2014 Key Returnees:
LaDarius Owens, Elijah Daniel, Gabe Wright (Likely to get a good bit of work at DE), Cassanova McKinzy (in Dime situations)
Justin Thornton, DaVonte Lambert, Andrew Williams, Raashed Kennion
I was right in my concern during the preseason. I said I was struggling to find causes for optimism with Carl Lawson already out for the year, and I was right. By that point, no one had stepped up to fill the edge rusher role, and no one ever really did. By the end of the season, DaVonte Lambert led the unit and was tied for the team lead with 3.5 sacks, but he went down with an injury early in the Samford game and did not play in the Iron Bowl or Outback Bowl. It's possible he would have notched at least one more sack in the Samford game, if not one or two more in the others. However, even his 3.5 sacks were all tallied in the first half of the season. His final sack of the year came in the Mississippi State game.
I predicted Auburn would struggle early to get an edge rush and would likely struggle all year. I was 100% right about that. Lambert did start to become a quality rusher, but he got hurt and it was late in the season, already. Cassanova McKinzy did get one good sack on a package where he rushed off the edge in an early game, but I didn't see that package used much, afterwards.
I didn't list any particular metric by which I would judge the 2014 defensive ends in the preseason, so I'm just going to go back on number of sacks and quarterback hurries compared to 2013, since those are pretty good metrics for the defensive ends.
Auburn lost a ton of production when Dee Ford graduated. Dee Ford accounted for 1/3 of Auburn's 2013 sack total by himself. The other defensive ends produced 11.5 sacks combined, which makes for 68.75% of Auburn's total 2013 sacks.
In 2014, Auburn's total team sacks number was a lowly 21. Of those 21, only 5.5 came from players listed on the roster at the defensive end position. I will add one more to make it 6.5 because of the one sack I remember McKinzy getting off the edge playing at a DL position. Though, that's a stretch since the way I remember the play unfolding it was more of a linebacker blitz where he moved to the end position at the last possible second and didn't play it with his hand on the ground. That means that Auburn's defensive ends accounted for all of 30.95% of the 2014 sack total. Call it 31%, but it's still horrible.
Your defensive ends should never account for only 31% of your sacks. You know what that means? It means you are getting absolutely zero pressure off the edge. I didn't really think our defensive tackles performed all that well at first, but Blackson and Adams combined for three sacks a piece and almost had more than the entire defensive end unit, combined. Auburn's pass rushing was just not good at all.
Rushing the quarterback can also be looked at through hurries, because it shows you're getting some pressure. I neglected this stat in the DT review at first because I didn't realize the numbers were available to me. Now that I see them, I can use that, too.
One thing QB hurries shows me is that Montravius Adams definitely did not suffer from a sophomore slump. I remember thinking throughout the season that he wasn't making the big plays that I expected based on his 2013 potential. I feel the need to apologize to him for that after looking at the actual stats. Adams had 1 sack, 7 QB hurries, and 1.5 Tackles for Loss in 2013. How did he do in his sophomore year? 3 sacks, 12 QB hurries, and 8 TFL. That is definitely an improvement.
But, Adams is a defensive tackle. Let's look at the ends.
Auburn's defensive ends accounted for 55 of 109 QB hurries in 2013, which is 50%. In 2014, the defensive ends accounted for 26 of 85 QB hurries, for 31%. Again, it's a significant drop off. The loss of Dee Ford and Carl Lawson really shows in these numbers. Elijah Daniel had 15 of those QB hurries, himself.
One player who didn't step up in the way I hoped - and honestly expected - was LaDarius Owens. Maybe it's because the coaches didn't play him as much because they were trying to find the right fit, but his 2014 production dropped significantly.
The drop in QB hurries really shows that lack of a pass rush, though. Yes, I know Auburn players were held a lot - I'm sure our OL holds a lot, too - so sacks can be affected by holds. QB hurries can, as well, but holds typically occur most often when the QB is being pressured and hurried. So, QB hurries is still a pretty good metric by which to judge a pass rush. Auburn's 2014 defensive end performance was just bad.
Tackles for Loss
This is another area in which Auburn regressed greatly in production. Defensive ends accounted for 39% of Auburn's 2013 TFL (35 of 90 total), and only 21% (17.5 of 82 total) in 2014. I don't have the stats to know exactly what plays those TFL came on, so I can't say if they were rushes off the edge, or the DE crashing down on an inside run, but I suspect it's more the former than the latter.
A direct year-to-year comparison is not the best metric to go on, since you may have that one stud like Dee Ford who can affect the numbers for one year. Thankfully, cfbstats.com has stats back to 2008. One thing that surprised me is that the number of sacks Auburn had this past season is actually about the norm. From 2012 back to 2008, the sack total was 22, 22, 35 (2010), 28, 21. The 2010 numbers are so big because Nick Fairley was an absolute beast who accounted for 11.5 sacks from the DT position. In 2009, Antonio Coleman accounted for 10 sacks. So, the 2013 bump can really be attributed to having that one big edge rusher like the Tigers did in Dee Ford.
While the total number of sacks may be around Auburn's average, the percentage attributable to the defensive ends was still well below average. Again, from 2012 to 2008, the DEs accounted for 59%, 52%, 37% (2010, with Fairley skewing the results), 45%, and 40%. With this, you can still see that the defensive ends under performed.
What this all shows us is just how important it is for a team to have that dominant pass rusher. The two seasons that Auburn performed best (2010 and 2013) each happened to have at least one defensive lineman who accounted for double digit sacks by themselves. In 2010 it was a tackle, in 2013 it was an end.
We all expected Carl Lawson to step into that role before he was injured, and we're hoping he steps into it, now. With him we will add Byron Cowart, who could be ready to contribute as an excellent pass rushing specialist from Day 1. Nick Fairley never looked like anything to shake a stick at prior to his monster junior season, so who knows what may happen with some of the other lineman on the team?
Imagine an Auburn defensive line with Adams playing at even half the level of Fairley in 2010 while Carl Lawson and Byron Cowart are rushing off the edge. I was struggling to find reasons for optimism about Auburn's 2014 defensive ends and the line as a whole. I think this coming season's preview will be a bit more rosy, though there will be depth issues at defensive tackle, as I noted last week.
In 2014 I was just hoping for someone to step up, and no one really did. In 2015, we'll be expecting big things from a number of players.
Next up: Linebackers.
For all previous entries in this series (of which there's only one other, right now), you can check out this Section I've created for them.