Good isn't good enough for Nick Saban, especially regarding Alabama's defense

Crimson Tide's focus this week is on 'fixing' its defense, and playing up to its high standard

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The numbers stood out, 31 points and 405 yards allowed. Normally you’d say it’s not that big of a deal considering that Alabama scored 65 points at Arkansas and cruised to another big victory.

But this is Alabama.

And this is Nick Saban:

“I don’t think we’ve played well together as a team,” he said. “We don’t always strike the blockers up front. We haven’t always fit the runs exactly like we’d like as linebackers. The secondary run support has not always been as good as it needs to be. We’ve given up a lot of yards in the fourth quarter too, which sometimes when you look at the statistics, that sort of throws things off a little bit.

“I think in one game we gave 158 yards in the last 17 plays of the game when the twos were in there, but we’re still not very satisfied with where we are as a defensive team.”

Saban’s not just blowing smoke, or trying to keep the players focused through a four-game stretch in which the No. 1 Crimson Tide isn’t facing a ranked opponent. There’s genuine concern about the play of the defense, which has been good, but hardly great.

Alabama is known for its defense and has a reputation to uphold. It’s used to either being ranked first nationally in each of the four major defensive categories, or challenging the team at the top. Instead, the last five opponents have rushed for, in order, 173, 115, 130, 200 and 172 yards.

“We haven’t really been playing to the Alabama defense standard,” sophomore nose tackle Quinnen Williams said. “We’ve been doing good, we’ve been doing well, but Alabama’s defense don’t make a lot of mental errors that we’ve been making and stuff like that. We can’t just sit and give excuses about it. We have to build on it and build a new standard.

“We’re going into this game like a whole new season, basically.”

Junior linebacker Mack Wilson didn’t need to do an interview to voice the same sentiment. Egged on by some negative comments on social media he vowed fans will see “a more dominant Alabama defense” beginning with Saturday’s homecoming game against Missouri (6 p.m., ESPN).

Overall, as Williams suggested, the defense hasn’t been that bad, just giving up the occasional big play.

Even though there are eight-plus new starters and a revamped coaching, the Crimson Tide’s statistics have been pretty respectable.

• Rushing: Tied 48th (134.3 yards)

• Total: 25th(332.2 yards)

• Scoring: 12th(16.0)

• Passing efficiency: 10th(101.11)

The passer efficiency rating especially is better than most expected with everyone in the dime package stepping up into starting roles and Alabama began the season against offensively challenging Louisville, Arkansas State and Ole Miss.

The Crimson Tide is also 14thon third-down defense (.294 percent), tied for 17thin sacks (3.17), tied for seventh in turnovers gained with 13.

It ranks 18thin the red zone (inside the 20), but that’s always a deceptive stat due to giving the same weight to touchdowns and field goals scored. Opponents have been in the red zone 18 times and only scored 10 touchdowns, with three field goals.

However, in the SEC those numbers can be pretty average.

“None of the guys on defense were satisfied with what we did,” sophomore linebacker Dylan Moses said.

Going by how Saban defines explosive plays (rushes of 13-plus yards as pass completions of 17-plus), the last three opponents have all had seven. Ole Miss, though, only had three, which is more of what the coach would like to see.

Before junior cornerback Trevon Diggs suffered a fractured foot, there were three major areas of concern that the Crimson Tide defense needed to address this week.

1] Tight end screens

This was something new by Arkansas, which stole an idea from the Kansas City Chiefs and had the tight ends initially block and then catch a screen pass. When they’d release the pass-rusher they’d almost push him into the backfield to help with the separation.

“A couple of those plays last week, I think three of them, are where the guy blocked, blocked, blocked, and we kind of released them in coverage, whoever had them, and then a lineman gets in between you and the tight end and they throw them a little screen,” Saban said. “We hadn't seen that play prior to last week's game. It didn't kill us in the game, but it is certainly something we need to defend better in the future. It is a difficult play.”

The key is that instead of rushing the passer the defender has to stay on his guy. Alabama made the adjustment but you know other opponent will now try it.

2] Wheel/release routes

The linebackers have had trouble with picking up route runners out of the backfield all season, and other players have been open after the linebackers release the player in coverage and the defensive backs pick them up.

That’s due to lack of experience and communication.

“We get a lot of multiples in games sometimes that we don't practice,” Saban said.

Having younger players also results in adjustments taking longer because it’s unfamiliar territory to he players.

“It's more of just getting our heads to the sideline and trying to get the call first so we can communicate it to everybody,” Moses said. “It's not just one person, it's everybody that has to communicate. Not just one person trying to get it to all 10 other people. I feel like that's one thing we're really going to have to work on this week because we're going against a really great quarterback and a really great passing game.”

3] The running game

Saban said he thought the defense was close to having a top-notch performance only to see Rakeem Boyd become the first Arkansas player to rush for 100 yards against Alabama since Daren McFadden in 2007.

Overall, only 15 opposing players have topped 100 rushing yards since Saban arrived in 2007, but its happened in back-to-back weeks with Louisiana-Lafayette’s Trey Ragas having 111 on 16 carries, and Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond would have as well if sacks didn’t count against his rushing totals.

That’s very un-Alabama like, but again communication and experience are the key moving forward. For example, one of the Razorbacks’ longest runs occurred when Surtain collided with a linebacker and safety while trying to keep up with his man in motion.

“We’ve been getting by,” Williams said. “But, we haven’t been playing to the standard we want to play to and we’re going to begin to start playing to the standard that we want to play to so we can be the defense that we want to play like.”

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