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Previewing Alabama vs. Auburn: The Tiger defense

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 Georgia
They big, and they nasty. Bama will have their hands full this weekend.
Dale Zanine-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 third year in Lee County, the salty veteran coordinator has improved the defense over an already-solid 2017 squad, and now has his defense ranked in the top-10 nationally in scoring defense and top-15 in defensive S&P+. 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 Tiger offense is struggling in 2018, and 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 many previous 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 (though admittedly inferior) offenses in 2018 with decent (or better) results. Sure, they lost to lowly Tennessee, but in the season opener, Auburn did what no one thought they would do by holding the Washington offense to 16 points, thus giving Auburn a chance to win the game. They also wrangled the explosive Ole Miss offense and beat Texas A&M by squelching Kellen Mond.

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 Tua Tagovailoa respond with another crisp passing performance that could mean the difference between a win and a loss? Or will Alabama flex its muscle heading into the SEC Championship Game 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 three-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 third 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 junior tackle Derrick Brown (6-5, 325 pounds), a massive interior lineman with disruptive power and deceptive quickness. Brown is as athletic as a 325-pound man can be, but he is also a bull rhino in attacking the interior of opposing offenses. Brown is having a great year, with 41 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two passes broken up, five quarterback hurries, one fumble recovered, and a forced fumble. The match-up between Brown and the Bama interior (particularly center Ross Pierschbacher and left guard Deonte Brown or Lester Cotton) will play a huge role in Alabama’s ability to keep Tagovailoa 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 senior Andrew Williams, who has 16 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, and a quarterback hurry this year.

The nose tackle is senior Dontavious Russell (6-3, 320 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 31 tackles on the season, six tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and two quarterback hurries. 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 sophomore Tyrone Truesdale (6-2, 314 pounds), and Truesdale has eight tackles in limited playing time.

At defensive end, the Tigers have gotten great production out of junior Marlon Davidson (6-3, 278 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 43 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 3 passes broken up, 10 quarterback hurries, three blocked kicks, and one fumble recovery. Davidson is backed up by sophomore Big Kat Bryant (6-5, 253 pounds), who has 16 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two passes broken up, and three quarterback hurries.

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, sophomore Nick Coe (6-5, 282 pounds). Coe is having a strong inaugural effort with 27 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, three quarterback hurries, and two forced fumbles. Coe is spelled by sophomore T.D. Moultry (6-2, 245 pounds), who has 11 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a quarterback hurry. In the Tiger defense, the Buck role is like 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. Coe, 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. Coe is every bit as potent a pass rusher as his predecessors Lawson and Jeff Holland, and there’s no doubt he’ll create havoc for Alabama’s tackles on Saturday afternoon.

Though the defensive line is loaded with headliners of known repute like Coe, 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 Montavious Atkinson (6-2, 225 pounds), who has been fantastic for the Tigers this year and has provided a steadying presence for a young corps. Atkinson has 35 tackles, one tackle for loss, and two quarterback hurries. Behind Atkinson is the capable freshman Zakoby McClain (6-2, 225 pounds), who has four tackles and a pass broken up this season.

At the Mike position is senior Deshaun Davis (5-11, 233 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 102 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a pass broken up, and three quarterback hurries. When Davis steps out, freshman K.J. Britt (6-0, 228 pounds) steps in, a heavy-hitter who has accounted for 17 tackles, two tackles for loss, and one pass broken up in limited action this season.

Junior Darrell Williams (6-2, 240 pounds) gets the start at the Sam slot, where he has become a strong asset for the Tigers against spread running teams. Williams has 62 tackles, seven tackles for loss, one sack, an interception, two passes broken up, and two quarterback hurries. Behind Williams is sophomore Chandler Wooten (6-2, 231 pounds), who has 10 tackles on the year.

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-25 pass defense unit in defensive pass S&P+, with veterans starting at several key positions.

