Alabama unveils its latest weapon: a stout pass rush _lowres

In this Sept. 12, 2015, photo, Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland (19) causes a fumble by Middle Tennessee's Shane Tucker (1) during the first half of a game in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Ragland seems to be making the most of his decision to return for his senior season instead of joining the annual NFL draft exodus for the Tide. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama still has its typically sturdy, run-stuffing defense but with a twist: One of the nation’s best pass rushes.

The seventh-ranked Crimson Tide has been bringing down opposing quarterbacks at a higher rate than any Nick Saban college defense since Michigan State in 1999. That knack — 14 Tide players have recorded at least a half sack — has had a significant ripple effect for Alabama, which has harassed opposing passers into interceptions and batted down passes with regularity.

None of the sacks was bigger than Ryan Anderson’s hit and forced fumble on Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs that aborted a comeback attempt in the final minutes. That ensured that Alabama would enter next week’s showdown with No. 4 LSU still firmly in playoff contention.

The Tide’s frontline depth has enabled Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to shuffle in pass rush specialists like Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans and even give star linebacker Reggie Ragland a breather at times on third downs.

“We’ve had some good teams around here before that were good defensive teams that we haven’t been able to do that,” Saban said. “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 you’ve been able to affect the quarterback and have not had to pressure nearly as much as what we’ve done in the past.”

Alabama leads the Southeastern Conference and ranks sixth nationally with an average of 3.38 sacks per game.

Last year’s defense ranked 61st with 2.21 sacks per game. In fact, it’s the highest sack average for a Saban-led team in 16 years, according to research by STATs. That 1999 Michigan State team averaged 3.73 sacks per game behind Julian Peterson, who had 15 on his way to being a first-round draft pick.

The 2003 and 2004 LSU defenses also ranked among the Top 10 in dropping opposing quarterbacks. The front seven also has deflected 28 passes collectively.

Alabama may not have a superstar pass rusher like Peterson but there are plenty of threats ranging from 283-pound defensive end Jonathan Allen (six sacks) to speedy linebackers Williams (3.5) and Evans (two), who both come off the bench mostly to harass opposing passers.

“They are extraordinarily good at it,” said defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson, who has batted away six passes. “As you see, when they get on the field they always affect the quarterback in some way.”

Even the 2011 Alabama defense that led the nation in five defensive categories wasn’t nearly this good at racking up sacks. The Tide was 29th nationally that season with an average of 2.31 per season, second-most of Saban’s tenure before this season.

Now, the Tide seems better equipped to deal with the more prevalent spread-style offenses. A string of top-rated recruiting classes have helped Alabama stockpile talent and depth and build a mix of speedy rushers and beefy run-stoppers with some like A’Shawn Robinson who excel at both.

Robinson, a 312-pounder, has recorded a team-high eight quarterback hurries.

Defensive end Da’Shawn Hand, the No. 1 overall prospect by Rivals.com two years ago, is waiting his turn to carve a bigger role. Hand has 2.5 sacks.

“Their players don’t quit on the pass rush,” LSU left tackle Jerald Hawlins said. “They just keep coming. They all have a high motor. They rotate in a lot of guys and it doesn’t matter who is in there. You have got to know each one of them. It’s a big test for us to know each guy’s moves.”

The secondary has benefited from Alabama’s increased harassment of quarterbacks, too. The Tide has returned four of its 12 interceptions for touchdowns.

“It helps a lot for every defense to have a great pass rush because it helps out with basically anything on defense,” safety Geno Matias-Smith said. “So it’s been a big help this year.”