Alabama football secondary passed the test of Tennessee's long passes

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Alabama has given up plenty of long passing plays, but it hasn’t always been forced to defend deep passes.

Run-pass options and other aspects of modern offense makes it easier than ever before to turn short passes into long gains. UA’s game against Tennessee was a different kind of challenge: a more pro-style passing attack forced UA’s defenders to cover wide receivers on deep routes often. It gave up a few explosive plays, but ultimately contained the Volunteers to 163 yards, 6.52 yards per attempt, in a 48-17 win.

“I think at times we did OK, but I think we have up three, at least three big plays, maybe four,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “They were running the ball a lot and early in the game we weren’t stopping the run really well, so we put a little more pressure in the secondary.

"In the second half, we really shouldn’t have given up the plays because we were playing split-safety coverages. We’ll look at it and try to get it fixed, but you can’t give up explosive plays.”

The aforementioned adjustment was in response to Tennessee running 15 times on its first three possessions compared to six pass attempts. When Tennessee gave Jarrett Guarantano license to test UA’s defense downfield, he first struck with a 38-yard touchdown pass with a little more than six minutes left in the second quarter.

Oct 24, 2020; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; Alabama defensive back Malachi Moore (13) celebrates a touchdown in the second half during a game between Alabama and Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020.   Mandatory Credit: Caitie McMekin-USA TODAY NETWORK

The other highlights came on one drive: a 48-yard pass that would have scored a touchdown if the receiver didn’t step out of bounds, but earning that touchdown anyway with a 27-yard strike on the next play.

Those plays are the ones Saban will point to as failures of UA’s secondary, specifically in its split-safety coverage schemes, but the game was an overall success: Guarantano completed a mere 54.1% of his passes.

“This was probably the best we’ve played, even though there were some plays in there you can be critical of,” Saban said. “They played with a little more confidence and we were pretty aggressive overall.”

UA broke up eight passes, three of them from cornerback Patrick Surtain II. Daniel Wright, Malachi Moore, Josh Jobe and Brian Branch all had one pass break-up each.

“It’s something we expected, for sure,” Surtain said. “They made a couple of big plays, we made a couple of big stops. It’s something we’re going to look at in the film room and look to improve on.”

Statistically, UA has already improved from the previous version of itself. Allowing 269 passing yards to Georgia and 162 to Tennessee is a far cry from the two games prior, when it allowed 335 to Texas A&M and 379 to Ole Miss. Georgia and Tennessee present significantly different passing attacks than the Aggies and Rebels, arguably easier passing attacks to contain, but UA believes the opposition is not the only variable in that equation.

“We just set ourselves to our standard,” Surtain II said. “We know Ole Miss wasn’t our best performance, we just learned from that game and played better as the weeks came.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson