Among the many hallmarks of the University of Alabama’s excellent defense under Nick Saban: deflected passes.
In each of the last five seasons, UA has been among the top 20 in pass breakups, including second last year with 75 and sixth the year before that.
2019 was off to a slow start in that regard, as UA had just 2.6 per game through five games after averaging at least 4.3 in four of the last five seasons. Then came 10 against Texas A&M and four more against Tennessee, not including the interception of the Volunteers. Just like that, Alabama is back to its more disruptive ways in pass defense, right as it hosts the SEC’s second-most pass-happy offense. Arkansas’ 272 attempts on the season is just one behind Texas A&M.
Saban says UA has not turned to new coverage principles to generate these opportunities.
“We’ve done the same thing all the way around,” Saban said. “I think it’s just player awareness of being able to take shots when they get shots. When you look at it, you have certain players that attack the ball and are confident of being able to do it and know when to do it, and you’ve got other guys that are a little more cautious about it, and we’ve just got to keep on working on it so they get more comfortable with it.”
Three players are responsible for 15 of UA’s 27 pass breakups: Shyheim Carter (six), Patrick Surtain II (five) and Trevon Diggs (four).
Saban also said after the Texas A&M game that pass attempts could play some role in the pass breakup numbers, suggesting UA’s 10 pass breakups in that game were influenced A&M’s 42 pass attempts. The rate statistics tell a different story.
Over the last five years, UA’s defense got an interception or a pass breakup — thus got a hand on a pass attempt — between 14 and 20 percent of the time: 19.1 percent last year, 19.9 in 2017, 14 in 2016, 20 in 2015 and 14.6 in 2014. In the first five games of 2019, it was down 11.1 percent — including one interception and two pass breakups on 57 South Carolina pass attempts, far less disruptive than 10 pass breakups on 42 Texas A&M pass attempts.
Defensive backs said the hunt for turnovers has been ratcheted up in recent weeks, coinciding with the surge in pass breakups.
“I feel like now really the point of emphasis is getting the ball and making turnovers,” safety Jared Mayden said. “I don’t want to say at the beginning of the season we weren’t thinking that. But usually when Coach makes something a point of emphasis, like, ‘Let’s get a turnover. We need to get balls out and get the ball back in the hands of our playmakers on offense,’ those are the types of things you start focusing on.
“Then, when we go through the film, you’re noticing how people are carrying the ball and things like that or when receivers catch it they try to make it look pretty. When you start seeing those little things, that can totally help you to getting balls out and making plays on the ball.”
Mayden mentioned that scouting opposing offensive players includes how they catch the ball, how they tuck it in from their catches and which hand they favor, thus the one a defender needs to punch. As players are getting more comfortable in their roles, those are the details they can take on as primary focuses.
“More guys are playing fast, getting comfortable, and starting to feel things out, be able to play fast and know what to do,” Diggs said. “If you know what to do you can run around; if you don’t know what to do you’re hesitant. So I feel more guys are starting to get more comfortable. The more comfortable you are in the defense, the more you can fly around.”
The fine line UA has to ride with its defense hunting turnovers is the pass interference calls that can come with it. UA has been charged with pass interference nine times this season, and five of them have come in the last two games, when UA has been at its best in a pass breakup sense.
“What we try to do is get our guys to play the ball,” Saban said. “There’s a lot of speculation in the NFL, college football, how do you call pass interference? What is pass interference? Everybody calls it a little bit different. I know I’ve read somewhere that in the NFL that’s the most-challenged call now or something because it’s probably the greatest judgment call in football.
“So, we want to see the players do what we coach them to do — to keep them cut off, they get in good position, they become the receiver and play the ball, I think they’ll have less penalties. But all the penalties that we got, we had really close, good coverage. We just need to play the ball better.”
Diggs added, indicative of the confidence level in the cornerback room, “Guys are good enough not to hold them. It’s just little things like that that we’re going to work on and get better.”
The threat of pass interference won’t hold UA back from chasing the ball.
“We just made it more of a point of emphasis,” Mayden said, “that we need to get more turnovers.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson