During the Gus Malzahn era of Auburn football, the Tigers have gravitated towards the offensive. Malzahn, a supposed offensive wizard, was content to field middling defenses in the interest of stocking a talent-rich, powerful offensive play-makers. Like many spread HUNH-tinged teams, the idea was to use the offense to wear an opposing defense out early, while compressing the responsibilities and mitigating the weaknesses of its own defense by limiting the number of offensive plays an opponent has time to run.
It worked well enough for a time, but after last year, when the Tigers met numerous teams with similar offensive strategies, it became apparent that the Tigers, at some point, were going to need to develop the kind of defense Auburn was once known for fielding: a gritty, talented, hard-nosed bunch with a relentless mean streak.
Enter former Saban acolyte and LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, Auburn’s fourth defensive coordinator in a five-year span. While many figured Steele would be another in a long line of well-known defensive minds who shuffled through the motions for a year or so before breaking camp for greener pastures, Steele has done a remarkable job of turning the Auburn defense into a top-20 unit nationally. The amazing thing is that he’s done it with talent he didn’t recruit, using a rather vanilla scheme, and employing terminology and packages that are artifacts of one of his predecessors.
The Tigers once again field a potent offense, but the strength of this year’s team is a unit that is relentless up front, with a vastly improved pass defense, that can penetrate to impact the passer and slow the spread zone read rushing attacks that percolate throughout college football these days. While that hasn’t translated to an unblemished record for Auburn this year, this year’s Tiger team is a far more balanced, complete football team than the ones Alabama has faced in the previous three years.
So how will Steele and the Tiger D attack Alabama’s league-leading offensive machine? There’s plenty of material to consider in this regard, as the Tigers have faced several similar offenses in 2016 with decent (or better) results. Sure, they lost to Clemson, but in the season opener, Auburn did what no one thought they would do by limiting Deshaun Watson and the Clemson offense, thus giving Auburn a chance to win the game.
Can the Tigers have this kind of success against Alabama? They have the scheme and the talent up front to do just that. Alabama could be walking into another cage match like the one against LSU a few weeks ago, as this Auburn defense is legitimate.
But can Auburn really do what no other team short of LSU could do this season and totally shut down Alabama’s rushing attack? And if they do, can Jalen Hurts respond with another crisp passing performance that could mean the difference between a win and a loss? Or will Alabama flex its muscle after a lackluster performance last week against an FCS opponent, and once again prove its dominance over the state of Alabama?
Those answers and more await. Let’s take a closer look…
Despite Malzahn’s penchant for offense, in his time at Auburn the Tigers have assembled quite a battery of extremely talented 4- and 5-star defenders. Even with the constant flux at the defensive coordinator position, elite defensive players still select Auburn over other regional defensive powerhouses. That fact has stocked Steele’s cabinet with fantastic players in his inaugural season on the Plains, and he’s put that talent to good use.
At nowhere are the Tigers more talented than up front, where two of the four starting D linemen are former 5-star prep prospects. In the heart of the Auburn front seven is senior Montravius Adams (6-4, 309 pounds), a massive interior lineman with disruptive power and deceptive quickness. Adams is as athletic as a 309-pound man can be, but he is also a bull rhino in attacking the interior of opposing offenses. Adams has 35 tackles on the season, but the rest of his stat line really tells the story: he has 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 15 quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries, and an interception. The match-up between Adams and the Bama interior (center Bradley Bozeman, left guard Ross Pierschbacher, and whomever gets the start at right guard after Korren Kirven replaced Lester Cotton and was subsequently injured last week) will play a huge role in Alabama’s ability to keep Hurts comfortable and run the inside zone. Adams can single-handedly disrupt the middle lanes. Spelling Adams is another behemoth in freshman Derrick Brown (6-5, 330 pounds), and Brown has eight tackles and a sack in limited playing time.
At the other tackle position is the young-but-dynamic sophomore Dontavius Russell (6-3, 308 pounds). While maybe not as much of a pure athlete as Adams, Russell is powerful and instinctual, and plays his role as a space-eater and block-soaker pretty well. Russell has accounted for 25 tackles and five quarterback hurries in 2016. In Auburn’s defense, it is critical that the tackles take on (and more importantly, tie-up) double teams at the point of attack. Russell (along with Adams) excels in this responsibility, and it’s part of the reason Auburn’s defense has improved so much. Behind Russell is journeyman senior Maurice Swain (6-3, 314 pounds), who has 12 tackles and a tackle for loss on the season.
At defensive end, the Tigers have gotten great production out of freshman Marlon Davidson (6-3, 273 pounds), a gritty edge-setter who complements his fellow defensive linemen well. Davidson is a rangy athlete with a good motor, and while he isn’t called upon as the primary pass rusher (that duty falls to the “Buck” defensive end), Davidson does a good job of stringing out zone read option runs and getting penetration at the point of attack. Davidson has recorded 33 tackles, six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, three passes broken up, six quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery, and one forced fumble.
While Davidson has performed admirably for the Tigers in his first campaign on the Plains, the real threat at defensive end is the man assigned the Buck role, junior Carl Lawson (6-2, 253 pounds). In the Tiger defense, the Buck role is similar to Alabama’s Jack linebacker in some respects, as it employs an elite edge rusher with a hybrid linebacker-end frame, who is charged with setting the edge versus the run and rushing the passer with abandon on pass plays. Lawson fulfils this role to the letter, as he could easily be considered Auburn’s most dangerous pass rusher. Consider this stat line: Lawson has only 25 tackles on the season…but a full half of those (12.5) are tackles for loss. He also leads the Tigers in sacks (by a factor of two) with nine total, along with 23 quarterback hurries. Lawson is Auburn’s answer to Tim Williams, and there’s no doubt he’ll create havoc for Alabama’s tackles on Saturday afternoon. When Lawson needs a breather, sophomore Jeff Holland (6-2, 250 pounds) steps into the fray. Holland has 11 tackles and two sacks on the season.
Though the defensive line is loaded with headliners of known repute like Lawson and Adams, the linebacking corps has largely been an anonymous, but critical, unit during Auburn’s defensive resurgence. The LB corps is led by junior Will linebacker Tre’ Williams (6-2, 240 pounds), who has been fantastic for the Tigers this year and has provided a steadying presence for a young corps. Williams has 53 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two passes broken up, two quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. Behind Williams is the capable sophomore Montavius Atkinson (6-1, 211 pounds), who has been active in recording 24 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss this season.
At the Mike position is sophomore DeShaun Davis (5-11, 239 pounds), another active ‘backer who is charged with two-gapping at times in Steele’s anti-spread scheme. Despite the difficulty of the responsibility, Davis has performed well, recording 45 tackles, three tackles for loss, three passes broken up, and four quarterback hurries. When Davis steps out, senior T.J. Neal steps in (6-0, 235 pounds), a heavy-hitter who has accounted for 21 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss this season.
Sophomore Darrell Williams (6-2, 231 pounds) gets the start at the Sam slot, where he has become a strong asset for the Tigers against spread running teams. Williams has 46 tackles, two tackles for loss, two passes broken up, three quarterback hurries, and one forced fumble. Behind Williams is freshman Richard McBryde (6-1, 223 pounds), though he hasn’t recorded any stats in limited playing opportunities.
For the past several seasons, the Tiger secondary has been a liability for the Auburn defense. If the pass rush couldn’t force the hand of the offense up front, then there was little the defensive backs could do to limit explosive passing attacks. Flash-forward to this year, and the Tigers are fielding one of the better units in the conference, with veterans starting at several key positions.
A critical component for the Tigers’ improved secondary has been senior nickel back Johnathan Ford (6-0, 204 pounds) aka "Rudy," as when Auburn goes to nickel personnel, Ford serves as the hammer. Ford, a recent Senior Bowl invitee, has had a fantastic season, recording 57 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, seven passes broken up, three quarterback hurries, and a fumble recovery. Ford is not just used as an extra warm body in coverage, but rather he is routinely called upon to play in the box against spread running teams, or to seal off the underneath short routes to prevent the usual spread safety valve, the bubble screen. Ford is the cork in the bottle of the Tiger secondary, as he caps the usual spread pressure point and enables the rest of the defense to create explosive results. Ford is backed up by freshman Daniel Thomas (5-11, 192 pounds), who has nine tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss this season.
At the safety positions, the Tigers start a pair of juniors. Former Georgia defensive back Tray Matthews (6-1, 207 pounds) has been a great addition to the Tiger roster, as he is a heavy hitter who is just as at home in run support as he is in coverage at strong safety. Matthews currently leads the team with 67 tackles, in addition to an interception, a tackle for loss, two passes broken up, two quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. Matthews is backed by fellow junior Markell Boston (6-0, 200 pounds), who has six tackles on the year.
At the free safety position is Stephen Roberts (5-11, 183 pounds), who comes in a little small for an SEC safety. But what Roberts lacks in size he makes up for in aggressiveness, as he has recorded two interceptions on the season, along with 41 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and two passes broken up. When Roberts heads to the sideline, junior Nick Ruffin (6-0, 203 pounds) comes in. Ruffin sees a good bit of playing time due to his ability, and as a result he has posted 26 tackles thus far.
At corner, senior Joshua Holsey locks down one side, and this campaign has represented a breakout season for the long-suffering Tiger defensive back. Relegated to mediocrity for much of his career, Holsey has emerged as the Tiger’s most explosive option at corner. He leads the team in interceptions with three, in addition to 25 tackles, a tackle for loss, and 10 passes broken up. Spelling Holsey is freshman Javaris Davis (5-10, 182 pounds), who himself is having quite a year in his first season on the Plains. Davis has two interceptions to his credit, along with 26 tackles, three tackles for loss, and a sack.
At the other corner spot, sophomore Carlton Davis (6-1, 195 pounds) gets the call. Davis is lean, but he has solid coverage skills and has provided the Tigers with a solid corner opposite Holsey. Davis has 37 tackles on the year, in addition to two tackles for loss and 10 passes broken up. Behind Davis is senior Marshall Taylor (6-3, 191 pounds), who has a mere six tackles on the season.
How the Auburn defense will attack the Alabama offense
When Steele arrived in Auburn, he had the task of stabilizing a rather volatile situation in terms of continuity. The Tiger defense had run through a series of coordinators (as previously mentioned, Steele was the fourth in five years), and thus, the defense had been forced to bend to new scheme after new scheme. The lack of continuity and familiarity bred hesitation, which resulted in slow, milquetoast play.
There’s no doubt that the Tiger defense is an improved unit in 2016, so much so that they are in the top-20 nationally in many major metrics. In terms of raw stats, Auburn is ranked 18th in total defense (334.5 yards per game), 17th in rush defense (117.7 yards per game), 54th in pass defense (216.8 yards per game), and seventh in scoring defense (14.3 points per game). They have the 17th ranked third down defense and the second ranked red zone defense. The Tigers have amassed 25 sacks on the season (good for 50th), and 72 tackles for loss (39th).
The advanced metrics provide an even more impressive accounting of what the Auburn defense has become. They are 10th in defensive S&P+ (a metric which sifts out garbage-time stats, etc.), 15th in run S&P+, and 35th in pass S&P+. The Tigers are ranked 14th in the Havoc metric, which measures tackles for loss, passes defenses and forced fumbles divided by total number of plays (sixth in defensive back Havoc, 34th in front seven Havoc). In IsoPPP (a measure of defense vs. explosive plays), the Tigers are ranked 15th.
Steele’s first stroke of genius at Auburn was to retain many of the packages and terms that previous coordinator Will Muschamp used in his defense on the Plains. He didn’t install some exotic scheme just to prove himself an innovator, but rather, relied on the same 4-3 Over defensive front with quarters coverage that is predominant in college football these days.
The scheme, though common, is an excellent one to use against spread zone read offenses like the one they will face in Alabama this Saturday. It allows a one-gapping front to play aggressively at the point of attack, with simple, direct assignments not necessarily dependent on reads. Because most spread option teams rely on quick reads of their own, and execution behind the line of scrimmage, the 4-3 Over allows the defense to play equally fast, with less dependence on reaction and a greater emphasis on execution of the simplified assignments.
The tactic has worked well for Auburn this season, as they’ve been able to stay in games (and even beat) higher ranked teams with explosive offenses by sticking to the script and leveraging a great deal of talent in the front seven into pure havoc. It was evident in the opener against Clemson, when the Tigers surprisingly held explosive dual-threat quarterback Watson largely in check on the ground. They did it against Mississippi State’s zone read quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, as they held the SEC’s most prolific rushing quarterback to a mere 61 yards on the ground.
Alabama’s nouveau offense is predicated off the zone read and the running ability of Hurts. There’s no reason to believe that the Tigers won try similar tactics against Alabama, though they will have the benefit of knowledge gleaned from LSU’s solid defensive game plan against Alabama a few weeks ago. If there’s any team on the Tide’s regular season schedule that is built to attack what the Tide offense does best, it’s the Tigers.
Let’s look at a few of the methods the Tigers use to bunch up spread zone read offenses. One of Clemson’s bread-and-butter plays is the “zone bluff” QB run, which is just a variation of the kind of zone read option Hurts has on his ledger. On this play, Watson can hand off on an inside zone run, of course, and the action of the play is set up to create that opportunity. This, in theory, causes the edge defender (either the end or a linebacker on the LOS) to bite inside, which then creates space off the edge. One the zone bluff, Watson generally fakes that inside zone give, reads the end to see if he bites or stays home, then scampers down the line wide to the empty space if the end does bite. If the end doesn’t bite, Watson looks for a bubble screen or other short safety-valve passing option.
Auburn had a plan for that usually productive play, however, and one can expect Alabama will see a similar tactic this Saturday. Instead of having the end play the inside zone run, Steele keeps him wide. Doing so forces the quarterback to either attempt a short pass if it’s open, or keep and outrun the end down the line of scrimmage in hope of turning the corner. With a DE left out wide, Steele will bring extra support down in the form of a safety who further strings the play out towards the sidelines, thus limiting yardage and effectively killing the play.
Auburn gave Watson another look on the zone bluff read. Alternately, Steele sometimes let the end crash the inside zone gap, leading Watson into his usual read, which was to bounce outside and try to get the edge. Again, when that happens, in Steele’s scheme, the safety is responsible for drawing down and stringing the quarterback out while Lawson (or another end) chases down the backside of the play to prevent the QB from cutting back inside the laterally-tracking safety.
It seems complicated on paper, but it’s really just a simple combination of basic tactics that ups the chance of successfully stringing out the play for the defense. On one hand, the end stays home, strings the play out wide, while a safety provides support on cutback lanes. On the other, the end crashes in initially while the safety strings out the play, then the end runs it down form the backside to prevent cutbacks. There’s a little “read and react” involved (as is the case on any play), but it doesn’t get much simpler than that against a spread running team with myriad options.
It’s not all scheme, however. Because of the simplicity of the plan, Steele’s scheme relies heavily on talented players and solid execution. Guys like Lawson are a must, as the Buck end has the kind of speed and athleticism needed to rebound and laterally pursue fleet-footed quarterbacks who are trying to turn the corner. The boon of spread zone read offenses is that they cause confusion in defenses, which results in hesitation. Because the offense is the aggressor, it is in command of the OODA loop on any play, i.e. they have the advantage of prescient knowledge of what is to come, whereas the defense is in a reactionary mode.
However, Auburn has players along the front (like Lawson) who are athletically-gifted enough to recover from any hesitations (if they fall into the trap at all) and react in enough time to still make a play. Lawson’s speed, for example, keeps him in almost every play, no matter if he bites or not. His ability, in some part, negates the minute advantage the spread zone read is designed to create. With lesser talent, a great spread QB would rip Auburn’s defense to shreds. But with elite end talent like Lawson, Steele has the luxury of using simple packages and simple calls to negate potent offenses and their inherent advantages.
As important as the players are to Steele’s success at Auburn, one must also note that the crafty old coach is a Saban acolyte who spent time in Tuscaloosa. He has adapted his scheme at Auburn to suit his talent to be sure, but he also has a few twists that he has installed to seal up holes that would normally gape in the type of defense the Tigers run, particularly against spread teams.
