Alabama pass-rush primed for huge day against Tennessee
This season has felt like something of a slow burn in the SEC, but over the next couple of weeks, we are going to see the matchups that will define the conference—and more than likely shape the face of the College Football Playoff.
This weekend’s key matchup comes when unbeaten Alabama takes on the one-loss Tennessee Volunteers in a potential SEC Championship Game preview. Tennessee tested its luck early in the year while giving opponents double-digit leads before mounting impressive comebacks, but that luck finally ran out against Texas A&M last week. Week 7’s key matchup comes between the Vols’ offensive line and the Alabama pass-rush. This battle appears very one-sided on paper, but Tennessee has a not-so-secret weapon to potentially counter the Crimson Tide.
Why Alabama’s pass-rush can win
Something I talked about on this week’s SEC Podcast was the fact that, while Alabama doesn’t have a player like Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett or Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, the sum of its parts gives the Crimson Tide the best pass-rush in the nation. It starts with Tim Williams, who has grown into a key part of the Alabama defense in a full-time role this year. He made a huge impact in a limited role last season, racking up 11 sacks, eight QB hits, and 33 QB hurries on 148 pass-rushing snaps in 2015, working out at one pressure once every 2.8 pass-rushing attempts. That level of production was unlikely to be sustainable in a bigger role, but he has still inflicted a lot of damage on offenses in 2016, racking up two sacks, six QB hits, and 18 QB hurries on 110 pass-rushing snaps, working out at a pressure once every 4.2 pass-rushing attempts.
It’s not just about Williams, though; his partner in crime on the edge comes in the form of Ryan Anderson. Like Williams, Anderson had been a part-time player until this year, but is relishing a larger role in the Alabama defense in 2016. After playing 32.7 percent of Alabama’s defensive snaps in 2014 and 32.5 percent in 2015, he has played 59.6 percent this year. As a pass-rusher, he has registered five sacks, seven hits, and 13 hurries so far in 2016.
The other key member of the Alabama pass-rush is important not just because he of his ability as a pass-rusher, but also because of his versatility. Jonathan Allen has racked up four sacks, five hits, and 14 hurries on 180 pass-rushing snaps so far this year, but his true value comes from his ability to play multiple spots on the Alabama front-seven. He’s spent 164 snaps on the defensive interior and 114 on the edge, beating both tackles and guards regularly to put quarterbacks under pressure.
How Tennessee’s offense can combat it
Generally this is the point in the article where I lay out how the other side of the matchup can win, but in this case, I don’t really see any way that the Alabama pass-rush can be slowed down by this Tennessee offensive line. Alabama has the best pass-rush in the nation, and has multiple players that can get after the quarterback; simply put, Tennessee won’t have the ability to focus on one player and slow them down. Our pass-blocking efficiency rating measures pressure on a per-snap basis, and with 67 total pressures allowed on 216 pass-blocking snaps so far this year, the Tennessee offensive line’s PBE rating of just 75.9 ranks 181st out of the 210 offensive lines we have graded this year (including FCS schools we have graded in games against FBS schools). This is the best pass-rush in the nation against one of the very worst pass-blocking offensive lines.
Alabama is going to get pressure, and a lot of it—that’s an almost certainty. Tennessee can combat it, though, if quarterback Josh Dobbs can do what he’s done so far this year, and that’s make big plays under pressure. Dobbs’ overall numbers under pressure are impressive, with the signal-caller completing 52.8 percent of his passes under pressure, compared with 60.0 percent without pressure. What really stands out, though, is his ability to create big plays. Dobbs has thrown eight touchdowns while under pressure, the most of any quarterback in the nation.
What the grades say
Tennessee doesn’t have an offensive lineman who ranks inside the top 100 players in the nation at their position, while Williams is our fourth-ranked pass-rusher among edge defenders (Anderson ranks 25th). On the interior, Allen ranks second as a pass-rusher, so this is a mismatch of fairly epic proportions. Alabama will get pressure on Josh Dobbs, so this game is going to be decided by whether or not he can find the big plays he’s managed to so far this year when the heat is on.