By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 1, 2015
About this time last year, Alabama was finding out that Doug Nussmeier was not the answer as the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator.
Whether Nussmeier was actually fired, whether he was encouraged to examine other offers, whether his contract simply ran out and was not renewed, is not the point. The point is that Nick Saban was prescient enough to look at the landscape of college football and realize his offense needed not just a shot in the arm, but somewhat of a tent revival experience.
The conventional wisdom for mostly all of college football’s existence has been that if you’ve got to lean one way or another, lean to defense. A team that leans on its defense is not only far less erratic than a team based around offense, a team that puts a sound defense on the field on game day also provides its own offense with the opportunity to face the best of the best in practices and scrimmages.
What Saban realized was that with the change in clock rules – the 40-second clock replacing the 25-second clock – the speed of the game had been flipped on its head in a way. Under the 25-second clock rule, the pace of the game was entirely up to the officiating crew assigned to a particular game; teams could only go as fast as seven (sometimes significantly) older men could reset the ball and chains after each snap.
With the 40-second clock now the norm, the officials are largely out of the picture. The clock resets after the previous play is over, meaning the offense has control over exactly how much time will elapse before the next snap. Only when the offense chooses to substitute do the officials step in to delay play.
As those changes settled in, younger fans responded with approval – more points, more excitement, more fantasy football statistics. And more TV viewership. Saban realized which way the winds were blowing and he did something about it.
That something was Lane Kiffin, who helped transform Alabama’s offense from a highly efficient pro-style offense to a highly efficient and potentially explosive pro-style offense, and there’s a difference in the two. Alabama adopted tempo plays. It took plays directly from playbooks at TCU, Auburn and Chris Ault’s old Nevada teams. In doing so, it won an SEC championship with Blake Sims at quarterback – and while much if not most of Sims’ performances came from within, it’s hard to imagine Nussmeier getting as much from Sims as Kiffin did.
Now, Saban, who essentially let go of his offense and put it in the hands of the swashbuckling Kiffin, has to decide whether he can do something similar with his defense.
No, this doesn’t mean firing defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, or any other defensive coach. Nor does it mean Saban – who is the de facto defensive coordinator, and always has been – should feel as if he has to step away from his own machine and let someone else operate it.
What it means, simply, is whether Saban wants to make more changes, both in number and significance, to his scheme than what he made in 2014.
Alabama completely changed the way it rotated its defensive line in 2014. Brandon Ivory, technically a starter, was benched for most of the season not due to his own performance, but because spread teams demanded it. Ivory is built to play on first and second downs against pro-style teams. He might even have a future in that role in the NFL, although he’ll likely have to go the free agent route to prove it. But in 2014 at Alabama, neither he nor his backup, Darren Lake, had much of a role outside of games against Arkansas, LSU and Florida Atlantic.
The real problem for guys like Ivory and Lake is that it’s not just an Alabama thing; the value of an old-school noseguard is tanking faster than old Kodak stock everywhere, and aside from settling into a role as a situational player, it’s hard to imagine much will change over the next decade or so.
In 2014, Alabama went with a rotation of six to eight linemen, depending on situation and score, and several of those players – Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen – were able to fill multiple roles. For the most part, the changes worked.
They just didn’t work well enough.
Alabama’s defense was still probably the best overall defense in the SEC, but the gobs of passing yardage run up at the end of the season by Auburn and Missouri skewed the statistics to the extent that Alabama entered the Ohio State contest with real question marks in the back end of the defense. Despite the star power of safety Landon Collins and a solid performance all year from cornerback Cyrus Jones, it became clear early in the Ohio State game that one of two things was happening:
Either Alabama had the worst luck in the country this year defensing deep passes, there’s a problem with the talent, or a change is needed in the technique being taught. Or perhaps all three at once.
