Everybody knows Alabama's D is struggling. Does anybody know how to fix it?
As da Vinci once said, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. But it can also be the ultimate roadblock to a solution.
When you watch a once-mighty defense struggle for 60 minutes the way Alabama’s did Saturday against Ole Miss, it’s easy to oversimplify.
Linebacker Dylan Moses attributed the No. 2 Crimson Tide’s program-record 647 yards of offense allowed to a lack of communication. ESPN’s Paul Finebaum says they were simply outschemed. The social media peanut gallery called for defensive coordinator Pete Golding’s job.
But when you get torched for 8.5 yards per play and allow an opponent to convert 4-of-4 4th-down attempts and go 9-for-17 on 3rd down, the issues — plural — are layered.
Which is why Nick Saban put it so paradoxically perfect when he said Saturday night “we didn’t do anything well.”
“No one’s satisfied with the way we played” on defense, he added Monday during his weekly press conference.
In an era when information — and disinformation — flies around faster than Rebels wideout Elijah Moore streaking up the sideline, we’ve developed this insatiable need to be right and have the answers before anyone else. It leads to rampant leaning on false dichotomies, where only two courses of action are presented when in reality there could be many more.
There’s no denying Bama’s defense has problems. But how do you solve them in a 6-day period before No. 3-ranked Georgia, College GameDay, major College Football Playoff implications and a giant national microscope come to the fishbowl that is Tuscaloosa?
“We just have to get better,” Moses said. “We have all the pieces and everything. It shows. We just have to communicate better.”
So let’s start there.
The tempo, pre-snap motion and misdirection featured in Lane Kiffin’s offense are enough to give any defense fits. But Bama’s linebackers and defensive backs are often a step late once the ball is snapped.
And Saban and Moses thought Kiffin, the former Tide offensive coordinator, was onto their defensive signals Saturday, though Saban switched gears on that Monday.
Either way, one missed assignment against an electric offense, and that’s the end of the story.
“We’ve never played this way on defense,” Saban said. “It’s certainly not what we aspire to be as a defensive team, and we’re going to work hard with our players.”
But the best defenses in 2020 are the ones that recognize when things are going wrong and adjust. Georgia did at halftime against Tennessee on Saturday and held the Volunteers to zero points and 71 yards in the second half. Defending national champion LSU, meanwhile, stayed in the same futile man-to-man concepts for 4 quarters in losing to Missouri.
That stubbornness once helped get Tigers defensive coordinator Bo Pelini run out of Nebraska.
Alabama tried to tweak on the fly Saturday, too, but its switch from what Saban called a “more athletic nickel” to a more basic nickel package, frankly, didn’t make a difference.
“I don’t think the call is necessarily the issue,” Saban said. “I think the execution has been the issue. Sometimes we coach players for what we want them to be, but we really need to coach them for what they are. When I say that, I’m talking about how much experience do they have, how much can they handle, how much can they execute? If the players are mis-executing, that’s not a good thing from a coaching standpoint, because that means we have to do a better job of teaching them or make sure we’re not trying to teach too much.”
It’s easy for fans to look at that and blame Golding. He and Saban ultimately answer for what happens on defense.
But Alabama employs a staff of 12 analysts to see things from — literally — 30,000 feet and offer suggestions and insights a coordinator can’t ascertain in real-time.
Charlie Strong and Mike Stoops are both former head coaches. Even Major Applewhite could probably dissect a thing or two from the booth when opposing quarterbacks are rolling like Matt Corral was on Saturday.
And maybe it’s as simple as changing up some signals this week. Perhaps Alabama could take one more page from Kiffin’s creativity and use a play board featuring Dwight Schrute from “The Office” like Ole Miss did.
Kidding aside, it’d be pretty surprising if Alabama uses the same verbal coding and hand signs to call defensive plays it did when Kiffin was in town from 2014-16. Current Dawgs coach Kirby Smart was the DC for 2 of those 3 seasons.
“I felt like we were always one play behind,” Saban said. “Some of that is our issue in terms of how we disguise things.”
But what about what happens after the ball is snapped? All the intel and dancing in the backfield by Moore and Ole Miss’ running backs can’t account for the bevy of missed tackles that have plagued the Tide, at times, in all 3 games this season.
