The Alabama defense is not particularly advanced. Nick Saban's primary innovations on defense, hybridized DL technique and pattern-matching zone coverage, are now fairly wide-spread across the football landscape.
Indeed, Alabama's considerable success in the Nick Saban era has been more tied to the recruiting and developing of star southern football players. While Alabama has a mix of man and zone blitzes in its playbook, the real war is waged on first and second down with the Tide's base defenses.
The trick for Saban is that offenses have basically been combating these tactics against non-Alabama foes for several years now and are slowly developing answers. While the SEC has been a place in which elite defenses are developed and deployed, their western neighbors in the Big 12 have been practicing offensive responses to those defensive tactics, albeit against weaker defensive personnel.
When Texas A&M hired Kevin Sumlin and moved into the SEC, these two powers finally confronted each other and Saban-ball met its match at last.
So how are Saban's kids holding up? Did 2012 reveal weaknesses that will continue to be pried open by SEC offensive coordinators adapting Big 12 tactics? Or will Saban remain on top?
Reign of dominance
Nick Saban took over the Crimson Tide in 2007 and finished that year only 7-6 with a defensive S&P mark of 106.4, good for 45th in the nation. However, the Tide jumped to 133.8 and seventh in 2008 and haven't looked back.
The 2009 defense that keyed Alabama's first championship with Saban ranked fifth in the nation at 142.1 and included stars such as nose tackle Terrence Cody, linebackers Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower, corners Kareem Jackson and Javier Arenas, and safety Mark Barron. This defense ultimately subdued the Big 12's Texas Longhorns but did so with the benefit of a very early injury to Colt McCoy and failed to limit Texas as Big 12 defenses from Norman and Lincoln had earlier in the year.
The unit lost nine starters to graduation and the NFL draft, but the 2010 team finished No. 5 again with a 135.3 mark, enabled by the steady growth of young defensive backs such as Dre Kirkpatrick and Mark Barron and the steadying presence up front of Top Five defensive end pick Marcell Dareus and linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Hightower. That team was unable to win a championship, due to the unexpected emergence of Cam Newton's Auburn team and their spread-option brilliance which upended Alabama.
The 2011 defense was the pinnacle of Saban-ball. With an ungodly 193.8 S&P rating and No. 1 overall ranking, this unit laid waste to every challenging offense. The line was a powerful and unmovable unit, backed by future first-round backers Upshaw and Hightower, and the experienced safety tandem of Barron and Robert Lester.
It only stood to reason that 2012's unit would slip with several players departing who had played major roles in the defense. However, the 164.6 mark and No. 1 ranking was hardly a major slip and enabled Saban's Alabama to win their 3rd BCS title.
Nevertheless, there were just enough weaknesses revealed in the second half of the schedule to provide a glimmer of hope that 2011's genius won't be repeated.
The initial test at LSU
LSU had a bizarre strategy for beating Alabama given its own strengths and weaknesses. Rather than trying to bulldoze over the Bama D, as they had unsuccessfully attempted in 2011, the Tigers attacked them with formations such as this:
Three removed receivers to the field side of the formation with the TE aligned to the boundary. Alabama often responded to spread sets such as this by dropping an outside linebacker down to the DL as a DE and removing the other outside linebacker for a defensive back. In this instance, they brought out their Dime or "money" back Vinnie Sunseri.
Rather than the Cover-2 look that Alabama shows, Bama brought corner Dee Milliner off the edge on a blitz with Lester responsible for dropping down to cover the no. 3 receiver.
Mettenberger's read here should probably have been to hit no. 3 over the middle, but instead he hits his TE since Trey Depriest had dropped down to take the RB. C.J. Mosley is just barely unable to reach the pass.
LSU was able to move the chains with these spread sets by throwing the underneath routes and mixing in the usual brutish run game both from their power sets and spread sets:
Running back Jeremy Hill ran for 107 yards on 29 carries while Russell Shepard added another 19 in the cut above. Ultimately this allowed LSU to punish Alabama with the real prize, the deep passing game.
LSU only scored 17 points in this game and averaged five yards per play. However, between hitting underneath routes and deeper shots such as this deep out (above) against an Alabama blitz, Mettenberger was able to average 8.2 yards per pass attempt.
Truth be told, the Alabama secondary in 2012 was not up to the same form as previous iterations. While the pass defense ranked fourth nationally, Lester and Milliner were not players in 2012 that could be featured to the same extent that Barron and Kirkpatrick could before. The depth after Lester and Milliner in the secondary was certainly not as good as those two players had been in 2011.
The final obstacle: The SEC Title game vs. Georgia
The Bulldogs employed a similar strategy as LSU, often relying on three- and four-receiver sets.
Ultimately, Alabama's plan is to be bigger and more physical than you. Their 3-4 defense, while it often ends up looking more like a 4-3, is built around the three DL who went 292-323-286 in 2012, backed by powerful linebackers that all squeeze the interior gaps into a veritable wall of flesh and pads.
The secondary's goal is to force the ball into that gauntlet. The effect of spread sets is that they can potentially turn Alabama's size and strength against them, forcing their bigger bodies to either guard quick players in space or get off the field.
