TAMPA, FL.- Rarely do teams get the best of Alabama’s defense, but in the 2016 national championship, Clemson did just that. The Tigers gained 550 yards, and scored 40 points on the Crimson Tide.
Even after all of the confetti fell, the defense had a sour taste in its mouth. This year, it gets another shot to shut down the offense that gave them so much trouble.
“There’s a big chip on our shoulder,” said defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. “They [Clemson] put up numbers that we’re not used to putting up.”
No. 1 Alabama’s defense enters the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship with added motivation. The team is out to prove that it can slow down No. 2 Clemson’s dynamic attack, led by quarterback Deshaun Watson.
“We know how the tempo is going to be,” said defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson. “I feel like we were a little off guard last year with their tempo, and playing against that fast tempo they had. I feel like we’re better prepared this year.”
Even though his team was on the losing end, Watson played one of the best games of his career against Alabama. He threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns, while also adding 73 yards on the ground.
Alabama had trouble containing Watson due to a lack of speed at both the linebacker and defensive line positions. Linebacker Rashaan Evans believes his quickness, along with other players on the defense will help contain Watson this season.
“The fact that we have a lot more speed, it’s going to be easier for us to contain the outside or any type of QB runs that Deshaun [Watson] or whoever is in there might try to do,” Evans said. “That might be a plus for us.”
Alabama’s defense, even though it gave up a lot of yards, managed to be opportunistic. Evans, along with other players, pressured Watson in big situations. Evans finished the game with three tackles and two sacks.
Like last year, getting pressure on the quarterback is going to be key for Alabama’s defense in the rematch, which is third in the NCAA in sacks (50) this season.
“It [getting pressure] is the most important thing, because he is a dual-threat quarterback,” Tomlinson said. “He can throw and run the ball. We have to contain the pocket and and then, we gotta get some hits on him and bat some balls down to get in his head so he can’t pass as well.”
Alabama made a lot of changes to its defense this season. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt replaced a departing Kirby Smart, and the team made speed an emphasis in the off season. Players like Foster, Evans and others shed weight so they could fly to the ball.
“This year, we’re a lot slimmer and a lot leaner,” Fitzpatrick said. “We can put pressure on the quarterback, but also contain him and chase him east and west when he starts running around.”
Pruitt brought in a new mindset to the Crimson Tide defense. The defense looks and feels more aggressive, and it has led to Alabama having the No. 1 defense in the country in terms of total yards.
Evans said Pruitt built his defense around the skill sets of the player, and said he feels more relaxed playing for the first-year defensive coordinator.
“It’s easier for us to go out on defense now and just play football,” Evans said. “Last year was more of a thinking game. You was almost trying to outsmart every offensive play that the offense was trying to give us. Now, it is just play ball.”
Alabama’s defense is not the only unit that saw changes this offseason. Clemson got wide receiver Mike Williams back, and he has excelled this season, catching 90 passes for 1267 yards and 10 touchdowns. Joining him is Artavius Scott, who has 608 yards and five touchdowns so far.
Facing this duo of talented wide receivers may be Alabama’s toughest test yet.
“They’re really good receivers,” Fitzpatrick said. “They can stretch you vertically, and they run pretty decent routes. They’re two big guys that are real physical.”
Alabama’s defense will get another chance to shut down Watson and Clemson when the two teams play on Jan. 11 in Tampa, Florida. The game will kick off at 8 p.m. EST.
Source:: The Crimson White Sports