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Previewing Alabama vs. Auburn: The Tiger defense

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Once the butt of many a joke, the Auburn defense has become a formidable weapon for the offensively-minded Gus Malzahn

NCAA Football: Auburn at Arkansas
Auburn Buck Jeff Holland is one of the keys to Kevin Steele’s resurgent defense on the Plains.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Things have changed on the Plains since Kevin Steele came to town.

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 a rough 2015 season that put the coach squarely on the proverbial hot seat, 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 Steele, Auburn’s fourth defensive coordinator in a five-year span. In his second year in Lee County, the salty veteran coordinator has improved the defense over an already-solid 2016 squad, and now has his defense ranked in the top-10 nationally in both advanced analytics and raw stats. While at first 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 dominant, versatile defense that can cripple an offense in any number of ways. The amazing thing is that he’s done it with talent that (in large part) 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 run-based offense in 2017, 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 rushing attacks that percolate throughout college football these days. While that hasn’t translated to an unblemished record for Auburn this season, this year’s Tiger team is a far more balanced, complete football team than the ones Alabama has faced in the previous four years.

So how will Steele and the Tiger D attack Alabama’s impressive, star-studded offensive killing machine? There’s plenty of material to consider in this regard, as the Tigers have faced several similar offenses in 2017 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 holding the explosive Clemson offense to 14 points, thus giving Auburn a chance to win the game. They’ve only gotten more efficient as the season progressed, evidenced most recently by their defensive throttling of then top-ranked Georgia, a rival that they manhandled en route to a 40-17 victory while holding star tailback Nick Chubb to a paltry 27 yards rushing.

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 Mississippi State a few weeks ago, as this Auburn defense is legitimate.

But can Auburn really do what no other team could do this season and totally shut down Alabama’s multi-pronged, hyper-prolific offensive 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 struggling in its last two league games, and once again prove its dominance over the state of Alabama?

Those answers and more await. Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

Despite Malzahn’s penchant for offense, in his time at Auburn the Tigers have assembled quite a battery of extremely talented defenders. Even with the constant flux at the defensive coordinator position before Steele’s two-year tenure, elite defensive players still select Auburn over other regional defensive powerhouses. That fact has stocked Steele’s cabinet with fantastic players in his second season on the Plains, and he’s put that talent to good use.

At nowhere are the Tigers more talented than up front, where the four starting defensive linemen in the 4-3 Over set are all excellent at what they are asked to do. In the heart of the Auburn front seven is sophomore tackle Derrick Brown (6-5, 315 pounds), a massive interior lineman with disruptive power and deceptive quickness. Brown is as athletic as a 315-pound man can be, but he is also a bull rhino in attacking the interior of opposing offenses. Brown is having a breakout year, with 44 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one pass broken up, three quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. The match-up between Brown and the Bama interior (particularly center Bradley Bozeman, left guard Ross Pierschbacher) will play a huge role in Alabama’s ability to keep Hurts comfortable and establish the run early on. Brown can single-handedly disrupt the middle lanes, however, and he has the size to soak up blocks. Behind Brown on the depth chart is redshirt junior Andrew Williams, who has 28 tackles and two quarterback hurries this year.

The other tackle is junior Dontavious Russell (6-3, 310 pounds). While maybe not as much of a pure athlete as Brown, Russell is powerful and instinctual, and plays his role as a space-eater and block-soaker pretty well. He has 35 tackles on the season, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, five quarterback hurries, a pass broken up, and a fumble recovery. 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 Brown) excels in this responsibility, and it’s part of the reason Auburn’s defense has improved so much. Spelling Russell is another behemoth in freshman Tyrone Truesdale (6-2, 338 pounds), and Truesdale has five tackles, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry, and a fumble recovery in limited playing time.

At defensive end, the Tigers have gotten great production out of sophomore Marlon Davidson (6-3, 282 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 option runs and getting penetration at the point of attack. Davidson has recorded 35 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, a pass broken up, four quarterback hurries, and one forced fumble. Davidson is backed up by redshirt freshman Nick Coe (6-5, 270 pounds), and Coe is having a strong inaugural effort with 24 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a pass broken up, and a quarterback hurry.

