September 24, 2010 8:34:00 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The top-ranked University of Alabama football team inserted a few blue-chip recruits, some longtime backups and a healthy Dont''a Hightower into the defense.
And voila, the Crimson Tide once again has been shutting down opponents. Now that rebuilt defense gets to prove its mettle over the next three weeks.
Defensive-minded Nick Saban & Co. are set for encounters with: Bobby Petrino, Ryan Mallett and No. 10 Arkansas; Urban Meyer, Jeff Demps and No. 9 Florida, followed by Steve Spurrier, Marcus Lattimore and No. 12 South Carolina.
By the time it''s over, any lingering questions about an Alabama defense that had to replace nine starters should be answered.
Some things clearly haven''t changed.
"They''re still big and physical and fast and very well coached," said Petrino, whose Razorbacks host the Tide on Saturday.
And like last year''s group that was loaded with experience, All-Americans and players now dotting NFL rosters, they''re not conceding much to opposing offenses.
The Tide has allowed one touchdown and 19 points in its first three games, the fewest to start a season for Alabama since the 1979 unit surrendered just nine points through three games. Alabama ranks second nationally in both pass efficiency defense and scoring defense.
The numbers come with a caveat. Among those first three opponents, only Duke is ranked among the top 70 nationally in either passing, total or scoring offense.
Stats aside, Saban has found some fault with his defense lately. The Tide allowed three sustained scoring drives against Duke in the first half -- OK, it happened in a 62-13 victory.
"What I was disappointed in a little bit the last game was we didn''t play the techniques the way we need to play them," he said. "When you break down fundamentally, that''s when you have bigger issues and problems. I think that''s something we''re going to work to get corrected this week."
A defense that is nursing a nation-best 37-game streak without allowing an individual 100-yard rusher ranks only seventh in the league against the run. The Tide did lose two All-Americans in the middle to the NFL, space-clogging noseguard Terrence Cody and linebacker Rolando McClain.
"We have not played the run in my opinion as well as what I think we''re capable of nor as well as we need to," Saban said. "We haven''t played it poorly, but it''s not just one guy, it''s not just one spot. Is it easier to fit the run if you''ve got guys up front that they''ve got to take two guys to block for a long time? I don''t think there''s any doubt about that. You can defend things a little bit differently, but the run support hasn''t been what it needs to be on the front at times.
"We''ve got to become a better tackling team."
The run defense likely won''t be the primary issue against pass-oriented Arkansas. That onus will fall on a pass rush that has produced a league-low two sacks and a youthful secondary that has come up with big plays.
The Tide has to contend with receivers Greg Childs and Joe Adams and tight end D.J. Williams. Petrino called it a "favorable matchup for us."
Alabama has had 11 defenders log their first career starts, and five of them are defensive backs.
Instead of All-American Javier Arenas and NFL first-round pick Kareem Jackson trying to shut down Mallett and his talented receivers, it''s sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick and junior college transfer DeQuan Menzie. The Tide held him to 12-of-35 passing last season.
Alabama still has five interceptions against only one touchdown pass with the young DBs, who get plenty of personal tutelage from Saban.
"They played behind some great players last year when they went to the national championship game and I''m sure those guys have taught them a lot of things before they left during the season last year," Mallett said. "They might be inexperienced, but I think they''ll have a pretty good understanding of what they''re trying to do on defense."
As for the pass rush, that got more formidable with the return of defensive end Marcell Dareus last week from a two-game suspension. Still, two sacks? The 5-foot-9 Arenas had that many on corner blitzes against the 6-6 Mallett last season.
The linebacking corps remains deep. None are more excited about the Arkansas rematch than Hightower, who sustained a season-ending knee injury on a legal cut block against the Razorbacks last season.
"It means a lot, especially with the injury last year, them taking me out for the season," Hightower said.
Petrino finds a lot to admire about Alabama''s defense from front to back.
"When you look at their defensive front, they''re very big and physical," he said. "Their linebackers will be the biggest linebackers that we play throughout the year. Then secondary-wise, they''re not as experienced as they were a year ago, but they''re long and tall and do a great job of covering."
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