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Why Alabama should think twice about blitzing Deshaun Watson

Deshaun Watson of the Clemson Tigers points after scoring a touchdown against the South Carolina Gamecocks. Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

The Alabama Crimson Tide enter Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship against the Clemson Tigers seeking its fourth national title in the past seven seasons. Alabama will try to join Notre Dame as the only schools to win four national titles over a seven-season span. The Fighting Irish claimed four titles from 1943 to 1949.

The Crimson Tide have relied on terrific play from Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry as well as a stout defensive unit that has held opposing quarterbacks to a combined Total QBR of 12 this season, lowest in the FBS. Alabama has won the national title in each of the previous three seasons in which its defense led the FBS in opponent QBR under Nick Saban.

The Tide will face a talented Clemson offense that is headlined by top-three Heisman finisher Deshaun Watson, who is the only FBS quarterback to record at least a 70 Total QBR in every game this season. Alabama has not allowed a QBR of 40 or more in 11 consecutive games, the longest active FBS streak.

Blitzing Watson might not be the best way for Alabama to try to throw the Clemson quarterback off his game.

Productive with a standard pass rush

The Crimson Tide have pressured opposing quarterbacks on 33 percent of dropbacks, fifth-best among Power 5 teams. They have sent five or more pass-rushers on only 16 percent of dropbacks, the fifth-lowest rate in the Power 5. That said, a majority of the defense’s success has come with a standard pass rush.

Alabama has an FBS-high 50 sacks, the most for a season by the Tide in the Nick Saban era (since 2007). Of those 50 sacks, 38 have come when sending four or fewer pass-rushers. The Tide also held opponents to zero or negative yards on 55 percent of plays while limiting opposing quarterbacks to a 21 QBR with a standard pass rush, both Power 5 bests.

The standard pass rush was effective in their matchup with Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl when Spartans quarterback Connor Cook threw both of his interceptions against Alabama’s standard pressure. The Crimson Tide have 16 such interceptions this season, second most among Power 5 teams behind Oklahoma (18).

Watson might prefer when defenses blitz

Watson has been blitzed on 27 percent of his dropbacks during his career, slightly more than the Power 5 average. Watson has had success on such plays, throwing 22 touchdowns and three interceptions while ranking third in both QBR (92) and yards per attempt (10.2) among Power 5 players. When Watson faces standard pressure, his Total QBR drops by 14 points and he has thrown 11 of his 14 interceptions against the standard pass rush.

Watson completed 67 percent of his passes and had his only touchdown pass when Oklahoma blitzed in the Orange Bowl. When the Sooners sent standard pressure, he completed 48 percent of his passes and threw his only interception.

Pass coverage will be a point of emphasis for Alabama, which has been susceptible to the deep ball this season. The Tide rank 57th among 65 Power 5 teams in completion percentage allowed on passes thrown 20 yards or more downfield (39 percent). Watson has 16 touchdowns on such throws this season, most in Power 5.

The Crimson Tide have allowed opponents to complete 46 percent of their passes thrown 20 yards or longer, with six touchdowns and no interceptions, in their past six losses.