TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Alabama coaches laid out the defensive stats from last season, but not in celebration of the nation’s stingiest group.
The coaches used a team meeting to highlight the significant drop-off from the previous national championship edition — a year earlier. Being first isn’t good enough when you’re competing against yourself.
“They showed our stats from last season and pretty much we were first in the country,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said at Sunday’s team media day at Bryant-Denny Stadium. “But he compared us to the last two teams from Alabama and they had better stats than we did. At the end of the day we’ve got to make sure that we’re being better than we were before and not better than other people.”
Tough crowd. Sure, the Crimson Tide’s 250 yards allowed a game led the nation, but that was 66.4 yards worse than 2011 for the two-time defending champions.
Points allowed, rushing defense and especially pass defense also took a step back. Alabama allowed 62 yards more on average through the air (173.6 from 111.5) in a secondary that featured top-10 NFL draft pick Dee Milliner.
The 2009 championship defense also was better in total and pass defense.
So the Tide has something to strive for in its pursuit of a third consecutive national title.
A defense that returns seven starters — including the All-American Mosley and safety HaHa Clinton-Dix — is hoping to reverse that statistical decline, whatever the national rankings indicate. Mosley said coach Nick Saban’s message was “don’t be satisfied.”
“We kind of have a standard here at Alabama,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “A lot of people think our standard is to be first in the SEC, be first in the country, first in our red zone and run defense. We really don’t go by that motto.
“We go by, be the best Alabama defense there’s been. We compare ourselves to the last five years of Alabama defenses. When you do that, last year’s defense was not exactly up to par. Not exactly spectacular. We put in a lot of work to improve on defense.”
There wasn’t quite the same defensive talent exodus this go-around. Smart’s 2012 group had to replace three first-rounders; this team lost only one. Even though 10 Tide defenders were drafted the past two years, that doesn’t diminish the ambitions.
Nor does facing seven teams that employ hurry-up, no-huddle offenses.
Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Beliemma have been vocal in their distaste for that style, saying it’s an injury hazard for defenses that can’t substitute.
Plus, the Tide’s worst defensive moments came when faced with the brisk tempo last season. Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M racked up 187 yards and 20 points in the first quarter to hand Alabama its only loss, 29-24. Similarly speedy Mississippi, meanwhile, racked up marathon touchdown drives of 13 and 16 plays.
“We’ve studied a lot of teams in the offseason,” Smart said. “A lot of NFL teams have come here to study fast tempo and running quarterbacks, which is kind of the new trend going forward. So we’ve been able to study with those guys for any ideas, try to create ways to give them negative plays.
“There’s an upside and a downside to fast tempo because when teams go fast tempo, there’s a lot of things they can’t do at the line. We try to create an advantage for us by being able to give them negative plays, and I think if we can do that it can hurt them with their up tempo.”
Saban said the Tide emphasized “fast-twitch” pass rushers in the latest recruiting class to keep up with the trend toward spread offenses.
Mosley said Alabama defenses are “all about ground and pound and hitting guys in the mouth, but we can finesse when we have to.”
Alabama isn’t changing its physical, run-stopping mentality.
“Good players are good football players is the bottom line,” Smart said. “Surely the bigger, more massive people can play against teams like ourselves or LSU or the Georgias of the world. Then you have to have a little more space players for some of the other teams. But you can’t lose sight of defeating blocks, whether it’s in space or not, tackling people, which we have to do every game.
“So certainly we’ve tried to become athletic, but we’ll never leave our true motto, which is be bigger and more physical than everybody we play and try to out-physical them at the point of attack.”
And be better than last year.