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Previewing Alabama vs. Auburn: The Tiger defense

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Much maligned for much the early 2015 season, is the Tiger defense really getting better? Nick Saban thinks so...

The Auburn defense is much better when Carl Lawson is in the line-up.
The Auburn defense is much better when Carl Lawson is in the line-up.
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

It's not unusual for Alabama head coach Nick Saban to opine on the worthiness of an upcoming opponent during game week. Being from the old school of coaching and "aw, shucks" sportsmanship, Saban routinely highlights the better points of an opposing team in his press conferences during the week leading up to the game.

But one thing he said this week in preparation for the annual Iron Bowl grudge match with Auburn contradicted what many perceive as reality: namely, that the Auburn defense is getting better as 2015 wears on. The whipping boy for an Auburn team that has largely underachieved over this season and the last, this year's defense was supposed to get an upgrade with the pricey hiring of former Florida head coach (and Saban coaching acolyte) Will Muschamp.

However, the contrary has been true, at least through the first half of the season. In most major statistical categories by which defenses are judged, the 2015 edition of the Tiger defense has fallen below the rather low mark set by its predecessor. Ripped ragged by injuries in camp and the early half of the season, including injuries to key players in the secondary and future NFL defensive lineman Carl Lawson, the Tigers have found the going in 2015 rather difficult. Add into the equation that the type of athletes recruited for former defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's defense are poorly suited to execute Muschamp's scheme, and it's not hard to see why the Tigers have struggled defensively this season.

However, as Saban noted, their performance as of late has been dramatically improved over the shoddy outings of the first two-thirds of the schedule. The defense got Lawson back, and though in most statistical categories the Tigers are still rated 80th or worse, they have improved exponentially over the last three games, cutting the yardage allowed per game from 417.9 yards to 341.7 yards in the month of November.

So what kind of challenge will the Alabama defense face this Saturday in the all-important Iron Bowl? Aside from playing in the rowdy confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium, where the Tide lost in its last visit under less-than-pleasant last-second circumstances, Alabama will face a downtrodden defense that, rightly or not, has developed a little swagger in the last month. Whether or not they can stop a Tide defense that has been rolling over better defenses since the early November match-up with LSU remains to be seen. Will they put up a fight? You better believe it.

With a struggling offense that is a shell of former Auburn units, can the Tigers do the unthinkable defensively and bring the Tide juggernaut to a grinding halt? While it may seem unlikely, it most definitely falls into the realm of possibility...let's take a closer look.

The Roster

It's not that the Auburn defense lacks talent. While the Tigers are quite obviously a team that focuses on the offensive side of the ball in recruiting, they have stunningly been able to recruit some top-shelf defensive talent to the Plains during Coach Gus Malzahn's tenure. Take for example Lawson, a prospect who was recruited by the previous administration but stuck around when Malzahn was announced as coach. A versatile, dynamic athlete with all of the necessary tools to play in the NFL, he has been a standout despite injuries, the big cog in the Tiger defensive gear. Then there's Byron Cowart, a five-star defensive line recruit out of Sefner, FL who Malzahn and Muschamp lured to Auburn last winter. While Cowart's impact has been minimal as a true freshman, he has the raw ability to potentially go down in Tiger D lineman lore like Dee Ford or Nick Fairley.

What the Tigers do not have is synergy between the available talent and the new system as implemented by Muschamp. Former defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, a longtime guru in the SEC, preferred to run the 4-2-5 at Auburn, and as a result, he preferred to recruit lighter, more athletic defensive ends with an emphasis on penetration. Muschamp, on the other hand, likes beef across the defensive line, where his linemen are expected to occupy blocks and mind gaps so that linebackers can make plays.

Speaking of that defensive line, the Tigers are solid up front, especially with Lawson (6-2, 257 pounds) back in the lineup. Lawson spends most of his time in what Muschamp calls the "Buck" defensive line position, a hybrid end-linebacker role not terribly unlike the "Jack" linebacker in Saban's terminology. The Buck is expected to rush the passer and force the run when Muschamp sets a 4-3, and when the Tigers drop into their 3-4 alignment, the Buck drops back into a traditional linebacker look.

Joining Lawson at the other end position is senior DaVonte Lambert (6-2, 282 pounds). While Lambert may not be a early round pro prospect like his fellow end, he is solid against the run and has bulked back up for 2015 after shedding weight in the previous season to meet Ellis' preferences. At 282 pounds, he is much closer to what Muschamp wants in a traditional defensive end, though still admittedly a little light.

