Bama's young defense still stingy
Top-ranked Alabama's defense still has mighty high standards, even after most of the stars are gone.
The Crimson Tide, which gets end Marcell Dareus back Saturday night at Duke, has allowed only two field goals in its first two games. Those numbers don't bring a smile to Josh Chapman's face, though.
''Zero's a good number for us,'' the Tide nose guard said. ''Three or seven, it's still points on the board against us, and that's something we don't want. We feel that we can go out there and block the field goal the same way we can stop them from getting seven.''
The most persistent question about the defending national champions leading up to the season was how the defense would fare after replacing nine starters - and going without Dareus for the first two games because of an NCAA suspension. The early answer? Pretty darn good.
The Tide has given up fewer points than any team in the nation in the first two weekends after ranking second in scoring defense last season. The streak of games without allowing a 100-yard rusher has stretched to 36. The nation's next longest active streak is 24 games by Ohio State.
Now, Dareus is poised to make his return from a suspension stemming from improper payments covering two trips to Miami. He led the team with 6.5 sacks last season and starred in the national championship game against Penn State.
''It's going to help a lot,'' Chapman said. ''Marcell brings a lot of enthusiasm to the field. He did vs. Penn State. He wasn't playing, but he was on the sideline, motivating us up. It's amazing the things he can do when he's out there in pads.''
Dareus could help fix one apparent shortcoming in Alabama's early performance: The defensive line's pass rush. The linemen have only been credited with three quarterback hurries in two games, and the team's only sack has come from safety Robert Lester.
He's already ready to concede that lead to Dareus.
''Hopefully I can stay on top with the turnovers,'' said Lester, who has two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
But Saban's priority isn't racking up sacks that look good on stat sheets. He stresses pressure, making a quarterback rush his throws or get rattled and then capitalizing on mistakes.
''A lot of people try to get sacks,'' Chapman said. ''That's what they pride themselves on. We try to affect the quarterback.''
It worked against Penn State, such as when Dont'a Hightower's hard hit forced freshman quarterback Rob Bolden into an interception deep in Alabama territory. Three of the Tide's four turnovers in that game came on drives across midfield.
Success at snuffing out drives has helped Alabama minimize the damage and remain the only SEC team that hasn't given up a touchdown.
''Playing well in the red zone is one of our goals, one of the things that we feel are really, really important,'' Saban said. ''Not giving up big plays, playing well in the red zone, are going to make you difficult to score on. We have given up some big plays, but we've played very well in the red zone.
''The turnovers really contributed to that this week. A couple of them were created with pressure. That's all good football.''
Alabama has done it despite losing NFL first-round picks in Butkus Award-winning linebacker Rolando McClain and cornerback Kareem Jackson. Also gone: All-Americans Javier Arenas and Terrence Cody and seven of the top eight defensive backs.
Still, Saban likes how the defense has meshed so far despite a mixture of youth and players in bigger roles.
''The biggest thing we've done is play together as a unit,'' he said. ''Everybody do your job, everybody be responsible for what they're supposed to do. Get your eyes in the right place, key the right things and react in the right way.
''So far when we've done that, we've been fairly successful. And when we haven't done that, we've been susceptible to giving up big plays.''
A secondary that has started two sophomores, a junior college transfer and freshman DeMarcus Milliner alongside All-American safety Mark Barron might be about to face its biggest test to this point - at least until visiting No. 12 Arkansas and Ryan Mallett next week.
Duke quarterback Sean Renfree has passed for 708 yards and six touchdowns already.