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Why Auburn is finally good at defense

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NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

It probably shouldn’t be that surprising that the Auburn Tigers are playing good defense in 2016. This squad has always had talent, they were returning six starters from a year ago, there was schematic continuity despite bringing in a new defensive coordinator (Kevin Steele and Will Muschamp are both from the Nick Saban tree), and Auburn hadn’t been terrible at defense in the past under Gus Malzahn. Of course they’ve never been this good either:

The Malzahn Tigers have been defined much more by their offensive firepower than their defense, although they’ve never been horrible on that side of the ball. Expectations have come to be set for Auburn to be “middling” or “okay” on defense, graded apparently on an SEC West curve, but there was little reason for that to be the case.

For one, Auburn has some amazing talent on defense. The average recruiting ranking of their defense (per 247 composite) in their base 4-3 grouping is 4.2 stars. In their nickel, 4-2-5 package it’s 4.1 stars. They have blue-chippers across the unit including a pair of former five-stars along the DL in DE Carl Lawson and NT Montravious Adams.

In many ways, Kevin Steele has just brought sound fundamentals and play to a team that already had great potential due to the sheer talent on the roster. You could see some of that coming together in their spring game, which tipped me off that they might be able to give Clemson a fight in the season opener. Here are some of the ways that’s now coming out.

A base that’s hard to beat

Auburn’s base defense this season is the 4-3 Over Quarters scheme that is ubiquitous to much of college football today. It’s particularly found in places where the spread offense is prevalent. However, most defenses running that scheme do not have the same talent that Auburn is putting on the field.

Here’s an example against the Clemson Tigers when Deshaun Watson ran the “zone bluff” variety of zone read that has become a dominant feature in the modern spread running game.

You can see the superiority of the Auburn talent at work on this play in their ability to execute a sound plan for a difficult play. Steele will play this concept a few different ways, sometimes having the DE stay wide to stop the QB keeper and other times having him step inside with square shoulders to spill the ball to a scraping LB and run support.

This time Auburn does the latter, which invites Watson to keep the ball around the DE and behind a lead block from TE Jordan Leggett. That all goes smoothly, but Auburn’s safety Nick Ruffin hawks downhill in a jiffy from his initial two-deep alignment as the force defender and is quick enough to prevent Watson from crossing his face and getting outside of containment. Not every team can trust their safeties to drop that late and handle an assignment like that against an athlete like Deshaun Watson.

Because he’s successful in forcing Watson in, or at least containing him, you also get to see the pursuit speed of Carl Lawson in action. The Tiger DE is able to get out wide and stay on Watson’s inside hip, preventing a cutback for a big gain. When the DE can move laterally like that and deny the offense a soft edge, it really hampers the design of this play.

Here’s another example where Auburn plays it with a wide DE to give the QB a “hand-off” read:

The difficult thing about this stye of defending the zone read/bluff play is that there is inevitably a huge cutback lane between the unblocked DE and the defensive tackle, but the DE is technically assigned to that gap.

That means that to account for this new crease, the linebackers have to “rock back” and have the read-side LB step into that gap while the normal inside zone gaps the LBs would be playing are either two-gapped by the backside LB or involve a DB as an extra man. Auburn does a little of both.

Darrell Williams (#49) rocks back to take away the cutback lane for Clemson RB Wyatt Gallman, so he works the normal inside zone path. Tre Williams (#30) is two-gapping the backside A-gap and the playside B-gap. He’s able to do so without repercussion because he’s laterally quick and because the monstrous DTs in front of him consume the Clemson double teams and don’t allow a guard to reach him.

Nickel Rudy Ford is in position to help fill that B-gap, but Auburn plays it safe and has him cover down on the slot to take away the bubble screen. Only after honoring the screen does Ford crash in, but he’s fast and aware enough to do so and still arrive in a timely manner.

Auburn is clearly very comfortable in their base defense and they do a good job of taking away quick, easy reads and pursuing the ball as a team with leverage. When a team with natural athletes do their jobs properly, they can erase space in a hurry, even against the spread-option.

Simplifying the risk/benefit analysis of the blitz

Even when you’re sound in your schemes and fielding great athletes at every position, it can still be hard to hold up against good offenses if they are just shelling your base defense with targeted play calls. That’s when you blitz.

Auburn employs the same man-1 blitzes that much of the rest of the world employs, featuring five pass-rushers and one safety deep while the other five coverage defenders each have one of the five skill position players in man coverage. The advantages of this scheme include being able to attack what the offense is doing or else at least get 1-on-1 matchups for your pass-rushers. When you’re sending talents like Carl Lawson after an offense, a 1-on-1 matchup is often all you need.

The problem with these blitzes is that while you are creating 1-on-1 matchups for your first wave of attackers, you’re also creating 1-on-1 matchups for the offense to attack in coverage and you’re often asking DBs to serve as linebackers in the box where they are generally less experienced. The idea of the zone or man-1 blitz sounds great until you see a linebacker get toasted in coverage, or a safety fail to fill a crease against the run.

Auburn is able to use these blitzes well because they have the kinds of big, versatile athletes in the defensive backfield that can hold up in coverage or in the box and they have pass-rushers up front that can force the issue.

They’re also not terribly complicated or overly cute with how they uses these blitzes against option teams like Clemson that always seem to have a way to punish you on every play. Kevin Steele loves to bring a guy off the edge as just one more way to disrupt spread-option plays:

Clemson is trying to overwhelm Auburn to the field here with multiple options for Deshaun Watson with which to punish them. However, one positive aspect in defending spread-option plays is that they typically have very simple reads for the quarterback, reads that can be exploited.

If a QB sees the DE dive inside, that generally tells him to keep the ball, but Auburn brings the middle linebacker off the edge as well and his job is to swallow up the QB if he does that. Normally the middle linebacker crashing off the edge would be a tell to throw the ball outside on the bubble screen, but Auburn has a safety dropping down to take that away.

Where Auburn is vulnerable is to the playside B-gap on the inside zone run, but even though Watson hands the ball off, the RB isn’t able to exploit this weakness because the unblocked DE chases him down from behind. There could also have been an opportunity to throw a quick hitch to the single side WR, but Auburn took that away with press coverage.

Auburn allowed Clemson to tell them where the read action was going to be based on the formation and alignment of the running back and then they sent more defenders there then Clemson’s option schemes were designed to handle. Punishing that blitz would require pre-snap recognition and an audible into something else that the blitz isn’t designed to thwart, which the timing of the blitz didn’t allow. Execution wins again.

These are pretty simple anti-spread tactics, but executing them is the real challenge and Auburn is doing so at a high level. They are clearly well coached and not overloaded with too many schemes in their weekly gameplans.

Since Auburn has always been talented now that they have a few good schemes that they know how to execute they are finally great on defense.