The Tigers are also well-represented at tackle, where another blue-chip recruit, junior Montravius Adams (6-4, 296 pounds) has the size needed anchor the defensive line in either the 4-3 or 3-4 alignments. Adams is another player with untapped potential, as his combination of size and athleticism has been impressive, even when his statistical accomplishments haven't been of much note. Joining Adams at tackle is another physical big man, redshirt freshman Dontavius Russell (6-3, 295 pounds). (And for those of you keeping score at home, yes, the Tigers start a tackle tandem named Montravius and Dontavius...in addition, the Auburn roster boasts reserve defensive back Montavius Atkinson and freshman D lineman Juanta'vius Johnson...seriously, you just can't make that stuff up.) Again, Russell has good size at tackle, and when the Tigers go to a 3-4 look, either he or Adams bounces outside to the end spot left vacant by the Buck in the 4-3. That alone speaks volumes regarding the athleticism of the Auburn big men.

That said, while the Auburn front four can match up favorably against anyone in the SEC, depth is a problem for the Tigers. Expect Muschamp to sub in players such as JuCo transfer Maurice Swain (6-5, 295 pounds), Gimel President (6-4, 263 pounds), Justin Thomas-Thornton (6-5, 228 pounds), Andrew Williams (6-4, 270 pounds), Byron Cowart (6-3, 277 pounds) and Prince Tega Wanogho (6-8, 250 pounds). Devaroe Lawrence (6-2, 281 pounds) has been in the mix at tackle as well, but he is also dealing with an ankle injury that, while not serious, has hampered his performance over the last month.

The same is true for the veteran Tiger linebacking corps, where the first-stringers are able. Behind them, depth is a question. The best of the group is arguably senior Mike linebacker Cassanova McKinzy (6-3, 253 pounds), a hefty ‘backer in the Bama mold who is good against the run and in the pass rush, where he splits time with Lawson at the Buck position. McKinzy has at times been something of a liability in coverage, as are all of the Tiger linebackers, a fact which has partially resulted in an inconsistent pass defense throughout the season.

Fellow senior Kris Frost (6-2, 240 pounds) is also steady if not spectacular, as he has good size and athleticism for the position. Senior Justin Garrett (6-1, 228 pound) has good speed and is called upon to aggressively mop-up and play sideline to sideline in Muschamp's defense.

The secondary has been a patchwork mess for the Tigers this season, at least outside of a few steady performances from veteran defensive backs. Injuries have taken their toll on an Auburn pass defense that was not particularly adept last season, at least not at anything other than creating takeaways at opportune moments.

Muschamp likes to play a lot of man coverage, and he has had the luxury of doing so at least some of the time thanks to senior corner Jonathan Jones (5-10, 181 pounds). While Jones may not be a future NFL star like some other SEC defensive backs, he is disciplined in his coverages and understands what Muschamp is attempting to accomplish in his secondary. He has good speed and though not overtly physical, Jones is a pesky defender who can cause havoc to opposing passing games. Fellow corner, freshman Carlton Davis (6-1, 190 pounds), was thrown into the fire early due to injuries, and after a few speed bumps in his development, Malzahn has complimented him as one of the keys to Auburn's defensive turnaround over the course of the last three games. Davis has nice size for a corner, and with sneaky speed and an improving level of comfort with his responsibilities, he is more than likely the corner of the future for the Tigers.

Davis' emergence at corner allowed Muschamp to move another veteran defensive back to fine-tune the personnel he has on the field. Earlier in the season, junior Johnathan Ford aka "Rudy" (6-0, 203 pounds) was asked to play corner at times, a position to which he is not particularly well suited. Ford is a heavier defensive back more accustomed to playing safety, and when Carlton earned his stripes, Ford was moved to the Nickel position. The move also allowed the Tiers coaching staff to dedicate Michigan transfer and redshirt senior Blake Countess (5-10, 185 pounds) from the corner rotation to free safety, a position in which he has thrived since the move. Finally, sophomore Tray Matthews (6-1, 213 pounds) holds down the fort at strong safety, where he is asked to contribute in coverage as well as run support.

How Auburn Can Stop Alabama

Doing so is a tall task for any team, as Alabama has developed cohesiveness as an offense, and the skill players are playing with a lot of confident momentum. Auburn has not played particularly well against the run nor pass this season, but the Auburn team of the last several weeks has improved enough to give the Alabama offense pause when lining up against the Tiger D.

