Better or worse? Previewing Alabama's defense in 2022
Losing the national championship game suddenly can lower the perceived standard of your defensive unit.
Such was the case for Alabama’s.
After they lost to Georgia in January, there was plenty of speculation about the degree of the Crimson Tide’s defense. Sure, it’s a natural reaction, but their 2021 performance shouldn’t be overlooked.
Georgia’s 33 points in the title game was only the 4th time all season the Crimson Tide allowed 25 or more (29 vs. Florida, 35 vs. Arkansas, and 41 in the loss to Texas A&M).
Last season’s unit finished 18th in scoring defense (20.1 points per game allowed) and 7th in total defense (304.1 yards per contest). They also were 11th in yards per play allowed (4.77). Those latter 2 marks were their best since the 2017 season.
That raised the question of how good the 2022 defense can be.
Heisman Trophy candidate and returning Bronko Nagurski winner Will Anderson Jr. is the catalyst for the defense, but there are plenty of other candidates that can form the unit into a dominant force. Jordan Battle, DJ Dale, Dallas Turner and Henry To’o To’o, etc., etc.
Anderson understands the expectations.
“We know what to expect, we know the standard,” Anderson told reporters. “We have to go out there and show why we are a dominant team. I think that’s what has carried over from spring ball to summer workouts.”
Will Alabama’s defense be better or worse in 2022? Let’s take a look at some categories to decide if they will be better or worse.
Pressuring the QB: Better
Anderson led the country with 17.5 sacks last season. He was the key to Bama leading the country with 58.0 sacks. He’s back, which all but guarantees the Tide’s pass rush will be as good or even better than last year’s.
They did lose Phidarian Mathis and his 9.0 sacks, but there is plenty of reason to be optimistic with a solid core returning to rattle the opposing pocket.
Turner, an All-SEC freshman team honoree in 2021, had a breakthrough season at linebacker last year, and he could be on the verge of an explosive campaign, especially with the emphasis on Anderson. Tuner only started 3 games, but 10 of his 30 tackles were for losses. His 8.5 sacks totaled 52 yards, second only to Anderson (108 yards).
Linebacker To’o To’o had a team-high 112 stops, including 4 sacks. But he likely will apply more pressure this season, and his sack total should rise. Deontae Lawson and Jaylen Moody looked good in the spring, and this talented corps should make their contributions chasing down quarterbacks. They will be able to take pressure off the defensive front to produce.
The Tide will need more production from DJ Dale and Byron Young up front (2 sacks apiece in 2021). Tim Smith, Jamil Burroughs and Justin Eboigbe will be in the rotation up front, and the depth should be able to break through to cause havoc. Chris Braswell’s steadiness is often overlooked, but he’ll only add to the havoc.
Bottom line: There is plenty of talent and, given another Playoff run, the potential to approach 58 sacks or even better the mark this fall.
Run defense: Better
The Tide were 4th in the country in run defense last season, allowing an average of 2.7 yards per carry, 86 yards per game, along with 9 touchdowns. They recorded 122 tackles for loss, pushing opponents back 522 yards.
Alabama’s key to success here will be the development of its d-line. Their linebackers are very active and will register their share of tackles as they did last year. Their lone blemishes were against Florida, in which Malik Davis ran for 86 of his team’s 245 yards. Against Georgia in the national championship game, Zamir White galloped for 84 yards of the Bulldogs’ 190 rushing yards.
Look for their rush defense to be as strong as they were last year with the push coming from their linebackers as well as the secondary stepping up to make their share of stops.
Pass defense: Better
Alabama gave up 25 TD passes last season, by far the most since Nick Saban arrived.
They somewhat offset that by intercepting 15 passes, but the first goal for the revamped secondary has to be to reduce the TDs by at least 5, if not more. Remember, they led the SEC in 2020, allowing just 15 — and that was against an all-SEC schedule in the regular season, followed by 2 Playoff opponents.
Battle is regarded as one of the best safeties in the game, and Malachi Moore and DeMarcco Hellams are back from their injury-plagued seasons from last year. Hellams had 87 tackles and Battle notched 84. Each had 3 interceptions. Kool-Aid McKinstry, Kyree Jackson and Brian Branch will play their roles in a deep secondary unit.
LSU transfer Eli Ricks, who was a freshman AP All-American last season, will step in and immediately become the shutdown corner that the Tide lacked last year. One potential hiccup: Ricks was arrested for speeding, driving without insurance, and possession of marijuana in Mississippi in early May, and could face team disciplinary action.
The Tide tinkered with a creative 1-4-6 alignment in the spring — designed to get Anderson, Turner and Braswell attacking the QB — and they likely will implore some offshoots from it during the season. Along with the linebackers, this is a unit that can create some chaos, all of which benefits the secondary.
If they stay overall healthy, and the younger players reach their potential, the Tide will have a shutdown unit and certainly reduce their yardage allowed from 2021.
Special teams: Slightly better?
The punting unit hasn’t been the same since JK Scott left for the NFL in 2018.
Australian James Burnip and Jack Martin are back to try and improve on the overall 38.3 average. The Tide were 12th in the SEC and 124th in the nation.
Now, context is important. Field position can dictate whether the punter booms one, hangs it high to eliminate a return or aims for the sideline.
In the title game against Georgia, for instance, Burnip punted 4 times and forced the Dawgs into 4 fair catches. That’s good, but on 3 of the punts, Burnip had room to go for a bit more. The most damaging example came after a quick 3-and-out deep in the Tide territory midway through the 4th quarter. Alabama trailed 19-18. Punting from their 23, Burnip wasn’t able to flip the field. His 39-yard punt gave Georgia possession at their 38. The Dawgs drove 62 yards for a sealing TD.
Burnip did all of the punting last season, hitting 48 for a 39.1 average, and he had 1 blocked. Martin had three kickoffs and a field goal, but he never was given the chance to punt.
It will be interesting to see how this scenario plays out this season. The unit could be better based on experience.
Based on personnel and depth, the Tide’s defense should return to their elite level.
Anderson already has projected this group to be as dominant as last year and become the first college football team since Alabama in 2015-2016 to top 50 sacks in back-to-back seasons.
Heading into the season, the only real question is the defensive front, and there seems to be enough bodies to form a steady rotation. Injuries can be the only stumbling block to the linebacking and secondary.
Since the spring, this unit appears hungry to silence their critics and play an integral role in bringing the team back to the national championship game. The spotlight obviously will be on Anderson, but he and the Tide unit will deliver.