Alabama Football: Defenders Who Must Step Up to Keep Title Hopes Alive

Steven CookFeatured Columnist IVNovember 14, 2012

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 09:  Nico Johnson #35 of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts after a defensive stop against the Louisiana State University Tigers during the 2012 Allstate BCS National Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 9, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Alabama defense needs its leaders to step up and dominate down the stretch if they want any chance of coming back from an improbable loss to reach the 2013 BCS National Championship Game.

Once thought of as one of the most dominant units in the history of college football, the Crimson Tide defense has been exposed in each of the last two weeks: a comeback win against LSU and an upset loss at home to Texas A&M by the hands of Johnny "Football" Manziel.

While the rest of the regular season slate eases up with easy wins expected against Western Carolina and Auburn, they'll still have to face a rolling-and-ready No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs team in the SEC Championship. If the Tide play defense similar to the form they've shown as of late, they could very well leave Atlanta with their second loss of the year and lose any hope of a national title.

Maybe we're being hard on Nick Saban and Kirby Smart's defense—you have to remember that a bad day for Bama's defense would be a good day for most other teams—but if their offense struggles again, then having holes on the defensive side of the ball could spell doom in their upcoming matchup with Mark Richt's squad.

Let's take a look at the Alabama defenders who must step up down the stretch to shore up the Tide's defensive problems.


Robert Lester, Safety

You wouldn't expect the types of fundamental mistakes made by Tide safety Robert Lester from a senior leader of the defense. 

Lester was burned early during A&M's second touchdown drive when Manziel found receiver Kenric McNeal for a big gain that set up a passing score, also a product of blown coverage by Lester. The score put the Aggies up, 14-0. 

The senior who opted to return to Alabama for his final year instead of heading to the NFL knew his mistakes, and despite usually being a quiet, lead-by-example player, spoke up to Andrew Gribble of 

I would prepare better. Pay attention to my fundamentals. If I was to pay attention to playing better fundamentals, I would have been in a lot better position to make plays.

We all have 20/20 hindsight and talk is cheap, but it says a lot about Lester that he put the blame on himself. Expect him to play with more passion and smarts from here on out.


Vinnie Sunseri, Defensive Back

What sophomore defensive back Vinnie Sunseri lacks in raw talent, he more than makes up for with his hard-hitting style of play and fierce energy. 

Sunseri has been more busy than usual as of late, tallying 25 tackles in the Tide's last four contests.

Although he isn't a starter on this unit, Sunseri receives more than his fair share of playing time. The main reason is because he helps to set the tone of fierceness and energy that Alabama is known for playing with. Another reason is that he plays in such a cerebral and smart way that he rarely makes mistakes.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Vinnie's father Sal, as the Tennessee defensive coordinator has put together a woeful unit at Rocky Top and is certainly on his way out.

Bama's defense could use a lesson in energy and smarts after letting LSU experience uncharacteristic offensive success against them and blowing multiple assignments downfield against Texas A&M. Though he's just a sophomore, Sunseri is wise beyond his years and he needs to inspire his teammates through this crucial stretch.


Nico Johnson, Linebacker

Alabama senior linebacker Nico Johnson is usually the most pointed-to player on the Bama defense due to the way he holds the defense together, but he was uncharacteristically irrelevant against the Aggies.

After being a beast and in on every play against LSU, where he finished with 12 tackles, Johnson finished with just two tackles in Saturday's loss.

Leadership at the linebacker position can make or break a defense. He's usually regarded as the quarterback of the unit, making sure his players are in place and cleaning up more plays than anyone else. 

Without Johnson's usual stamp on the game, the Crimson Tide struggled to keep things from getting out of control as Manziel had his way with the Alabama defense. 

Johnson will have to get his unit together and figure out how to get more tackles to keep Alabama's title hopes alive.