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Here's a scary thought: Bama's only now becoming a complete team in the trenches

Alabama's always been a monster on the ground, but both sides of the trenches are rising to that standard on passing plays.

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Saban-ball has always been about controlling the line of scrimmage. That's contributed greatly to a run of four national titles in seven years.

The Tide offense is designed to hammer away with inside zone, now bolstered by Lane Kiffin's "spread-coast" offense. The defense has made its bones by devouring run games with massive DTs and sturdy LB play. Running on the Tide has been nearly impossible in the Saban era, and they've churned out two Heisman running backs.

However, until 2015, the Tide weren't especially dominant in the trenches in passing situations, on either side of the ball.

An inability to block Georgia's Jarvis Jones and company nearly ruined a championship 2012, while the offense has ranked as low as No. 89 in sacks allowed per game (2010).

And the defense's lack of a pass rush was a defining feature in upset losses to spread passing teams. From Saban's second season through 2014, the Tide defense averaged a ranking of 42.6 in total sacks, partly due to a conservative approach.

But in 2015, it ranked first. That was thanks in large part to pass rushers Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Jonathan Allen.

The pass protection numbers are nowhere near as stark, but let's take a look at both sides of the ball. First, the offense, where left tackle Cam Robinson starred in the trenches. (Anderson, Allen, Robinson and Williams all return in 2016, by the way, earning a load of early NFL Draft hype.)

How Robinson helps Kiffin mix it up

The Tide beat Michigan State and Clemson in the Playoff by throwing, despite being built around Derrick Henry.

Jacob Coker threw 55 passes for 621 yards in those two games, averaging 11.3 yards per pass and completing four touchdowns without throwing an interception. This was set up by the way teams schemed to keep a lid on Henry, but some of it was Robinson.

One way the Tide love to use their exceptionally mobile, 327-pound tackle to boost the pass is with screens. Watch No. 74 at the top of the OL:

Alabama Power/Tunnel

The Tide have been one of the better screen teams in the country, because Robinson's athleticism makes him wildly effective at taking out second-level targets. In this instance, they're throwing the screen to the left while running power action to the right. It's difficult to stop a pass to the other side if you need all hands on deck to stop the potential run. Robinson makes this even more brutal.

Another way Robinson can change the game is enabling Alabama to rely on only five or six blockers, enabling four or five receivers to run patterns. Robinson neutralized third-round NFL Draft pick Shilique Calhoun in the Cotton Bowl without assistance, which allowed the Tide to get after Sparty's weaknesses in coverage.

In the Championship, Clemson feasted on Alabama's protections and QB Jake Coker's ball-holding conservatism with five sacks. None of these were really Robinson's fault (though one was by his man), but they point to how the Tide's conservative approach to quarterbacking and emphasis on running mean they usually aren't exceptional in the drop-back game.

Nevertheless, with Robinson anchoring the blind side and a loaded cast of WRs that also includes title game star O.J. Howard, they have a chance to spread the field more often in 2016, even with an ongoing QB battle.

The pass rush

This defensive front will control football games.

Saban has long played lots of bodies up front, sometimes rotating lines like a hockey team. But there will be times when they deploy three-man combinations that combined for 28.5 sacks last year. That's when Allen, Williams and Anderson are on the field.

While Saban's Alabama has always been known for nose tackles that could control the lanes between the tackles, they've never had a pass rush like this one before. Few teams have ever boasted two returning defenders who had double-digit sacks the year before; only three others since 2008, in fact.

The most devastating component is Allen, a 6'3, 294-pound nightmare who's effective as an edge player or stunting inside against guards. Allen's ability to play as a strongside, five-technique defensive end or slide inside to play the three-technique gives the Tide a great deal of flexibility in who else they put on the field around him.

Anderson is a well-rounded OLB/DE at 6'2, 253 who can play with his hand in the dirt as a strongside end or in space as a 3-4 outside linebacker. And Williams is a 6'4, 237-pound freak who might prove to be the best edge rusher Saban has had.

The Tide also have some solid pass rushers at LB, with Reuben Foster and Rashaan Evans when they want to blitz.

On standard downs, the Tide can play Allen at end, opposite Williams or Anderson in 4-2 nickel packages. When they want to get really serious, they can move Allen inside and play Anderson and Williams together on the ends.

Their collective genius was on display against Mississippi State last season, when these three combined with the drafted A'Shawn Robinson to sack Dak Prescott nine times.


Perhaps the most terrifying scheme: stunting the front four while playing coverage behind them:

Alabama 4-2 stunt

On this play, the two ends were working inside while the defensive tackles crossed paths and looked for creases. Both tackles worked to the edge before turning to get after Prescott, who was buried trying to push up the middle.

When you have the lateral quickness of Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson inside and the explosiveness of Williams and Anderson outside, it opens up a wide variety of possibilities up front.

Assuming the Tide get their usual standard of play at inside linebacker and nose tackle, it's going to be virtually impossible for most of their 2016 opponents to get much going offensively. They've always been really good at sitting back in cover 2 and daring opponents to work down the field, but when that is paired with this kind of pass rush, most teams can just turn out the lights.

The Tide have a lot of question marks after losing their typical load of talent to the NFL, but they're set up to dominate in the trenches as well and as completely as any of Saban's best. They'll probably figure the rest of it out.