For example, let’s look at another defensive look from the Clemson game (and bear in mind, the Tigers have become far more fluid and comfortable with Steel’s defense than they were in the opener) that will likely rear its head against the Tide. Clemson, like Alabama, uses a lot of inside zone running plays. Against Clemson, when the Tigers would leave Lawson wide to take away Watson’s zone read keeper, Clemson would alternate to an inside zone-blocked run. Typically, when a team leaves an end wide in such a way, it inherently creates a cutback lane for the runner between the unblocked defensive end and the doubled tackle. To seal off that natural lane, Steele has one of his linebackers crash that gap to take away the lane, forcing the back into the only other lane available between the end on the opposite side and the interior line. Doing so leave that latter gap unfilled due to coverage responsibilities, but Steele solves the problem by having the Mike linebacker two-gap, either playing the playside B-gap, which should already be well covered, or the weakside A-gap, which is generally where the running back will end up once the other gaps are plugged.
Another key in such a system is the D line: they must take on and tie up all the doubles along the front to prevent a guard from slipping through and taking on one of the linebackers charged with reading the gaps. Against Clemson, the front could do that, so the linebackers could read and run free. Auburn will likely try to accomplish the same outcome against Alabama, but it remains to be seen if they’ll be successful.
When Auburn employs these kinds of tactics, one would expect there to be some opportunities to be available in the passing game, even if just in the form of short bubble screens that can check the aggressiveness of the Tiger front. That’s where Rudy Ford comes into the equation. Ford has some run support responsibilities, to be sure. Once an offense reveals the run, he can crash the box and scrape off to seal up gaps. However, on zone read option plays where the pass is in play, Ford (the nickel) has the responsibility of covering down on the slot, thus sealing off the bubble screen. That effectively limits all the options a spread zone read QB has at his disposal: the defense plays the QB option, the inside zone, and the bubble screen pretty well if the execution is there. The quarterback has a chance at a nice play if a receiver breaks Auburn’s man coverage, and the QB can beat the rush long enough to get the pass out. Otherwise, the offense may gain a trifling few yards, but as far as sustained success goes, the Tigers are well-prepared to prevent it.
The Auburn scheme is so effective against the spread largely because it takes away the quick reads a quarterback must make to maximize the offense, and they have great pursuit that offsets any advantage the obfuscation from the offense may create.
And then there’s the Tiger blitz strategy. When an offense begins to call a lot of targeted plays, AU counters by throwing in a lot of man-1 blitzes. This simply means that Auburn will blitz with five pass rushers (generally an assortment of linemen, linebackers and defensive backs just to inject the element of surprise) with a safety deep while five defenders take coverage against five offensive skill position players. The benefit of such a blitz is that it allows a defense to attack pressure points on the offensive front, and it also creates one-on-one match-ups along the front for the pass rushers to exploit. The drawback? It also creates one-on-one match-ups in coverage, often with linebackers or safeties on skill position talent. That is a disaster waiting to happen. It can also result in safeties being forced to play like linebackers in the box if an offense RPOs into a run from an expected pass call. Also not optimal for the Auburn D. Therefore, expect to see these types of blitzes in situations like third-and-long, when Steele is confident that the Tide will pass rather than pivoting to the run.
Finally, Steele likes to use the insidious tactic of turning the strength of the spread zone read against itself. This style of offense typically wins through two vectors: timing, as the indecision on the defense creates gaps in space for the offense to exploit; and personnel numbers, as the zone read renders some backside defenders moot (so much so that they are often unblocked) in the interest of creating overwhelming numbers at another pressure point of the defense. Auburn flips the script by taking advantage of the weakness created when an offense pulls players to overwhelm one side, dedicating backside pursuers to run the play down from the rear, thus creating a numbers advantage of their own at the very point an offense has left unprotected.
None of these tactics would work particularly well without the athletes Auburn has on the field this season. In fact, they could result in the kind of withering performances Alabama has seen from defenses this year who often seem to be running a step or two behind the play on every down while the Tide offense runs roughshod. Unlike those defenses, Auburn has the right players in the right positions to at least limit the success of a zone read script like the one Alabama runs. In the end, though, as with any scheme, the bulk of the result is carried on the shoulders of execution.
