University of Alabama

Alabama football: Crimson Tide clamps down when offenses reach red zone

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Statistically speaking, Alabama’s defense doesn’t make much sense.

Among SEC teams, it ranks seventh against the pass and third against the run, yet — in the one category that ultimate success or failure is determined — the Crimson Tide easily ranks first nationally in scoring defense by allowing just 9 points per game.

Where’s the difference?

Try the red-zone defense.

Despite allowing occasionally lengthy drives this season, the clamps go down when opponents cross the Alabama 20. Of the 14 such trips, only two have resulted in touchdowns, six were field goals, and five ended in turnovers. Florida’s failed fourth-down conversion in Saturday’s fourth quarter is the other.

Holding opponents to eight scores in 14 attempts (57.1 percent) tops the conference rankings, followed by Saturday’s opponent, South Carolina. The No. 19 Gamecocks have allowed just four touchdowns in 16 red-zone visits by opponents and 10 scores overall for a 62.5 percent success rate. Offensively, South Carolina has touchdowns on 13 of 16 red-zone trips and field goals on two others.

Alabama’s defense can be labeled bend but don’t break with a hint of thievery thrown in the mix. That’s not the preferred tag, though.

The approach of the rebuilt defense of 2010 hasn’t strayed from the veteran-heavy 2009 group that wasn’t satisfied with even a little bending. Some of the yardage accumulated on the less experienced group is a direct result of the youthful indiscretions.

“We always have goals set for allowing so many yards on the run or having so many passing yards in the game,” sophomore linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “And we go back and watch and you see the numbers, but it’s not necessarily them.

“It’s always one play wrong somebody missing the wrong gap on the run or somebody not covering the right person on the wheel route or some confusion in the secondary on the coverage or something.”

The 31-6 Alabama win Saturday over Florida was a microcosm for the Tide defense this season. The Gators even outgained Alabama 281-273 but never scored a touchdown. Their two field goals came after drives stalled inside the 20, and turnovers twice burned the visitors after possessions reached the Alabama 1-yard line.

“Sometimes, against teams like this, you don’t want to get to the 1-yard line,” Gamecock coach Steve Spurrier told reporters in Columbia. “You want to get to the 7 or 8. Sometimes, it’s easier to score from that distance.”

A week earlier in the 24-20 win at Arkansas, the Tide and Razorbacks had matching 421-yard totals, but two crucial turnovers late in the game and a first-quarter interception in the end zone killed the Hogs’ shot at knocking Alabama off its top-ranked perch.

“Most of the time when you don’t give up big plays, you play well in the red zone and you get pretty hard to score on,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We’ve probably given up a few too many big plays.

“I don’t know what the average number of opportunities for a team to be in the red zone at this point in the season would be I don’t think that is too many but I don’t really know. The key thing is, when you get there, you have to play the next play. Our guys have competed very well down there. You have to give them credit for the tenacity that they have.”

Of the explosive plays surrendered, only one reached the end zone. Arkansas’ running back Ronnie Wingo scored on a 43-yard passing play in which an Alabama linebacker blew the assignment. The longest play an opponent managed was a 49-yard pass in the season opener against San Jose State, but the drive ended in a missed field goal and no scoreboard damage.