Watch out for Alabama's pass rush in 2016
Alabama’s excellent defense was crucial to the Crimson Tide’s national championship-winning 2015 campaign, but has suffered appreciable attrition over the offseason. That’s particularly true in the front seven, with defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and DJ Pettway joining linebackers Reggie Ragland, Denzell Devall and Dillon Lee in exiting the program. The six combined to play 2,991 snaps in 2015, with each of them earning an overall grade of +14.0 or greater, they combined for 14 sacks, 104 total pressures and 148 defensive stops.
That’s a lot of experience and production to replace, and yet it’s not inconceivable that Alabama’s pass rush will be even more potent in 2016. That’s because their top three pass rushers, Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams have all returned for 2016 and all of them are expected to see the field more often.
As a rotational 3-4 defensive end and pass-rush specialist, Allen played just 39.5 percent of Alabama’s defensive snaps in 2015. He saw just 30 snaps combined against run-heavy LSU and Arkansas teams, but had a season-high 42 snaps in the national championship game, when Clemson put the game in the hands of Deshaun Watson. In 2015 Allen recorded 13 sacks and 36 total pressures on just 251 pass rush snaps; his 12.1 pass rush productivity (PRP) score ranks second among returning 3-4 ends. Over the past two seasons that’s 20 sacks, 77 total pressures and an 11.2 PRP score. Allen was on the field for the fourth-most snaps among Alabama’s defensive linemen, but that should rise this season as he assumes a starting role.
Ryan Anderson wasn’t technically a starter in 2015, but his role grew in the second-half of the season. Through the first six games Anderson had played on just 28.7 percent of Alabama’s defensive snaps, that rose to 40.4 percent through the remaining eight games. Anderson finished the year with seven sacks and 41 total pressures, helping him to a 19.1 PRP score — the fourth-highest among returning 3-4 OLBs. All seven sacks and 30 of those pressures came during those final eight games. Also strong against the run (+23.9 run defense grade over the past two seasons), Anderson is in line to be Alabama’s most featured edge defender in 2016.
Tim Williams played the fourth-most snaps among 3-4 OLB for the Crimson Tide in 2015, and saw the third-most pass rush snaps (147), yet still led the group with 11 sacks and 52 total pressures. An explosive pass rusher, Williams excels at getting to the QB, his 28.4 PRP score in 2015 led all edge rushers in the nation. Listed at 237-pounds, there are concerns about his ability to set the edge against the run, and while he had a +3.3 run defense grade in 2015, Alabama limited him to just 47 snaps in run defense over the past two seasons. That figure should rise in 2016, and Williams will get the chance to show whether he can be an every-down player, but his impact as a pass rusher alone is already invaluable.
Alongside Allen on the defensive line should be NT Daron Payne and end Dalvin Tomlinson, both of whom saw significant snaps in 2015, with Tomlinson playing even more snaps than Allen. They both graded positively as pass rushers in 2015, but with just two sacks and 23 total pressures between them in 2015, there is little reason to expect them to contribute more pass rush than Reed and Robinson did. Da’Shawn Hand should be the largest beneficiary of the departure of 3-4 ends Robinson and Pettway. Rivals top-ranked prospect in the 2014 recruiting cycle, Hand saw 181 snaps as a sophomore, recording four sacks, 11 total pressures, and earning the third-best PRP score (7.8) on Alabama’s defensive line, behind Allen and Pettway.
There is precious little experience behind Anderson and Williams on the edge, the only other returning 3-4 OLB to play more than 10 snaps is Rashaan Evans, and he has converted to inside linebacker over the offseason.
Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton are expected to occupy the inside linebacker berths, Foster played alongside Ragland for much of 2015, amassing 17 pressures to Ragland’s 20, despite rushing the passer half as often. Hamilton was barely used as a pass rusher, rushing the passer on just sx of his 240 snaps in 2015, however Evans recorded five sacks and 11 total pressures from 54 pass rush snaps as a backup edge rusher in 2015, and may see some use as a sub-package rusher this season.
The return of Allen, Anderson and Williams — with all three occupying larger roles — bodes very well for Alabama’s pass rush in 2016, and spells bad news for the rest of the SEC.