The Missing Pieces Alabama Needs to Win It All in 2019
By: Larry Burton
To be sure, it’s not a long hike for the Crimson Tide to get back where they want to be in 2019. While they made the playoffs last season and return a ton of talent, they still were clearly not the best team in that championship game last season.
For those who may have forgotten or for the Alabama fans who wish to forget, that final score was 44-16, so perhaps the biggest thing for the Tide to do is step up their defense. Prior to that game Alabama had not given up so many points so the gap between where Clemson’s offense and Alabama’s defense seemed pretty wide. So the first thing Alabama may want to correct is in stopping a top tier offense from piling on so many points. Clearly by the end of the season, the defense was tiring and faced better teams. Georgia put up 28 points against them in the SEC and Oklahoma managed to put 34 points on the board in the first round of the playoffs.
For the season, Alabama allowed opponents to score just 73% of the time once inside the red zone. Clemson scored every time they were in the red zone. Not only did Alabama do a poor job in the red zone, they did a poor job keeping Clemson from reaching the red zone. In the first half of the game, they only kept Clemson from scoring once. The second half went no better with Alabama only forcing one punt.
So while you may remember the entire season and Alabama leading the country in a lot of defensive stats, once the competition got better, they weren’t as good as they appeared to be, not an opinion here, just fact, so the first thing Alabama needs to do is step up their defense, something you don’t usually hear about a Nick Saban coached team.
New leaders will have to emerge, they secondary must be able to stop third and longs, something they couldn’t do in their last few games and the pass rush has to become nastier. That defense did hold their own against the run against good teams, but against a good passing team, they had problems. Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson all exploited linebackers who couldn’t cover backs and tight ends on passing plays, so either a new scheme has to be developed or the linebacker coach has to identify and train linebackers who can play cover well. Once they were exposed with this weakness, everyone did it.
So the defensive side of the ball has the following things to work on. Alabama must find another force in the middle to replace Quinnen Williams, to be that run stopper up the middle and pass rusher on the inside. Secondly, they have to tighten up the defensive secondary and stop teams on third and long. They have to either train the linebackers they’ve got or identify new ones who can cover backs and ends on pass plays and lastly, they have to get teams off the field on third down.
Conversely, during the season Alabama averaged scoring 82% of the time inside the red zone, in the championship game the scored one TD and one FG in their only two trips to the redzone. The problem for the Tide was simply getting to the redzone, so the Tide had some major things on offense that need fixing too.
In an interview in January, running back Josh Jacobs said the team was “mentally tired” going into the last games. He didn’t elaborate but certainly the Tide didn’t look it’s best on defense and the offense was not clicking well either so also the Tide might want to find a way to avoid a late season “mental lapse”. How they do that is up to both Saban and the fire in the belly of the players that will return.
Tua’s interception early on in the first drive let Clemson get on a roll and momentum is everything in a big game. It was a very bad interception. The Alabama player was clearly covered and it should have been recognized, but also the receiver did little to come back to the ball and play and defense. Clearly at least on this play, both players appeared to be “mentally tired” as neither were aware of of where the Clemson players were and how close they were to closing positions. One receiver in the area never looked back for the ball. The same kind of play happened against Georgia when Deandre Baker picked of Tua in the SEC Championship Game.
Later in the Championship Game, Tua was picked again with the score 21-16 and the Tide driving. This too just took the wind out of the offensive sails as he just flat out overthrew the receiver for a way too easy pick. The SEC Championship marked the first time that Tua had suffered as “mental lapses” where he clearly wasn’t his crisp self making perfect reads on defenses. We don’t know and may never know how much his nagging injuries contributed to his mistakes, but again, clearly they were there late in the season.
Even though Alabama was blown out in the game and lost the game by an astounding 28 points, they won the time of possession and almost had as many total yards. This just shows how much the turnovers and failure to convert third downs hurt the Tide. For the record, Bama just converted just 4 of 13 third downs, that was just 30%. For most of the season the Tide converted over 60%, so against better competition, Alabama needs to work on third down conversion productivity and Tua needs to be sharper. Alabama averaged just over four yards a carry, so the big problem was Tagovailoa going 22 for 36 in the passing game. That came out to just a 61% completion ratio. Earlier in the season he was averaging over 70%, If you believe in a sophomore slump, then Tua had his when it mattered the most.
So on the offensive side of the ball, let’s recap the things they need one. Stop the mental lapses, whatever those are, however you can on offense and defense. Make sure the quarterback and receivers are on the same page each play, they weren’t against Clemson. Without losing his “gambler” mentality, Tua needs to exercise a little more caution in close / big games. If he’s not 100% and the Tide has an able backup, then the backup needs to see if he can spark the team as Hurts did against Georgia. Lastly, through better play or better play calling, Alabama has to improve their third down percentage against the best competition and they have to finish drives with scores more often.
On special teams, it’s painfully obvious that the Tide needs a better kicker and a dazzling punt returner wouldn’t hurt either, but then a great kicker would have made little difference in the Clemson game, but had it been close, it would have.
In conclusion, even without fixing those things, Alabama is one of the best teams in the nation and depending on the drop off at Clemson and Georgia, there are few teams to give the Tide problems. It is also possible that in making these mistakes last season, that Alabama has learned from the experience and won’t repeat them. Then there’s the revenge theory, the hunger theory and more that could solve these problems.
But it’s also in the realm of possibility that the fixes to these things may not happen on their own and the Tide has to seriously concentrate on these listed shortcomings. They must then work their butts off to eliminate them because if they don’t, they be on the outside looking in next season too.
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Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter