent effort — and most damning of all, a lack of toughness across half the roster — for me to recommend anything other than a complete overhaul of this unit. (That is one reason why the A-Day game really concerns me: either this team morphed into 2016 Alabama or the offensive line is (or played) that bad.)
Looking ahead, the only person who should remotely see the field is a healthy Justin Eboigbe and perhaps Oatis and Jamil Burroughs (another guy who’s flashed some promise, but not nearly enough). But beyond that, everyone’s job should be considered day-to-day and in danger (and that includes DLC, Freddie Roach). Because this team has to shed its well-earned reputation of being soft where it matters most: right up the middle.
It’s frankly awful.
Final Grade: D- (2021 Grade, A+)
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