There was good news and bad news for the Alabama defense in the Crimson Tide’s 49-30 win over Arkansas last week.
The bad news was that Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen completed 25 of 48 passes for 400 yards and three touchdowns. The good news was that Bama nickel back Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted three passes, including one he returned 100 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban shared some of Alabama’s pass defense strategy, including the pattern-matching scheme that is more prevalent in the NFL than in college play.
"We play three things,” Saban said.
“We play zone, which means you get to an area on the field and break on the ball.
“We play man-to-man, which means 'I've got that cat, you've got that cat, he's got that cat.' You play your man. We play that.
“And then we have a couple things where we sort of match the pattern after the pattern distribution. That's probably something that some people don't do, but we do do. I think once you understand the concepts of it, it's not that hard to do.
"We don't do it all of the time. We do it some of the time.
“Now, the downside of that is 'I've got this cat, but I may not be able to cover him.' The good news about the other thing is that the player is going to come to you, but we can't control what player you get. So a linebacker could get on Jerry Rice.
“So that's why you can't do that all the time, that's why you can't play man-to-man all the time. You know, I think when you spot and drop and try to break on the ball, you've got to have a really good pass rush and make the ball come out quick or you can get hurt on that.
“Now, in the last game, we were hurt in all of the above. So it wasn't because of some pattern-matching that somebody messed up. We got beat in man-to-man. We played zone and got beat on third-and-19 because we didn't play zone right. Probably the best thing to do in the game is match the patterns when we did it."
The subject of Fitzpatrick’s return also came up, and whether it was a mistake for the sophomore defensive back to take the ball out from deep in the end zone – and whether Fitzpatrick was “off the hook” after his 100-yard runback for a touchdown.
Saban said, "Typically, I think you've got to allow players to have instinct about 'Should I take this out or not take it out?' I think when he caught the ball he kind of looked up field and saw that he had a pretty good opening so he took it. My first thought was before I looked was 'Don't bring it out,' but once I saw him bring it out and saw the opening we had and how our guys had lined up down the numbers, I don't even think they had a guy that had a chance to make a tackle. I think you have to respect a player's instinct when they do something like that. But it depends a little bit on the situation as well."
There is another aspect to pass defense that Saban has often pointed to, and that’s a pass rush that affects the quarterback.
Alabama had six sacks for 49 yards in losses, and one sack resulted in a strip of the ball by Tide defensive end Da’Shawn Hand that was picked up and returned 23 yards for a touchdown.
Another question regarding the Tide defense was whether Bama is using more blitzes from the inside linebackers in the past.
Saban said, "I don't really think we've done a lot more. I don't know. I guess I would have to look at it statistically. But I feel like you look at every game like where do you have the best mismatch players? Is it covering their players? Is it trying to utilize the skill you have in the pass rush relative to their protection scheme, or whatever.
“I think you plan that during the course of the week, you practice that and that's what you go into the game thinking that you're going to play.
“n the last game, they throw a lot of move the pocket stuff so we try to bring guys off the edge to try and contain the quarterback. So it may look like we were more edge rushing. On third down, we weren't doing a great job of covering them and we were doing a pretty good job of forcing the pocket, so you say 'OK, we'll pressure a little bit.'
“For the most part when we contained the quarterback, it was pretty effective."