Alabama is likely in for another war of attrition this weekend in Bryant Denny Stadium similar to the one the Tide weathered in Baton Rouge. As uneven as Auburn’s defensive performances have been in the past, the Tigers represent the only defense (statistically) that is in the same league with LSU. That doesn’t mean the method of attack will be the same for the two defenses, as LSU sealed the edges with penetration and focused on disrupting the mesh point, while Auburn likes to string out the zone read and run it down from the backside. But Auburn has similar elite defensive play-makers and a scheme that is built to stop the spread, so the Tide will likely find tough-sledding against the Tiger defense.
Alabama has relied on the running game, whether on the legs of Hurts or an assortment of backs, and the Tide would do well to try their luck there early on. If there’s any knock against the Auburn defense, it’s that they are a bit shallow in the front seven, at least regarding experienced depth. If Alabama can find a way to grind out long drives, even ones that end in field goals, then they’ll begin the process of putting Auburn on its heels, as was the case in the LSU game. And just as in the LSU game, a tired Auburn defense in the second half is more likely to yield the sort of game-breaking plays that represented the Tide’s margin of victory in the game.
Don’t expect Hurts to run for 100 yards against this Auburn defense, unless he happens to break a lengthy scamper of 45+ yards. Auburn’s methods will be frustrating to watch, as they seal off cut-back lanes and produce short run after short run and stretch plays to the sidelines that never bend the corner. That is what they do. Attacking Auburn laterally is the equivalent of Chinese water torture: they will force you to beat them man-on-man, and if you break a big play, it’s because you won that particular battle on that particular occasion. It is tough, however, to win those battles time after time, and even tougher to string together enough of those little victories to sustain long drives that produce scores.
If Hurts has trouble slipping the end against Auburn’s defense, the next probe should be driven into the defense’s heart. Alabama’s offensive line struggled mightily against an undermanned UT-Chattanooga team last week. There is trouble in the interior line to a degree, as Lester Cotton was replaced in recent weeks by Korren Kirvan, who was in turn injured and is questionable this week. Alfonse Taylor is out indefinitely, so it may come down to Cotton to step into the fray and do the best he can against the likes of Adams and Russell inside. That is not a super-promising prospect for Alabama, to be sure.
If whomever starts at right guard, in tandem with Bozeman and Pierschbacher, can create some seams in the middle for the backs, Alabama could have some success there. Auburn’s defense requires the D linemen to hold point to keep the linebackers free-running and able to fluidly read and react. If Alabama can get linemen free into the second level after tagging out of double-teams, then there is success to be had in between the tackles, especially considering that against Bama, AU will have no choice but to focus on, and commit to, the edge.
Then there’s the passing game. Hurts has looked sharp in recent weeks when throwing the ball, even hitting a few over the middle. He’s still missing a lot of reads, and he still must speed up his actions and get the ball out in a more timely manner. However, there is hay to be made in the passing game against Auburn, especially when they blitz. Such a situation will isolate Tiger defenders on electric skill players like O.J. Howard, Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, Gehrig Dieter, and Cam Sims. It will also create mismatches in which Hurts may find a linebacker on Ridley, or a safety on Howard. These are circumstances Hurts must exploit to loosen the Auburn defense and make them back out of the box. A lot of what the Tigers do to seal the edges depends on safeties being able to cheat towards the run and play up close. If Hurts can get completions and force the safeties to think more about the pass, then the entire Alabama offense will profit.
There’s no way to know exactly how this match-up will pay out. Will the Auburn defense that was beaten by Georgia take the field Saturday? Will Alabama bring its Moc offense, or its Mississippi State offense? These are variables that inject intrigue into a game that carries a startlingly large spread of nearly 20 points in favor of the Tide.
If Alabama’s offense is at 100%, there’s a good chance it won’t matter much what Auburn does, as the Tide will roll. But if Auburn can do what LSU did, throw the Tide offense out of rhythm, take away what they do best, and disrupt any semblance of a passing game that Alabama can muster, then this could be another low-scoring, down-to-the-wire grudge match.
One thing is for sure…this is not the Auburn defense of past incarnations. This one is for real, and the advanced metrics back that up. They are built to stop the exact offense that Alabama currently runs, and they have the talent to give the Tide a run for their money.