Why Alabama's D Can't Stop the Spread and How Nick Saban Is Going to Fix It

Sanjay Kirpalani@@SanjayKirpalaniNational Recruiting AnalystMarch 6, 2014

Jan 2, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban yells in the second half against the Oklahoma Sooners at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Oklahoma defeated Alabama 45-31. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Spor

After consecutive season-ending losses to Auburn and Oklahoma, Alabama enters the 2014 season in a transition period similar to the early stages of Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa, Ala. 

With the Tigers and the Sooners gashing the Tide’s defense using tempo-based offenses, Saban and his staff are going back to the drawing board in hopes of making adjustments to slow those attacks this fall.

In the midst of making his annual rounds at the Senior Bowl in January, Saban spoke to Sirius/XM NFL Radio’s Movin’ the Chains about how spread offenses are forcing the Tide to adapt defensively.

“It’s been a little more difficult for us playing against some of the spread teams because we built our team at Alabama to beat power teams like LSU and Georgia,” Saban said. “Now, our league has changed dramatically, so we are going to have to change a little bit in terms of the kind of fast-twitch guys we recruit to play against the kind of offenses we see. “

So what are the key areas in which he will look to adjust his defense in preparation to face these styles of offenses in 2014?

Butch Dill/Associated Press

Redefine the Scheme

While offensive and defensive schemes can vary in complexity, in the end, simple concepts win out.

The comparison Saban mentioned to MTC hosts Jim Miller and Pat Kirwan was something that’s commonplace in the NBA. The player who ultimately gets the ball to take the shot is decided after the matchups are set once the ball crosses the midcourt line. His conclusion was that the same principle applies in football. 

A player such as former Tide All-American and current Bucs safety Mark Barron—a big and physical safety who has the range and cover skills to match up on bigger tight ends and receivers flexed out in a formation as well as be a box player that is stout against the run—was a rare talent who helped counter offensive adjustments without requiring a substitution. 

“Those guys (Barron) are hard to find, though,” Saban said. “I think that’s why we see more scoring on offense, especially in college, than ever before, because of pace of play and the kind of mismatch players that offensive coordinators are making it difficult for defensive coordinators to match up with.”

Moving forward, expect Saban to employ schemes that hinge on athleticism and versatility, even if those traits sometimes come at the expense of the type of size that has defined his units during his tenure in Tuscaloosa.

Average Size of Alabama's DE and LB Signees Since 2009
Average Size and PositionQuantityHeightWeight
Avg size of DE's from 2009-1296'4"271
Avg size of DE's from 2013-1446'4"263
Avg size of LB's from 2009-12156'2"236
Avg size of LB's from 2013-1466'2"229
All data courtesy of 247Sports

Get More Athletic on the Defensive Line

The pace of the offenses such as those employed by SEC West foes Texas A&M and Auburn are tough to stop, but the issues they posed were exacerbated because of dual-threat passers such as Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall.

Alabama’s use of the 3-4 scheme has typically relied on bigger linemen up front whose main job was to hold the point of attack, take on blocks and maintain their gaps.  When it came to applying pressure and getting sacks, those responsibilities were usually delegated to outside linebackers and blitzing defensive backs.

However, with quarterbacks becoming threats in the run game and reversing the numbers game in the box in favor of offenses, having athletic defensive ends has become a priority.

“You have to have guys playing on the edges that actually can get the guy (quarterback) on the ground,” Saban said.

Getting 5-star talents at defensive end such as Jonathan Allen and Da’Shawn Hand, per 247 Sports, in the last two recruiting classes is a step toward redefining what the Tide is looking for on the edges of their defensive line.

Sep 14, 2013; College Station, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies  quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) scrambles in the fourth quarter against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive end Jonathan Allen (93) and Jeoffrey Pagan (8) at Kyle Field. Alabama Crimson Tide beat the Tex
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Expand Versatility at Every Level

The defensive line isn’t the only position that will require players who can be effective in multiple roles and schemes.

Saban will demand that type of versatility at all three levels of his defense. With linebackers and defensive backs, finding players who can remain physical in run support and be adept in pass coverage is critical.

“I think the offensive guys have made you go look for and find guys that can play like that (hybrid roles),” Saban said. “I think a guy like our guy, C.J. Mosley, who can actually play in the box but can go walk out there and cover a guy like that, that’s why those guys are at a premium now.”

Alabama has benefited from being able to find role players who specialize in one particular area, but pace has helped offenses negate those type of players to a degree. Finding versatile pieces—such as Barron, Mosley and Vinnie Sunseri—who can line up at different positions is more of a premium moving forward.

“The diversity of what you have to play against in college, whether it’s a power-running team versus a spread team, you have to have the kind of players on your team with which you can defeat both,” Saban said. “If you are not ready to do that, you are going to have problems winning certain kinds of games.”

Jan 2, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley (32) runs toward Oklahoma Sooners ball carrier during the second half of the Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Simplify the Playbook

Saban has long been lauded for his NFL-style schemes and his reputation as a master of making in-game adjustments. However, another issue posed by tempo offenses is that they force defenses to show their cards quicker instead of being able to disguise pre-snap looks. 

Instead of trying to match schemes and run complex defenses, the opposite approach may be the best option against hurry-up attacks.

“I think relative to whatever circumstance you are in, you are going to win or lose the game on execution,” Saban said. “So if you try to do too much, and your players can’t execute it, you better get ready to pare down and make sure you are repping what you are going to play so they will have the best opportunity to execute in the game.”

One of the most important principles of Saban’s process revolves around the ability of his players to maintain their focus on their individual responsibility on every single play.

That type of discipline has to extend to the coaches and how they prepare to scheme and match up against hurry-up, no-huddle offenses.

“So how you prepare and practice, those things are really important,” Saban said. “Those decisions to me are just as important as what you do, is how much do you do and how much can you practice so your players are ready to go out there and execute it in a game?”


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