Alabama has a shutdown cornerback and other top players, but its defense has been susceptible
Patrick Surtain II hardly gets a ball thrown his way, though that likely will change when he lines up across from Ohio State’s Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson on Monday night in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
Widely considered the top cornerback in college football, Surtain leads an Alabama defense that has plenty of future NFL talent. But it’s a defense that has looked vulnerable at times, allowing 40-plus points twice this season.
“Going into those games, I felt like we weren't as communicative as we needed to be,” Surtain said. “We gave up big plays due to mental errors and stuff like that, things that we can improve on in the film room and in practice. We just focus on and control what we need to do, which is improve each week.”
In the playoff semifinal against Notre Dame, Surtain wasn’t visible much during the game because the Fighting Irish avoided throwing his way. The second-ranked cornerback in the 2021 NFL draft, according to Pro Football Focus, is tied for first on the team with cornerback Josh Jobe with 11 pass breakups, and makes life difficult for any receiver he plays against.
Though Wilson generally plays in the slot for OSU, it’s likely that Jobe will cover the sophomore wideout as much as possible while Ohio State looks to create favorable matchups for both Wilson and Olave.
The two times the Crimson Tide allowed more than 40 points — 48 points to Ole Miss on Oct. 10 and 46 points to Florida in the SEC Championship game on Dec. 19 — its defense was gashed through the air and struggled to cover tight ends and slot receivers.
Florida tight end Kyle Pitts and wideout Kadarious Toney combined for 15 catches, 282 yards and two touchdowns, and Gators quarterback Kyle Trask threw for 408 yards. Alabama coach Nick Saban said with four new starters in the secondary this year, becoming more consistent continues to be a focus defensively.
"I think that consistency in performance is really, at the end of the day, what determines how well you're playing, and we have played well in some games this year,” Saban said. “Other games (we're) not as good as we'd like. And as coaches we need to do a better job of putting our players in a better position so they have a chance to be successful.”
In addition to star receivers and fierce, physical running backs on its offense, the Crimson Tide has prided itself on its defense under Saban, whose career is rooted on the defensive side of the ball. The defense this season hasn’t been as dominant as past years, but it still finished first in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 19 points per game.
Defensive coordinator Pete Golding said even in games that Alabama didn’t allow a lot of points, including against Texas A&M earlier in the year, his defense committed mental errors that led to long drives. That can’t happen against a team with as many weapons as Ohio State, he said.
“Games like this, from a mental errors standpoint, they got to be small in number,” Golding said. “We got to do a great job of attacking the line of scrimmage up front, try to control the run game, be gap-sound and then you got to tackle in space.”
To limit Ohio State running back Trey Sermon and disrupt quarterback Justin Fields — quite possibly the best signal-caller Alabama will have faced this season — the Crimson Tide will rely on defensive linemen Christian Harris and Will Anderson, as well as linebackers Dylan Moses and Christopher Allen, who leads Alabama with 12 tackles for a loss and is third on the team with six sacks.
Though there might be inexperience in some areas, Saban said Moses's presence on the field tends to raise everyone’s level. After missing the entire 2019 season with a torn knee ligament, Moses has been an influential leader in the middle of the defense, especially against the run game.
"I feel like that's one of the main things we have to worry about is trying to make Ohio State one-dimensional and stopping their running game," Moses said.
Twelve games this season suggests there could be opportunity for Ohio State to exploit Alabama through the air or with Sermon in the rushing attack behind an offensive line that Golding complimented.
In what could be a high-scoring contest, the 2020 national championship could come down to best on best — Ohio State’s top receivers against Surtain and Jobe.
Just as it should be.
"We’re looking forward to the challenge,” Surtain said.