INTRODUCTION TO AUBURN DEFENSE IN 2014
People all around the country love and study what Auburn has done on offense with Gus Malzahn because it is beautiful. We love and study the Auburn defense because it is ours. Last year, Malzahn's genius was obvious. Johnson's genius was no less real but significantly less obvious because he coached to the limitations of his team. As Harry Callahan put it in Magnum Force, "A good man always knows his limitations."
Auburn's vanilla defense was a big surprise (to me at least) because Johnson has been known in the past as an innovative defensive coach. He put three defenses at South Carolina in the top 15 nationally. In 2011, his South Carolina squad was third nationally in total defense, allowing 268 yards per game. He was also involved with some excellent Alabama defenses including the 1992 team which is widely considered to be one of the best defenses of all time.
Last year the defense, like the offense, evaluated what it was doing well and stripped down the playbook. The idea was to allow the players to concentrate more on making plays and less on the X's and O's. This year, Ellis promises to keep it even more simple.
Johnson's strength--like Malzahn's--is figuring out what his players do well and asking them to do it over and over. Unlike the defenses of the Tuberville era, there aren't many surprises for opposing offenses in the form of exotic coverages, blitzes, and stunts. You know where we'll be. Your job as an opposing offense is to beat it.
FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS 2013
Arkansas' offense is retro. It is an I formation offense that would have been common in 1996. It focuses on running a few plays out of several formations. These formations look similar using two backs and one or two tight ends. It has adapted some of the recent trends by throwing in some wing-t motion and misdirection but it's largely a traditional I attack. Last year, Arkansas threw a few plays at Auburn out of a variety of formations. Arkansas loves to shift players and run unbalances lines to confuse the defense and create favorable blocking lanes.
I spent most of this analysis on what Arkansas did in the first half. In the second half, they were trying to catch up and got out of their base offense.
Here's a reminder of how we label defensive line alignment:
Against most looks, Auburn's ends generally played wide, whether or not there was a tight end, lining up inside eye of the tight end in a 7 technique if there was a tight end and even wider in an 8 technique if there wasn't one to provide outside pressure threat and containment on the weak side.
On the inside, Auburn had its defensive linemen head up the guards in two techniques against balanced lines (two tight ends, one on each side) and heavily unbalanced lines (with two tackles or two tight ends to one side). For single tight end looks, Auburn would slide their interior linemen to the strong side, placing the weakside tackle in a one technique and the strong side tackle in a three technique. In passing situations against 10 personnel with no tight ends, Auburn would flex out their defensive tackles to twin three techniques to get more leverage on the pass rush. Here's how the above described looks worked on the field against Arkansas:
These fronts aren't exhaustive but they are representative. I probably won't do this for every game because Auburn stuck with variations on these but for the first game, it may be useful.
Auburn kept its linebackers 3 1/2 to 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. It handled most of the needed adjustment to offensive strength with the linebackers and safeties. Auburn rarely blitzed. The blitzes that were called tended to be quick developing run blitzes bringing pressure off the edges with the Star and safety.
In the secondary, Auburn spent most of the night in Cover 1 man. As you'll recall, this means Auburn's corners, linebackers, and one safety are each assigned to a receiver to play man-to-man coverage. There's a single safety deep to help with deep routes. Here is how our coverage looked on a 2nd and 1 early in the first: Lines are drawn from the defenders to their man. The box shows the receiver who was targeted on the throw. The oval shows the deep safety in the cover 1.
Auburn's corners would line up close to the line of scrimmage across from their man, daring Arkansas to beat them deep. If there was no wide receiver, Auburn's corner would line up outside just outside the defensive end within three yards of the line of scrimmage to (1) cover the tight end if he released and (2) (more likely) provide run support as a de facto linebacker. The star had a similar role. He was almost never aligned more than five yards down field and often was lined up outside the defensive end within three yards of the line of scrimmage--often on the line of scrimmage.
