Being a fan of Alabama football is more fun when you understand some of the intricacies of what’s going on down on the field. Our newest contributor, jcbama85, pitches in to help with the ins and outs of the game. –Ed.
Alabama football teams have always been known for solid defense. Coach Bryant’s 1961 team gave up a total of 25 points the entire season. When asked about the ’61 team, Bryant said, “they played like it was a sin to give up a point.”
Coach Ken Donahue was Bryant’s defensive coordinator for many of Alabama’s greatest teams. Legend has it Coach Bryant and some friends were out late one night during the season. As they drove past the coaching offices, someone said to Bryant, “The light is on in the football offices. Who is in there at 1:00 am?” Bryant replied, “Oh, that’s Donahue in there, making me look like a genius.”
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One of Donahue’s assistants was Bill “Brother” Oliver, who was the defensive coordinator for Coach Gene Stallings and the 1992 national championship team. In one of my all-time favorite big-game fakes, Brother Oliver said before the 1992 championship game that the Alabama players had been in finals late into December, and this did not allow them to put in a sophisicated game plan for the University of Miami. When he said this, I told a friend of mine, “Brother is up to something.” He was.
On the first play of the game, Miami’s Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Gino Torretta, walked to the line of scrimmage. When he looked up, he saw all eleven Alabama defenders on the line of scrimmage. He immediately called time out and was seen with both hands in the air on the sideline talking to Miami Coach Dennis Erickson. Torretta had no idea what to do. Throw in that Alabama had great athletes like Eric Curry and John Copeland on the field, and it was one of the most dominating defensive performances in Alabama football history.
Over time, two characteristics have defined Alabama’s great defenses. One is that Alabama has consistently recruited great players; Tide history is filled with such names as Jordan, Baumhauer, Krauss, Bennett, Thomas, Teague, Cody, Darieus, McClain, and my former classmate at Alabama, Mike Pitts.
The other is that Alabama always has great schemes on defense. Donahue, Brother Oliver, and Joe Kines all were extremely creative and had outstanding defensive schemes. The current team is no exception; Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart currently lead one of the best defenses in college football history.
Upon his arrival in Tuscaloosa, Saban installed the 3-4 defense. The 3-4 is the modern day version of the old “50” defense. The scheme uses three down linemen; one over the center (nose tackle) and two over the tackles (defensive ends). Behind the defensive line, you find four linebackers, two middle, and two outside. Behind the linebackers you have two cornerbacks, a strong safety, and a free safety.
The scheme is designed for large defensive linemen (think Terrence Cody) to plug the middle and keep blockers off the linebackers, allowing them to make plays. This is why players like Don’ta Hightower and Courtney Upshaw make so many plays. The play of the Alabama defensive linemen allow these two to run free, wreaking havoc on the offense.
Alabama names their linebackers to help with scheme and alignment. The linebackers are Mike (middle), Will (weak side), Sam (strong side), and Jack, a hybrid position. The Jack LB will occasionally play with his hand on the ground, making the 3-4 look like a 4-3. This is where the “over” and “under” comes in. If the Jack LB is on the strong (Tight End) side, it’s an “over” look. If the Jack lines up on the weak side (away from the tight end) it’s an ‘under” look. The Jack position allows great pass rushers like Upshaw to put his hand in the ground and get sacks, but also stand up and play pass coverage.
Because of the popularity of spread offenses, Alabama spends approximately forty to fifty percent of the time in either a nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six defensive backs) alignment. When in nickel, Alabama will pull one of the linebackers (usually Sam) and replace him with another defensive back they call “Nickel.” While in their ‘dime’ package, Alabama will pull the Will LB and replace him with another DB they call “Money.” This allows Alabama to match up against four- or five-wide receiver alignments. You will often hear Saban say something like “we moved Menzie to Money” for the game.
Another interesting feature of the Alabama defense is the myriad of coverages and blitzes they employ. Watch Alabama on third and long. They will often show a blitz from one side, wait for the quarterback to check off, and then change, bringing the blitz from the other side. Alabama will often use what is called a “plus one” blitz, meaning they will bring one more blitzer than the offensive team has blockers. Other times Alabama will show an agressive blitz, and then drop either seven or eight into coverage to confuse the offense.
Alabama will show many different coverages. Most teams use either man-to-man coverages, where one defender is responsible for a specific receiver, or zone coverage, where a defender is responsible for a specific area. Alabama takes this to a different level with exotic or combination coverages. One side of the defense may play man, while the other side may play zone, or the coverage near the line might be man-to-man, with the deep part of the field in zone. This is all designed to confuse the opposing offense. Throw in blitzing linebackers and stunts from the defensive line, and it’s a nightmare scenario for a 20-year-old quarterback.
The Alabama defense is one of the most complex in college football. Former Alabama All-American and current Buffalo Bill Marcel Darius was recently quoted as saying the Buffalo defensive playbook was smaller than the Alabama playbook.
However, the most important part of having a great defense is to have great players. Coach Saban is one of the best recruiters in the game, and the success of the Alabama defense is based in large part to having outstanding athletes. If your team has better athletes than the other team, you will most likely win, no matter the scheme.