Better or worse? Previewing Alabama's defense in 2019
Editor’s note: Last week we previewed every SEC East defense. Today we start the SEC West with Alabama. Coming Tuesday: Arkansas.
Usually when we talk about the Alabama defense making year-to-year improvement, it comes off as nitpicky.
Maybe the diehards will cite that one game when a certain receiver burned them, or that one random quarterback who threw for 300 yards.
But when Alabama ends the season by allowing 28, 34 and 44 points, it’s not nitpicking.
There’s room for improvement with a group that has perhaps the highest individual standard of any in the country. We expect Nick Saban to have a top 3 scoring defense every year, regardless of who leaves for the NFL. This year will be no exception.
So is Alabama in position to take a step up after finishing No. 12 nationally in 2018? Or are more tough times ahead?
Pressuring the QB: Better
You could make the case that Alabama’s best pass rusher, at least most of the time, was a defensive tackle. Granted, Quinnen Williams delivered one of the best seasons for a defensive tackle in the 21st century, but that’s usually not an ideal sign. Including Williams, all 3 Alabama players (Christian Miller and Isaiah Buggs) who had 8-plus sacks are off to the NFL, as is the up-and-down Mack Wilson.
So how will this unit get better? A few reasons.
For starters, getting a healthy Terrell Lewis will be huge for that group. We’ve seen in flashes during big games what he’s capable of as an edge rusher. But the 3 proven players who have to be more regular contributors in that area are Raekwon Davis (his 2018 season was disappointing after he had huge preseason expectations), Anfernee Jennings and Dylan Moses. I think all 3 will see a spike in production as it relates to getting after the quarterback.
The wild card is former 5-star recruit Eyabi Anoma, who had an eventful offseason with his brief time in the transfer portal. If he can step into a bigger role and live up to that hype that he came onto campus with, Alabama will have a much more difficult unit to prepare for.
It feels like pass rush improvement is dependent on 2 of these 3 things happening:
- Davis returns to 2017 form
- Lewis finally stays healthy for a full season
- Anoma becomes an All-SEC player
I’d say the odds are more favorable for that happening than not.
Run defense: Worse
I’ll be honest. A lot of this — and I mean a lot — is based on my belief that it’s going to be extremely difficult to be better in this area after losing Williams. What he did to blow up plays in the backfield cannot be overstated. He’d take on double teams (and usually plow through them) to free up lanes for Moses and Miller. I’m not sure how Alabama is going to replace Williams’ impact between the tackles.
And if we’re being honest, it’s not like Alabama improved in that area as the season went along. Everyone freaked out about the unSaban-like defensive performance against Arkansas, but then the Crimson Tide allowed at least 130 rushing yards in each of the final 5 games of 2018 (average of 171 rushing yards). Entering 2018, only 13 running backs had ever rushed for 100 yards against Saban’s defense at Alabama.
That trend troubles me, especially considering Williams is no longer part of that group.
The good news is that having Jennings and Moses back should help a great deal with preventing backs from getting to the second level. There’s hope that Moses can become what Devin White was for LSU the past couple years. There’s also hope that DJ Dale can become a standout nose tackle after a promising spring.
But as strange as it sounds after a year in which Alabama finished No. 19 against the run, it’s tough to project that group to get better when there are a lot of unknowns on the inside. I wouldn’t be surprised if Alabama finished with its first run defense ranking outside the top 20 since Year 1 of the Saban era.
And I also wouldn’t dismiss this unit being ranked in the top 3 by season’s end because, well, Saban.
Pass defense: Better
If I were going to bet on one single position group of Alabama’s improving on either offense or defense, it would be the pass defense.
Yes, there were some growing pains last year for that extremely young secondary. Watching Patrick Surtain II get picked apart by CeeDee Lamb was troubling, as was watching Arkansas throw 3 touchdown passes against the Crimson Tide secondary. By Saban’s extraordinary standards, finishing No. 33 against the pass was a major disappointment.
But here’s the good news. Did Alabama really lose anybody that major in the secondary? Deionte Thompson was more of a thumper who had issues in coverage, and it was hard to overlook how much Saivion Smith struggled in the Clemson blowout.
Did those guys provide value? Absolutely. But were they irreplaceable like Williams? Definitely not.
I like the fact that Surtain had that humbling experience late, and that the group will get Trevon Diggs back after his promising start to 2018 was spoiled by a season-ending injury against Arkansas. Xavier McKinney took a major step up in 2018 and Shyheim Carter will return after his first full season of being a regular contributor on the back end of Saban’s secondary.
At times, it felt like Alabama’s 2018 group was finally feeling some significant impact from losing so many defensive backs to the NFL (5 total in 2017 and 2018 drafts). Not having a typical Alabama pass rush hurt, too. It exposed just how inexperienced and relatively thin that Alabama secondary was. For once.
Experience and an improved pass rush is going to yield better than the No. 33 pass defense in the country. Book it.
Special teams defense: Better
The Crimson Tide ranked third among Power 5 schools with just 2.67 yards allowed per punt return (0 touchdowns) and they were somewhat average with 20.1 yards allowed per kickoff return, though no touchdowns were surrendered. The last time Alabama allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown was in the 2014 opener against West Virginia.
So given the emphasis that Saban puts on special teams — he often takes heat about playing household offensive names on special teams coverage units — I wouldn’t be surprised if that streak continued under second-year special teams coach Jeff Banks.
And Alabama only blocked one kick and one punt apiece, both of which I believe will improve with a better rush.
But let’s not forget that guys like Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs helped out a lot on special teams coverage. Harris even blocked a punt back in that 2017 opener against Florida State.
It’s not a given that Alabama will have the same success this year, though it’s hard to imagine Saban’s special teams coverage units taking a step back.
Alabama will be leading in a ton of games — just like last year — and teams will be forced to throw against an improved pass rush and secondary. If that’s the case, all signs point to improvement this year.
And like I said, the bar to exceed from a year-to-year standpoint is relatively low. The 2018 Alabama defense was its worst statistically since Year 1 of the Saban era. Even without the best defensive player in college football, do we really think Alabama is about to have consecutive defenses finish outside of the top 7 for the first time? I don’t, though I do believe that Alabama’s 2018 defense played to its hand at times because of how explosive Tua Tagovailoa was on the other side of the ball.
Do I think that happens again? Maybe here and there.
But I think the 2019 Alabama defense will be much more reminiscent of a classic Saban unit than last year’s group was.