Auburn's safeties also lined up close to the line of scrimmage, generally within 8-10 yards. The safeties would give a two deep look but the safety on the strong side of the formation would rotate closer to the line of scrimmage in linebacker position while the second safety would rotate to the center of the field. A good example of the rotation can be seen here:
You'll notice that when the defense lines up, there are two safeties deep, inviting an audible to a running play. Before the snap, the safety on the tight end (strong) side rotates closer to the line of scrimmage for run support. This is not a safety blitz. This is a variation of "sky" coverage because a safety is coming up in run support. Traditional sky coverage rotates post snap in the direction of the action. Auburn rotated presnap most of the night to the strong side of the formation.
Throughout most of the night, Auburn stayed with its base nickle look with five defensive backs on the field, even though quite a few of those backs were crowding the line of scrimmage for run support. Here's another look at the play we looked at above with all the players labeled. This was fairly representative of what Auburn tried to do defensively:
(Click for a larger, readable picture).
Taken as a whole, it's obvious this defense is designed to bring as much run support as possible. On most snaps, ten players would be within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Looking at the alignment above, we would say colloquially that nine players are "in the box." I don't like that expression in situations like this because technically, several of Auburn's defenders are wider than the edge of the box but it gets the point across. Against a traditional, mansome, run-heavy team like Arkansas this is an expected and prudent strategy.
How does Arkansas attack Auburn's front-loaded alignment? A few ways.
Arkansas' weapon of choice is putting a hat on a hat and running right at you. Arkansas will run some sweeps, isolation plays, and powers but its bread and butter is a lead zone:
On the weak side, Auburn had a one technique tackle and an eight technique end and nothing in between. The fullback shifts right to get in better position. Guard and center get a double team on the tackle. It doesn't take much for the offensive tackle to force the wide defensive end out of the play. Fullback leads through the hole. The strong side safety (side away from the play) has walked up and is in poor position to get across the field to the play. It looks like Auburn was thinking pass because the linebackers appear to be executing a twisting blitz which takes Jake Holland a few steps away from the hole. For half a second, this looks very bleak. Fortunately, a corner comes off his block and stops the running back for a twelve yard gain.
When Arkansas feels that it has your attention with power plays, it uses misdirection. Here is a reverse they ran at the end of the first quarter. Note how the defense bites on the power threat and gets outflanked.
The play is designed to look like an ioslation play. The play side guard pulls right and leads on the will linebacker. The fullback follows him into the hole and double teams the same linebacker. The tailback takes the ball, makes for the inside hole, then veers right and pitches to a wide receiver running the other direction. Both linebackers and the rotating run support safety bite on the action, collapsing into the middle of the line. Carl Lawson, the playside end, has contain on this play but lets himself get sucked in on the fake as well and a tackle slips outside and flanks him. The next line of defense is Chris Davis who fortunately is able to beat the quarterback's block and make a play several yards downfield.
A more mundane (although no less effective) use of misdirection is the counter. The offensive linemen zone block to the right. The fullback kicks back on the unblocked defensive end to the left and the tailback follows him to daylight. To add to the confusion, the wide receiver is in motion giving an end around look:
On first viewing, this play doesn't seem tricky but given a steady diet of power and zone plays, both linebackers follow the zone blocking to their left. The entire defensive line is fighting to their left, effectively taking themselves out of the play. The contain end is accounted for by the fullback. The playside safety bites on the end around threat. Next thing you know, Collins is past the second level with a safety between him and the endzone. Really, this play is a cousin to one Malzahn aficionados know and love:
This misdirection is not only effective on its own, it also slows down the defense's pursuit on direct runs, giving the offense an extra half step headstart into the hole.
