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2011 AU Defense: Another step forward or possible backslide?


StatTiger

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The progress the 2010 Auburn defense made from 2009 was enough to secure a conference title along with a BCS national Championship. Though Auburn was only 60th in total defense and 53rd in scoring defense, Auburn’s defensive front was one of the best in the country. It was a defensive front primarily responsible for a unit that was No. 9 nationally against the run and 16th in tackles for loss. The Tigers were also 24th in sacks and No. 10 in big plays allowed.

Gone from the defensive front are Mike Blanc, Antoine Carter, Zach Clayton, Nick Fairley and Michael Goggans. The quintet takes with them, 217 games of experience, 403 tackles, 98.5 tackles for loss and 39.5 sacks. Auburn has 8-scholarship returning linemen on defense with game experience. They have combined for 128 games, 98 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. Defensive End, Dee Ford is the most experienced with 26 games under his belt. He also has the most career tackles with a modest 23, which includes 4.5 tackles for loss and 3 career sacks.

Added to Auburn’s loss at defensive personnel are 2 starting linebackers and 4 previous starters from the secondary. That’s an additional 236 games of experience and 1116 career tackles. Of the 11 players lost from the defensive roster, six of them led the team in tackles during a game at one time or another in 33 of 52 games. In terms of yearly leaders in tackles, Zac Etheridge was 2nd in tackles in 2007, No. 1 in 2008, No. 5 in 2009 and No.2 in 2010. Josh Bynes was No. 5 in tackles in 2008, No. 1 in 2009 and No. 1 in 2010. Craig Stevens was No. 4 in tackles in 2008, No. 2 in 2009 and No. 4 in 2010.

What’s next for Ted Roof?

Auburn returns only 3 starters on defense in 2011, the fewest returning starters for an Auburn defense over the past 20 years. Over the previous 20 seasons, Auburn returned an average of 4 of their front-7. This season, only 2 from the front-7 returns, which means stopping the run could become an issue just as it was in 2009. Over the past 25-years, 6 Auburn defenses allowed under 100-yards rushing per game, averaging 10 wins per season. There were 8 defenses that allowed over 130-yards rushing per game, averaging 7 wins per season. Coach Roof and his defensive assistants will work hard for their salary.

During the 2010 BCS Championship season, Auburn’s top 3 defensive tackles accounted for 36.5 tackles for loss, the most from 2000-2010. Auburn’s top trio of defensive tackles in 2003 accounted for 27.0 tackles for loss, second best during the same time period. It should be noted the 2003 and 2010 Auburn defenses, were the only 2 Auburn defenses to finish in the nations top 10 of run-defense. Ted Roof’s 4 returning scholarship defensive tackles have appeared in a total of 61 games but have a grand total of 1.5 tackles for a loss. Auburn’s interior line will likely be the focus of Ted Roof’s attention in preparation for the upcoming season.

Though Auburn lost 2 veteran starters at linebacker, Ted Roof will have 11 scholarship linebackers to work with this season. Four of the 11 have at least 20 games of experience and 6 have already seen some playing time. There is a wealth of talent to work with but they will be challenged working behind a young and inexperienced defensive line. Auburn lost 492 career tackles in Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes but the 6 returning scholarship linebackers do have 274 career tackles, so they will be a more experienced group than the front four. Jake Holland took some valuable snaps last season behind Josh Bynes, preparing him to become the starter at MLB. Jonathan Evans, Eltoro Freeman and Daren Bates are the three most experienced of the group. Harris Gaston and Jessel Curry have seen limited action but Curry is currently having to prove himself worthy of returning to the team. LaDarius Owens and Jawara White bring plenty of size and athletic ability to the position but will play for the first time as RS freshmen.

The Auburn secondary has an opportunity to be a team strength with 7 scholarship defensive backs returning in 2011. They have accounted for 117 games of experience, 278 tackles, 8 interceptions and 31 passes defended. The combination of T’Sharvan Bell, Chris Davis, Ryan White and Jonathan Mincy at corner could improve Auburn’s pass-coverage. The move of Neiko Thorpe to safety could end up being the best position change of the season. Demetruce McNeal progressed during the 2010 season as a true freshman, so look for him to pick up where he left off. The only concern here is depth in the secondary. Erique Florence will be a true freshman to watch for.

Looking for improvement…

Before the 2010 season began, Coach Ted Roof set two major goals for the Auburn defense. He wanted to see improvement on run defense and fewer big plays allowed. During the 2009 season, Auburn surrendered 27 plays of 30-yards or more, which meant 2 percent of the plays defended accounted for 24 percent of the yardage allowed. The Tigers accomplished both goals, finishing the season as the No. 9 run-defense and No. 10 in impact and explosive plays allowed. So why did Auburn continue to give up yardage and points despite the improvement on defense?

Over the past 20-years the 2010 defense finished dead last among Auburn defenses, giving up 1.8 first downs per possession. When you consider the Auburn offense scored on nearly 75 percent of their possessions with at least 2 first downs, Auburn’s defense allowing nearly 2 per possession could not be good. Auburn allowed their opponent to convert 37.2 percent of their third down conversions, which was 17th by an Auburn defense over the past 20-years and 35th nationally during the 2010 season. Bottom line, Auburn’s defense struggled getting off the field.

One of the primary causes for Auburn’s struggling defense was allowing 5.7 yards per play on first down. Auburn allowed only 3.1 yards rushing on first down but gave up 8.4 yards passing. Auburn’s opponent threw the ball 48 percent of the time on first down, taking advantage of Auburn’s poor pass-efficiency rating on defense. Compounding the issue of getting off the field was the opponent’s third down conversion rate of 30 percent with at least 7-yards needed to convert. Each converted third down, increased the probability of scoring, while allowing additional yardage gained.

Over the last 20 seasons, Auburn has a “3 & out” percentage on defense of 34.5 percent. The 2010 Auburn defense had a percentage of 25.5 percent, dead last over the past 20 seasons. Something tells me, Ted Roof will have pass-defense as a primary goal for improvement in 2011. Stopping the run will always be the primary goal on defense but Auburn must improve their pass-defense to become a more consistent defense. Auburn did improve in quarterback sacks from 28 in 2009 to 35 in 2010 but dropped from 17 interceptions to 12. With Nosa Eguae, Dee Ford, Corey Lemonier and Craig Sanders at defensive end and a more athletic secondary, Auburn has the tools to improve on pass-defense. An increase in forced-turnovers would aid a defense struggling to get off the field. Auburn’s ratio for forced-turnovers in 2010 was 17th compared to the past 20 Auburn defenses.

Strength of Schedule…

Of Auburn’s 9 primary opponents slated for 2011, 6 have at least 3 of their top 4 rushers returning, including 6 with their leading rusher. Five of the opponents return their starting quarterback and 7 return at least 3 of their top 4 leading receivers. Five of Auburn’s opponents return at least 3 starting offensive lineman and 5 return at least 8 starters on offense. Seven of their opponents averaged over 150-yards rushing last year, which doesn’t include Arkansas who will possess one of the top running backs in the conference.

Clemson hired offensive coordinator, Chad Morris from Tulsa, who deploys a similar offense as Gus Malzahn. LSU hired Steve Kragthorpe and Florida hired Charlie Weis. The 2010 season marked the best season for offenses in the Southeastern Conference. The SEC was the No. 1 scoring conference with 31 PPG and No. 2 among BCS conferences in yardage per game, 400.1. It should be another strong year for the Southeastern Conference when it comes to offense, which could make Auburn’s improvement on defense a more difficult task.

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