Terrell Lewis went on a tear in October. Five of his 10 1/2 tackles for a loss and four of his six sacks came in those three games, plus six of 16 quarterback hurries in one game, against Arkansas.
For most, it was a show of Lewis can be when he’s not plagued by injury, as he has been for most of his University of Alabama football career. Lewis saw another contributing factor.
Lewis would often look across the formation and see another outside linebacker, Anfernee Jennings. Together they have wreaked havoc on opposing backfields, and UA has adjusted to put them on the field together more often.
For years, the UA defense used a base front of three defensive linemen, two inside linebackers and one outside linebacker. In recent weeks, UA has used more fronts that feature two outside linebackers because, as UA coach Nick Saban said, “they’re both playmakers.”
“I think they’ve both played very well,” Saban said. “I think that’s improved our pass rush, helped us on the edges in terms of the overall defense and I think it’s important that we continue to have both of those guys for the remainder of the season because it makes a huge difference, I think, athletically when they are in there. So I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve played a little bit better in some of these games lately, because both those guys have been healthy.”
Early in the season, UA stuck with that base personnel. Even as it started freshmen Shane Lee and Christian Harris at inside linebacker, UA only had two outside linebackers on the field in seven of the snaps played by the starting defense against New Mexico State, and all of those snaps were special pass-rush packages.
The trend continued even after UA lost defensive end LaBryan Ray to a foot injury in the South Carolina game. Instead of converting to a two-man defensive line and replacing Ray with an outside linebacker for the next game against Southern Miss, UA stuck with its base front: the starters only play five snaps with two outside linebackers on the field, again all in pass-rush packages.
But later in the season, against Arkansas, UA had both inside linebackers and both outside linebackers on the field at the same time, paired with just two defensive linemen, in 35 of the 50 snaps players by the starting defense. The outside linebackers were given similarly heavy usage against LSU, although less so against Mississippi State.
The personnel reasons for the move are clear, in that outside linebacker is the one defensive front position where UA has a wealth of experience. Lewis and Jennings are far more experienced than the freshmen at inside linebacker, and with the injury situation facing UA’s defensive line at the moment, its rotation could be down to a senior and six freshmen for the Western Carolina game on Saturday.
Then there’s the production: Jennings and Lewis are tied for second in the SEC in tackles for a loss (10 1/2) and tied for third in the SEC in sacks (six). Jennings is a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best linebacker.
But as Lewis’ six quarterback hurries demonstrated, he and Jennings pride themselves on disrupting quarterbacks even when a statistic is not the end result.
“Even when you don’t get the sack, you get your hands up and try to make him uncomfortable, and making him uncomfortable is what we try to do to him,” Jennings said. “We’re doing a good job of that but we can always be better, so we’ll continue to work on that.
“(The two-outside linebacker grouping) is something we game plan, that’s something we work at. When the offense is in a certain formation, that’s something we go to and take advantage of.”
The one catch to having them on the field more often as a base unit is the threat of facing more run. Jennings and Lewis have been at their best as a pass-rushing tandem, but that doesn’t mean they can’t stop the run.
“Me and T Lew, we pride ourselves on being able to stop the run and being able to get to the quarterback whenever we need to,” Jennings said. “It’s a pretty easy transition.”