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October 17, 2013

Auburn brings bend but don't bring style of defense

Veteran Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has been in the Southeastern Conference in that capacity for about a decade in addition to spending several years at other southern programs such as Southern Mississippi and Clemson. As a result, Johnson is not about the Xs and Os as much as he is about players and concepts: tackling well, not giving big plays, playing good defense in the red zone, and being sound through the middle of the defense. It's an approach that has served in well over the years and it's helped him immensely at reestablishing the Tigers as a quality defense this season after finishing near the bottom in all major statistical categories in 2012. Although Auburn is currently tenth in total defense in the SEC, his unit is third in points allowed because they play good red zone defense.

Johnson bases out of a 4-2-5 look and his front six is athletic but not big. Defensive tackle Nose Equae was moved inside from defensive end and weighs just 269 pounds but is the most adept at shedding blockers with his hands and playing with good pad level. Three freshmen are backups in the front four. The Star position (a hybrid linebacker/safety) is manned by 5 foot 9 Robinson Therezie who typically aligns himself against the slot receiver to the strong or field side of the formation. They play a lot of man coverage and change it up with zone coverage. In passing situations, earlier this season, the Tigers used stand up defensive ends to the field side of the formation. Even on third and medium situations, Auburn will bring in six defensive backs and man you up with two high safeties.

Their defensive line's quickness means that they can beat down and reach blocks if you lack athleticism and good technique in your offensive line. This is evidenced by the fact that they lead the SEC in tackles for loss and rank fourth in sacks. In particular, junior nosetackle Gabe Wright (6.5 tackles for loss), senior defensive end Dee Ford (4.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks), and freshman Carl Lawson (4.0 tackles for loss) can play in the opponents' backfield. In fact, Auburn has nine defensive linemen with 2.0 or more tackles for loss which is a real tribute to their depth up front. Wright is the quickest tackle off the ball while Lawson has really come on lately with his ability to beat slower but larger tackles off the ball, get upfield, and use of his hands. Both of them have the capacity to collapse a pocket and are the main issues in pass protection.

However, due to their lack of size up front, there's times that people can get their hands on them and move them around. In addition, when they stand up and don't play with great technique, they allow the line of scrimmage to move backwards. This is why they are in the middle of the pack of SEC teams in average per carry on defense even though they do a great job of playing on the opponent's side of the ball.

Auburn likes to pressure people up front and will use both zone and man blitzes. They like to line up as many as seven people on the line of scrimmage and will play press man coverage with a single free safety behind it. Due to their propensity to play man coverage, they have given up a lot of big passing plays (21 over 20 yards) when the quarterbacks don't go down but you have to get rid of the ball in a hurry. They will almost utilize a split six look along the front at times with defensive tackles on the outside shoulder of the guards and stunt out of it with the tackle and end on one side. They can also blitz both inside linebackers in their respective A gaps in the Double A gap blitz that the late Jim Johnson popularized when he was with the Eagles years ago. In addition, they can play six defensive backs and bring a safety into the box (usually Joshua Holsey).

Robinson is their best back seven defender. He plays close to the line of scrimmage like an extra linebacker but is very athletic and can move laterally very well and not give ground to slot receivers. He is also well coordinated. As a result, he not only leads the team in stops (28 total tackles, 19 of them solo) but has three interceptions as well. Most of the time, A&M slots Malcome Kennedy and Travis Labhart have a significant advantage in quickness and separation versus underneath defenders but that won't be the case this week when working against Robinson.

Middle linebacker Jake Holland is big but lacks lateral mobility and has trouble staying with backs when they go to the perimeter in the passing game or moving with them on crossing routes. Cassanova McKinzy, the other linebacker, is much more active, takes good angles, and is the team's second leading tackler.

The defensive backs were recruited to play in a cover two scheme under former head coach Gene Chizik so they have size (all of them are 195 pounds or bigger including the corners) and are physical. Free safety Jermaine Whitehead is more or less a big tackling free safety. Ryan Smith has taken over at the other safety since he is a better tackler than most of the others at the position. They have issues playing the ball on downfield passes or getting over to defend said passes. Corners Jonathan Mincy, Chris Davis, and Ryan White (the nickel/dime back) can bang you around in underneath coverage, knock you off of your route, and outmuscle receivers between them and the ball. However, they don't have great recovery speed, can run with people mainly when they play off of them, and do play off of outside receivers a lot. As a group, they get thrown at a lot, give up a lot of underneath stuff, also can give up the big play, and so far have just one interception to show for it.

Overall, Auburn is improving as a defense almost every week but they have issues tackling, covering down the field, and shedding blocks. Against Ole Miss and Western Carolina, they were able to turn loose an athletic and deep front because they got up on the both teams by double digits in the first half and they had to throw the ball. In other games, it was a different story. In particular, the Tigers struggled with Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott in the run game which doesn't bode well for them with Johnny Manziel's unscripted scrambles.

The Aggies faced another athletic and even bigger front in Arkansas and dominated the second half with inside zone and isolation plays because they cut off penetration with great footwork and shoved the Razorbacks from the backside to the playside. If the Aggies play with their hands up quickly and keep their feet moving up front, they should be able to do the same thing.

If Auburn spies Manziel, they will probably use Therezie in the middle along with another linebacker. However, it's unknown how they would replace Therezie as a nickel. They could use White as another defensive back in dime packages with Therezie moving inside but Therezie is probably their best coverage guy AND tackler much like Deshazor Everett is for A&M. He might be of more use in coverage versus A&M's slots.

Auburn has showed a tendency to mix things up this season, bringing blitzes with press man free coverage one play and playing off receivers the next with two high safeties. Man free means big plays for Mike Evans; two high safeties means underneath completions with an emphasis on tackling. Either way, Auburn's back seven will give up big plays but outside of Therezie doesn't force turnovers.

In summary, it's going to be very difficult for Auburn to stop A&M on a consistent basis. Although the Tigers have an intimidating front four, they're not as good as you think they are in the run game. In addition, if they don't get to the quarterback, then teams that have receivers that run good routes can generate big plays as well as small ones against their back seven. A&M's offensive line has controlled other good lines and if do so again Saturday it will once again be up to an opposing team's offense to try to match the Aggies score for score.

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