It's only Week 1, but I already like this version of Alabama's defense a whole lot better than last year's
ATLANTA — When I picture Alabama’s revenge tour, I had visions of a classic Nick Saban defense.
That is, one that humiliates offenses. One that puts the Alabama offense on its back. One that says to an opposing offense “oh, you’re 1-dimensional? Now you’re 0-dimensional.”
Following the mid-week news that Dylan Moses would miss the 2019 season, I questioned if we’d really see that. The Alabama leading tackler and quarterback of that defense was supposed to be the spirit of that unit. He had sky-high expectations to cement his place — and Alabama’s — as one of the nation’s best.
More important, Moses was supposed to be part of a defense that needed to improve in 2019. The group that finished No. 19 against the run and allowed 36 points per game in its final 3 games didn’t look like a defense that had Saban’s fingerprints on it.
The one we saw Saturday against Duke? Yeah, that was exactly the type of defensive resurgence we expected from Alabama. It felt much more like that historic 2017 defense than that frustrating, inconsistent 2018 defense.
Sure, it was Duke. It was a team starting a new quarterback, and it showed. Quentin Harris didn’t complete an actual forward pass until there was a minute left in the first half.
(I’m not counting that little pop pass that netted a whopping 2 yards as a real completion.)
In the midst of a frustrating offensive start for Alabama — something that was to be expected with the debut/return of Steve Sarkisian as the offensive coordinator — there were little instances that showed why 2019 could be much improved defense. And go figure, a lot of it came from guys who weren’t on the field in 2018.
Take the first Duke play from scrimmage when Quinnen Williams’ replacement, true freshman D.J. Dale, blew up a run in the backfield for a loss. Or how about the next series when Moses’ replacement, true freshman Shane Lee, defended a 3rd-down pass to force a 3-and-out.
My personal favorite was watching oft-injured Terrell Lewis come into the game in the second quarter — it looked like an unofficial suspension — and promptly sack Harris to force a Duke punt.
Terrell Lewis comes in and immediately makes in impact! Gets the sack on 3rd down!! pic.twitter.com/3riRd3txFu
— #FlashSZN (@ftbeard_17) August 31, 2019
If Alabama fans were looking for a game to show that some new stars could emerge, this was it. And that’s not to say that the stars were quiet.
Xavier McKinney had a sack on Harris that made me question why anyone would ever want to play quarterback again. Trevon Diggs had an interception in the third quarter that reminded everyone how badly he was missed in the second half of last season.
Speaking of Diggs, I thought he was part of a play that was very 2017 Alabama defense-like. A Duke receiver was well short of the first down when he got held up by a barrage of Alabama defenders. In stepped Patrick Surtain Jr. to strip the ball loose and down Diggs went in for the recovery.
That’s the type of stuff that — dare I say — will get Saban to crack a smile in the film room. Smash mouth, gang tackling, don’t-let-up defense. That’s what we’ve come to know from Alabama.
Despite all of that success last year, it didn’t feel like we saw that consistently throughout 2018. Sure, the LSU and Mississippi State games were nice, but the Arkansas and Texas A&M games were far from clean.
Saturday felt like a statement for this group. It felt like a defense that got tired of hearing about Clemson and injuries. It felt like a group that was ready to carry the load.
Time will tell if this group is truly able to carry the load. A team with a balanced offense like A&M could present problems for Alabama. But in terms of the things Alabama could control on Saturday, it was hard not to be impressed.
There weren’t coverage breakdowns that led to long pass plays. There weren’t missed tackles that led to inexcusable touchdowns. There weren’t drives extended because of being a step late on third down.
It’ll be a whole lot easier for Saban to get behind a defense that doesn’t make those hair-pulling mistakes.
You knew that he and the college football world wasn’t going to make excuses for his defense just because it was dealt the most crushing preseason blow of any national title contender. The revenge tour doesn’t slow down for injuries. It doesn’t take pit stops on the path to a title. It keeps its foot on the gas and doesn’t stop until it reaches its final destination.
I don’t know if Alabama’s going to reach that final destination. But despite the Moses injury, this defense was significantly better in this year’s opener compared to last year’s. Not even the ever-critical Saban would deny that (though I’m not about to be the guy to ask him to compare anything ever).
Alabama’s defense passed its first test with flying colors. They got a long way to go to reach 2017 or 2011 levels.
But Saturday was a start, and it was a darn good one.