Tuscaloosa is no stranger to big, bad defenses. Especially during the Nick Saban era.
The one Saban has this season, though, is a little different. It features a helpful wrinkle a lot of those past defenses didn't have — some pass-rushing oomph off the edges. And it's an edge presence that comes courtesy of not just one or two players but several. This added weapon has proven useful for the Crimson Tide defense in 2015, and in its last outing against Tennessee, it just may have saved Alabama's season.
With just a couple of minutes remaining and one-loss Alabama clinging to a 19-14 lead, Tennessee had the ball with the opportunity to win it with a final TD drive. But Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson powered past Tennessee right tackle Chance Hall, unloaded on quarterback Joshua Dobbs, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson.
"I knew it was gonna be pass," Anderson said of the play afterwards. "The tackle's stance kind of gave it away. He was looking at me, and his eyes got a little big. The first thing I was thinking was just, 'Take off.'"
In addition to that win-preserving sack, Anderson also recorded a quarterback hurry against the Vols. And Anderson wasn't the only non-lineman harassing Dobbs on that Saturday afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Linebacker Reuben Foster sacked Dobbs once, and while fellow linebackers Rashaan Evans and Denzel Devall didn't take Dobbs to the ground, they did make their presence known. Evans had two quarterback hurries and Devall one.
And all this came against one of the more mobile, athletic quarterbacks in the SEC.
Fact is, what Alabama was able to do off the edges against Tennessee is what it's been doing all season. Regardless of who the quarterback is. And it hasn't been just one guy for Alabama either. Eight different linebackers have affected the quarterback for Alabama in 2015. Through eight games now, Tim Williams has 3.5 sacks and one quarterback hurry, Reggie Ragland two sacks and three hurries, Anderson two sacks and four hurries, Evans two sacks and two hurries, Devall one sack and five hurries, Foster one sack, Shaun Dion Hamilton one hurry and Dillon Lee one hurry.
Two freshmen defensive backs have also gotten in on the action in the opposing team's offensive backfield. Minkah Fitzpatrick, who plays the Star position in the Tide secondary, has two sacks on the season, while strong safety Ronnie Harrison has one sack and one hurry.
"We got a nice combination of guys there," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of his team's edge rushers. "We've got some guys that have experience. We have some guys that have ability that were young players that we can type into a role that they've been effective in — whether it's Tim Williams, Rashaan Evans, Ryan Anderson. It's helpful that we're able to play more guys and stay fresh and have fresh guys in there on third down. We've even had the luxury at times of taking Reggie out on third down if he's tired in the game."
Right now, eight of Alabama's top twelve sack leaders are either linebackers or defensive backs, and 54 percent of Alabama's sacks this season have come from non-defensive linemen. And, with the way youngsters like Evans, Fitzpatrick and Harrison are coming on, no one would be surprised if that percentage rises even higher.
Yeah, this 2015 Alabama defense can inflict some damage off the edges. And opposing offenses can key on stopping just one guy.
"We've had some good defensive teams around here before, and we haven't been able to do that," Saban said. "And I think that's important. And it's been very helpful this year in terms of the kind of pass rush that we get and how we've been able to affect the quarterback and have not had to pressure nearly as much as what we've done in the past."
Next up for this Alabama defense is another athletic, mobile quarterback in LSU's Brandon Harris. The 6-foot-3, 206-pound sophomore has been sacked eight times this season and has yet to throw an interception. Through seven games, he's thrown for 1,098 yards and nine touchdowns and has also rushed for 136 yards and three touchdowns.
Of course, he hasn't faced a defense quite like the one Alabama has this season either.
— Written by Erik Stinnett, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Stinnett is an experienced college football beat writer who has been covering Alabama since 2009.