This season is no different. The top ranked Crimson Tide are the fourth ranked team in the country in scoring defense and 11th in total defense. If there is a relative weak spot in the Alabama defense, however, it’s in the secondary.
The Tide is the 58th ranked team in passing yards allowed per game, behind seven teams that the Buckeyes have already played this year. According to Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, that’s a bit misleading.
"It's the style,” Herman said. “They're going to stop the run and in doing so maybe leave themselves a little bit, I don't want to say susceptible ... vulnerable? No ... They're very good at stopping the run, and it does put some of their kids in a position where they are in one-on-one situations a little bit so you have to make them pay.”
As the coordinator said, Alabama focusses on stopping the run, and as the top-ranked team in rushing defense, they’ve done a good job at it. That does put their secondary in tough situations at times, as teams have been forced to throw the ball to gain yards and sustain drives.
Even accounting for the volume of passing plays they are forced to defend, the Tide hasn’t been as good in 2014 as they have been recently in defending the pass. Teams are completing 54.5 percent of their passes against Alabama, the 24th-best mark in the country, and the Tide is allowing 6.4 yards per attempt, the 22nd best number nationally.
The 58th ranking in pass defense is the first time that Alabama has been ranked outside the top 15 since the 2008 season.
“They have a good secondary,” tight end Jeff Heuerman said. “They don’t do a whole lot of crazy things. They know what they want to do and they execute and they do it well, so it’s going to be a good challenge for us.
“They’re a good defense, they’ve got a bunch of talented guys, a few all-SEC guys. We just need to execute, honestly.”
The secondary is led by safety Landon Collins, a unanimous all-American, though he is generally thought of first for his play in stuffing the run.
Ohio State is the best passing team that the Tide has faced this season as the Buckeyes enter the game with the second best passing rating in the country, though the majority of that work was done by the now-injured J.T. Barrett.
The Buckeyes have also been one of the best teams in the country in throwing deep. They have 15 passing plays of over 40 yards this season, more than all but 10 teams in the nation. Alabama has allowed eight such plays this season, the 52nd best defensive mark in the country.
“There's still the matter of our guy beating their guy and us protecting,” Herman said. “There's a lot that goes into a successful offensive football play, especially a successful offensive football play that is a down-the-field throw.”
As the No. 1 team in the country, one of four teams left contending for a national title, Alabama clearly has a capable pass defense. The thinking is, however, that it is an area where Ohio State may be able to take advantage.
The blueprint for that came on Nov. 29 when the Tide played Auburn. Though the Tigers lost, they scored 44 points, amassed 456 passing yards and connected on touchdowns of 34 and 68 yards.
“A lot of teams think they can come out and pick on our secondary, but it’s up to us to strap down defensively and hold it down on the back end,” Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones said. “It’s expected, but I think we’ll be ready for it.”
Jones is part of the unit that defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said has improved as the season has gone on. He knows that growth is going to have to show against Ohio State’s talented group of wide receivers.
“At the end of the day, the guys that are starters gotta play best because they're the guys that are going to play,” Smart said. We're not necessarily going to play more guys in the secondary. We've just got to play better in the secondary. We've challenged them to do that.”
If they do, the Tide’s defense will be awful hard to penetrate.