Alabama’s 2017 defense was better than most realize

Linebacker Rashaan Evans was one of eight Alabama defenders selected in the 2018 NFL Draft.Christopher Walsh/Bama Central

Alabama's 2017 defense came very close to matching an impressive achievement by the 2011 Crimson Tide

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Considering the way Alabama won the national championship, with a dramatic comeback and overtime touchdown pass, the performance of the Crimson Tide defense was largely overlooked.

Even after the offense was absolutely stagnant during the first half, Alabama yielded only one touchdown drive and two field goals to keep the Crimson Tide within striking range.

The Bulldogs did connect for an 8-yard touchdown early in the third quarter, but from that point on Georgia’s longest possessions were six plays for 36 yards and seven plays for 28 yards.

“It's as physical and big as a defense there is,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said, and he obviously knows as well as anyone. For years he was Nick Saban’s right-hand man with the Crimson Tide defense.

Although some believe that Georgia’s backfield, with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift, was one of the best in Southeastern Conference history, the Bulldogs managed just 133 rushing yards and averaged 3.0 yards per carry.

Granted, some of that’s due to the subtraction of the sack yards, but Alabama’s offense averaged 4.7 yards per attempt and had more big plays on the ground.

“It's hard to run the ball against Alabama,” Smart said. “It's really tough. That's what makes them great.”

With defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne playing the best at the end of his Crimson Tide career and the secondary sporting experienced veterans across the board, Alabama clearly had the best defense in college football.

That’s despite having to replace seven starters from the previous team who were are selected in the NFL draft, including three in the first round: cornerback Marlon Humphrey, defensive end Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reuben Foster, followed by linebacker Ryan Anderson, defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson and safety Eddie Jackson.

Moreover, seven of the top nine linebackers on the Week 1 depth chart suffered a major setback of some sort,

And Alabama’s defense got, dare we say, better?

Statistically it was. The 2016 Crimson Tide was tougher to run against, but the 2017 team still finished first nationally in run defense and gave up fewer points.

YearTotalScoringRushingPass Eff.

  • 2007: 345.5 (31); 22.9 (27); 124.2 (28); 117.2 (38)
  • 2008: 263.5 (3); 14.3 (7); 74.1 (2); 106.7 (14)
  • 2009: 244.1 (2); 11.7 (2); 78.1 (2); 87.7 (2)
  • 2010: 286.4 (5); 13.5 (3); 110.2 (10); 103.5 (6)
  • 2011: 183.6 (1); 8.2 (1); 72.2 (1); 83.7 (1)
  • 2012: 250.0 (1); 10.9 (1); 76.4 (1); 103.7 (7)
  • 2013: 286.5 (5); 13.9 (4); 106.2 (7); 116.8 (26)
  • 2014: 328.4 (12); 18.4 (6); 102.4 (4); 116.5 (30)
  • 2015: 276.3 (3); 15.1 (3); 75.7 (1); 105.2 (8)
  • 2016: 261.8 (2); 13.0 (1); 63.9 (1); 106.5 (9)
  • 2017: 260.4 (1); 11.9 (1); 94.7 (1); 96.78 (2)

Consequently, Alabama came incredibly close to becoming just the third team since the NCAA started keeping track in 1937 to finish first in the nation in each of thefour key defensive categories.

Wisconsin, with a defensive passer-efficiency rating of 96.39, prevented the sweep, and just barely.

The only other defenses to do so were the 1986 Oklahoma Sooners and the 2011 Crimson Tide.

Even if Alabama had pulled it off the 2011 defense would still be considered the best of the Nick Saban era. It just didn’t top each category, but blew away the field while also leading the nation in passing defense, third-down defense, red-zone defense and three-and-outs.

Alabama's Dominating 2011 Defense

Category;(Rank) Statistic;Second Team (Total);Difference

  • Total D: (1) 183.62 yards; LSU (261.5); 77.88
  • Rush D: (1) 72.15 yards; Florida State (82.69); 10.54
  • Pass-Eff. D: (1) 83.69 rating; South Carolina (94.22); 10.53
  • Scoring D: (1) 8.15 points; LSU (11.29); 3.14

Alabama faced five 1,000-yard running backs: Michael Dyer of Auburn, Silas Redd of Penn State, Zac Stacy of Vanderbilt, Vick Ballard of Mississippi State and Lance Dunbar of North Texas. They averaged 30.8 yards (65 carries for 154 yards) and combined to score one rushing touchdown.

Against everyone else, they accumulated 1,084 carries for 5,826 yards (a 100.4 average) and 50 touchdowns.

Alabama's 2011 defense didn't give up a touchdown during its only loss and shut out LSU 21-0 in the BCS Championship Game.

The key players were Josh Chapman, Jesse Williams and Damion Square on the line, with Quinton Dial and Ed Stinson in relief. The linebackers featured C.J. Mosley, Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Nico Johnson and Adrian Hubbard. The secondary had Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, Robert Lester, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner.

They set the standard.