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No. 2 Alabama's deep, diverse line pivotal to title-game run

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) -- Run up the middle against Alabama and you're likely to be greeted by powerful big men like A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed. Drop back to pass, and there's a fair chance explosive pass rushers such as Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams will be in hot pursuit.

The most impressive part of the second-ranked Crimson Tide's formidable defense has been a front line that is both deep and diverse, even by 'Bama standards.

The line thoroughly controlled Michigan State in a 38-0 semifinal thrashing, smothering quarterback Connor Cook and clamping down on the run. Doing the same against Clemson and dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson in the national championship game Monday night in Glendale, Arizona, will be easily the biggest test of all for that group.

However, Watson & Co. haven't faced a bigger challenge either.

"They're by far clearly the best that we've seen," Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. "I mean, they're as good as it gets in the country, No. 1 in about everything defensively, but the biggest thing is they just have great depth in their defensive line. I mean, they roll them guys in there, play a lot of guys, a bunch of subs, and they all play at a really, really high level. That's why they're a great team."

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No. 2 Alabama's deep, diverse line pivotal to title-game run
TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 26: Kenyan Drake #17 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes against Louisiana Monroe Warhawks at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 26, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 26: Jake Coker #14 of the Alabama Crimson Tide looks to pass as he rushes away from Lorenzo Jackson #45 of the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 26, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATHENS, GA - OCTOBER 03: Minkah Fitzpatrick #29 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates scoring a touchdown after blocking a punt against Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATHENS, GA - OCTOBER 03: Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes for a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 10: Kenyan Drake #17 of the Alabama Crimson Tide is tackled by Dwayne Eugene #35 and Jeremiah Ledbetter #55 of the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 10, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 24: D.J. Pettway #57 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates their 19-14 win over the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 24, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 07: Quarterback Jake Coker #14 of the Alabama Crimson Tide looks to escape the pocket against the LSU Tigers in the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 07: Quarterback Jake Coker #14 and Anthony Averett #28 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrate their 30-16 win over the LSU Tigers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 14: O.J. Howard #88 of the Alabama Crimson Tide attempts to break a tackle by Taveze Calhoun #23 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 14: A'Shawn Robinson #86 of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts after sacking Dak Prescott #15 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs on the first play of the game at Davis Wade Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 21: ArDarius Stewart #13 of the Alabama Crimson Tide breaks a tackle by Zack Johnson #22 of the Charleston Southern Buccaneers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 28: ArDarius Stewart #13 of the Alabama Crimson Tide fails to pull in this touchdown reception against Jonathan Jones #3 of the Auburn Tigers at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 28: Adam Griffith #99 of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts after kicking his fourth field goal against the Auburn Tigers with Shawn Burgess-Becker #27 and Cole Mazza #55 at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 5: Running back Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide carries the ball against linebacker Jarrad Davis #40 of the Florida Gators and defensive back Keanu Neal #42 of the Florida Gators in the third quarter during the SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome on December 5, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 5: Running back Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates after defeating the Florida Gators 29-15 in the SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome on December 5, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 31: Wide receiver Calvin Ridley #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide catches a six-yard touchdown pass against cornerback Jermaine Edmondson #39 of the Michigan State Spartans in the third quarter during the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on December 31, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 31: Running back Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide stiff arms defensive end Shilique Calhoun #89 and then runs for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans during the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on December 31, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Alabama running back Lawrence Erekosima (43) makes a 'confetti angel' after Alabama defeated Michigan State, 38-0, in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015. (Richard W. Rodriguez/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images)
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Sure, the Tide offense has quarterback Jake Coker, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Defensive backs Eddie Jackson and Cyrus Jones also have had terrific seasons.

No part of the team has been more pivotal to the Tide's success than a front seven that starts with Robinson and Reed, backed up by linebackers Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Williams. Robinson, Reed and Ragland are projected as likely first-round NFL draft picks.

"We've never had one this deep," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said of the front line. "This group is pretty deep. They can roll in and out and not drop off a lot. They take pride in that."

Alabama leads the nation in run and scoring defense and sacks, and is second in total defense.

No Nick Saban defense has averaged this many sacks (3.57 a game) since his 1999 Michigan State team anchored by Julian Peterson (3.73 per game).

Data curated by PointAfter


This one has done it with an array of stars, personalities and diverse talents:

-THE RUN STOPPERS: Reed and Robinson are both 6-foot-4 and listed at a shade under 315 pounds. Reed has 56 tackles, almost all against the run. Robinson is a consensus All-American and Outland Trophy finalist who also is a strong pass rusher. Teammates say he's a freakish athlete, as evidenced by his hurdle of LSU's line to block an extra point attempt.

-THE PASS RUSHERS: Allen and Williams are the headliners. Allen has 12 sacks, including two against Michigan State. Williams is listed as a linebacker but his primary job this season is clear: Get the quarterback.

Williams has 19 tackles - and 10.5 sacks.

"Tim's probably one of the most unique guys on the team," Alabama tight end O.J. Howard said. "His pass rushing skills are probably, I think, the best out of everybody. Fast, hard to block, so quick, kind of small but I mean he's just very different from a lot of people, man."

THE BAKCUPS: This group includes former five-star signees Daron Payne and Da'Shawn Hand, along with guys like Dalvin Tomlinson and D.J. Pettway.

The makeup of the defensive line has changed since Barrett Jones was playing offensive line for the Tide, practicing against the likes of Marcel Dareus and big Terrence "Mount" Cody earlier in the Saban era.

It's built just fine to stop runners like LSU's Leonard Fournette (31 yards, 19 carries) and passers like Cook, adapting to the increasingly prevalent spread offenses without sacrificing too much beef.

"It's a testament to coach Saban of how he's understood that he needs to adapt, and the times of being 360-pound noseguards, those guys aren't going to play as much because of the kind of spread that teams are playing," said Jones, who was part of three Alabama national championship teams. "You need those pass rusher guys. He's adapted, and this is a great example of that.

"Just having first of all a depth that I've never seen on any defensive line in college. Just full of guys that can both rush the passer and stop the run, who obviously work together as a unit in a way that we haven't seen in a long time."

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