Stiffen the Sinews
“In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height,…” William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act III Scene I
Get mean. Get tough. Get even.
Two-a-days are right around the corner, and Auburn’s defense needs to step up their game. This year will bring many challenges. Most notably will be the pressure of the HUNH offensive scheme’s quick strike capability and the necessity of putting the defense on the field for extended clock time.
Another challenge will be some of the most efficient offenses in the nation will be fielded against them. Georgia, Alabama and Texas A&M all finished in the top 20 in offensive power last year, and each returns an experienced quarterback, one of whom is the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner. Each of those teams averaged above seven yards per play against the Tiger defense last year, collectively gaining 1651 yards and scoring 150 points in just three hours of game time.
It’s hard to fathom a meaningful statement to follow those statistics. Yet that is the task Ellis Johnson and his staff face – making meaningful statements on the field of play to counter those three team’s offensive power. Let’s break down the task into rational bites.
As I see it, there were four key areas where Auburn’s defense failed last year:
Stopping the run – This was Auburn’s most difficult hurdle last year. Statistically, pass coverage was average to poor, but consistent. Run defense was horrendous. For this to turn around, the defensive line and the inside linebackers need to anticipate blocking schemes, plug gaps and shed blocks at the line of scrimmage.
On the bright side, the core of the line now has some experience, a lot more depth and with the new 4-2-5 scheme, the linebackers will have less pass coverage duties. All this should allow Auburn’s defense to play the run a little better this year. Additionally, Rodney Gardner is one of the best defensive line coaches in the game today, with years of experience coaching SEC championship caliber squads.
Generating turnovers – Last year Auburn had a 12 to 26 turnover margin. It was even worse in terms of interceptions – 2 to 15. More than any other measure, this illustrates how the Tigers struggled to both move the ball on offense and stop opposing teams from passing on us. This must improve before we can compete in the conference.
Luckily, this factor is a feature of Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme. His South Carolina teams consistently posted double digit interception rates from 2008 to 2011, with “Star” or “Spur” players figuring prominently. Based on what we saw him do in the A-Day game, this is well within the capability of one specific Auburn player to improve: Justin Garrett.
Are you ready for the start of the season? Looking at you Justin Garrett.
Pressuring the quarterback – Despite the quality of some of our players like Dee Ford and Corey Lemonier, in 2012 Auburn never seemed to present a consistent credible threat to opposing quarterbacks. In the three worse losses last year, Manzel, Murray and McCarron seemed to have all day to throw the ball. The numbers bear this out – those three quarterbacks threw for more yards in those three games than any one Auburn quarterback threw all season.
I believe this task breaks down to both players and coaching style. Blitz packages need to stress the offensive line by injecting one sure tackler more than the protection can handle. The execution is on the players, but the timing and game analysis is on the coaching staff.
For that, we have one of the best minds in the league the last decade. Ellis Johnson’s defensive style revolves around field pressure and limiting passing attacks by a concerted rush attack. Even before Jadevon Clowney was a starter, South Carolina’s rush was something for opposing coaches and quarterbacks to fear.
Taking away the short pass – Last year, the bubble screen was a dagger to the heart of the Van Gorder defense. Time and again, they were leveraged for relentless nickel and dime drives that took opponents the length of the field and into the end zone. If the corners played close pressure, they were blocked out of the play. If the gave a wide cushion, it was a gift of five easy yards.
With more experience at corner and a tighter pass scheme this should improve. This is also where Melvin Smith will earn his pay. The core issue looks to be individual coaching for corners – shedding blocks, anticipating routes, maintaining proper distance and closure on the receiver when the ball is thrown. All of this falls upon Coach Smith to correct. Yet again, his long experience in the SEC should help carry the day.
All in all, I believe Auburn has the coaching staff and talent level to correct the specific deficiencies of last year. All that is needed is what Shakespeare’s Henry Vth told his soldiers before the walls of Harfleur: Turn and strike back at your foes like tigers. Enough of this defensive slide since 2009. Auburn needs eleven hungry tigers on defense looking for the ball. Then we can get back into the hunt for championships.
Do you have the ball? Are you sure? Check the glovebox,…