How the defenses of CFB’s top 4 teams have graded this year

Alabama, Michigan, Clemson and Washington were our CFP picks this week -- but how do their defenses grade out?

| 1 month ago
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How the defenses of CFB’s top 4 teams have graded this year


Defense wins championships, or so they say. It’s generally a true statement as the most recent national champions have boasted well-rounded defenses capable of stopping the run, rushing the passer, and playing sound coverage on the back end. This year’s top teams all feature top defenses built in a similar mold. While the College Football Playoff threw us a curveball with Texas A&M coming in at No. 4, I released my rankings earlier this week and my selections feature four of the best defenses in the country. Defense will rule the day in the end, and it’s a big reason why these four teams are the best in the nation.

Let’s have a look:

1. Alabama

It all starts with the pass rush for Alabama where Jonathan Allen has been the best all-around defensive lineman in the country and he leads all interior linemen with a 94.8 pass rush grade. From Superman sacks to defensive touchdown returns, Allen sets the tone for the Alabama defense and he does it from multiple spots along the defensive line. Next to Allen is the underrated Dalvin Tomlinson who gets lost in the shuffle of superstars but his 87.7 overall grade ranks fifth in the country due to strong play in the run game and his contributions as a pass-rusher.

On the edge, Alabama is the only team with two players ranking in the top 15 in the nation as Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson have pressured opposing quarterbacks at a high rate for the last two season. While the average edge rusher gets to the quarterback bout 10 percent of the time, Williams has created pressure on 23.4 percent of his rushes while Anderson is no slouch at 18.6 percent.

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In the secondary, Alabama has three strong cornerbacks led by sophomore Minkah Fitzpatrick who ranks 22nd nationally and has three interceptions and four passes defensed on 41 targets. CB Marlon Humphrey has been susceptible to the big play throughout his career, allowing 16.8 yards per reception into his coverage the last two years, but he’s generally strong on the outside and he’s gotten his hands on six passes this season (two interceptions, four passes defensed). Losing FS Eddie Jackson for the season due to injury is the big story as Alabama looks to replace his range on the back end and versatility covering slot receivers, but they should have enough talent to make up for his loss.

2. Michigan

Perhaps the deepest defensive line in the country, Michigan has five players ranking among the best in the country and they all bring different skills to the table. Maurice Hurst can penetrate and disrupt, leading to his 86.2 pass rush grade that ranks ninth in the nation. Ryan Glasgow’s quick hands allow him to shed most one-on-one blocks and he’s graded well both against the run and as a pass-rusher. On the edge, Taco Charlton has shown continued improvement using his long, 6-foot-6 frame to shed blocks while Chris Wormley has may be the most productive of the bunch over the last two years. It’s almost unfair that they added one of the nation’s top recruits in Rashan Gary who has stepped right in as part of the rotation and contributed like a veteran.

The linebacking corps has been strong as well, and this is where we should probably list Jabrill Peppers, but we’ve slotted him in with the safeties for now. Either way, he makes plays all over the field, particularly in the run game with his strong 83.7 grade that ranks third among the nation’s safeties. Mike McCray and Ben Gedeon have been excellent in the run game as well, making Michigan’s front-7 one of the more formidable in the nation.

Where Michigan may have the most depth is in the secondary where CB Jourdan Lewis has continued his strong play after leading our coverage grades last season. He’s a feisty man corner who tackles well, but keep an eye on Channing Stribling who brings a long, 6-foot-2 frame and the nation’s No. 9 overall grade. His emergence has made Michigan’s secondary all the more dangerous, while safety Delano Hill flies around the field making plays for the Wolverines.

3. Clemson

One of the biggest stories of the season for Clemson is their defense continuing to perform despite numerous losses to the NFL over the last two seasons. The biggest losses last year were edge rushers Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd who accounted for about 40 percent of their pressures a year ago and there were few strong options to replace their production. Enter true sophomore Christian Wilkins who has taken his 6-foot-5 305-pound frame to the edge and while he’s not the same pass-rusher as a Lawson or Dodd, he’s posted the No. 7 grade in the nation against the run at 85.7 while holding his own as a rusher at 77.3. He’s essentially a defensive tackle playing as a productive edge player making it all the more impressive.

To replace Wilkins’ production on the interior, Clemson has turned to super true freshman Dexter Lawrence who currently ranks sixth overall among all interior defensive lineman in the country. In our three years of grading, we’ve yet to see a true freshman rank as high as the top 30 at that position, so it’s been a remarkable start for Lawrence who destroys running plays while showing improvement as a pass-rusher as the season has progressed. His pairing with Carlos Watkins has given Clemson a stout run-stopping duo in what is essentially a three-defensive tackle system when adding Wilkins on the edge.

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The secondary has done their part as well, led by CB Cordrea Tankersley who is a physical man coverage corner and ranks 10th nationally. He’s only surrendered 138 yards on 32 targets this season (4.3 yards per target) while breaking up five passes. The breakout star on the back end has been free safety Jadar Johnson who flashed his potential last season but has been a playmaker this season with four interceptions and three passes defensed.

4. Washington

Boasting a three-defensive tackle look of their own, Washington has three 300-plus pounders ranking among the best in the country. Greg Gaines is the No. 3 run stopper at 89.0 while Elijah Qualls is close behind at No. 19. Vita Vea brings the most well-rounded skillset to the group this season, grading among the top 40 both against the run and as a pass-rusher.

While the stout defensive line sets the tone, it’s Joe Mathis off the edge that has provided the pass rushing spark. He’s quietly the No. 5 edge defender in the country with a well-rounded 85.4 grade against the run (eighth) and an 86.2 grade as a pass-rusher (11th). He has four sacks, four QB hits, and 19 hurries on only 120 rushes this season.

The secondary features two stars in CB Sidney Jones and S Budda Baker. Opposing coaches have avoided Jones all season as he’s been targeted only 18 times all season (just over two per game) and he’s allowed only 116 yards for the year. Jones has one interception and two passes defensed on thos 18 targets. As for Baker, he’s been a sure tackler with only four misses on 42 attempts and he’s done a nice job of keeping the ball in front of him in coverage to grade at 80.6.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

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