First, let's take a look at some statistics that help paint the picture of what the Auburn defense has accomplished on the whole of the season in 2015. The Tigers are currently ranked 83rd in total defense, giving up 417.9 yards per game. They are 82nd in pass defense, allowing 237 yards per game, and 82nd in run defense, allowing 180.9 yards per game. The Tigers have given up an average of 27.2 points per game to their opponents, good for 71st in the country. Digging deeper, the Tigers aren't particular good defensively on first downs, tied for 110th nationally. Third downs aren't much better, as Auburn is ranked 116th with a 46.6% conversion rate. They aren't particularly adept in penetration, ranking 98th in sacks (17, 1.55 per game) and 119th in tackles for loss (48, 4.4 per game).

The only categories in which the Tigers are ranked in the top 50 nationally are red zone defense (.792 conversion rate with 27 touchdowns and 11 field goals allowed, good for 38th), turnover margin (+5, good for 36th nationally) and pass efficiency defense (120.91 rating, good for 45th in the nation).

Muschamp runs a scheme not unlike the one he learned under Nick Saban, aside from the base defense each coach prefers to employ. While Saban likes to use a 3-4 base with multiple looks and alignments (Coach himself has said his team lines up in some variation of nickel more times than not), Muschamp tries to accomplish many of the same goals from a multiple 4-3 look. Both coaches use their defensive lines to attack the line of scrimmage and anchor down blockers while linebackers and safeties selectively apply pressure, leaving the secondary to play man coverage. The Tiger defense also spends a good bit of time in a 4-2-5 nickel look, especially when playing against spread, pass-happy teams like Texas A&M.

As previously mentioned, one of the more dynamic aspects of the Auburn defense is the way Muschamp uses the talent at the Buck position. With Lawson and McKinzy both seeing time at Buck, the Tigers have a method of creating havoc in opposing backfields in the pass rush and run defense. Lawson is quick, aggressive and technically sound, and when he is in the defensive lineup, the entire team sees a boost. While his statistics don't tell the entire story, Lawson elevates the rest of the defense by soaking up double teams and allowing his fellow defensive linemen to play more aggressively, which in turn takes some of the pressure off of the secondary.

Earlier in the season, with a shaky secondary, Muschamp was forced to utilize a lot of zone coverage, a factor which somewhat hamstrings his defensive scheme by forcing him to dedicate more defensive backs to coverage and simplifying blitz packages. In a perfect world, Muschamp would rather put his corners and nickel in man with a Cover 1 or Cover 3 look, allowing his linebackers and at least one safety to focus on blitzes and run defense. When Muschamp's defensive backs have to play more zone, it stems some of the aggressiveness he requires to execute his full game plan, and it forces his men up front to win more of their one-on-one battles to create pressure. In much the same way that Lawson's presence has a trickle-down effect on the defense, the man vs. zone issue also affects the defense as a whole. When Muschamp can't play man, his defense goes from roar to whimper, as has been seen in the early portion of the season.

One thing Muschamp does have going for him is that he has a big tackle in Adams who can two-gap when the defense flexes to a 3-4 look, which is critical. To be able to maintain integrity against the run, Muschamp's defense needs a big man at tackle who can also play B and C gaps. Adams is adept at this, and Russell is no slouch either. Without this component, offenses could easily gash the soft underbelly of the Auburn defense, using big offensive linemen to physically bully smaller, less physical tackles and create creases.

How will all this play out against Alabama? Expect something akin to Alabama's game plan against Arkansas, but with a larger passing component. Muschamp, like Saban, likes to find the weak link in an offensive line and attack it relentlessly with his best players to create havoc. To this end, there's a good chance that Muschamp will go after the right side of Alabama's line, which though improved in recent weeks, is still not nearly as reliable as the left side, particularly with right tackle Dominick Jackson still recovering from a minor injury that has limited him in recent weeks.

Expect to see Lawson and McKinzy attacking the right side of the Bama offense in an effort to force Coker into mistakes or sacks. The Tigers haven't had much luck in the sack department, and they're not likely to make significant in-roads there this week. But the scouting report on Coker continues to indicate that he has performance issues when regularly pressured, despite his successes to the contrary over the last several weeks. If the Tigers can clog up the running lanes on the right and apply pressure from that vector, it could cause frustration for an Alabama offense that thrives on momentum and downhill power running.

