Grading the Tide: Defensive Position Group Grades After the Bye Week:
Last week, we took a look and at graded every position group on the Crimson Tide offense eight games into the campaign for championship number 19 in Tuscaloosa. Now, with a battle against LSU in Baton Rouge looming this weekend, let’s take a look at the defense, starting with the front seven:
Interior Defensive Line: B+
This has been one of the most bright spots on the entire defense. The unit is led by a veteran and a freshman in DJ Dale and Jaheim Oatis, respectively, and both have done a pretty dang good job this season. They were actually both out against Mississippi State, but are back at practice this week and both have a chance to play against LSU, where they will be needed. Oatis, who is a rare difference maker as a freshman on a Nick Saban defense, has been a wrecking ball at times this year. Alabama’s defense is ranked 4th in the nation in yards per rush allowed at just 2.71, which speaks to the big men up front. Byron Young and Tim Smith have done a nice job this year as well.
Pass Rushers: D
The reason this grade is so low is because of the level of talent as compared to the production. Alabama undeniably has two of the most talented pass rushers in the nation in Will Anderson Jr. and Dallas Turner, yet somehow, Alabama as a team is tied for 22nd in the nation with 23 sacks as a team. They just have not gotten the level of production they have needed from their stars, especially in their biggest games.
Anderson had probably the worst game of his career against Texas, making mental mistake after mental mistake and costing the team. Against Tennessee, outside of a fumble recovery for a touchdown that dropped into his lap for Dallas Turner, both guys disappeared when they were needed the most. Of course, this speaks a lot to what Tennessee’s offensive line was able to do, but to have one sack as a team (it came from DJ Dale) while your secondary is being simply torn apart is not enough. Not with players this talented. If this team wants to compete for a title, Alabama MUST get more out of the best players on its defense and get to the quarterback.
Middle Linebackers: C
Henry To’o To’o is an interesting case study. At times, he turns it on and looks like a star. But he is frustratingly inconsistent and often seems like he is missing that extra gear that an Alabama signal caller has had in the middle of the defense for so long. I’m a big fan of Jaylen Moody, as he brings a speed and level of energy to the defense that I think they miss when he’s not out there. Deontae Lawson is a redshirt freshman who has done a nice job when he’s been on the field, but also makes the mistakes you’d expect out of a young player. Overall just not a super impressive group, but one that I also believe can elevate their play.
I think the corners are really starting to come into their own, especially now that Eli Ricks has worked his way into the starting lineup. Terrion Arnold, while inconsistent, has shown some serious flashes as well. In my opinion, Kool-Aid McKinstry is the best player on this defense by a mile and has really shown it all season as the only guy who has performed consistently week in and week out. Even in the Tennessee game, he really wasn’t targeted while the rest of the secondary was being victimized. Sure, the corners have been burned a few times, but this is just a reality of college football in 2022. Their job is to limit opposing passing offenses, and outside of one game, they’ve done a really good job of this all season long.
Given the amount of talent in this group, it’s right up there with the pass rushers in terms of how disappointing they’ve been. But I think the Tennessee game, where they were absolutely scorched, skewed people’s opinions of the group a bit more than is fair. DeMarcco Hellams, who was the worst of the bunch in Knoxville, had a really nice bounce back game against Mississippi State, as did Brian Branch. Tennessee did a wonderful job of scheming Alabama’s DBs into bad matchups and took advantage of them. This is a group that includes four players who are good enough to play in the NFL, which is why hopes were so high. This week against LSU is another huge test for them.
Overall assessment: C
After posing the question in the offseason whether or not this could be Nick Saban’s best defense ever, it’s pretty disappointing how the unit as a whole has performed, especially in the biggest games of the year. But I think a lot of it speaks to the offensive nature of the game in 2022 and that having a true shutdown defense in today’s day and age is just next to impossible. I don’t think it’s out of the question at all that the unit tightens things up for the rest of the way and performs up to their potential. They need more production from their best players and to quote Bill Belichick, everyone needs do their job. How they have performed puts too much pressure on Bryce Young to win the team games himself. It’s time for the defense to step up the rest of the way and show what they are capable of.