Evaluating Alabama fans' complaints heading into the postseason
Nick Saban tore into some of Alabama’s “self-absorbed” fans during his radio show last week, scolding them for not appreciating the Crimson Tide’s success and the hard work demonstrated by his players.
While the head coach’s rant was met with a round of applause by the live audience, it has done little to slow the gripes pouring in from an unsettled fan base over social media and on message boards.
Instead of condemning those complaints, this space is reserved to evaluate them. After consulting the Talk of Champions message board, here is a breakdown of Alabama fans’ biggest grievances and whether or not they are warranted.
"Bill O’Brien doesn’t call enough runs to the left side"
This is probably the most popular complaint at the moment. Alabama’s offensive line has been inconsistent this season aside from left tackle Evan Neal, who is widely projected to be a top-10 pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
According to Pro Football Focus, Neal leads all Alabama linemen with a 79.9 run-blocking grade. The next-highest starting lineman is center Darrian Dalcourt with a 66.6 mark. Naturally, when runs get stuffed to the right side, fans wonder why the Tide didn’t lean on its future first-rounder.
After evaluation: Alabama has been extremely balanced with where it has run the ball this season. According to PFF, Tide running backs have carried the ball 181 times to the left of center as opposed to 188 times to the right of center. The production has been similar, too. Runs to the left are averaging 4.88 yards while runs to the right are averaging 4.78 yards.
During last week’s Iron Bowl, Alabama running back carries were split evenly to both sides with 13 apiece in each direction. The Tide gained 55 yards on the carries that went left and 39 on the attempts to the right.
While Alabama’s rushing production is generally better to the left, overloading carries in that direction would allow defenses to cheat to that side. It’s also worth noting that Alabama’s most productive running lane has been to the outside of the right-sided tight end where backs are averaging 6.0 yards per attempt.
"Right tackle pass protection is too weak"
Once again, Neal has been the only steadying force on Alabama’s offensive line. According to PFF, the left tackle leads all Alabama linemen with an 80.2 pass-blocking grade and has allowed the least amount of quarterback pressures (13) among the Tide’s starting unit.
While Alabama can rest easy knowing Bryce Young’s blindside is protected, there is concern that the Tide is not doing enough to shield its quarterback on the other end of the line.
After evaluation: This is absolutely correct. Chris Owens, who has started 10 games at right tackle, leads the team with 33 allowed quarterback pressures — 15 more than left guard Javion Cohen, who sits at No. 2 on the list. Meanwhile, Damieon George has allowed eight pressures in just three starts at right tackle, including five during last weekend’s Iron Bowl.
Alabama will have to generate better production from that position this week as it goes up against a Georgia defense that is tied for fourth in the nation with 41 sacks.
"The defense doesn't have a dominant force in the trenches"
Alabama fans have grown accustomed to dominant defensive linemen in recent years. Christian Barmore ranked second in the SEC with eight sacks last season. Before that, the Tide’s defensive fronts have featured first-round picks in Quinnen Williams, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen.
While outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. is the nation’s most dangerous defender on the edge, the concern among some fans is that the Tide can’t bully offensive lines up the middle.
After evaluation: Phidarian Mathis would like a word. The redshirt senior is Alabama’s most underrated player and may have played his way into becoming an early-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
While Anderson leads Alabama in just about every pass-rushing category, Mathis ranks second on the team with seven sacks and is tied for second alongside fellow defensive lineman Byron Young with nine tackles for a loss. Mathis also ranks second with 23 quarterback pressures while his 77.3 pass-rushing grade from PFF is just 1.5 points lower than Anderson’s.
Mathis has also been solid in run defense, ranking fourth on the team with an 81.6 mark from PFF. He’s a big reason why Alabama ranks No. 4 in the nation, limiting opponents to 80.58 yards per game on the ground.
"Henry To’o To’o can’t wrap up tackles"
Henry To’o To’o has been one of the most polarizing players on this year’s team. Some fans feel as though the former Tennessee linebacker has been a godsend since joining Alabama this summer. Others have been less impressed with his performance, pointing to his inconsistency when it comes to bringing down opposing ball carriers.
After evaluation: It’s hard to criticize To’o To’o too much. After all, he does lead the team with 93 tackles, the most by a Tide defender in the regular season since C.J. Mosley had 102 through 12 games in 2013.
Still, the criticism of his tackling ability does hold some merit. According to PFF, To’o To’o leads Alabama with 17 missed tackles, seven more than Will Anderson and DeMarcco Hellams who are second on the list.
The middle linebacker lost favor with Tide fans in October when he recorded five missed tackles against Ole Miss before registering three whiffs during the loss to Texas A&M. He’s bounced back since then, recording just six tackles over the last six games.
"Alabama doesn’t attempt enough quick passes”
Screen passes have been a staple of Alabama offense in recent years, particularly with Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones, who were excellent at zipping the ball out to their playmaking receivers. Many fans have wondered if a similar approach would help open up the offense for Bryce Young.
After evaluation: Alabama is throwing a bit fewer screen passes with Bill O’Brien running the offense. However, it’s not anything it hasn’t done in the past. Here’s a look at how Alabama has used screen passes the past five seasons.
2021 — 16.2% of attempts, 6.23 yards per attempt
2020 — 21.3% of attempts, 6.74 yards per attempt
2019 — 22.5% of attempts, 7.95 yards per attempt
2018 — 16.6% of attempts, 6.49 yards per attempt
2017 — 16.8% of attempts, 5.44 yards per attempt
Alabama attempted roughly 5-6% percent more screen passes with Jones and Tagovailoa as its quarterbacks during the 2020 and 2019 seasons. However, Alabama’s screen attempts are on par with what it averaged before that.
Alabama doesn’t have the same speed at the receiver position as it did in recent years, so it’s not as advantageous to whip the balls out on the perimeter. It’s also worth pointing out that Youngs’ best quality is his ability to extend plays with his feet while keeping his eyes downfield for open receivers.
“Freshmen WRs should start over Slade Bolden”
This is another common complaint. Fans tend to love shiny new things, and there was certainly a lot of hype about the four Rivals100 wide receivers — Ja’Corey Brooks, Agiye Hall, JoJo Earle and Christian Leary — Alabama added in this year’s recruiting class. So far, that quartet has seen modest production in limited opportunities.
Brooks caught the game-tying touchdown in last weekend’s Iron Bowl but has just four receptions for 70 yards and a score on the season. Earle, who leads the bunch with 12 receptions for 148 yards, is currently dealing with a leg injury. Leary is temporarily being converted to running back to provide depth in Alabama’s ailing backfield while Hall has seen the field for just 43 snaps over five appearances.
Still, there is a common belief that at least one of those players could provide more of a spark than redshirt junior Slade Bolden, who has started seven games and has the third-most snaps among Alabama receivers behind starters John Metchie III and Jameson Williams.
After evaluation: This is tough to judge because reporters aren’t allowed at practice and don’t see what the coaches do on a daily basis. While the four freshmen receivers all have better athletic ability than Bolden, it’s unknown whether or not they know the playbook as well as the veteran.
Bolden is also dependable. His drop in the end zone against Florida was unforgivable to some fans. However, according to PFF, thats one of just two drops on the season for Bolden on 38 targets.
Still, there are some obvious limitations to his game. Bolden, 5-foot-11, 194 pounds, isn’t going to overpower a defensive back the same way Brooks, 6-foot-2, 190 pounds can. He’s also not going to provide the same downfield threat as Hall or Earle.
While fans are unduly hard on Bolden, Alabama might want to start looking at its other options a bit more as goes up against better defenses moving forward.