TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There hasn't been much of a letdown in production from Alabama's defense compared to seasons past. The top-ranked Crimson Tide is still among the top-10 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game, third down conversions, first downs allowed and total defense. It's given up the fewest touchdowns (12) and the fewest points per game (10.2) in all of college football.
One could nitpick and note its lack of a premiere cornerback or a true vocal leader, and he or she wouldn't be wrong. Deion Belue is good, but he's not a shutdown corner like Dee Milliner and Dre Kirkpatrick. And while C.J. Mosley is no doubt the leader of the defense at linebacker, he'd be the first to admit he's the kind to lead through actions and not words, unlike, say, Nico Johnson of a year ago or Dont'a Hightower before him.
But whatever the defense's minor flaws this season, there is one area that's gone under the radar where Alabama has actually improved from years past: rushing the passer. Through 11 games, the Tide has pressured the quarterback 26.1 percent of the time, compared to 22.5 percent in 2012 and 23.8 percent in 2011. UA leads the SEC in pressure percentage, which ESPN Stats and Info calculates as hurries plus knockdowns, divided by total dropbacks.
"I think we're making some improvement there," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of rushing the passer following last Saturday's 20-7 win at Mississippi State. "I think it's going to be critical we can do that in the future."
Alabama dialed up the pressure on Mississippi State, especially in the second half. A'Shawn Robinson, the Tide's standout freshman defensive lineman, had another sack against the Bulldogs, his fifth of the season. Denzel Devall (3), Adrian Hubbard (2) and Ed Stinson (1.5) trail Robinson for the team lead.
The weekend before against LSU, Alabama tackled quarterback Zach Mettenberger for no gain and then sacked him three straight times to end the game.
But if you follow Saban, you know he's not overly concerned with sacks. They have nothing to do with winning, he says, nothing at all. Rather, he wants to "affect the quarterback" where they're throwing the ball off balance and before they're ready, which can results in a much more beneficial stat: turnovers.
So in terms of a stat Saban would care more about -- hurries plus knockdowns, but excluding sacks -- hybrid linebacker/defensive end Xzavier Dickson holds the lead with 13, trailed by Hubbard (12), Robinson (12), Stinson (9) and Devall (6), according to ESPN Stats and Info.
However you define pressure, Alabama's defense is getting it at an impressive pace, and it will need to continue to do so in two weeks against No. 6 Auburn.
Not only do the Tigers lead the SEC in rushing, they have allowed the third fewest sacks in the league and the 10th fewest tackles for loss in the country.
Auburn doesn't throw the ball much, but the hope for Alabama is that it will be in quarterback Nick Marshall's face when he does. It won't be easy, but whether it's a sack or a pressure, the Tide needs to continue to get in the backfield and disrupt.
But however the Iron Bowl goes, expect Alabama's defense to continue its upward trend of affecting the quarterback in the coming seasons. Robinson is just a freshman, and we haven't yet seen the progression of his fellow rookies Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and Tim Williams. If Dalvin Tomlinson can come back from injury, he's another guy who can rush the passer. And with last weekend's commitment of Da'Shawn Hand, the No. 2 defensive end prospect in the ESPN 300, even more help is on the way.