April 14, 2010

Limiting big gains will be crucial to Tide's success

TUSCALOOSA _ Although University of Alabama coach Nick Saban frequently talks about explosive plays with his players and during press conferences, he isn't just referring to when the Crimson Tide has the ball.

Stopping explosive plays is just as important, if not more so, than executing them.

"The more explosive plays the offense has the better chance for them to win the game, so the more explosive plays we take away the better chance for us," defensive end Damion Square said Tuesday evening.

While the offense has the prescribed Saban goal of nine explosive plays per game, the defense has a much simpler focus and approach.

"None," Square said. "No explosive plays."

How many times did Alabama do that last season while winning the national championship?

Just once.

The average opponent had 4 explosive plays and the Crimson Tide gave up more big gains as the season progressed, although that also had to do with facing tougher opponents like Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and Texas for the national title.

Saban has said in the past that he considers an explosive play a run of 13 yards or more or a pass of 17 yards or more. Here's the defensive breakdown from 2009:

Virginia Tech: 3
Florida International: 3
North Texas: 3
Arkansas: 6
Kentucky: 4
Ole Miss: 5
South Carolina: 2
Tennessee: 5
LSU: 5
Mississippi State: 5
Chattanooga: 0
Auburn: 8
Florida: 8
Texas: 6

Overall, opponents had 63 explosive plays compared to Alabama's 104. Twice as many were passes (42), than from a run (21) - although nine of those carries were by quarterbacks. The Tide shut out four opponents on the ground: Florida International, North Texas, Tennessee and Chattanooga.

Three teams had more explosive plays against Alabama. Auburn was plus-five, Tennessee two and Ole Miss one while Arkansas tied. Not surprisingly, those first two came the closest to beating the Tide, while the Rebels and Razorbacks both found themselves in early holes and never seriously threatened.

Still, Alabama's defense was considered outstanding. It ranked second in total defense (244.14 yards), scoring defense (11.71 points), rushing defense (78.14 yards) and pass-efficiency defense (138.50 rating). It created 31 turnovers (seven fumble recoveries and 24 interceptions), while the Tide gave up only 12.

It boasted the Butkus Award winner for linebacker of the year with Rolando McClain, two other first-team All-Americans in cornerback Javier Arenas and nose tackle Terrence Cody, and next week cornerback Kareem Jackson could join a teammate or two as a first-round draft pick.

Yet no one on the Tide is ready to concede anything.

"From top to bottom, we have so much speed," quarterback Greg McElroy said. "It's just unbelievable. We might not have the size we had last year, obviously with Rolando being 265-, 270-pound middle linebacker, and Dont'a right next to him and Cory (Reamer), our guys might be a little bit smaller right now but they're tenacious and they play extremely hard.

"I don't know whether or not they're playing with a chip on their shoulder, but they're playing with a vengeance. They're really making it difficult for us."

Actually, they are playing with a chip, not to mention the extra motivation of competition, because all they've been hearing is the talk:

- Alabama has to replace at least eight starters (Nico Johnson got three starts last season at weakside linebacker after Dont'a Hightower was lost for the season due to a knee injury).

- It will never be able to replace Cody in the middle, McClain's leadership or the experienced cornerbacks.

- The defense is the weakness and too young for the Tide to repeat as national champions.

"It's motivation," said safety Mark Barron, a third-team All-American.

"I can't speak for everybody else but we lost a lot of seniors, a lot of veterans," Hightower said earlier this spring. "With the young guys we have here if we can teach them techniques and the way to do things right I feel like we have a little bit more talent this year than last year."

The biggest test, of course, will come in the secondary, where everyone but Barron must be replaced on the two-depth chart including the nickel and dime backs. One of the key statistics that will measure their effectiveness and growth next season, and for the defense as a whole, will be explosive plays.

"We talk about making a legacy of our own," defensive end Marcell Dareus said. "We can't live on the past."



 

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