Bama Faces Offensive Threat From Gators

Alabama has a well-earned reputation as the nation’s best defensive college football team. Since the start of the 2009 season, Bama has surrendered only 92 touchdowns in 70 games. Bama has led the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense for five consecutive seasons and in total defense for six straight years. In that period the Crimson Tide has frequently led the nation in defensive categories.

And yet there seems to be some uneasiness about the 2014 Alabama defense after only three games. The second ranked Crimson Tide is 3-0 and after those three games is ranked second in the SEC and 10th in the nation in total defense, surrendering 267 yards per game.

So why the concern?

Bama has not exactly played a murderer’s row in its first three games, non-conference affairs against West Virginia (a 33-23 Tide win in Atlanta), Florida Atlantic (41-0 in Tuscaloosa), and Southern Miss (52-12, also in Bryant-Denny). And, as Alabama Coach Nick Saban pointed out Monday, all the Tide has seen are spread offenses and quick passes.

There have been no interceptions by Bama players and the Tide is giving up 220 yards per game passing, which is seventh in the SEC.

The run hasn’t been much of a problem as Tide opponents have ventured running plays only 22 times, rushing for 141 total yards (47 yards per game) and Alabama has yet to yield a rushing touchdown.

The Tide is tied for last in Red Zone defense with opponents scoring on all six trips into the zone, but five of those scores were field goals, one was a passing touchdown. That’s one reason Alabama is allowing only 11.7 yards per game, third best in the league.

This week Alabama will be facing Florida when the Gators come to Tuscaloosa. It will be Bama’s first Southeastern Conference game while the Gators are 2-0 overall and 1-0 in SEC play with a three-overtime victory over Kentucky Saturday. Kickoff will be at 2:30 p.m. with television coverage by CBS.

The Gators have averaged 50.5 points per game and rank second in the league in total offense (593.5 yards per game) and third in passing offense at 345.5 yards per game.

So that’s why.

Facing quick pass offensive teams presents a particular challenge. Notice that Alabama does not have a pass interception this year. That’s because on most plays the ball is away so quick to a receiver who is not far downfield. That means not many chances to intercept, or even tip the ball away. It also means the pass rush is not likely to get to the quarterback, although Saban was happy that his defenders are "affecting" the opposing quarterback, at least by knocking him to the ground as he releases the ball.

The only defense against the quick pass offense seems to be to make the tackle, and to make it quickly.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban said his team did not tackle well in its first two games. “I thought we tackled much better in the last game,” he said.

A case can be made that there is no more important aspect of football than tackling. More often than not, teams that tackle well win and teams that tackle poorly lose.

And yet there is a problem to improving through practice. Most football injuries happen in practice, not in games, and many of those injuries are attributable to players being tackled to the ground.

Saban said, “We put a big emphasis on how a guy practices because if you start tackling people and taking them to the ground in practice I think you’re going to get a lot of guys banged up – the guys that you’re practicing against, plus the guys you’re playing with.

“So the emphasis for us is to get yourself in the right position to tackle a guy and thud.

“I thought we did a better job of doing that last week in practice and I thought we tackled better because of it in the game. I think it’s going to be very, very important that we continue to do that – because missed tackles and mental errors will just absolutely kill you when it comes to playing good defense.”

The first job is to be in the right place, Saban said.

“I think that when players are in position to make plays, they need to make those plays. We need to do a better job in that regard. We need to do a better job of getting the ball out, getting the ball off of people. But I think we're improving in that area. We're in the right places. We've just got to play the ball with confidence and make plays on the ball. We're going to be playing against better players, so they have more capabilities of making plays, which is just a bigger challenge for us to do our job better.”

Florida’s offensive weapons begin with Kurt Roper, who came to Florida from Duke Coach David Cutcliffe’s staff with “a completely different system on offense.” The Gators are frequently in a three-wide receiver set with a tight end and one running back, and Saban said, “They’ll spread you out as well as being able to run the ball effectively.

Florida has one of the SEC’s top receivers in Demarcus Robinson. Quarterback Jeff Driskel is considered to be an improved quarterback after returning from last year, when he was injured. Matt Jones is the featured running back.

Saban said, “I think it's really important to continue to improve and play with confidence, make plays when you have opportunities to make plays, especially when you get into league play. You've got to do a little bit better job of preparing, a little bit better job of executing. Teams that we play starting this week are all good teams; really good teams. So it's important for our team to be able to continue to improve, play with confidence, play together as a unit where we can execute better.

“That comes from how you practice, how you prepare, and the kind of habits you develop.”

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