The Defensive Year That Was
A year of passes defended!
(John Reed-USA TODAY Sports)
War Eagle, everybody. It’s time now to look back on a year that had its spectacular moments and its disappointments. I think going into this past season, most of us fans were looking to see 9 or 10 wins, or else a staff of coaches was going to get sent packing and new blood would be hired. Auburn secured 10 wins during the regular season and finished November in epic fashion, knocking off a pair of undefeated and number-1 ranked teams, Georgia and Alabama, in the span of 2 weeks. Alas, that level of play did not continue into December, and Auburn lost both the SEC title game and the Peach Bowl in Atlanta in embarrassing fashion, en route to a 10–4 record and 10th ranked finish.
Today, we will look back at the defense, what happened there, and what the future might hold. The most basic defensive statistic to look at is points per game given up, and at first glance, Auburn seemed to regress a bit from 2016. The previous year’s team gave up right at 17.08 points per game, and the 2017 unit gave up 18.50. Those numbers are somewhat deceptive. I feel like the kick coverage and the offense gave up more touchdowns in 2017, and that’s where the difference lies. Auburn gave up a sack-fumble score against Georgia Southern, a pick-six against UCF in the Peach, a kick return score against Arkansas, and a punt return score against LSU. Take those 28 points out, and Auburn’s defense only gave up 16.5 points per game.
As was the case in the previous season, Auburn’s success on defense was built up front. It was a nasty and deep front that squashed running games and made life miserable for quarterbacks for much of the season. Nearly every game, I would note that the defensive line had 20 or more tackles. Typically, a defensive line makes 10 to 15 total tackles, but Auburn routinely was into the mid and upper 20s. A season-end look reveals that the Auburn defensive line led by tackle Derrick Brown (56 total tackles) had 294 total tackles. That works out to an average of 21 per game. Defensive end star Jeff Holland leaves early for the NFL draft, but Auburn loses no one else on the line who was in the playing rotation. There are very talented guys left in line for Holland’s buck end spot, starting with Nick Coe, T.D. Moultry and Big Kat Bryant.
A veteran, interchangeable group of guys manned the linebacker spots with aplomb in 2017. Deshaun Davis led the team with tackles with 82. That’s a significant stat because most of the time in the past decade a safety would be the top tackler. The ball is getting stopped sooner the past couple of seasons. Auburn’s opponents averaged 4.7 yards per offensive play, while Auburn averaged 6.2 yards per play. As a team, the Auburn linebackers made 248 tackles. Auburn loses only Tré Williams to graduation and will have a deep and talented bunch coming back next season.
The thinnest part of the Auburn defense in 2017 was in the secondary, and injuries there played a big part in losses. When healthy, this was a unit that could lock down even the deepest receiving corps around the league. When 2 or more starters were out due to injury, things opened up for opposing teams. Auburn played most of the Peach Bowl with starters Carlton Davis and Jeremiah Dinson out of the game and gave up a ton of yards on the back end. Davis in particular was a key player, and teams rarely threw towards him. Despite that, he led the team with 11 pass breakups. It was a luxury to be able to take the other team’s best receiver out of the game. Jamel Dean and Javaris Davis gave Auburn adequate coverage on the other side. When teams would try to find secondary receivers, Dinson and Stephen Roberts had great coverage moments as well. In the rare instances where a ball went deep into the Auburn secondary, a withering hit from strong safety Tray Matthews was all but assured.
All American Carlton Davis is leaving early for the NFL draft, and Auburn loses Tray Matthews, Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin to graduation at the safety spots. Auburn should have big position battles this coming offseason for a couple of starting safety spots as well as the boundary corner position. The cupboard isn’t bare, though. Auburn has guys who have played some minutes, and talent is there. Names to look for in the coming year include Jordyn Peters, Traivon Leonard, John Broussard, Jr., and Daniel Thomas.