Last year’s defense returned only two starters from the 2009 national championship season, including only one starter from the defensive backfield. But the expectations for that side of the ball were still extremely high. The offense was expected to rank among the best in school history and coupled with a Nick Saban-coached defense…well, let’s just say we all liked our chances of repeating. The pollsters agreed and Bama started the year ranked #1 in most polls.
The defensive statistics for 2010 actually turned out to be very good.
** Last year’s defense ranked first in the conference for the third straight year and only allowed 286.4 yards per game. That was also good enough for fifth best in the country.
** The defense led the conference in fewest points allowed with 13.5 per game – almost five points per game better than second place LSU. That was good for third best in the country.
** The defense finished fourth in the nation with 22 interceptions.
There are other statistics that could be pulled out, but you get the idea. Statistically, it was a very good unit.
The statistics are even more impressive when you consider the hurdles faced. Don’ta Hightower played at less than full speed due to recovery from a knee injury; Marcel Dareus and Courtney Upshaw both played with nagging ankle sprains for most of the year; Dareus missed a couple of games due to suspension; a walk-on was a key sub in the defensive backfield; and we started a true freshman at cornerback for much of the year. The unit also played without safety Robby Green who was suspended for the entire year and without safety Rod Woodson who was kicked off the team before the season.
Despite these incredible numbers and the hurdles cleared, though, there appeared to be something missing. The defense never seemed to jell and struggled to dominate opponents.
Maybe it was because of injuries or suspensions or youth, or maybe it was a hangover from 2009.
Statistically, the reason seems to be that we struggled to dominate the line of scrimmage. We didn’t play in our opponent’s backfield and didn’t consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks. Struggling up front put more pressure on our young defensive backfield and left them susceptible to big plays. There are a couple of statistics that point this out. One is fourth down conversions in league play. The Tide ranked 10th in the league and gave up a conference-high 15 conversions. A couple of other stats show the Tide ranking tenth in the conference in fumbles caused (9) and ranking 11th in the conference in tackles for loss per game.
These particular stats are highlighted in our three losses. Despite the overall great numbers, the defense seemed unable to create a big play or force a momentum change, when it absolutely had to.
Witness the South Carolina game. After being gashed in the first half and withstanding the emotion of the Carolina fans, the Tide cut the lead to 21-14 with about five minutes left in the third quarter. The Bama defense proceeded to allow drives of 10 plays and 15 plays to allow the Gamecocks to put the game away. We couldn’t get the Gamecocks off the field when it mattered most.
Witness the LSU game where an erratic Tiger offense was allowed to gain 433 yards. Although aided by a Alabama fumble, the defense gave up 14 points in the fourth quarter. We were dominated in the fourth quarter.
Witness the Auburn game. Well, actually, let’s not.
When the overall defensive statistics are so impressive it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint what the exact problem is, but I believe our problem in 2010 was that we just couldn’t control the line of scrimmage. Perhaps that was youth, perhaps it was because of injuries or perhaps it was lack of desire.
So to me, the question for this year’s defense is can we control the line of scrimmage. That’s not just stuffing the run on first and second down; it’s playing in the opponent’s backfield all game and sacking opposing quarterbacks. If we can do this, we’ll be very hard to beat. If we can’t we’ll probably have a very good season record-wise and statistics-wise, but we’ll be very disappointed with the results.