By Gentry Estes, Mobile Press-Register
October 20, 2009, 5:45AM
TUSCALOOSA -- To illustrate the difference between Alabama's defense of two years ago and today, defensive end Lorenzo Washington points to his side.
"In 2007, I broke my ribs in the Tennessee game," Washington said. "I played the whole second half of the season with broke ribs. There was nobody. I didn't really have a choice. There really wasn't an option.
"Unless you absolutely couldn't go, you had to go."
In 2009, a deeper Alabama's defense has withstood injuries and may actually be improving in spite of them.
The nation's No. 1 ranked team in The Associated Press poll also has the nation's No. 1 total defense, according to stats released by the NCAA.. The Crimson Tide is first nationally in pass efficiency defense and fourth nationally in scoring defense, allowing roughly 11.5 points per game.
"We've been playing good all year," Crimson Tide linebacker Rolando McClain said. "We've been on a high because we expect nothing but good things from us because of how hard we work and how hard we practice. Things have been the same. We just need to try to keep it that way."
Heading into Saturday's 2:30 p.m. game against Tennessee, Alabama has not allowed a touchdown since the 12:52 mark of the fourth quarter in an Oct. 4 victory at Kentucky. Its two past opponents -- Ole Miss and South Carolina -- combined to get three field goals between them.
"I love the style that they play with," Vols coach Lane Kiffin said. "I think they play extremely physical. They play in your face. They come downhill at you. That's what we're going to be someday. I like everything about what they do."
The Crimson Tide kept the Gamecocks out of the end zone despite two unexpected injury losses in the moments leading up to the game.
Cornerback Javier Arenas, who practiced Monday, was expected to play with sore ribs after getting punched in practice the previous Wednesday. Arenas couldn't move and was a late scratch, as was reserve nose tackle Josh Chapman, who has been dealing with an abdominal strain.
Alabama simply used third cornerback Marquis Johnson in Arenas' spot and inserted former walk-on Tyrone King as an additional defensive back. Both were applauded by Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban after the 20-6 victory.
Freshman Kerry Murphy played behind Terrence Cody on the defensive line, and this was on a defense that had already lost standout Dont'a Hightower to a season-ending knee injury, forcing true freshman Nico Johnson into the lineup at inside linebacker.
It didn't affect the defense's performance.
"We had more (defensive) players have double-digit production points in this game than I think maybe we've ever had in the three years we've been here," Saban said.
Unlike earlier in the season, the Crimson Tide's standout defensive play is defining a growing contrast in the team. Despite few injury concerns on the other side of the football, Alabama's overall offensive numbers -- based mostly on the passing game -- have gradually slipped in recent weeks.
Despite three consecutive 100-yard games by tailback Mark Ingram, Alabama has struggled in the red zone. As a result, the Crimson Tide's offense has scored only two touchdowns in the past nine quarters, both on the ground.
Quarterback Greg McElroy only completed two passes to wide receivers during the victory over South Carolina.
McElroy, who threw two interceptions and was below 100 passing yards for the first time in seven starts, explained himself as a perfectionist.
"I put so much pressure on myself," he said, "I can't even see straight sometimes."
"Maybe we're trying to do too much," Saban said. "Maybe we're putting too much pressure on ourselves. ... We've got too many good skill players not to be able to get them the ball so we can make explosive plays in the passing game. It's not what we need it to be, it was not what we needed it to be in the game, and we definitely need to improve on it."
It won't get any easier in upcoming games against Tennessee and LSU, two teams noted more for defense than offense.
"As an offense, I think we're going to take this on our shoulders almost as a chip on our shoulders to be able to say 'Hey, we've got to step our offensive game up because our defense is playing phenomenal football,'" tight end Colin Peek said. "The only way I feel we will lose a game or have some trouble is if (the) offense doesn't produce the way we need to.
"That's something we'll put on our shoulders."