A critical component for the Tigers’ improved secondary has been a new safety tandem consisting of juniors Daniel Thomas (5-11, 208 pounds) and free safety Jeremiah Dinson (6-0, 195 pounds). Dinson 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. Dinson has 60 tackles to date, in addition to two interceptions, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, three passes broken up, one quarterback hurry, and a fumble recovery. Matthews is backed by freshman Smoke Monday (6-2, 188 pounds), who has 13 tackles, an interception, two tackles for loss, and a sack. At strong safety, Thomas is having a great campaign, with 66 tackles, one tackle for loss, two interceptions, three passes broken up, three quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery, and a forced fumble. Behind him is freshman Jamien Sherwood (6-2, 207 pounds), who has 18 tackles, a sack, an interception, three passes broken up, and a quarterback hurry.

Junior Javaris Davis (5-10, 187 pounds) and sophomore Jordyn Peters (6-1, 191 pounds) hold down the nickel position when Auburn goes to five defensive backs. Davis has 31 tackles, six tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and two quarterback hurries. Peters has 24 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a pass broken up, a quarterback hurry, and a fumble recovery.

Davis 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. Davis and Peters represent the cork in the bottle of the Tiger secondary, as they cap the usual spread pressure point and enable the rest of the defense to create explosive results.

At the corners, sophomore Noah Igbinoghene (5-11, 196 pounds) locks down one side, and this campaign has represented a season of growth for the first-time starter in 2018. He has recorded an interception, 38 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 11 passes broken up, and a forced fumble. Spelling Igbinoghene is sophomore Devan Barrett (6-0, 196 pounds), who has only four tackles this season.

At the other corner spot, junior Jamel Dean (6-2, 208 pounds) gets the call. Dean has solid coverage skills and has provided the Tigers with a solid corner opposite Igbinoghene. Dean has 23 tackles on the year, in addition to two interceptions, two tackles for loss, a sack, eight passes broken up, and a fumble recovery. Behind Dean is freshman Christian Tutt (5-11, 195 pounds), who has 20 tackles, a tackle for loss, a sack, an interception, and two quarterback hurries.

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 continues its arc of improvement in 2018, so much so that they are in the top-50 nationally in many major metrics. In terms of raw stats, Auburn is ranked 36th in total defense (350.6 yards per game), 43rd in rush defense (142.3 yards per game), 46th in pass defense (208.6 yards per game), and 10th in scoring defense (16.6 points per game). They have the 28th ranked third-down defense and the 40th ranked red zone defense. The Tigers have amassed 34 sacks on the season (good for 10th), and 87 tackles for loss (also good for 10th).

The advanced metrics provide an even more impressive accounting of what the Auburn defense has become. They are 14th in defensive S&P+ (a metric which sifts out garbage-time stats, etc.), 23rd in run S&P+, and 15th in pass S&P+. The Tigers are ranked 24th in the Havoc metric, which measures tackles for loss, passes defensed and forced fumbles divided by total number of plays (43rd in defensive back Havoc, 18th in front seven Havoc). In IsoPPP (a measure of defense vs. explosive plays), the Tigers are ranked 83rd.

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 2018, 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 Washington, when the Tigers surprisingly held the explosive Huskie offense largely in check. They did it against Ole Miss’ talented quarterback Jordan Ta’amu as well, and Ole Miss is averaging around 500+ yard sper game of total offense.

Alabama’s brand of pro spread offense under Mike Locksley is predicated off explosive talent, a brutal running game, and the electric playmaking ability of Tagovailoa and his receiving corps. There’s no reason to believe that the Tigers won’t 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.

Because of the simplicity of the plan, Steele’s scheme relies heavily on talented players and solid execution. Guys like Coe are a must, as the Buck end has the kind of speed and athleticism needed to rebound, disrupt the pocket, and laterally pursue fleet-footed quarterbacks who are trying to turn the corner. The boon of pro spread offenses utilizing RPOs is that they cause confusion in defenses through the array of weapons and play-calling options, 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 Coe and Davidson) who are athletically-gifted enough to recover from any hesitations caused by RPOs (if they fall into the trap at all) and react in enough time to still make a play. With lesser talent, a great spread QB would rip Auburn’s defense to shreds. But with elite end talent like Coe and Davidson, along with elite tackles in Brown and Russell, 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.

