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Can Anyone Stop Alabama’s Pass Rush?

So far, the answer has been “no.” Clemson’s national championship hopes hinge on changing that.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In retrospect, perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong question all season. Since Alabama treated USC like a Division II squad in its 2016 opener, pundits and fans across the college football landscape have posed a simple but general query: Can any team hang with Alabama for four quarters?

We should have been more specific with our inquiry. In Washington’s 24–7 loss to Alabama in Saturday’s playoff semifinal, the Huskies scored the first points, made Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts look like the freshman that he actually is, and kept Nick Saban’s team from scoring an offensive touchdown for a 38-minute stretch. It didn’t matter, though, because the Huskies weren’t the answer to college football’s actual biggest puzzle: Can any offense fend off Alabama’s pass rush for four quarters?

For those who believed Washington had a chance to win the Peach Bowl (as a charter member of the fictitious national media guild of Alabama haters, consider me guilty as charged), the Huskies seemed a natural fit to attack the Crimson Tide’s weakness in the secondary. Jake Browning is a prolific deep-ball passer, John Ross one of the country’s top downfield threats, and all Washington would need is a few field-flipping plays to be able to score on college football’s best defense.

Then the teams took the Georgia Dome field, and Browning didn’t so much as attempt a deep pass until his team was down three scores in the fourth quarter — and that try sailed about 15 yards past the receiver. The Huskies’ longest play was a screen that running back Myles Gaskin took 20 yards. Ross didn’t have a single catch that even went for a first down.

It turns out that just like the best offense is an immovable defense — another aphorism apt for Alabama — the best secondary is an unstoppable pass rush. Six different defenders had a hand in Bama’s five sacks of Browning, and that total doesn’t include plays by either Reuben Foster, who terrorized the Huskies with nine tackles and pressured Browning into heaving his first interception, or Ryan Anderson, who has eight QB takedowns this year and was the beneficiary of Foster’s pressure on that game-changing play.

Per Pro Football Focus tracking, Browning was pressured on only about one-third of his dropbacks, but when he threw against pressure, he completed just one of eight passes and coughed up a pick-six. By the second half, he looked spooked, fleeing toward the sideline at the first sight of a red jersey instead of remaining in the pocket to pick out receivers downfield.

Despite how he looked Saturday, Browning had actually played well against pressure this year, holding the fourth-best passer rating against it among Power Five QBs before the weekend. Alabama’s is a level above routine college pressure, though, as a schedule full of quarterbacks before Browning can attest.

Arkansas’s Austin Allen picked apart the Bama secondary when comfortable but lost his effectiveness when pressured. Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs was pressured on more than half of his dropbacks in posting his worst passing numbers of the season. Ole Miss’s Chad Kelly succeeded throwing deep, giving hope to the Browning-to-Ross prognosticators, but he completed fewer than half of his passes against pressure and fumbled twice, giving Alabama two return touchdowns.

Picking a favorite Alabama pass rusher is like picking a favorite Nick Saban sideline tantrum: They’re all equally incredible, with the ability to make 18-to-21-year-old athletes cower in fear. Three members of the pass-rushing corps could realistically place in the top five in April’s NFL draft: Foster (103 tackles, 12 for loss), Jonathan Allen (15 TFL, 9.5 sacks), and Tim Williams (16 TFL, 9 sacks).

Allen won the Nagurski Trophy for the best defender in college football this year, both because he deserved it and because voters probably saw this highlight a couple of dozen times.

(His more subtle highlights are just as impressive, if more reliant on instincts and film study than outrageous athleticism.)

Williams is predominantly a pass-rushing specialist — his 16 tackles for loss make up more than half of his 29 total tackles — but his power is no less fearsome.

Add in a bevy of five-star recruits serving as backups and complementary pieces, and it’s no wonder that Alabama ranks second in the country with 50 sacks and first with 408 total yards lost on sacks.

Thus, we pose the question that actually stands between Bama and a fifth national championship in Saban’s 10 years in Tuscaloosa: Can Clemson’s offense fend off Alabama’s pass rush for four quarters?

Last year’s championship game can provide a baseline answer, and for Clemson, the results are somewhat encouraging. Alabama sacked Deshaun Watson twice in last season’s meeting — a modest victory for the Tigers, given that the Tide led the FBS with 52 sacks last year. There are caveats, to be sure, and after Washington’s blocking fiasco, the dangers that Bama’s rushers pose cannot be overstated.

