Examining How The Red Zone Exposed Alabama’s Defensive Issues In 2019
During Alabama coach Nick Saban's first press conference of the 2020 season on Monday, he was asked (in a less abrasive way) the question that forms the foundation of the Crimson Tide's 2020 season:
What are you gonna do about the defense?
He began in typical Saban fashion — "Well, I think we need to improve overall on defense" — but then outlined several areas in which the defense can improve from last season. He listed points allowed, run defense, leadership and physicality at the line of scrimmage, but there's one area the coach mentioned that encompasses all of those: the red zone.
Alabama was fine between the 20s last season; only six FBS teams allowed opponents to reach the red zone fewer times. But once they got inside the 20, it was a different story.
Alabama's defense allowed touchdowns inside the 20 at a higher rate last year than Missouri, South Carolina and Ole Miss. When opponent field goals are included, the team's rank drops to 12th in the conference, ahead of only Ole Miss and Arkansas, and 74th in the FBS. The Crimson Tide ranked sixth in the FBS in the same statistic last year, and 18th the year before that.
Another way to evaluate a team's red-zone defense is average points allowed per red-zone drive. In that metric, Alabama tied for sixth in the SEC and 49th in the FBS with 4.78 points allowed per red-zone drive.
The Crimson Tide's 18.6 points allowed per game last year was its highest average since 2007, Saban's first season in Tuscaloosa. After not allowing more than 45 points in Saban's first 176 games at Alabama, his defense did so twice last November: against LSU (46 points) and at Auburn (48 points).
Saban has acknowledged that rule changes across college football make defense significantly more difficult. When Alabama won the national championship in 2011, it allowed just eight points per game; now, twice that number is still considered elite (Alabama's 18.6 points allowed per game in 2019 was still 13th in the FBS).
The Crimson Tide allowed 25.4 points per SEC game last year, including giving up at least 23 points in five of its eight conference matchups. In 2018, when Alabama reached the national championship game, it allowed 14.1 points per SEC regular-season game. The year before, when it won the title, it allowed 12.3 points to conference opponents.
The difference between Alabama's rank in red-zone drives allowed (seventh) and points allowed per red-zone drive (49th) was the largest in the SEC, showing the disparity between its "regular" defense and its red-zone defense.
So, let's take a look at some of those red-zone touchdowns Alabama allowed last season through the lens of the issues Saban pointed out on Monday.
Saban's mantra on defense has been strength through the middle at all three levels: the D-line controlling the line of scrimmage, the linebackers being well-rounded in the box and in coverage, and the safeties providing the last line of defense.
Last year, Alabama's two inside linebackers and three of its top five D-linemen were true freshmen.
Saban said Monday that the defense "just [has] to get more physical at the line of scrimmage." That's an understandable problem for a defense with that much youth, but for Saban, it's no excuse.
In the first clip, true freshmen D.J. Dale and Shane Lee are on the field. In the second, Tennessee runs right at freshmen Lee, Christian Harris and Byron Young and redshirt sophomore Phidarian Mathis. In the third, it's Young, Mathis, Lee and backup linebacker Markail Benton.
With the team's new strength and conditioning duo of David Ballou and Matt Rhea receiving rave reviews, perhaps the youthful defensive front will develop into the dominant unit that has become a staple at Alabama.
Only four FBS teams allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than Alabama's nine, so this doesn't seem like much of an issue, but it's not what we're used to seeing from a Saban defense.
From 2008 to 2016, Alabama averaged six rushing touchdowns allowed per year, only allowing more than eight once. In each of the last three seasons, though, it has allowed at least nine.
Unforced errors were partially to blame, too.
Mobile quarterbacks and misdirection also factor into this discussion. Eleven of the 29 rushing touchdowns Alabama has allowed over the last three seasons have been to quarterbacks. That leads logically to the final issue: communication and leadership.
Just over a year ago, it appeared that Alabama would have one of its most experienced inside linebacker duos under Saban: fifth-year senior Joshua McMillon and junior Dylan Moses.
Then both were lost for the season, and freshmen Shane Lee and Christian Harris stepped in. Moses complimented their efforts on Tuesday, saying "they did really great," but the difference on the field was stark.
It's easy to imagine Moses patrolling the defense before each of these snaps, reminding teammates to be disciplined with their eyes or clarifying coverage assignments. Saban said Monday that the team needs better leadership and that Moses can provide it. The linebacker agreed.
"I feel like me being out there gives guys a sense of confidence in our communications so we’ll be able to communicate from one side of the field to the other," Moses said. "Of course I feel like I could have made a difference. But you can’t look back at the past or reminisce on things. You have to keep moving forward."