Since head coach Gus Malzahn’s tenure began in 2013, it has been Auburn’s offense that has not only captured most of the national attention but also been the main factor in many of the program’s biggest wins. But that trend has evened out over the last season or two, all the way to present day where it’s now Auburn’s defense that is carrying the team’s chances of winning on its shoulders — which is unexpected for a Malzahn-led team.
The defense certainly did its part to keep the Tigers’ hopes alive in last week’s loss to Texas A&M. They held the Aggies to five three-and-outs in their first 10 possessions, which included three straight to start the second half.
Under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, the Tigers’ defensive mentality is as rock solid as it can be. They know that if their team loses a game 3-0, they could’ve done better by shutting them out; it’s that serious. So far, Auburn’s defense has played well knowing the margin for error is low, but this week it has a unique challenge of going up against Steele’s former team, LSU.
So, what makes Steele’s defense so good at Auburn, and does it have enough talent and creativity to neutralize LSU? Let’s take a look at what the determining factors will be.
Pressure up front
Steele likes to use multiple defensive fonts, but the “ideal” front for him with this Auburn roster is a 3-3-5, with the front six players working out of a “LEO” set. To some, the screenshot above just looks like a 4-2 box with one of the defensive ends standing up — essentially a 4-3 just out of the nickel formation. But a 4-3 defense and a LEO defense are not the same in their execution, even if they look somewhat similar — the difference is in the details.
In Auburn’s LEO defense, the line is set up to give two players the best chance to make plays: stand-up linebacker Carl Lawson and the defensive tackle that is playing the 3-technique position, Montravius Adams. The other two linemen, the one playing the nose tackle right above the center and the one playing the 5-technique opposite Lawson, are there to take up blocks.
The key to Auburn’s defense is pressure. Most of the time, Auburn’s secondary players are in press coverage. When you pair that with how the Tigers’ defensive front is lined up, we can come to the conclusion that Auburn’s goal is to disrupt the pocket as soon as possible and hope the close coverage will be tight enough for those two or three seconds to either limit separation or force a bad pass.
Going back to Lawson and Adams, they’re the feature players who have to make it to the quarterback. On plays like the one above, the nose tackle will ideally take on both the center and the right guard to give Lawson a 1-on-1 matchup with the right tackle on the outside (a matchup Auburn knows Lawson can win most of the time). On the other side, the right defensive end will take the left tackle and the left guard’s attention to give Adams a gap somewhere around that left guard, another 1-on-1. Auburn takes this game plan and adds blitzes both in and around the trenches.
Matching this front against LSU should be a fun one to watch as LSU best offensive lineman, center Ethan Pocic, will be going up against Adams for a good portion of the day. Even if Adams gets that 1-on-1, there’s no guarantee he’ll get the best of Pocic. That battle will be an important component for the final score.
Auburn’s front combined with its tight press coverage in the secondary is what gave Clemson’s offense fits in that first game; without wide receiver Mike Williams, Auburn might have shut them completely out. But even with good pressure up front that keeps offensive lines guessing, A&M showed some glimpses of where Auburn’s defense has some weaknesses, even without a player like Williams.
Auburn isn’t afraid to run both of its outside corners in press coverage, but it rarely does the same with its inside defensive backs, whether that be a safety or a nickel corner. In the play above, the man who catches the football is the receiver who is lined up closest to the offensive line. On that play, he made a little hop step as the player next to him immediately sprinted down the field. That little hop bought him some time, and as the player who was running straight down the field forced the safety to follow him, the underneath route then became open.
A good offensive coordinator doesn’t just focus on a certain play that goes right, but rather, is immediately on to future plays that will go right as a chain reaction to the success of the first play; a play-caller always has to stay one step ahead.
In the play above later in the game, Texas A&M called a similar-type play, but instead of the shorter underneath route being the focus, it was the corner route that ended up being open. Knowing that the shorter throws had been hurting Auburn all game, the Aggies knew Auburn would start to creep closer and closer to the line with its coverages to try to stop them. That’s when the Aggies sent Speedy Noil on a corner route beyond an underneath route (which was actually a running back out of the backfield), and Noil was wide open.
This is the biggest weakness for Auburn’s defense. Though the Tigers are not afraid to play their defensive backs in press coverage, they still give up space, be it from gaps in zone or just being afraid to get beat deep. This means if the pressure up front can’t rattle the quarterback, there will often be separation between one of the defensive backs.
Unfortunately for Auburn, LSU has already shown it’s capable of running those combination routes well with its top receivers.
The play above is a different kind of combination with a corner route paired with some sort of underneath route, but it works just the same. LSU makes the play above look very easy, and if Auburn plays off coverage on either of those receivers, the result is going to be positive for LSU.
Though LSU doesn’t have a Mike Williams who can just abuse cornerbacks all day, it does have the weapons to confuse them. LSU quarterback Danny Etling showed good poise in his first start last week, and unless the Auburn front can get after him, I’d be worried about that defense holding LSU to enough points for the offense to get the win. This is a matchup that favors LSU on paper.