Alabama has an offense that scores almost as often as it throws incomplete passes. It scores every 9.5 plays it runs; of its 34 touchdown drives this season, half of them have reached the end zone in six plays or fewer.
It also has a defense that’s been forced to defend more plays than all but 22 of FBS’ 130 teams. Scoring at this rate has shot Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and the offense as a whole near the top of the school record book; it’s also forced a defense with well documented deficiencies to survive onslaughts.
Balancing the two is no easy task — one coach Nick Saban is still figuring out.
“I think offensively, we’ve been very, very productive, but we need to be able to not only control the tempo of the game with offense, we got to control the clock and the plays with the offense,” Saban said minutes after the Ole Miss game, which Alabama won 59-31.
Saban, four days later: “I think you’ve got to play to your team’s strengths. I don’t really think that by trying to protect some other part of the team that you take away from the team’s strengths, I don’t really know how that benefits us. Do we want to have time of possession in the game? Do we want to control the line of scrimmage and be able to make explosive plays and do all that stuff on offense? I think, yes we do. But I don’t think we’re going to change how we approach, how we play offense and featuring the players that we have on offense because of some other part of our team.”
A bevy of statistics suggest the offense is not to blame for defensive workload.
Alabama entered its open week after defending 88 and 86 plays in its two SEC games (South Carolina and Ole Miss), which is traditionally not a winning formula: over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, SEC teams went 5-6 when facing a conference foe that ran 85 or more plays. The stats show Alabama will get some relief from the schedule alone, but could stand to benefit from better defensive play, as well.
The simple fact Alabama is 50th in the nation in time of possession (30:46.6 per game) but 107th in plays defended (71 per game) shows UA’s opponents have been running faster than average.
The national average (through the games of Sept. 28) was one play per 25.95 seconds of possession; UA’s first five opponents ran one per 24.7 seconds of possession. That rate over 30 minutes, if UA were to perfectly divide time of possession with an opponent, would force Alabama to defend 72.89 plays in a game, 3.76 more plays per 30 minutes than the national average. Applying that difference of 3.76 per 30 minutes to the raw numbers, where Alabama is defending 2.4 plays per game more than the national average, suggests opponent tempo is the biggest influencer of Alabama’s defensive workload. South Carolina, Ole Miss and New Mexico State are all among the nation’s 20 fastest offenses, all of them running plays per 23 or fewer seconds of possession.
Two of Alabama’s next three opponents, Texas A&M and Tennessee, rank 104th and 84th in the nation by the same measure. UA’s defensive workload should go down simply by facing slower offenses in the coming weeks.
That’s not to say Saban rids the defense of blame for the amount of time it spends on the field.
“I mean, you got to get off the field when you get opportunities to get off the field, especially on third down,” Saban said. “You know other times we make mental errors, whether it’s gap control or how to fit plays. So you know the responsibility for the guys on the field when you’re on defenses is ‘We’ve got to get off the field.’ So get more turnovers. Get more third down stops.”
Better third-down defense would help — UA is 38th in the nation, allowing opponents to convert 32.89 percent of the time — but it’s not bad enough to be the lone culprit: UA’s 2017 defense was 30th in third-down defense but the best in the nation on a yards per play basis.
It is first and second down that are more problematic for Alabama.
The product of that is third-and-short situations the defense must face. Of the 76 third downs Alabama has defended, 21 of them (27.63 percent) have been with one to three yards to gain, which is 74th in the nation. The numbers support conventional wisdom: most offenses convert in that range over 50 percent of the time, thus defenses are likely to face new sets of downs more often.
Even third downs that have more than three yards to gain aren’t drastically longer than that. The UA defense has faced third downs with four to six yards left to gain 25 percent of the time.
All told, the Alabama defense has faced 76 third downs; 40 of them have been with six or fewer yards to gain. That 52.63 percent is tied for 81st in the nation.
“I mean, it’s pretty intense on the field when teams are putting together drives,” senior defensive back Jared Mayden said. “You try to control your breathing but at the same time, whatever is happening that’s making them make those drives last, you try to talk to somebody ‘Let’s get it together like we need a stop right here. No more,’ those kinds of words. We tell each other we need to snap out of whatever is happening. We need to step up right now as a defense so we can get our offense back on the field and let those playmakers make plays.”
Still, Saban sees value in the offense possessing the ball for long stretches of time. But coming off of the Ole Miss game, quarterback Tagovailoa saw a tempo problem in the opposite direction.
“I think our tempo needs to pick up,” he said. “Every time we’re going, when we stay in what we’re in, the defense is looking to the sideline. Snapping the ball while they’re not set, going about that.”
Wide receiver DeVonta Smith added, “I feel like last game, we didn’t manage it the way that we wanted to. We wanted to go fast and I feel like last game we were a little slow with it. I think this week, that’s what our focus is, getting our tempo right.”
Returning to Saban’s cognitive dissonance: despite the numbers suggesting the offense is not to blame for its defense’s workload, there is something it can do. Even with UA defending a play every 24.7 seconds of possession, if its offense were to maintain 35 minutes of possession, its defense would defend roughly 60 plays.
Saban said he believes it’s possible to not impact the way the offense runs, but also control tempo more in the interest of its defense. The players have received the message. The three games between this open week and the much-anticipated matchup with LSU could provide an answer.
“Like I said, it depends on who we’re playing,” Smith said. “If they’re a team that plays fast too, he’ll tell us to slow it down, give the defense a little bit of a breather. But then again, you don’t always just want to sit up there and play the game slow. You want to use the speed of the offense.
“There’s been games where he’s told us to drive, and there’s some drives where he wants us to go fast.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or email@example.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson
teaitup likes this