LSU-Bama Preview: The Tide Defense
Courtney Upshaw
Courtney Upshaw
Posted Nov 1, 2011

You don't need the national rankings to see that Alabama and LSU are elite defenses...all you need is a remote control. And yet there are subtle differences between these two all-star units. CFN's David Sweigart and Matt Zemek dive deep into these nuances to identify which might prove to be the difference makers on Saturday.

Matt Zemek – Alabama's Defense

First in rushing yards allowed. First in total yards allowed. First in scoring defense. Second in third-down conversion percentage allowed. Those aren't SEC rankings...they're national ones.

Obviously, Alabama's defense is doing something right, and with the Nick Saban-Kirby Smart braintrust in charge of the shop, you wouldn't expect anything less. Alabama's defense was young last season, and its secondary was vulnerable to big plays - so much so that Stephen Garcia was able to exploit it. This year, Alabama briefly wobbled in the face of John Brantley's gunslinging at Florida, but steadied itself enough to flummox Brantley before the Gator quarterback suffered his unfortunate injury.

It is legitimate to say that Alabama hasn't been tested very frequently this season; though part of that is their own doing, as this defense hasn't allowed teams to get going. Still, the non-conference schedule was light and Bama's three SEC East games - as is the case with every SEC West team not hailing from the state of Mississippi - were quite manageable, to say the very least. Yet, when given a slate of inferior opponents, Alabama's defense has done all it reasonably could be expected to do. The Crimson Tide have not given a single opposing offense any reason for hope or any cause for optimism beyond Florida's first quarter on Oct. 1. A few first-drive hiccups have dotted the landcape for this Saban-and-Smart production, but those technical difficulties have been easily solved over the course of each set of 60 minutes.

Alabama is truly a team defense, which is to say that the three lines of defense are all stacked with playmakers. Individuals don't have disproportionate roles; they are all comfortable performing specific tasks so that the unit thrives. Yet, this doesn't mean that a few young men haven't stood out over the course of the season. Defensive back Dee Milliner (interceptions), defensive lineman Nick Gentry (sacks), linebacker Courtney Upshaw (tackles), and fellow linebacker Don'ta Hightower (tackles for loss) all rank in the SEC's top 25, affirming the balanced strength of Bama's defense. The supreme virtue for the Tide in this game against LSU is that they have the defensive eleven that is rugged enough to withstand Spencer Ware and the rest of the Tigers' big, bad, bold rushing attack. Moreover, the fact that the secondary has improved greatly over 2010 will make it harder for the rejuvenated Tiger QB, Jarrett Lee.

With that having been said, for LSU to beat this Bama's defense it will need to pry it open with the pass, at least in the early going. LSU has more speed than Alabama, and this means getting match-ups in open space, not the tackle box. A muscular game is the kind of game Alabama's defense wants to play; therefore, if the height of tactical wisdom is to do what your enemy does not want you to do, LSU needs to lead with its finesse elements, setting up Ware's body blows in the third and fourth quarters.

Getting a running back in the flat, dialing up an inside flanker screen, and using other change-of-pace plays that involve a lot of crossing action among receivers could give LSU its best path to a productive evening. Making sure Alabama leaves just seven people in the tackle box is something LSU needs to achieve in the first half.

Spreading the Tide's defense, both vertically and horizontally, will make the running game more of a factor in the second half, when LSU's offense will likely need to place more emphasis on ball control. The first half, though, needs to determine (and explore) what the Tigers can do. The opening quarter should focus more on the horizontal passing game, with certain route combinations setting up more vertically-oriented plays in the second quarter.

Naturally, the scoreboard and the progress of the game's other match-up (LSU's defense versus Alabama's offense) will have much to do with the play selection of LSU offensive coordinator Greg Studwara in the second half. For the sake of clarity, then, the recommended approach for the Tigers in combating Bama's offense assumes that the game is being played on relatively even terms. If this game is tight heading into the second half, the focus will likely shift away from the intricacy of LSU's plays and move toward the basic choices in front of Studwara: power run, finesse run (a Jordan Jefferson option or an X-quick handoff to a receiver), play-action pass, or dropback pass.

Keeping Alabama on a pendulum, specifically by making both Hightower and Upshaw think instead of attack - will, if achieved, put LSU in position to minimize the effectiveness of an Alabama defense that will face its toughest test to this point in the season.

Follow Matt on Twitter @MattZemek_CFN

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