Defense wins championships, and that has to concern the Crimson Tide
Chicks love the long ball, and that’s why NFL teams are Tanking For Tua while we still have a Labor Day hangover.
But rings — the gigantic, flashy kind that Nick Saban has a fistful of (not the Aflac variety, either …) — those come not from a high-flying offense.
Rings and championships and banners and names etched in cement come from a stifling, smothering, punishing defense.
And right now, even with all the yards and all the points being piled up right now by the Alabama Crimson Tide, they aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire on defense.
While it is true that the skilled statisticians can make numbers sing whatever tune they desire, some numbers simply don’t lie. Having played Duke, New Mexico State and South Carolina, the Crimson Tide have allowed an average of 308.3 yards per game. Yes, some of that is in the 4th quarter when all 3 games were in hand. But a whole lot of them were also in the competitive parts of those games.
A particular concern is the Tide’s pass defense, which allows an average of 194 yards per game through 3 games — including giving up 324 yards to South Carolina freshman QB Ryan Hilinski in Saturday’s 47-23 victory.
Are the numbers markedly different from last year’s defense? Actually, no — and that’s where stats sometimes can fool you. Alabama was actually allowing 302.3 yards per game through three games in 2018, 201 of which came via the air every week. But Alabama had already played Louisville, Arkansas State and Ole Miss last season, which collectively were a tick or two better than the mighty Blue Devils, Aggies and Gamecocks.
Ultimately, here is also where statistics can also take you so far. Sometimes, it is the eye test that truly tells the story. And anyone who watched Saturday’s 60-minute effort against South Carolina without the tint of crimson-colored glasses would offer that Alabama is a wee bit vulnerable defending the pass.
“It was a wake-up call,” linebacker Terrell Lewis said.
Hilinski and the Gamecocks were moving the ball all day on Alabama, and only their own red-zone ineptitude kept the ultimate storyline from being remarkably different. South Carolina was 2-for-3 scoring in the red zone, though the Gamecocks reached the Alabama 30-yard line 6 times and score just 1 touchdown.
Is that good enough?
“No,” Alabama safety Xavier McKinney said. “Not at all. It was too much. It was way too much. We missed our tackles. Too many yards on the ground. Too many yards in the air. We have a lot of work to do.”
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp agreed.
“When you get in the red zone against that team, you gotta score touchdowns,” said Muschamp, apparently having gotten over thinking the replay officials blew a possible review at the end of the first half that he could have triggered by simply calling time out.
And while the Tide allowed only a 31-yard TD pass in the 1st quarter and a Hilinksi-to-Kyle Markway 11-yard TD with 11 seconds left, that was still too much for Alabama.
“They put up way too many points,” McKinney said. “That’s not really an option for us.”
There is no question that the major reason behind Alabama’s struggles on defense so far in 2019 have to do with injuries. Losing a future Sunday talent like Dylan Moses at linebacker simply cannot be ignored, no matter how good freshman Shane Lee is or will be in years to come. Ditto with freshman linebacker Christian Harris, who was penciled in to start when 5th-year senior Joshua McMillon suffered a season-ending knee injury during Alabama’s first preseason scrimmage on Aug. 10.
Harris struggled against South Carolina to the point that Ale Kaho replaced him early in the 3rd quarter. Saban said that the Tide wanted to get Harris “settled down” after the game started moving fast for a freshman who played mostly defensive back in high school.
“I thought we ran out of gas a little bit on defense,” Saban said. “We don’t have enough players to get through the season if we have to play 86 plays of defense every week.”
As strange as it may seem, Alabama’s offense might need to be ever-so-slightly *less* productive — at least from a time of possession standard. The Tide had the ball for just over 32 minutes in scoring 47 points against South Carolina and only ran 64 plays in the process. Tua Tagovailoa at the tip of an offensive spear is great when you’re in a shootout every week. But being in a shootout every week wreaks havoc on a defense that is barely hanging on against a second-tier team like South Carolina.
It won’t get any easier as time goes on, of course. Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn loom dangerously in the rear-view mirror — surely champing at the bit to get a piece of a vulnerable Tide defense.
Can any/all of those teams slow the Tide offense while simultaneously gashing the Tide defense? No one has … yet. But it’s only September.