While Davidson has performed admirably for the Tigers this year on the Plains, the real threat at defensive end is the man assigned the Buck role, junior Jeff Holland (6-2, 249 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. Holland, much like the current NFL end and former Auburn Buck Carl Lawson, fulfils this role to the letter, as he could easily be considered Auburn’s most dangerous pass rusher. Holland has 39 tackles on the season, and 12 of them are tackles for loss. He leads the team with nine sacks, in addition to a pass broken up, 19 quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. Holland is every bit as potent a pass rusher as his predecessor, and there’s no doubt he’ll create havoc for Alabama’s tackles on Saturday afternoon if he’s healthy (It’s important to note that Holland was dinged up and left the game for a time Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe). While Holland may be able to play at less than 100 percent, even then he can be a weapon off the edge against the Tide’s tackles. If Holland cannot go Saturday, senior Paul James III (6-3, 260 pounds) will likely get the nod, and James has nine tackles, a tackle for loss, and two quarterback hurries on the season.

Though the defensive line is loaded with headliners of known repute like Holland, Brown, and Russell, the linebacking corps has largely been an anonymous, but critical, unit during Auburn’s defensive resurgence. The LB corps is led by senior Will linebacker Tre Williams (6-2, 225 pounds), who has been fantastic for the Tigers this year and has provided a steadying presence for a young corps. Williams has 40 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and one quarterback hurry. Rumor has it this week that Williams will be a game time decision after suffering an injury against Louisiana-Monroe, and the loss of the veteran linebacker could be a huge factor against Bama’s Power running game. Behind Williams is the capable sophomore Richard McBryde (6-1, 237 pounds), who has 10 tackles and two tackles for loss this season.

At the Mike position is junior Deshaun Davis (5-11, 246 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 a team-leading 58 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a pass broken up, and a forced fumble. When Davis steps out, freshman K.J. Britt (6-0, 239 pounds) steps in, a heavy-hitter who has accounted for four tackles in limited action this season.

Sophomore Darrell Williams (6-2, 244 pounds) gets the start at the Sam slot, where he has become a strong asset for the Tigers against spread running teams. Williams has 44 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, half a sack, four quarterback hurries, and one fumble recovery. Behind Williams is McBryde, who does double-duty behind both of the Williamses.

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 a top-20 pass defense unit, with veterans starting at several key positions.

A critical component for the Tigers’ improved secondary has been the veteran safety tandem consisting of seniors Stephen Roberts (5-11, 189 pounds) and free safety Tray Matthews (6-1, 209 pounds). Matthews has been solid against the run and the pass this season, as he is a heavy hitter who is just as at home in run support as he is in coverage at strong safety. Matthews has 38 tackles to date, in addition to an interception, a tackle for loss, and a fumble recovery. Matthews is backed by senior Nick Ruffin (6-0, 202 pounds), who has 26 tackles, an interception, a pass broken up, a quarterback hurry, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery on the year. At strong safety, Roberts is having a great campaign, with 42 tackles, six tackles for loss, six passes broken up, and a forced fumble. Behind him is starting nickel and reserve sophomore safety Daniel Thomas.

Speaking of Thomas (5-11, 203 pounds), he and fellow sophomore Jeremiah Dinson, have been instrumental in the improvement of the secondary, as when Auburn goes to nickel personnel, Thomas and Dinson serve as the hammer. Thomas is proving himself worthy of his expanded role, as he has recorded 30 tackles, three passes broken up, two quarterback hurries, an interception, and a fumble recovery. Thomas 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. Thomas and Dinson represent the cork in the bottle of the Tiger secondary, as they cap the usual spread pressure point and enables the rest of the defense to create explosive results. Fellow sophomore Jeremiah Dinson (6-0, 186 pounds) is every bit as effective at creating chaos as Thomas, as he has 42 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, three passes broken up, and a fumble recovery this season. Dinson, like some of his teammates, is another possible scratch for the game against Bama after suffering an injury in action last week.

Despite the veteran presence at safety, the Tigers are a little green at the corner positions. Javaris Davis (5-10, 186 pounds) locks down one side, and this campaign has represented a season of growth for the Tiger defensive back for the first-time starter in 2017. He has recorded a team-leading two interceptions, 18 tackles, a tackle for loss, three passes broken up, and a forced fumble. Spelling Davis is sophomore Jamel Dean (6-2, 215 pounds), who himself is having quite a year in on the Plains. Dean has 30 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and seven passes broken up.