For all his poise and talent, Watson has also made a number of poor decisions and throws this year, en route to a tie for the second-most interceptions (17) in the country. Only eight teams have collected more turnovers than Alabama’s 27, and only eight teams have lost more turnovers than Clemson’s 26. And as Browning — and Allen and Dobbs and Kelly, amid other quarterbacks before him — learned firsthand, pressure-induced giveaways are backbreakers against the Alabama defense.

Clemson and Watson should fare better than those discarded offenses, though. The first reason is the most obvious, which is that Clemson’s offensive line is the best Alabama will have faced all season. By opponent-adjusted sack rate, the Tigers boast the fourth-best blockers in the country; Washington, for comparison, ranks 74th. The raw numbers tell a similar story: Among Power Five teams, only Pitt and USC allow fewer sacks per game than Clemson, and only Cal and USC have a better sack-to-pass-attempt ratio.

The Tigers are even more protective of Watson on passing downs, which represents a key split against an Alabama defense that routinely pushes offenses into long second- and third-down situations. Clemson allows a sack on just 1.9 percent of passing downs, tied with Northern Illinois for the lowest rate in the country.

For comparison again, this area was Washington’s greatest vulnerability, as the Huskies offense allowed sacks on 10.6 percent of passing downs in the regular season (110th nationally). That weakness manifested on Saturday, with Alabama managing as many third-down sacks of Browning (three) as it allowed third-down completions. The Tide might be unable to harass Watson in such habitual fashion, though.

Clemson surrenders such little pressure in part because its game plan is predicated on quick throws for its star quarterback. Think about the NFL’s Patriots, who consistently frustrate opposing pass rushers with how quickly Tom Brady releases the ball. Watson’s average time from snap to release this season (2.11 seconds heading into the semifinal) is about a quarter of a second faster than Brady’s has been in recent years.

The Tigers also form a sturdy shield in front of Watson, allowing him both to make rapid reads unperturbed and to wait in a clean pocket while deeper routes develop. Of the five offensive linemen named to the All-ACC first team this season, three play for Clemson. Center Jay Guillermo is one of the best stories in the sport, with the talent to match, while guard Tyrone Crowder has excelled in the team’s biggest games and tackle Mitch Hyatt has taken a 6-foot-5 step forward in his sophomore season.

Matchup-specific wrinkles could work in Clemson’s favor, as well. If last year’s title game is an indication of what to expect in next week’s rematch, the Tigers running backs should feature in the passing game far more often than they are accustomed. Last season, reserve back Zac Brooks grabbed a career-high four catches and 39 yards as a release valve for Watson, and starter Wayne Gallman caught three passes for 61 yards; in the rest of his Tigers career, for comparison, he’s averaged just 1.5 catches and 9 yards per game.

Clemson also experienced success rolling Watson to the right and bending its protection in an arc around the passer, effectively taking half of Alabama’s line out of the play. While this approach didn’t always yield the best results — safety Eddie Jackson, now out with a broken leg, jumped a go route for an interception on one such play — it worked from a process perspective, giving Watson time to scan the field and test Bama deep.

The final ingredient for Clemson to counter the pass rush is to rely on Watson’s wizardry. The Heisman runner-up has improved his performance against pressure this year — according to Pro Football Focus, although his completion rate plummets from 72 percent to 49 percent under duress due in large part to throwaways, his yards-per-attempt and touchdown rate stay basically the same, and his interception rate actually drops when compared to his throws free of pressure.

Watson can also use his mobility as both a means of attack and an escape route if Allen and Co. break through the line. This plan worked to some degree in last year’s meeting, as Watson ran for 73 yards after breaking the 100-yard mark in five of the previous six games.

He’s been more conservative running this season on aggregate but has more than doubled his rushing production in Clemson’s biggest games. Against Louisville, Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Ohio State, Watson averaged 14.3 rushes (not counting sacks), 78.8 yards, and one rushing touchdown per contest; in his other 10 games, those averages were 7.4, 33.9, and 0.4, respectively.

In Saban’s tenure, dual-threat quarterbacks have exploited Alabama’s aggressive defense, and Watson’s offense did put up 40 points last season. The Tigers aren’t immune to backfield pressure — Florida State’s defensive line is similar in talent to Alabama’s, and the Seminoles took Watson down four times in October — but for a number of reasons, they seem best suited to match up with Bama’s ferocious front. Regardless, they have to be — Clemson is the only possible answer left to the question hovering over the season.

The problem is that the Tigers have to remain vigilant for all 60 minutes in their protection against the rush. As Alabama proved on Saturday, all it takes is one burst through the line, one moment of QB desperation, one flash from a future first-rounder, to turn the tide of the game.