Alabama football mailbag: Pete Golding, lack of pass rush and running in red zone

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Alabama football is now ranked No. 5 in both polls after the first loss since 2019 on Saturday.

The game wasn’t all bad for the Crimson Tide, but plenty of it was ugly. Especially on the defensive side of the ball early and late in the game.

Let’s get right to your defense-heavy questions for this week’s mailbag.

What are your concerns going forward especially on the defensive side of the ball? – Ben R

The list isn’t short, Ben. At least after Saturday.

I thought the defense had fixed many of its problems after a strong showing against Ole Miss, but Alabama slipped into some bad tackling and execution at times against Texas A&M.

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At the top of the list of my concerns is Alabama’s inability to finish. That’s on a macro and micro level. The Crimson Tide defense couldn’t close out the game, but even in small areas, the defense couldn’t make the plays it frankly should make.

Two examples come to mind. The first is when Aggies quarterback Zach Calzada threw a pass to Isaiah Spiller behind the line of scrimmage in the first quarter. Alabama looks to have him caught for a loss. Or so it thought. Henry To’o To’o missed the first tackle, then along the sideline, Phidarian Mathis couldn't close on Spiller. Finally, Spiller ran through Tim Smith and Brian Branch for the first down. Fourteen yards, all after Spiller looked like he’d lose yards.

Another simple play of Alabama not being able to finish came late in the fourth on third-and-2. Texas A&M converted as the running back slipped through the hole where both To’o To’o and Will Anderson were. Anderson might have been held slightly, but the fact both couldn’t make that play isn’t a great sign.

The other thing that concerns me, Ben, is the pass rush, or lack thereof. I’ll address that here …

How do you get zero sacks on a mediocre quarterback with two true freshmen starting up front? Follow up, how does Pete Golding still have a job? – Jeremy F

To answer your first question, Jeremy, it's as simple and complex as this: the Texas A&M offensive line won the battle against the Alabama pass rush. 

It didn’t matter how many guys defensive coordinator Pete Golding sent after Calzada, whether it was three or seven.

On Texas A&M’s last touchdown to tie the game at 38, Alabama blitzed six. And these were some of their best pass rushers: Anderson, Mathis, the middle linebackers and more. None could bring Calzada to the ground.

Alabama even brought seven on one play during the final drive. But Calzada made a quick throw to tight end Jalen Wydermyer, drawing a pass interference call on DeMarcco Hellams.

Alabama has to win more one-on-one matchups rushing the passer. And it especially has to win when it’s sending six or seven players on a blitz.

And don’t forget, the Crimson Tide didn’t have Drew Sanders because of a hand injury as well as Christopher Allen, who’s out for the season.

To answer your Golding question …

Why is Pete Golding still defensive coordinator?? He’s been holding on by the seat of his pants??? – Nick M

Golding was the most frequent subject of mailbag questions this week, and to no surprise. He’s the play-caller for a defense that just lost to a quarterback who’s been among the worst in the SEC this season.

Look, Golding deserves some of the blame for the loss, but his play-calling alone didn’t lose Alabama the game.

As mentioned above, the defense struggled to finish, whether it be missing tackles or not closing.  

Golding didn’t lose the line of scrimmage battle for Alabama in some crucial moments. He didn’t make Hellams and cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis run into each other on the final drive, freeing up Spiller along the sideline. And when players such as Brian Branch got beat in man coverage in crucial moments, that’s a defender getting beat, not necessarily a bad play call.

Now, perhaps Golding and others on the staff could improve how they are coaching individual defenders to win these one-on-one matchups. Many of the fundamentals need to improve.

I realize the fire-the-coordinator crowd might not agree with that answer, but to me Alabama’s issues on defense extend past what plays are being called. 

Why didn’t we run the ball instead of passing 3 times on first and goal?? – Kelly H

Good question, Kelly. I agree at least one run would have been smart considering Brian Robinson Jr. was one of Alabama’s best players Saturday, but remember, that’s a condensed field when you’re in goal-to-go situations. Running isn’t as easy in such a tight box. Still, if I’m offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, I run at least once there.

Contact Alabama football reporter Nick Kelly: nkelly@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly