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Alabama’s matchup-proof title defense

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Alabama was anchored by a dominant nose and a pair of hybrid defenders in 2017 that made their defense “matchup proof” regardless of how many injuries they suffered.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

I was convinced that the 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide weren’t going to be able to pull out a victory over Georgia. The inside linebacker position that has been littered with upperclassmen All-Americans in Tuscaloosa since Saban took over was a veritable revolving door this season. The Tide appeared to be taking on serious water with senior safety Lawrence “Hootie” Jones going down against Auburn in the Iron Bowl and freshman inside-backer Dylan Moses, who won the job late in the year, going down during bowl practices.

The Tide had relied pretty heavily on their veteran trio of safeties (Jones, Ronnie Harrison, Minkah Fitzpatrick) especially in light of the loss of Shaun Hamilton, who was expected to anchor and lead the defense from the inside LB position before he was injured during the season. To lose another possible solution at ILB AND a safety seemed like a crushing blow, even if they were still able to erase a limited Clemson offense.

I probably would have been right about Georgia overthrowing Alabama as my sense that Jalen Hurts would be unable to get things going against the Dawg defense proved accurate, but I underestimated the possibility of Nick Saban pulling Hurts for Tua Tagovailoa and I also misdiagnosed what made the 2017 Alabama defense tick. The Tide were going to be able to play good defense on just about anyone with just about anyone so long as three key players were on the field.

Anchored inside by freaks and hybrids

The 2017 Alabama defense enjoyed solid cornerback play and managed to find DEs, OLBs, and ILBs from their blue-chip recruiting classes to get 11 guys on the field. However, the guys who made it all work were Da’Ron Payne, Rashaan Evans, and Minkah Fitzpatrick.

By the time of the playoffs the Tide were using two main defensive packages to shut down opponents. First up, the nickel package:

There are a few key features to the nickel package that Alabama utilized. They used it mostly for defending 11 or 20 personnel packages that featured three wide receivers or just as their base defense on standard downs. Minkah Fitzpatrick (#29) played the “star” nickel position and would typically track the slot receiver or just play whoever lined up as the #2 receiver to the field. The next important cog was Rashaan Evans (#32), an ultra-versatile OLB at 6-3, 234 that was as comfortable playing the edge as he was in coverage.

In the nickel package he was the “money” backer who would align to the most dangerous inside receiver that wasn’t already being covered by Fitzpatrick. The other “will” inside LB, which was a revolving door until Mack Wilson owned the position for the postseason (really by default, although he played well) and would get to avoid the tougher coverage assignments due to Evan’s presence.

Fitzpatrick is a likely top 10 pick for how effective he is in man coverage and in playing the run from interior DB positions while Evans was a good inside-backer but also a well above average coverage player for a backer. Consequently, the Alabama nickel package was very versatile and less vulnerable to typical spread offensive tactics than your average squad.

Then up front at the nose tackle they had Da’Ron Payne (#94), one of the most freakish and dominant players of the 2017 season. It turned out that who played the “will” inside-backer position didn’t matter so terribly much because opponents couldn’t block Da’Ron Payne AND a LB and sometimes they couldn’t block just Payne either. That often freed up Alabama to be pretty aggressive about playing two-deep man coverages with Fitzpatrick and Evans locking down the inside receivers while Payne protected them.

Evans blitzed here and was replaced by a safety in coverage but neither he nor Wilson are even touched by Georgia, who has their hands full trying (and failing) to move Payne off the ball with a double team.

The dime package would spin down Alabama’s two hybrid defenders:

Alabama basically subbed out one of their DEs for nickel/star defender Tony Brown and then they’d spin Evans down into a “jack” DE/OLB position while spinning Fitzpatrick down into Evans’ “money backer” position. Now the two inside receivers were being covered by Brown and Fitzpatrick with Evans free to blitz (he had six sacks on the year).

They loved to bring stunts from this package with the inside DT working outside while Evans and another OLB (revolving door) would stunt inside. DT Raekwon Davis led the team with 8.5 sacks and he did a lot of damage either stunting in this package or just whipping guards that found themselves isolated on him while the OL tried to work out who was blitzing or how to block Evans or Payne. Alabama DC Jeremy Pruitt regularly took advantage of the fact that while Evans was one of the better pass-rushers, he could also drop into coverage as well as some DBs.

Evans finished tied for the lead in total tackles with 74 including eight run stuffs and in pass defense he added six sacks and three pass break-ups. Fitzpatrick was third in tackles, had seven pass break-ups and an INT, and also made six run stuffs. Payne’s impact was quiet statistically (one sack, seven run stuffs) but he was the heart of the defense and regularly clogged up the interior for the Tide’s athletic backfield.

The result of Evans and Fitzpatrick being so good in coverage and versatile enough to each play two primary positions had the effect of making Alabama “matchup-proof.” Both of them could man your typical slot WR or TE without being overwhelmed and needing an in/out bracket from a down safety. That then freed the Tide to play both safeties over the top to help the corners or to bring extra defenders on the blitz. It was also nearly impossible to find a favorable angle or matchup inside with Da’Ron Payne owning the interior and rag dolling opposing centers.

Georgia was able to throw on guys not named Fitzpatrick and Evans and also ran the ball well on a few key third downs when Alabama got caught playing man coverage with our two heroes turning their backs to the backfield (until the Tide started dropping a safety to eliminate that problem). Ultimately though, the dinged up Alabama defense made the plays they needed to make in order to win. Clemson of course was completely demolished.

Matchup proof in 2018?

Alabama now has to replace their trio of interior stars and also their entire dime package secondary (save for safety Deionte Thompson who started in the playoffs). They’re also replacing DB coach and DC Jeremy Pruitt, who has now coached dominant, hybrid, title-winning secondaries at both Florida State and Alabama.

The prospective dime package that Alabama has been working so far in spring includes second year players at nickel (sophomore Shyheim Carter), money (RS freshman Kyrique McDonald), and free safety (sophomore Xavier McKinney) with first year Tide player and JUCO transfer Saivion Smith currently at one of the starting corner positions.

The Tide can build around an inside-backer rotation that is a bit shored up by the fact that Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson got big time snaps in 2017 and their outside-backer group is loaded with guys that played in 2017, including multiple guys that were injured after showing promise. Inside they have some rising nose tackles and a pair of potentially dominant DL to flank the nose in Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs.

Alabama will be good on defense in 2018, but their ability to be “matchup proof” in either nickel or dime coverage is very much in question. Replacing Minkah Fitzpatrick’s play inside with a pair of smaller, second-year DBs without proven corners outside has to be a bit scary and Dylan Moses has a long way to go in order to translate his athleticism into the kind of multiple play that Evans provided.

Modern defense is largely about finding players that can hold up in coverage or against the run from multiple positions so that the coordinator can move pieces around and package his unit in order to avoid bad matchups against different opponents. Alabama was so good at that in 2017 that it didn’t matter when they didn’t have All-SEC caliber play at inside backer or when they lost multiple starters to injury. They probably won’t be so formidable in 2018.