Alabama’s commitment to stopping the interior run first at the expense of all else is a staple of defending pro-style offenses. It’s also something many spread teams care little about. A lot of spread offenses – Auburn’s being the most ready example – use the interior run more as a changeup, or at least as a setup play for something else. That doesn’t mean Auburn or other spread teams can’t run inside effectively; it’s just not the be-all-end-all goal of the offense the way football has been played for most of the modern era. The jet fly sweep with a scatback running it has become the play to contain, and if teams crash the interior to stop the inside trap, offenses are going up top to tall receivers who usually are in one-on-one matchups.
Alabama, though, has stood fast in its approach, and when it works, it works like nobody’s business. When Alabama faces teams its corners can match up one-on-one with, it usually results in an ugly loss for that opponent.
It will be interesting to watch whether Alabama changes the back end of its defense the way it changed the front. Because for it to happen, it would require much more conciliation on Saban’s part than simply changing a defensive line rotation, or handing the reins of the offense over to someone else. It would require multiple schematic and philosophical changes on Saban’s part – and that might be asking too much.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Ohio State.
1. Alabama didn’t contain the edge on defense… This was perhaps the most troubling aspect of Alabama’s loss to Ohio State. Ezekiel Elliott gained 230 yards on 20 carries and much of that was off tackle. Alabama’s defensive ends had a lot to contend with in this game, but the first fundamental responsibility is to set the edge, and even though Alabama was working against a green offensive line and relatively small tight ends, the Tide wasn’t up to the challenge.
2. …but the middle of the defense wasn’t much better. Alabama’s linebackers were having to take on downfield blocks far too often. The defensive ends might have lost contain because they felt too pressured to pick up the slack left by the defensive tackles in providing a pass rush. Both things fall back on the tackles, who just didn’t play well. Ohio State’s offensive line controlled Alabama’s defensive line the entire night, and too many of Alabama’s failings on third down were the result of a line that couldn’t put pressure on Cardale Jones.
3. Defensive backfield played the worst game of the year. Relative to what they had to do – match up with a wide receiver corps of essentially three guys, including one who had previously been effective only as a deep-pass chaser (Devin Smith), Alabama’s defensive backfield scored a solid D-minus that would have ventured into “F” territory if not for Cyrus Jones largely holding his own on one side and Landon Collins at least having the ability to get people lined up. But Ohio State abused CB Eddie Jackson and any safety not named Collins. Some of what happened to Alabama was simply bad luck – it’s almost impossible to believe all those deep passes completed against Alabama, thrown perfectly and/or caught by a receiver making some form of heroic effort, could have been stopped – but only Ohio State’s wide receiver trick pass fell into that category Thursday night.
4. Offensive playcalling got too cute by half. Alabama fell in love with the pass early, likely because defensive scouting told the coaches to do it. Ohio State’s presumed defensive soft spot was a secondary that was short on experience, albeit long on turnover-forcing ability. Alabama got to see too much of the latter. Alabama never tried Tyren Jones at running back, and didn’t use T.J. Yeldon enough even though he appeared reasonably healthy. Derrick Henry only got 13 carries. As TideFans.com talked about in the preview, OSU DE Steve Miller was extremely vulnerable to the run and Alabama had good success going at him, but Kiffin didn’t do it enough. And when Blake Sims did make a mistake throwing the football, Ohio State made him pay, unlike so many other teams before. The second interception on a pass thrown at TE O.J. Howard was unnecessary given the time and field position, and Howard did little to bail out the underthrow – a complaint that has been lodged against him in general several times in the past.
5. Turnovers again come up big. It was touched on above, but this was the season’s real pink elephant and it showed up again in the Sugar Bowl. Blake Sims was picked off three times and the second one was arguably even more damaging than the first, which went for an Ohio State defensive touchdown. Alabama finished the season on the wrong side of the turnover margin, which speaks both to the more chance-taking nature of Kiffin’s offense and the inability of the defense to force turnovers, particularly in the passing game. Cyrus Jones also missed the ability to possibly pick-six Cardale Jones but dropped the pass. For 2015, Alabama has to figure out what went wrong here in 2014, on both sides, and fix both.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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