The University of Alabama’s defense ranks 61st in the nation in tackles for a loss per game and 33rd in yards per carry allowed.
Both are well under the usual standard. UA hasn’t ended a season outside the national top 30 in tackles for a loss per game since 2013, and since 2009, UA has been in the top 5 in yards per carry allowed (five) more times than it’s been out of the top 10 (two).
It’s possible the deficiency in the tackles for a loss stat is leading to the deficiency in per-carry run defense.
UA is coming off of its worst defensive showing of the season in the 46-41 loss to LSU, in which the Crimson Tide allowed a sack-adjusted 5.8 yards per carry and eight runs of 10 yards or more. Run defense was not UA’s lone problem in that loss, but it was a prominent one and has been a recurring one at times. Among the possible solutions: would it behoove Alabama to be more aggressive in pursuit of negative plays in the run game?
“We’ve got to be better at a lot of stuff, it’s not just the run. It’s just a lot of stuff,” senior defensive lineman Raekwon Davis said. “But right now our focus is Mississippi State. That game is past us, and we’re looking at it as how to get better and what’s the mistakes we made. We’re just looking at that film, just what we need to do to get better.”
In the recent history of SEC football, there has been a correlation between runs stopped for a loss and overall quality of run defense on a yards per carry basis.
In four of the last five seasons, three of the top five teams in runs stopped for a loss doubled as three of the top five teams in yards per carry allowed. For example, last season, Mississippi State was best in the SEC in both runs stopped for a loss (64) and yards per carry allowed; Alabama was fourth in runs stopped for a loss and third in yards per carry allowed.
The correlation has held true for the opposite end of the spectrum. Three times in that same five-season span, three of the four teams that were in the bottom four of runs stopped for a loss were also in the bottom four in yards per carry allowed.
Currently, UA is 10th in the SEC in runs stopped for a loss (31, 3.4 per game) and sixth in yards per carry allowed (3.71).
The natural flip side of going for the tackle for a loss is the risk of missing it and allowing an explosive play as a result, but UA has not been excellent at stuffing those, either. Its 37 runs allowed of 10 or more yards is tied for 33rd in the nation, and its 12 runs allowed of 20 or more yards is tied for 64th.
UA coach Nick Saban sees the benefit of scheming with tackles for a loss in mind. This season, the balance he’s trying to seek is not with the risk of allowing explosive run plays, but the risk of this youthful defense running those complex schemes.
“I think any time you pressure people, the best way to get tackles for losses is to move people and stunt extra guys into the run fits and when you do that, you compromise the back end of the coverage to some degree because you’ve got to play some kind of middle-of-the-field coverage to do it,” Saban said. “You try to pick your poison a little bit and how effective you think it can be against that particular formations and sets, plays, whatever. That’s what we try to do and we probably haven’t done it as much this year maybe from an experience factor with our players as what we’ve done in the past.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or email@example.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson