Alabama Football: Could the Crimson Tide's Defense Be in Decline?

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Alabama Football: Could the Crimson Tide's Defense Be in Decline?
Butch Dill/Associated Press
Could Alabama's best defense with Nick Saban and Kirby Smart vein the rearview mirror?

Any history buff can tell you that "all good things must come to an end," a line that stems from Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem titled Troilus and Criseyde.

As far as we know, it holds true for everything, from a riveting book to a bowl of ice cream. Even six of the Seven Ancient Wonders eventually crumbled, leaving just the Great Pyramid in Giza to stand alone in Egypt, although time has worn away the majority of its façade.

The point is even the most stanch structures and strongest elements eventually weaken, and while such metaphors have been overused in sports, they’re also true.

So when the University of Alabama defense gave up 296 rushing yards to Auburn and 348 passing yards to Oklahoma, resulting in both of its defeats last season, many started to wonder if the Crimson Tide’s defense was starting to show signs of decline.

It’s a worthwhile question, especially considering how the game is becoming so offense-friendly thanks to the popularity of the no-huddle, spread and run-as-many-plays-as-you-can philosophies.

Even in the Southeastern Conference, which has long been thought of as the league with the best defensive play, last year’s numbers were nothing short of alarming. Whereas small increases and one-year aberrations had been the norm, 2013 was like a jump on a seismograph when an earthquake hits.

SEC Numbers on the Rise
Category 1992 1997 2003 2008 2013
Scoring offense 21.7 25.7 27.3 25.6 31.7
Total offense 335.1 372.6 376.9 342.9 432.5
Rushing offense 167.4 144.0 157.8 147.1 197.0
Passing offense 167.7 232.4 219.1 195.8 235.5
Scoring defense 18.8 21.2 22.5 20.5 24.8
Total defense 315.1 339.1 346.0 309.4 379.8
Rushing defense 145.8 121.5 137.7 122.3 161.0
Passing defense 315.1 217.5 208.9 187.1 218.7

Southeastern Conference

The 14 teams averaged 31.7 points, 432.5 yards of total offense and 197 rushing yards per game, all SEC records since it expanded from 10 to 12 teams in 1992.

Passing yards were up to 235.5 per game, exceeded only by the 245.1 in 2001.

On the flip side, the defensive statistical counterparts were all the highest the league had seen, and many of Alabama’s numbers were up as well. In the four big categories—total defense, passing efficiency defense, rushing defense and scoring defense—the Crimson Tide had their worst national rankings since Nick Saban’s first year at the Capstone in 2007.

The same was true in third-down defense, and Alabama had its worst showing yet under the coach in turnovers gained.

Alabama Defense National Rankings (2007-13)
Year Total Pass Efficiency Rushing Scoring 3rd Down Turnovers
2007 31 38 28 27 73 59
2008 T3 14 2 7 3 42
2009 2 2 2 2 T6 10
2010 5 6 10 3 12 30
2011 1 1 1 1 1 77
2012 1 7 1 1 13 20
2013 5 26 7 4 24 T80

NCAA

However, Saban hasn’t stood still since the Crimson Tide’s shot at a three-peat fell short.

First off, he made major changes to the coaching staff, moving defensive coordinator Kirby Smart back to being the position coach of the safeties. He got Kevin Steele to turn down an offer to become the defensive coordinator at Louisville and oversee Alabama's interior linebackers, and he rehired Bo Davis as the defensive line coach.

Alabama’s recruiting strategy has also been changing, targeting interior linebackers who can drop back into coverage like C.J. Mosley, and safety/linebacker hybrids to play in the middle as part of the nickel and dime packages. Defensive line depth became a higher priority, and the Crimson Tide coaches went all out to land the two cornerbacks topping their wish list at the position this year: Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images
How fast players like former 5-star recruit Reuben Foster develop will determine a lot of Alabama's success this season.
Consequently, Alabama will head into the fall with a staggering nine defensive players who were considered 5-star recruits according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, and it's pretty obvious what Saban is looking for out of them. 

“Just consistency with those guys, understanding their run fits, understanding their pass coverage all the time, how to do it, being consistent with it,” Saban said about the interior linebackers at one point this spring.

“Eddie was having a great spring and probably our best corner, most consistent,” he said when sophomore Eddie Jackson sustained a knee injury.

“I think we have a lot of experienced players. (D.J.) Pettway and (Jarran) Reed add a lot of depth and athleticism to that group,” Saban said about the defensive line. “A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen were both freshmen last year, and I always say that you make the most improvement between your freshman and sophomore year.”

Is Alabama's defense on the decline?

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While it appears to be too early to say that Alabama’s D is in decline, Saban and Smart’s best unit may be behind them as some consider the 2011 defense to be one of the best in college football history—and the numbers back that up. Nevertheless, avoiding setbacks like the defensive backs had in last year’s 49-42 shootout win at Texas A&M would be an important step this season.

That’s tricky, especially considering how many standout players have left early for the NFL during the past few years, but the 2014 defense should only get better as the season progresses and the younger talent develops. 

“We’ve just got to keep working and developing depth,” Saban said at the end of spring. “[I] feel like I have a few more guys that have a good understanding of what we’re doing. We just seem to not be making as many mental errors as we have in the past at this time.”

 

Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

Follow @CrimsonWalsh

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