In the passing game, Arkansas looked to take advantage of the single coverage on the outside by sending the edge receivers deep, knowing that the safety had to go a long way to help and with his attention focused on the run game, might not get there at all. Here's an example from the play we diagrammed above:
The quarterback fakes an outside zone to the strong side, the bootlegs right. The pattern is a basic flood pattern with the slot receiver blocking then releasing to the flat as a safety valve, the tight end on a medium drag ten yards down the field, and the wide receiver running a pure fly route. The corner made a mistake and let the receiver get a clean outside release. This widened the distance between the receiver/corner and the cavalry (the deep safety). The safety gets caught up helping with the drag route, leaving the corner on an island. The quarterback's eyes go to the deep safety. He sees that he followed the drag and knows he has single coverage outside and turns one loose towards the endzone. Auburn came within an eyelash of disaster on this play as the receiver dropped the ball on the way down.
Arkansas' midrange passing game consisted mostly of bunch passes which stretched the defense either horizontally or vertically with the hope that a defender would get caught in the garbage, freeing a wide receiver. Here is a vertical stretch play out of a two tight end I formation:
The play looks like a lead outside zone to the strong side. Both tight ends release down field. The fullback acts like he's going to block then releases to the flat as a safety valve. Both linebackers and the Star read run and move to the hole. The playside corner also reads run and lets the tight end release past him before covering the fullback in the flat. This leaves the playside safety alone with two tight ends to cover. One tight end runs a seven yard hitch. The other runs a 15 yard hitch. The safety wisely covers the deeper man. The pass goes to the shallow end for a first down before the linebackers and Star catch up.
Arkansas doesn't have much of a quick or timing based passing game. Here is one of the few three-step drop patterns they ran against Auburn, a quick slant on third and long. Note that the defensive tackles are in twin three techniques, outside eye of the guard. Doing that creates a slight advantage in pass rushing. When Auburn did that on passing downs, they usually played two deep man coverage as seen here:
HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED SINCE LAST YEAR?
We know how Auburn has changed. We lost Dee Ford and Carl Lawson is hurt. Our defensive line won't be nearly as dynamic. The coaches are talking about aligning defensive tackles as ends on rushing downs and linebackers as ends on passing downs to make up for our lack of depth at end. Our linebackers are bigger and more athletic. Our secondary is a mystery and will probably remain so until week two when we have to play a more passing oriented team in San Jose State.
Auburn is a year or two away from playing Auburn level defense. The depth, and frankly talent in some positions, just isn't there yet. We're closer this year than we were last year but we're another recruiting class or two from filling all of our holes.
Arkansas brings back seven offensive starters including Alex Collins who is a very dangerous running back. Arkansas lost their center, Travis Swanson to the third-round of the NFL draft. After watching last year's film, it seems like the loss of Swanson could really hurt the Hogs because Auburn's defensive line was neutralizing or beating Arkansas' offensive line on most plays.
Bret Bielema's offense relies on a dominant offensive line and an exceptional tailback. Until he can get a few more recruiting classes under his belt, he lacks the line. Like Auburn's defense, Arkansas' offense is a year or two away before it can be fairly judged.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
If you want to gauge Auburn's chances Saturday, watch Arkansas' offensive line for a few plays. If the line doesn't move forward when it hits Auburn's defensive line or moves backward, Auburn has a good chance of winning. Bret needs his offensive line to get a good push for his running game to be successful.
Arkansas is going to bring largely the same offensive system into Jordan Hare. It brought Bret 3 B1G titles and he thinks it will work in the SEC once he gets his players in. Auburn will probably also be running the same defenses. To impress your friends, look to see if there's a single safety in the middle of the field behind the Auburn defense. If so, you can be the annoying know-it-all in your section by knowingly saying, "Auburn's running a cover 1 man like they did last year. I hope Allen doesn't make them pay."
Arkansas was a few missed opportunities away from making last year's game uncomfortably close. If Allen can connect with his deep receivers in single coverage, Arkansas may make a game of it. Otherwise, I don't think they have enough firepower to keep up with Auburn's offense. Arkansas should again score 17-24 points and keep it from getting out of hand. Arkansas' defense will give up 38-45 to an improved Auburn offense.
Auburn 41 Arkansas 20.