By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 14, 2014
The ever-lovable Joe Kines brought to Alabama a defensive strategy based around a concept of bending, but not breaking. And depending on the Alabama fan one interviews today, that description either encourages praise, or the gritting of teeth.
Kines’ strategy played out much differently than Nick Saban’s ever has, and had a different attitude. Kines believed in pushing plays toward the sidelines and using superior speed to make the play. Offenses, Kines reasoned, would eventually make a mistake and kill their own drives so long as Alabama didn’t give up a big play along the way. He was playing the percentages.
So married to that strategy was Kines, that the middle of the front seven could be effective even with players like Rudy Griffin and Matt Collins filling starting roles; both were walk-ons. When Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007 and found Collins as his incumbent middle linebacker, he moved Collins to defensive end and eventually shuffled him back to fourth team.
But Kines’ strategy was supremely effective against teams running nascent versions of the hurry-up, no huddle attack. Spread teams hated facing Alabama, because Kines’ defense could match up speed-for-speed. The Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech following the 2005 season was probably the best example of Kines’ system running at optimum levels.
Jump forward to the 2013 and 2014 seasons, and we find Nick Saban trying to stop offenses that, on several occasions, have at least rendered his 3-4 over/under scheme mortal. But is that the whole story?
In the opener, West Virginia rolled up a bunch of yards through the air, but Alabama nullified the Mountaineers’ ground game and held the WVU offense to 16 points (West Virginia scored another touchdown on a kickoff return). Against Florida Atlantic, which dropped 50 points on Tulsa on Saturday, Alabama pitched a shutout.
Against Southern Miss, Alabama allowed four scoring drives – but all went for field goals. Moreover, Alabama allowed 207 yards passing, but only 5.9 yards per attempt. Again the opponent’s running game was snuffed, as the Golden Eagles managed just 56 yards on 18 carries (3.1 avg.).
For all the focus on Alabama’s cornerbacks and inside linebackers, or on the lack of pass rush – although Alabama’s sack total for the first three games is its best in five years – Saban’s defense seems to have adopted some of the characteristics of the defense of his predecessor. Alabama has mostly kept offenses between the 20s, and the lone offensive touchdown West Virginia scored came on a perfectly-placed 19-yard fade pass.
Whether this is by design, or by necessity, given Alabama’s lack of playmaking ability at cornerback or inside linebacker, the fact is, it works. Alabama has now allowed just that single, 19-yard touchdown pass on the season. Everything else has been field goals.
The SEC schedule starts now. We’ll quickly find out whether Alabama’s defensive performance is an illusion, or evidence that Saban’s defensive philosophy might be evolving with the times.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Southern Miss.
1. Depth, strength allowed Alabama to pull away. As expected, Alabama had a tremendous edge in depth, but Alabama was also stronger and better conditioned than Southern Miss. Alabama played a sloppy first half, and struggled throughout the game with consistency concerning its weakside run blocking, but once Southern Miss began to suffer from the constant pounding and the lack of quality players with which to rotate, Alabama pulled away. Unfortunately for Alabama, Florida won’t be as susceptible to this issue.
2. Nick Perry’s ejection seemed to spark the team. Alabama was still largely going through the motions until Nick Perry’s lazy technique led to a targeting foul, and it seemed to get everyone’s attention. From that point forward, Alabama played with greater focus and intensity. But Perry’s ejection came in the second half, meaning he’s also out for the first half of the Florida game this Saturday, and Alabama will likely suffer for it. Even though the competition between Perry and Geno Smith at free safety was close coming out of fall camp, Perry had clearly improved and is Alabama’s second-best run defender in the secondary behind Landon Collins. Jabriel Washington and Maurice Smith will play in his place for the first half this Saturday, but both will have to step up their game.
3. Blake Sims is the starter – and Coker himself showed why. The coaches can avoid addressing the subject all they like, but there is a depth chart and Sims is obviously on top of it. The fact Sims was in the game beyond the half was just as much a function of getting him ready for SEC play as it was atoning for sloppy offensive play in the first half. Once Jake Coker entered the game, a sequence of plays at the Southern Miss goal line served to clearly show why the depth chart is what it currently is. On a bootleg, Coker held the ball despite one and possibly two players being open, then took a sack rather than throwing the ball away. A good analog for Coker at the moment is Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel, who made a similar error late in the Gators’ game with Kentucky that could have cost the Gators a win. Sims’ grasp of the mental game is his greatest strength, and Coker will have to improve quickly in the event he’s needed in SEC play.
4. Anderson on the verge of winning a larger role. An injury to Denzel Devall allowed Anderson to play more than he probably would have otherwise, and he did enough with the opportunity to suggest Devall might need to look over his shoulder a bit. Alabama has recruited several Jack linebacker candidates over the past few years that ultimately ate their way to playing less as linebackers and more as defensive linemen – Ed Stinson, Adrian Hubbard, Xzavier Dickson, D.J. Pettway, Devall. But Anderson has managed to keep his quickness despite getting bigger, something only Rolando McClain and Dont’a Hightower seemed able to do over the years. Couple Anderson’s hybrid capabilities with Tim Williams’ and Rashaad Evans’ pure-rush abilities off the corner, and now we see why sack totals are up.
5. Alabama’s offensive playbook feels … bigger. It might be an illusion, or just a function of running more plays during the game, but Lane Kiffin’s Alabama playbook feels a lot more expansive than the Doug Nussmeier version ever did. The offense with Blake Sims in charge used elements of the spread, West Coast, Pistol, veer and various I-based formations this Saturday, and managed to roll up 500-plus yards again without using a single wide receiver screen. Also, Kiffin showed his personality on Alabama’s final touchdown drive, scoring with 12 seconds left while using an accelerated tempo. The change in offensive attitude from Nussmeier to Kiffin is easily seen. Alabama knew it was getting an ace recruiter when it hired Kiffin, but the improvement in offensive effectiveness may not have been so evident until after the hire.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN