TUSCALOOSA — After losing two-thirds of its defensive front and its top three sack leaders from a year ago, Alabama’s pass rush was a point of concern coming into the season.
And one game in, there’s clear room for improvement to be made in that department, especially if senior defensive end Raekwon Davis has anything to say about it.
“We still need more pressure on the quarterback,” Davis said after Saturday’s 42-3 season-opening win over Duke. “We still got to be able to disturb the pocket and just rush. We’ve got to get better at that.”
While sacks aren’t the sole indicator for creating a pass rush, they represent the most fan-friendly statistical gauge of how much pressure a quarterback faces in a game.
And if its one-sack effort against Duke was any indication, Alabama could stand to make things a little more difficult in the pocket when it takes on New Mexico State in its home opener at 3 p.m. Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“We’re always trying to improve pass rush,” Tide coach Nick Saban said on Wednesday’s Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference. “We’re always trying to improve ways we can affect the quarterback and certainly that’s something that we’re working on this week with the type of team we’re going to play against.”
Alabama’s lone takedown of Duke quarterback Quentin Harris came on a second-quarter bull rush from junior outside linebacker Terrell Lewis, who says he was amped for the opportunity after missing all of last season recovering from an ACL injury.
“Kind of mad I didn’t get as much as I wanted to,” Lewis said of his sack total, flashing a smile after the game. “It was important to set the tone as far as my role on the team and I was already anxious just to play in general, so just adding onto that sentence, it was about time to make my presence felt.”
But outside of Lewis’ one all-out blitz, there wasn’t much in the way of a consistent pass rush Saturday. In fact, the Blue Devils’ defense doubled up the Tide in tackles for loss (four to two) in the game, with the first of those TFL coming on the first defensive play of the game from freshman nose guard D.J. Dale.
Of course, to hear Saban explain it, bringing down Duke’s quarterback was never part of the game plan, which centered moreso around containing the dual-threat Harris.
“Sacks really have nothing to do with how successful you are on defense. … We wanted to compress the pocket on (Harris) and make him throw from the pocket, and we did that," Saban said. “We hit him a few times. We pressured him a few times. We only sacked him once, but we did a pretty good job of (limiting) him (from) making plays with his feet, which was the goal of the game.”
Still, between the offseason departures of Isaiah Buggs, Christian Miller, Jamey Mosley, Quinnen Williams and Lyndell “Mack” Wilson to the NFL and Eyabi Anoma and Kyriq McDonald to transfer; as well as the season-ending injuries to linebackers Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon (and Cameron Latu’s position change to tight end), Alabama must replace between 60-70 percent of its total pass rush from last season. The aforementioned players accounted for 44 of its 64 quarterback hurries, 70½ tackles for loss and 31½ of its 45 total sacks in 2018.
That’s a lot of defensive production to make up for, which is where improvement from players like Davis and junior end LaBryan Ray come into play.
“I think pass rush-wise, we did some good things but there is still a lot to improve on,” Ray said Tuesday.
Of course, that’s not to take anything away from Alabama’s stout defensive effort Saturday, limiting Duke to just 204 total yards, a 3-of-12 conversion rate on third downs, and five three-and-outs in the game, with a 30-yard field goal representing its lone score. The Tide’s experienced secondary also forced three turnovers in the contest, a positive sign for a unit that got exposed during last year’s postseason.
Senior corner Trevon Diggs factored into two of those turnovers, recovering a forced fumble by sophomore Patrick Surtain II midway through the third quarter and hauling in one of Alabama’s two interceptions in the final minute of the frame.
“I had given up a pass the first time for not playing the ball, so this time I was playing the ball,” Diggs said Monday of his interception. “I started to get a feel for things. I just turned my head and caught the ball in my fist, just caught it.”
But while there was plenty that went right for the Tide in Saturday’s opener, even Saban will acknowledge it was far from a complete defensive effort.
“Oh yeah, there’s always things that we need to improve,” Saban said Wednesday. “(Duke’s) best runs in the game were on (our) mental errors, (including when) the defense didn’t slant the right way one time because we didn’t call it correctly. … We didn’t play the ball on the deep part of the field very well. There’s a ton of things that we can do better, and we’re certainly focusing on trying to get those things right this week.”