AUBURN, Ala. — Kevin Steele has an extremely high standard for how he wants his defenses to execute on third downs.
He uses the measuring stick used by the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots — two of the most successful franchises in the history of the NFL.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s staff both shoot for an opponent conversion rate of 30 percent on third downs. Steele is the same way.
“Our goal is 30 percent,” Steele said Sunday night. “That’s something that’s pretty standard. That’s not something I came up with … That’s what’s been passed down the line. (The defensive success rate) has been 70 percent every place I’ve ever been. So, I think 7 out of 10 is pretty efficient.”
Now four games into his first season as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, Steele is on track to reach that mark.
Auburn has allowed conversions on 27.87 percent of the third downs its faced this season, which is good enough for 16th in the FBS.
In its recent 18-13 win against LSU, the Tigers allowed 4 conversions on 13 attempts. Against Texas A&M in Week 3, Auburn allowed just 2 conversions on 15 attempts for the program’s best mark in a single game since a rout of LSU in 2014.
“We really have kind of built an identity that we really need to keep going on the third downs,” Steele said.
Auburn’s defense still has a minimum of 8 games left this season, so there’s a lot of time left for the Tigers to stay strong on those “money downs.”
Steele’s 30 percent goal is a tough one to reach for any defense at the collegiate level. In the last three seasons, only 16 defenses have finished the season at 30 percent or better on third-down conversions.
Steele hasn’t been a part of a defensive coaching staff that reached that goal for a season since 2008, when he was the defensive head coach and inside linebackers coach at Alabama. Coincidentally, that was also the last season Auburn had a defense get under the 30 percent bar.
The veteran defensive coordinator attributes Auburn’s early success on third downs this season on two key areas — understanding the strategy in the back half and taking it to offenses in the front half.
“I think (defensive backs coach Wesley) McGriff has done a really good job of when we do our third-down presentation and we present to them what we’re going to see,” Steele said. “I think our guys have really done a good job of understanding the concepts we’re playing versus the concepts they’re running.”
As for the front side, Steele noted that Auburn generated 11 quarterback pressures on 31 called pass plays against LSU — 4 sacks and 7 quarterback hurries.
“I really think the pass rush hadn’t really resulted in sacks — everybody likes sacks, and that’s a huge number — but affecting the quarterback is a big number,” Steele said. “And so that was pretty efficient, really.”
Now as Auburn heads into a nonconference matchup against Louisiana-Monroe, Steele is trying to keep his defense executing at a high level on third downs, even with a lesser-quality opponent.
“It’s going to be a challenge to keep it at that rate,” Steele said. “We’ve got to work diligently to make sure we do.”