With annual top-5 recruiting classes, Bama’s defense should be superior or at the very least match up athletically with any opponent it faces. Did a COVID-altered offseason prevent it from getting ready for the play-in-play-out impact of an SEC schedule? Are there 5-star players making business decisions to avoid heavy collisions in 1-on-1 situations?
“It’s much easier to practice offense on air than it is to practice defense on air because you’re reacting to something all the time,” Saban said Monday. “We had missed assignments and tackling, probably the two things that were the biggest detriment for us the last game in terms of the way we played defense. I think those are fundamental things you have to fix.
“I think when players press, they actually can get worse at those things. They’ve got to play relaxed and confident, and that comes with very good preparation.”
That’s a tougher nut to crack in less than a week. Tackling is like cliff diving into Lake Nicol outside of Tuscaloosa. Once you’ve decided to jump, you don’t get to change your mind halfway down.
Saban acknowledges that college football is a different game than it was when he ascended the coaching ranks as a defensive savant in the latter 20th century. New rules that limit dangerous hits and evolved spread and RPO offenses have given rise to elite skill players, and the SEC is chock full of them.
Georgia is 3-0 largely because of its ability to play elite defense, deploy a punishing offensive line, establish a reliable ground game with running back Zamir White and allow Stetson Bennett IV to let it rip.
“I think the offense that we have in college football right now is very, very difficult to defend,” Saban said. “Not any old-fashioned offense. It’s spread. Lots of very difficult plays to defend. So we have to score a lot of points if we’re going to win. But we have to play better on defense, too.”
What does that look like?
Golding’s 3-3-5 scheme — the one also prevalent throughout the SEC thanks to Saban’s coaching tree — can border on complex. We’re endorsing a simplified, attack-minded approach.
To Saban’s point, a lot of Power 5-caliber offenses are going to “get theirs.” It’s akin to NBA teams playing against LeBron James. He’s going to score — but what else can you do to affect the outcome?
Getting off the field on 3rd and 4th down would be a good start.
According to GameDay’s Chris “Bear” Fallica, Alabama’s 3 three-and-outs on 34 opponent drives is the worst in the country.
Sunday night’s NFL game also offered ample evidence for what happens when a defense either hesitates or gets timid. When the Vikings went after Russell Wilson, they had one of the best teams in the NFL this year on the ropes. Minnesota’s decision to run a prevent scheme midway through Seattle’s game-winning drive was one big reason the Seahawks went nearly the length of the field in 2 minutes to win.
On more than one occasion Saturday, Ole Miss tight end Kenny Yeboah went for big gains in the middle of the field while 2 linebackers stood up at the snap, appeared to look around for someone to defend and had zero impact on the play.
Why not send those guys after Matt Corral and try to disrupt his timing?
Aggressive defense can backfire. But even giving up a big play or two can be worth turning in a momentum-changing stop or turnover.
The answer to the conundrum Saban referenced is to take the ball away. Ole Miss did it early with a strip of Najee Harris near the goal line; that set the tone for the rest of Saturday’s historic shootout. Georgia took over against Tennessee thanks in part to 2 strip-sacks, one of which linebacker Monty Rice took to the end zone at Sanford Stadium.
Seven of the past 8 national champions have ranked in the top 25 in FBS in takeaways. The Crimson Tide have forced 4 in 3 games this season.
And it’s no secret that Alabama’s 2000s dynasty has been built largely on the back of its defense. Last year’s 21st-place final ranking in total defense was the program’s worst in the past decade.
That group was depleted by injuries, but it gave some of the Tide’s current youngsters valuable game experience.
They got even more Saturday.
“We have a lot of young guys on our defense,” Moses said. “For them to experience this at the beginning of the season, I feel like it’s just a great opportunity to learn from it.”
So between the talent, resources, coaching and experience level in Alabama’s program, the Crimson Tide are running out of excuses.
And while Saban chewed out Golding on the sideline and said he was “boiling and bubbling” watching his defense Saturday, a turnaround showing against a steady Georgia offense would turn down the burners.
At least for a week.
“I believe in our players, alright, and I think we have to get our players to play better,” Saban said after the Mississippi game. “I think we’re capable of it. I think this was a good offensive team, and there’ll be a lot of opportunities for us to learn and grow from this game.”