Here, Georgia uses a four receiver set to get a receiver matched up deep with Lester in Cover-2. Lester sees the other receiver run a comeback and assumes he's looking at a "smash" route combination and prepares to stay on top of the deep out. Instead, the receiver cuts in and Lester is completely unable to adjust.
Alabama was similarly burned in the 2009 title game against Texas, primarily because Tide safeties have generally been old school safeties: guys who can tackle, hit, and play in the box against the run. Spread sets are designed to make those players handle coverage responsibilities in space that can be challenging for even cornerbacks to navigate.
Compounding this issue against Georgia was the struggles of the normally stout Bama run defense.
Georgia's running back Todd Gurley ran for 122 yards on 23 carries and often necessitated, as above, that Alabama drop a safety into the box to stop the Georgia run game.
This put a lot of stress on the Alabama secondary to handle Aaron Murray and the Georgia pass game in Cover-3 alignments that left corners on islands against receivers.
Fortunately for the Crimson Tide, their juggernaut offense rolled up 500 yards of total offense and allowed them to outscore the Bulldogs and run clock, limiting Murray's window for magic-making in the 4th quarter. This was a solid defensive performance from Alabama, but nothing like the dominance that is normally associated with Saban-ball.
The truest test: Stopping the modern spread vs. Texas A&M
Texas A&M was S&P's No. 1 offense in 2012 and a challenging riddle for Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to solve. From beginning to end, the Aggies asked questions that the Crimson Tide couldn't really answer.
The first question was this: How do you handle four- and five-wide receiver sets and maintain your physical dominance over the middle of the field?
Alabama often responded to A&M's four-receiver sets with a Cover-2 defense in which the three defensive linemen and an outside linebacker would play the four traditional spots in a 4-3, Mosley would play in the box, and Milliner and Sunseri would act as 4-3 "outside linebackers."
Sunseri and Milliner are expected to funnel the ball inside to Bama's physical linemen and Mosley. Against the Aggies Inside Zone run game this worked reasonably well, and running backs Ben Malena and Christine Michael combined for 77 yards on 26 carries. Against Manziel and the QB draw ... not so much.
Alabama tried to adjust with more Cover-3 looks in which Lester would drop down before the snap and either help Mosley in the box or guard a slot receiver and free Sunseri or Milliner to blitz the edge. A&M was already ahead of this adjustment:
Lester drops down over the slot receiver so that Sunseri can slide into the box, Manziel pulls up from an apparent speed option run to throw a dart over the middle of the field against the hapless Lester.
For the next few drives, the Aggies worked over the Crimson Tide with the quick pass game, particularly settling on 6-5 freshman Mike Evans vs. corner John Fulton, who was thrust into major duty by the nickel and dime personnel packages employed by Alabama.
The final coup de grace came after establishing Evans and slot receiver Ryan Swope as weapons in the passing game, which Alabama's secondary wasn't really prepared to handle (victimizing Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix's inexperience and Lester's lack of range along the way).
They line up in a five-WR formation with Swope as the boundary slot receiver and Mike Evans to the outside on the boundary. Despite getting burned on a deep post by Swope after shading over too much to help Fulton against Evans, here in a Cover-1 Clinton-Dix is the only deep defender. But he's shaded over to help against Swope and Evans:
Touchdown. This proves to be the game-winning score after the Aggy defense's goal line stand on the subsequent 'Bama drive.
Alabama's attempts to support the secondary with heavy usage of dime personnel failed to do enough to protect the secondary. Plus, it often overstressed Bama's run fronts, which yielded 91 rush yards to Manziel on draws and scrambles.
So they aren't immovable?
Well, it'd be an overstatement to say that the Aggies ran all over Alabama. While the Tide defense was overwhelmed early and gave up crucial big plays late, they managed to minimize big plays by A&M over the course of the game and at least held them under 30 points, giving the offense a great chance to win. The creases in the middle that A&M's spread sets created for their run game were not nearly as big as they had been against opponents with weaker linemen than 'Bama featured.
However, these games over the second half of the schedule at least revealed how Alabama can be vulnerable the same way every other defense is vulnerable (only, to a lesser degree), against an offense that can simultaneously threaten every part of the field. Unfortunately for defenses, spread tactics are increasing the total number of teams who can achieve that goal.
Nick Saban is going to have to adjust the kinds of players he targets and develops to maintain his system in the future. This is already evident in the development of Clinton-Dix, who is an upgrade over previous Saban safeties in athleticism and range. C.J. Mosley was also an athletic upgrade at linebacker and instrumental in limiting big plays by the Aggies.
Both return to play prominent roles for the 2013 defense.
However, the deployment of big and powerful DL by the Crimson Tide was instrumental in their success in not getting boat raced by the Aggies. As long as Saban is able to maintain a revolving door of massive nose tackles and physically dominant ends to cause pile-ups in the middle and set up the back seven to be whomever they need to be, they'll be amongst the game's greatest.
From physically imposing monsters like Dont'a Hightower to athletic freaks like C.J. Mosley, if Alabama can manage the middle they'll remain on top.