When Nick Saban landed in Tuscaloosa back in January 2007, he brought along his vaunted 3-4 defensive scheme.
For those that may not know, this scheme, in it’s most vanilla form, employs three down linemen and four linebackers. A fourth down lineman is often added when one of the linebackers (the “jack”) lines up with his hand on the ground, or he lines up near the line of scrimmage.
For this defensive scheme to work, the defensive line needs to be dominant. True, that’s said about nearly every defensive scheme, but in Saban’s 3-4, it’s a must. There are two primary reasons for this:
1) The Double Team
The three or four down defensive linemen in a 3-4 must force the five offensive linemen to account for them. That means someone along the defensive front must draw a double team. When this happens, it becomes four defensive players vs. five offensive players along the line of scrimmage and this leaves seven defenders to account for the other six offensive players. This allows the defense to play stronger vs. the run and gives the defense an extra defender against the passing game.
In a 3-4, the nose tackle position is designed to attract this double-team.
No offense, to Wallace Gilberry, but when Saban arrived in 2007, we didn’t have this type of player along the defensive front. In 2008, we got one – junior college transfer Terrence (“Mount”) Cody. This mountain of a human didn’t look like the prototypical nose tackle at 6’5″, but his girth and athleticism made him the bedrock of the 2008 and 2009 defenses because he was born to garner double-teams and stuff the run.
Waiting in the significant shadow of Cody was a player named Josh Chapman. He was more of the typical nose – shorter and closer to 300 pounds. But – and this is a big but – he was one of the strongest players on the team and tougher than a pine knot. So while we definitely missed Cody, the 2010 and 2011 defenses plugged along quite well with Chapman in the middle gathering double-teams and stuffing the run.
Last year, we became a lot more familiar with another freak – Jesse Williams. Weird hairdos and tattoos aside, Williams was also hyped as one of the strongest players in America last year. He didn’t arrive in Tuscaloosa as a nose tackle, but was more than capable of holding down the middle and played very well.
So, for the last five years Bama’s defensive line – especially the nose tackle – has been able to force double-teams, which creates defensive mismatches, and has been able to clog the middle running lanes. That’s not the total story on defense, but for a 3-4 defense, it’s where you start.
Junior Brandon Ivory is the heir apparent at nose this year. He played in 13 games last year backing up Williams, with one start, and played in four games as a freshman. Can he fill the continue the Cody-Chapman-Williams tradition of owning the middle of the line of scrimmage?
I truly don’t know. There certainly isn’t the buzz surrounding Ivory that we’ve heard about the last three players at nose, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get the job done.
2) Owning the Edge
The other primary reason for a dominant defensive front is to own the edge of the line of scrimmage.
If you create a double-team with your nose tackle, in theory, it allows your remaining three defensive linemen to play one-on-one with the remaining three offensive linemen.
From a running game perspective, this helps keep blockers off of your linebackers and allows the linebackers to play the run more effectively. The one-on-one match ups also help the ends and jacks to set the edge and contain and stop the run.
From a passing game perspective, it’s the same scenario. If you can create a double-team with the nose tackle, in theory, it allows the defenders on the edge to face only one man on their way to the backfield.
[Alternate strategies also involve either double-teaming a dominant edge player or bringing in a tight end to offset the numbers mismatch. Either way, these scenarios still work out numbers-wise to benefit the defense.]
So what does this mean for 2013 and why does the defensive line make the list of top questions for this season?
Well, this is a transition year for the defensive line.
Last year’s starters were Williams (nose), Stinson and Square (ends) and Adrian Hubbard at jack. Key backups were Quinton Dial (end and nose), Xzavier Dickson (jack), Jeoffrey Pagan (end) and Brandon Ivory (nose) and D.J. Pettway. Williams, Square and Dial are gone, taking with them 27 starts. Pettway, a promising backup, is also no longer with the team.
These guys all played well – how could they not when the defense was the top rated in the country? – but I do have several concerns heading into this season:
* A lot of leadership was lost with the departure of Square and Williams. Stinson and Hubbard will not only need to play at a high level, but they’ll also need to lead at a high level as well.
* It remains to be seen if there’s a truly dominant player among the edge rushers. By that I mean the Upshaw, Hightower and Dareus kind of dominant player. These guys we have were all highly recruited so it shouldn’t be a shock if one emerges, but I’m not sure I see one just yet. Hubbard, at 6’6′ playing the jack spot, is the most likely candidate. At least the draft experts for 2014 think so.
* We head into this season with the most uncertainty at nose tackle since 2007. Ivory (6’4″ and 310 pounds) will sport a new number this year (#99) and we’ll need a solid season from the junior this year. We’ll also need to develop some depth at this spot.
For sure, this isn’t a very detailed look at the 3-4 defensive scheme; my assessments are very basic. But it doesn’t take an expert to tell that there are some big holes and shoes to fill along the defensive line.
And while there have only been a few “dominant”-type players along the defensive line in Saban’s six years at Bama, obviously the defense – from top to bottom – has played incredibly well. It’s also very obvious that Saban has stockpiled some serious talent on this roster – and that includes ends, nose tackles and jack linebackers.
So, like with my take on running backs, it could be a case of over analyzing. That’s a very real possibility. But the defensive line is in transition and that makes this a legitimate question. My guess is, though, it’ll be fun to watch the stars rise.