TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Perhaps nothing sums up the opportunistic, take-the-ball-and-score nature of Alabama’s defense than one play on the road against Arkansas.
Sophomore standout Minkah Fitzpatrick, having just intercepted his third Austin Allen pass of the game, had his momentum take him 9 yards deep into the Alabama end zone before he was able to turn.
Most players in similar situations would have taken a knee and given the ball to the offense on the 20-yard line.
But Alabama’s defense is different.
Instead, senior safety Eddie Jackson immediately began to wave his hand, urging Fitzpatrick to follow him. A convoy soon followed, setting up a wall of blockers down the left sideline, allowing Fitzpatrick to score on the longest interception return for a touchdown in program history.
Jackson wiped out the only real threat to stop Fitzpatrick, leveling Allen on the block. No one else had a chance because of the blocking Crimson Tide defenders set up, switching from defense to offense at a moment’s notice.
Alabama thrives on defensive touchdowns this season with a national-best nine (five fumble returns and four interceptions), and what’s become evident is not just that they’re scoring, but in how they’re doing it.
It starts with the attitude. Alabama defenders embrace the job of blocking after a takeaway.
“As soon as I caught the ball, Eddie had tapped my arm,” Fitzpatrick said. “He was like, ‘Come on,’ and he pointed to the left side of the field — and it was wide open. So I just had to take a chance. I know coach (Nick) Saban probably wasn’t happy at first, but I think he was happy with the end result. ...
“I wasn’t surprised. (Eddie) always likes to score. Even at practice, every time we get a pick, he runs down the field trying to score. He loves the end zone just as much as I do. As soon as he tapped me, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re taking it back.’ ”
Against Ole Miss, senior defensive lineman Jonathan Allen saw a fumble fall into his arms a mere 75 yards away from the end zone. At nearly 300 pounds, Allen seemed like he might as well have been 500 yards from scoring.
But when Allen started down the right sideline, another posse of blockers emerged, including Christian Miller, Dalvin Tomlinson and Tim Williams. As the 291-pound Allen neared the goal line, he was joined by safety Hootie Jones.
The resulting touchdown gave the team its winning margin, and it provided another example of how when things break down, the Crimson Tide defense knows how to block.
Saban said he didn’t consult with any other coaches on implementing a plan to block after takeaways. But he’s not keen on sharing his, either.
“If we tell everybody what we do, then what do we do when we play them?” Saban said. “This is kind of a profession that you hope you can come up with something that somebody doesn't expect you to do so you can give your players a better chance to be successful doing it.
"Turnovers are a big part of what we work on — and not only getting the turnover but returning it, how to block them.
“We continue to emphasize to attack the ball. We start every practice, every day with turnover drills. Effort to the ball. More guys around the ball. Ripping at the ball, all these things — playing the ball in the air when the pass is thrown, making the critical decision about whether I have to intercept it, swat and hook it, tackle the guy. These are all just fundamental things that we continue to try to emphasize.”
Saban’s teaching has led to a defensive or special-teams touchdown in 10 consecutive games. Seven staters on defense have scored this season, including Fitzpatrick, Allen, Jackson, Williams, Marlon Humphrey, Ronnie Harrison and Da’Ron Payne.
Outside linebacker Ryan Anderson caused one of those TDs, sacking Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, allowing Payne to scoop and score. But don’t count Anderson among those who enjoy blocking on busted plays. He’ll do it, but he’d prefer not to have run the length of the field.
“Man, I don't like blocking,” Anderson said. “I'll tell you that right now. I really don't like running way down the field. When Minkah caught that 100-yard pick, I was trying to tell him to stay in. I was tired. When you see it, you've got to get in somebody's way and do what you got to do to spring them. It is what it is.
“It's second nature now. You have to go find somebody and get in front of them. I just get in front of them. It's usually an offensive lineman. You usually don't have to do too much. Just get in their way.”