That said, it will be difficult for Auburn to maintain the intensity required to keep Derrick Henry and the running game in check over four quarters. Sure, the Tigers may have some initial success against the run, which is Alabama's bread and butter. Still, Auburn gives up 180.9 yards per game on the ground, and though they have improved in the last month, they've also not played against the level of competition that Alabama will bring to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Alabama's offensive line is big and physical, and will possess the advantage in sheer size against the Tigers. And Henry doesn't seem to mind who lines up across from him, as he has been a wrecking ball that better defenses could only hold off for so long this season. Auburn can only hope to make the going rougher and keep Henry from breaking the long runs that have become his trademark in the latter half of the season. But make no mistake, Henry is too good to be held in check by this defense, and once he gets rolling, there won't be much Auburn can do to stop him. Their only hope is containment through early contact.

The Auburn secondary is not altogether awful, despite their 82nd ranked passing defense numbers. The Tigers have had a lot of flux due to injury, and that can cause myriad problems for a unit that relies on a lot of intuition and mutual dependence. The Tigers have veterans in the secondary, but they aren't the type of lock-down corners who strike fear in to the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.

Given the Tigers' lack of success on first- and third-downs, it's difficult to see a path to victory for Auburn defensively. While Alabama's third-down conversion stats are in the bottom-third of the nation, that is somewhat deceptive. Though Alabama is 92nd nationally on third-down, the Tide is 5th nationally in first-down offense. Alabama has made a habit of getting positive plays on first-downs, a factor which makes third-down conversions something of a moot point. Alabama has been able to move the chains with solid first- and second-down efforts, and once they cross the 50, they are in a position to better pressure defenses with downhill running and play-action strikes.

Speaking of third-downs, Muschamp prefers to use man coverage on third-downs so that he can free up personnel to rush the passer in hopes of forcing a sack or turnover to snuff drives. Alabama could make passing game hay against such a scheme, as Coker has grown comfortable in the pocket as his receivers have gotten more accustomed to his rhythm. If Alabama can pick up third-down blitzes and give Coker a moment to throw, the Tide's Calvin Ridley, Richard Mullaney, O.J. Howard and ArDarius Stewart could have big plays in the passing game.

Obviously, a lot of Alabama's early success will rely on avoiding negative yardage plays. The Tigers aren't particularly adept at getting tackles for loss, but Alabama is ranked 99th in tackles for loss allowed. If Alabama can avoid those types of negative plays early on in offensive series, the Tiger defense will have a tough time limiting the Alabama playbook and stopping the Tide's steam roller.

The Result

This game is unlike any other the Tide plays in each year, as regardless of the respective quality of each team, each knows the other will give its best shot. The Iron Bowl maxim of "throwing the records out the window" is foolishness, as more often than not, the better team wins this game. That, however, isn't indicative of the effort each team puts into the performance. Alabama and Auburn know what is riding on this game, and it goes deeper than bragging rights. Each will expect the best performance out of the other, which sometimes leads to more closely-contested games than previous records or statistics would indicate.

That said, on paper, the Tigers appear to have little chance of conquering a surging Crimson Tide. This Alabama team is not the disheveled unit that fell to Ole Miss earlier in the season. That team was somewhat lost, lacking identity, rudderless. This Alabama team now has a rudder of oak-rigid defense, a captain at the till in Coker who has earned the trust of his crewmates, and an identity that can only be spelled out, in grand understatement, as "physical."

Sure, Auburn's defense will do all they can to stop Alabama's offensive momentum. The home crowd will be loud so long as the Tigers are in the game, so it will be the duty of the Tide offense to stifle that crowd early and take away the home field advantage. Alabama may stutter on an early drive or two, but once all cylinders are firing, it would take sloppy execution, a litany of turnovers, or a key injury to keep the Tide from rolling through, over and around the Tiger defense.

Auburn won't roll over, there's little doubt of that. Muschamp demands fire from his players like a lava-coaxing snake-handling Pentecostal preacher, and you better believe that playing in front of the home crowd, the Tigers will be as amped as they can possibly be. They'll come out, they'll fly around, and they'll do what they do. Alabama must respond in business-like fashion the way they have all season long in road games: look the opponent in the eye, allow them to froth in rage, and then put the dagger through their hearts with an unstoppable, unrelenting running game buoyed by the quick-strike big play.

There's no reason to expect a different outcome this week, Auburn notwithstanding. Every team wants to be the one that knocks off the Crimson Tide. Auburn may want it a little more, but with this defense, it's unlikely they'll succeed in stopping the Tide offense where others have failed.