Experiencing a dropoff

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The question can finally be put to rest: Is Alabama's defense this year as good as the last?

After the past two weeks, the answer must be a resounding "No." It was fun while the argument lasted, but history is fickle and acts on its own time. Record-setting defenses come around only so often, and rarely in consecutive seasons.

As it turns out, losing three-fourths of your starters from a year ago will eventually catch up with you. You can't replace stars like Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw without feeling some effect. You can't lose a Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron and DeQuan Menzie and not notice a change in the secondary.

Alabama gave up a season-high 298 yards to an LSU offense that was borderline anemic before it met the Crimson Tide on Nov. 3. Texas A&M followed a week later by putting up a season-high 29 points on Alabama, gashing the defense for big play after big play.

The missing ingredient? Playmakers up front and on the back end of the defense.

"I don't think we have a dominant rusher like we had a year ago," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday. "I think it's a combination of not rushing on a consistent basis and not covering on a consistent basis that has been one of the problems that we've had."

While the overall production at linebacker this year has been similar to the last, the effect on the field hasn't been the same. It has taken five players to approach the numbers two put up in 2011, a sign of the lack of a dominating force in the middle of the field.

The number of negative plays on defense have been lacking. Where Hightower and Upshaw had 29 tackles for loss a year ago, linebackers C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest, Xzavier Dickson, Adrian Hubbard and Nico Johnson are on pace to combine for 26 in as many games this season.

When Alabama needs big plays on defense, they're just not being made of late. Safety Robert Lester had back-to-back weeks with key interceptions against Tennessee and Mississippi State, but he hasn't forced a turnover or broken up a single pass this month.

LSU converted 10 of 20 third downs against Alabama, Texas A&M 11 of 18. UA has made just one stop inside the red zone in the past two weeks.

"The last two weeks, again, lots of issues not getting off the field on third down, which hasn't been a real factor all year long," Saban said. "But in the last two weeks, we gave up 14 points in the second half at LSU, going 0-for-7 on third downs during that time and we started this game 0-for-7 on third down and got behind in the game because of it. When you create those situations you've got to get off the field."

Johnson said mistakes on defense have caught up with the Tide.

"We just haven't been executing like we should," he said. "We haven't played to the Bama standard."

Sure, Alabama's defense still has solid numbers. That area of the standard remains intact. The Crimson Tide are still No. 1 in the country in scoring defense, tied with Notre Dame. But in terms of rushing, passing and total defense, Alabama is no longer on top as it was a season ago.

The dominance with which the Tide played defense in 2011 is no longer evident. Without Barron and Kirkpatrick on the back end and Hightower and Upshaw getting after the quarterback up front, things haven't been the same. Those were four of the top 35 picks in the 2012 NFL draft. There might be one player on this year's defense who will be selected that high when the season ends.

Their replacements have been good, their production bordering on great, but not extraordinary.

And in big games, extraordinary counts.