At the other corner spot, veteran junior Carlton Davis (6-1, 203 pounds) gets the call. Davis is lean, but he has solid coverage skills and has provided the Tigers with a solid corner opposite the other Davis. Davis has 29 tackles on the year, in addition to an interception, half a tackle for loss, 11 passes broken up, a fumble recovery, and a forced fumble. Behind Davis is freshman Traivon Leonard (6-0, 191 pounds), who has a mere five tackles and a pass broken up 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 has on its arc of improvement in 2017, so much so that they are in the top-20 nationally in many major metrics. In terms of raw stats, Auburn is ranked 10th in total defense (302.3 yards per game), 16th in rush defense (118.2 yards per game), 20th in pass defense (184.1 yards per game), and eighth in scoring defense (16.6 points per game). They have the 26th ranked third-down defense and the 104th ranked red zone defense. The Tigers have amassed 32 sacks on the season (good for 14th), and 72 tackles for loss (43rd).

The advanced metrics provide an even more impressive accounting of what the Auburn defense has become. They are fifth in defensive S&P+ (a metric which sifts out garbage-time stats, etc.), first in run S&P+, and first in pass S&P+. The Tigers are ranked 38th in the Havoc metric, which measures tackles for loss, passes defenses and forced fumbles divided by total number of plays (31st in defensive back Havoc, 75th in front seven Havoc). In IsoPPP+ (a measure of defense vs. explosive plays), the Tigers are ranked fourth.

Steele’s first stroke of genius when he arrived 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. He has built upon that in 2017, as the veteran corps of defenders have had another year in the system, and seem comfortable with their roles and responsibilities therein.

The scheme, though common, is an excellent one to use against pro spread 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 the explosive (other) Tiger offense 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 56 yards on 13 carries as the Bulldogs’ leading rusher.

Alabama’s brand of pro spread offense under Brian Daboll is predicated off explosive talent, a brutal running game, and the electric playmaking 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 Mississippi State’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 Auburn.

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 (though Hurts runs far less zone read in Daboll’s offense than he did in Lane Kiffin’s rendition). On this play, Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant 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, Bryant (like Deshaun Watson last year) 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, Bryant 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 when Hurts gets the option to use a zone read. 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 Clemson another look on the zone bluff read. Alternately, Steele sometimes let the end crash the inside zone gap, leading Bryant 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 Holland (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 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 from 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 Holland 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 Holland) 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. That’s why any injury that limits the starting Buck would be critical for the Auburn D. Holland’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 Holland and Davidson, 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 Steele’s defense than they were in the opener) that will likely rear its head against the Tide. Clemson, like Alabama to a lesser degree, uses a lot of inside zone running plays. Against Clemson, when the Tigers would leave Holland wide to take away Bryant’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 running back screens or the dreaded jet sweep (this year using Calvin Ridley or Robert Foster to the edge) that can check the aggressiveness of the Tiger front. That’s where the nickel backs Thomas and Dinson come into the equation for Auburn. The duo has some run support responsibilities, to be sure. Once an offense reveals the run, either nickel can crash the box and scrape off to seal up gaps. However, on zone read option plays where the pass is in play, 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 dual-threat 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. That is also suboptimal 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 read offense 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 (and other blocking schemes to an extent) 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 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.

The Result

Alabama is likely in for another war of attrition this weekend in Jordan Hare Stadium similar to the one the Tide weathered in Starkville two weeks prior. As uneven as Auburn’s overall performances have been in the past, the Tigers represent the only defense (statistically) that is in the same league, or better than, LSU and Mississippi State, two defenses that gave the Tide fits. 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 plays and run them 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 and Mississippi State games. And just as in the MSU 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 Starkville.

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 consistently, 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 has looked unstoppable at time this season, but as of late, against better competition, they’ve struggled. Against Auburn, they’ll need to have their best game of the season to keep the AU defense in check. While the tackle play has been inconsistent (Jonah Williams has been solid if unspectacular, and Matt Womack can run block but seems to struggle with pass pro), the guard play continues to be problematic at times on either side of center Bradley Bozeman. If Bozeman, right guard Lester Cotton, and left guard Ross Pierschbacher can consistently 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 targets on slants over the middle. He’s still improving in terms of making his reads, and his timing with receivers (especially Ridley) is at its career-best heading into what could be the most important game of his still-young career. If Hurts can continue to show improvement this week, that will be a good omen for the Tide, as 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 Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster, Josh Jacobs, Irv Smith, and Cam Sims. It will also create mismatches in which Hurts may find a linebacker on Ridley, or a safety on Smith or Sims. 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 LSU take the field Saturday? Will Alabama bring its Mississippi State week offense, or its Arkansas week offense?

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 MSU 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.