Trailing Auburn 14-3 in the second quarter, Arkansas drove 73 yards to set up a first-and-goal at the Auburn four-yard line. Then running back Jonathan Williams was stopped on consecutive third and fourth down plays. Met at the line both times by Auburn linebacker JaViere Mitchel, the Auburn freshman drove the runner back for a yard loss on his second attempt. The Razorbacks had taken over eight minutes off the clock, and yet came away with no points. The stand help preserve Auburn’s 11 point lead going into the half.
Those plays personify the Auburn Defense in 2013. Time after time, the defense has given up chunks of yards only to slam the door on opponents in side the red zone. The Tigers are ranked No.8 in the country in red zone defense. A fact that is both a source of pride and frustration to the fans. Frustration because it smacks of a bend don’t break style of defense.
Many fans took to the message boards to lament what they saw last Saturday as a defensive regression. From one standpoint, it would be easy to say the Auburn D took a step back. However, the facts are that the Tigers have been playing with a patchwork defense all season. Key players are out for the year and a lot of the regulars were playing banged up. Added to that is the fact that Arkansas had two weeks to prepare. In addition Coach Bielema admitted last week he had this game circled since he arrived on campus. The Hogs actually had started preparing for the Tigers in spring camp.
However, while all those points should be factored into why the Tiger D had a less than stout performance, there is another reason Auburn gave up big chunks of yardage between the twenties.
Most of the teams the Tigers have faced up to now have been based on 3-4 wide receivers with a mobile style quarterback. Arkansas’ running game involves 2-3 tight ends with a “pro style” attack which creates gaps for the running game. Something that the Tigers haven’t seen since facing LSU – a game that also gave the Tigers problems.
That type offense is noted for creating gaps in the defense. A team has to fill gaps just right or good running backs (like we saw in LSU’s Jeremy Hill) can turn those small gaps or creases into big plays. Also when linebackers come up to fill the gaps, the defense is vulnerable to passes over the middle. Auburn Defensive Coordinator Ellis Johnson said a defense playing a “pro style”- tight end attack has,” Got to be really gap-sound… When you’re overplaying that, sometimes (an offense) can get a crease up inside.”
Still maybe the Tigers were not as focused, maybe they had somewhat of a let down, and then again maybe there was some confusion facing a different style offense. If the latter is the case, then it was a good thing Auburn has this game to work on getting ready for the rest of Amen Corner. Because the Tigers will be facing traditional style offenses in it’s last three games including No.1 Alabama.
In the euphoria of the Tigers rebound season, we fans need to remember that when Ellis Johnson took over as Auburn’s Defensive Coordinator, he inherited a unit that was one of the worst in the SEC. A year after ranking 13th in total defense and near the bottom in every major defensive category, the Auburn’s D has made a remarkable turn around.
This season the Tigers are third in the SEC in scoring defense, with 10 interceptions, 21 sacks and five fumble recoveries. Their red zone defense is ranked second in the conference, and they have only given up one touchdown in the fourth quarter all year. In addition the Tiger D is ranked 23rd nationally in rushing yards, allowing only 3 yards per carry.
The biggest disappointment of last season for this writer was not a 3-9 record or the failure to mount any type of offense. No the biggest disappointment was the complete lack of a defense.
That was the hardest thing to watch. Seeing lopsided losses mount was difficult but perhaps the lack of the hard nose, hard hitting defense that has always been a hallmark of Auburn Football was the hardest thing to take.
Since the arrival of Johnson, Garner and the rest of the staff, the old hard hitting Auburn style attitude is back. That’s been evident by plays like Carl Lawson’s sack of Qb Bo Wallace at the end of the Ole Miss game or Johnny Manziel being sacked twice at the end of the A&M game or when Jonathan Williams was stuffed twice Saturday with two big goal line hits by JaViere Mitchel.
Bone crushing, jaw rattling, hits have returned. Auburn may not have always won every game in every season but when teams played the Tigers they knew they had been in a war. Yes Auburn used to be known for tough defenses. Now this team is bringing that mantra back.
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