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Auburn Football 2016 Mid-Season Review: The Defense

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We're at the halfway point of the 2016 season, so let's look at the defense so far!

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

It's only been two weeks since I wrote about Auburn coming out of the September of Doom, and already the outlook has changed on how this season may end. Things are starting to look up on the Plains as the two games between then and now have shown new direction and life from the offense and continued (and, even, improved) excellence from the Defense.

I could talk about the whole team in this post, but it's the Bye Week, and I need to fill publishing space. So, you're getting one post about the offense and one post about the defense!

Position Groups

For the pre-season prediction pieces, check out the story stream from back before everything got started to see how we thought the various units would play out.

Defensive Backs

There have been some missed tackles, some blown coverages, etc, but overall the defensive backs have played very well. The Tigers are generating pass breakups and not allowing many big plays. The few that have been allowed usually turned to points for the opposing teams, though, so that's something we would like to see improved.

Carlton Davis had some hiccups early on but is back on track to becoming one of the best DBs Auburn has ever had. He's not being thrown at much, and when he is he wins more battles than he loses. Rudy Ford is right behind him for pass breakups, tallying 6 to Davis' 7. He's also leading the team in tackles for the 3rd straight season. He's a nightmare for opposing teams who want to run wide or throw a screen pass.

Josh Holsey has been a standout in his return from a second knee injury during his career. He's tied with Javaris Davis for 3rd on the team with 3 pass breakups. Javaris Davis has had a nice freshman campaign once he earned the starting job with Jamel Dean's injury.

The DBs have surely benefitted from the defensive line play, but they've also played very well in their own right. Surprisingly, the only player who has struggled with consistency issues has been Tray Matthews. When he's on, though, he's on. He's second on the team in tackles behind Rudy Ford. His play and Auburn's dime package has allowed Nick Ruffin and Stephen Roberts to show their talent, though, and prove that Auburn's secondary is deep and talented.

Grade: B+. This is just because of the big plays they've given up that led to points. Not all of those were on them, though. Sometimes it's been the linebackers in pass protection with them.

Linebackers

This is the unit that had the most question marks prior to the season. There was so little experience outside of graduate transfer T.J. Neal. Would they be a compliment to the Front Four or just a speed bump on the way to the defensive backs?

Six weeks later, and we're raving about the linebackers. T.J. Neal has hardly played. The combination of Deshaun Davis, Tre Williams, and Darrell Williams has been spectacular. Those three are ranked 3-5 on the team in the number of tackles.

They're filling gaps. They're flying to the ball.  They're making tackles. They're playing so far above and beyond what the team has played like over the last few years. Perhaps it shouldn't have been a shock, though. The play of the linebackers in the Birmingham Bowl - coached by Travis Williams, then - showed us a glimpse of what was to come.

It hasn't just been those three, either. Montavious Atkinson has stepped up. Jeff Holland is getting even better (though he has to play more behind Lawson than in the linebacker mix). This is a relatively young unit with a bright future under its young coach.

Grade: A-. Some coverage issues at times, but for the most part this unit has been amazing.

Defensive Line

Should I just skip to the A+ grade?

What can you say about this line? They've dominated opposing teams. They're a large part of the reason why we lament the Clemson and Texas A&M games. The defense as a whole - and particularly the line - gave the team enough to win those two games.

Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams on the same line almost isn't fair. When you add in a true freshman like Marlon Davidson who is playing at the level Carl Lawson was last year, this becomes a unit that may be the best in the nation. The three of them combined for big plays last weekend against Mississippi State, including what may be my favorite play of the year in the scoop-and-score.

Grade: A+. Because duh.

Overall

I gave the defense an "A" back during the "post September of Doom" post, and that grade remains. If anything, it should probably be bumped up to an A+. They're generating turnovers, they're attacking the quarterback, they're stuffing the run game.

This is an Auburn defense that is 12th in the nation in scoring defense. They're creeping up to the Top 25 in total defense (currently 28th). It's been a decade or  more since we've seen a unit this nasty in an Auburn uniform, and I'm loving every minute of it.

So much credit has to go to the coaches. Rodney Garner has built a monster of a defensive line. Travis Williams has lived up to our hopes of coaching a unit to play like he did. Wesley McGriff has the DBs playing the ball and not drawing many penalties in coverage. And Kevin Steele has melded it all into a force capable of keeping Auburn in any game they play. Auburn was laughed at for hiring Kevin Steele in the offseason and the move was questioned by so many.

Who's laughing now?