Let’s look at a defensive look from the Mississippi State game (and bear in mind, the Tigers have become far more fluid and comfortable with Steele’s defense than they were back then) that will likely rear its head against the Tide. The Bulldogs, like Alabama to a lesser degree, use a lot of inside zone running plays. Against the Bulldogs, when the Tigers would leave Coe wide to take away Fitzgerald’s zone read keeper, Mississippi State 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 leaves 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 a team like LSU, 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 middle routes that can check the aggressiveness of the Tiger front. That’s where the nickel backs Davis and Peters 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 RPOs where the pass is in play, the nickel has the responsibility of covering down on the slot, thus sealing off the screen. That effectively limits all the options a spread dual-threat QB (which both Tua and Hurts truly are) has at his disposal: the defense plays the QB option, the inside zone, and the screen pretty well if the execution is there. The quarterback has a chance at a nice play when 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 if the Tide plays into their hands.

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 against Bama’s receiving corps. 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 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 (with the exception of LSU and Mississippi State), 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 similar to the one the Tide weathered against Mississippi State 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. Those two defenses gave the Tide their only challenges of the season, even though the scoreboard didn’t show it. 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 pocket while playing man coverage, 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 passing game this season, 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 young and shallow in the back end, at least regarding experienced depth. If Alabama can find a way to grind out long drives and mix in explosive plays liberally, then they’ll put Auburn on its heels early, 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 against both SEC West powers.

Don’t expect a Bama back to run for 100 yards against this Auburn defense (especially if Damien Harris has to sit due to his minor concussion), unless Josh Jacobs, Harris, or Najee Harris happen to break a lengthy scamper of 45+ yards. Auburn’s run defense 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. This year’s Alabama team is better equipped to win those battles downfield than any Tide offense in recent memory, so the prospects for explosive plays are good.

If Tua has trouble connecting against Auburn’s defense, he’ll need to get the ball out quickly to avoid taking unnecessary hits to the knee. If the passing game sputters early, the next probe should be driven into the defense’s heart. Alabama’s offensive line has looked unstoppable at times 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 and Jedrick Wills have been spectacular), the play at left guard sees a notable fall-off when Deonte Brown is out of the line-up. If the line can bully Auburn and 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. Tua has looked slightly less sharp in recent weeks when throwing the ball, possibly due to the lingering effects of a painful knee. That said, even an 85 percent Tua is better than 95 percent of the quarterbacks in the country. Even if he remains a little gimpy, the Tide’s passing offense should put in work against a young Auburn secondary if the pass rush can’t get to him. When Auburn elects to blitz, Tagovailoa will need to find his hot read and get the ball out, as doing so can produce big plays for Bama against an Auburn defense ill-suited for man coverage against Alabama’s elite receivers.

Such a situation will isolate Tiger defenders on electric skill players like Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Josh Jacobs, Irv Smith, Devonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle. It will also create mismatches in which Tua may find a linebacker on Waddle, or a safety on Smith or Ruggs. These are circumstances Alabama 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 Tua can get completions and force the safeties to focus on the pass, then the entire Alabama offense will profit.

There’s no way to know exactly how this match-up will play out. Will the Auburn defense that was beaten by Georgia take the field Saturday? If so, good for Alabama because the Bulldogs manhandled the Tiger defense. Will Alabama bring its Mississippi State week offense, or its Arkansas week offense? These are variables that inject intrigue into a game that carries a startlingly large spread of nearly 25 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 MSU did, throw the Tide offense out of rhythm, take away what they do best, and disrupt the passing game, 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, even if they have taken a step back from last season, 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.