Steady Improvement On Defense For Tigers

Auburn's defense has gotten consistently better this season despite dealing with injuries at multiple positions.

Auburn, Ala.--While Auburn's offensive numbers continue to soar, the Auburn defense has quietly made steady improvement under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson despite injuries to key players impacting the lineup every week.

Facing powerful offensive teams such as Washington State, LSU and most notably Texas A&M in the first seven games, Auburn is allowing less points and becoming a force in the red zone.

Much of the reason for that is a group that is becoming more comfortable with not only the scheme and style of play Johnson wants to employ, but also what the coaching staff expects from them each and every week. Allowing 22 points per game, Auburn is third in the SEC in scoring defense behind only Alabama and Florida.

Johnson said versatility has been one of the keys to the success on defense so far along with just understanding who they are as a defense. "They're getting better," the coach said. "We're able to put in wrinkles each week for game planning. They're a lot more familiar with the way the whole thing--the flexibility of it.

"We've got guys like Ryan White and (Jermaine) Whitehead and Ryan Smith and some of those guys can line up at different places. Anthony Swain has played both linebacker spots. We've got some guys who understand the scheme well enough now where we could move them over to another position and give them three days of practice and they'd be ready to go.

Anthony Swain is a young linebacker who is looking to earn more playing time in the second half of the season.

"We've sort of also settled into who we are and what we are. A lot of stuff we worked on through the spring and the early part of the season we really haven't run much of it because we're starting to find our personnel and what they do best. We've been able to kind of--we actually took a pretty simple game plan into Texas A&M. It helped because our players were able to play a little faster."

A good example of how far the defense has progressed in 2013 came last Saturday in College Station. Facing one of the nation's top offensive teams without starting safety Josh Holsey and with starting middle linebacker Jake Holland unable to go through contact all week while dealing with concussion symptoms, the Tigers got the job done with players like White and Kris Frost stepping up and delivering.

That has been the recipe for success all season as key players such as Chris Davis and Dee Ford have missed time on the field this year while perhaps the top defensive player in the spring, Justin Garrett, has been hobbled all season long and is likely headed for a medical redshirt. Throw in the loss of Jeffrey Whitaker before the year and it is an Auburn defense that has dealt with plenty of turnover.

One of the reasons why Auburn has been able to handle the situation, however, is because of the constant rotation from the coaches. Determined to get guys on the field and in the action to keep players fresh for the fourth quarter, Frost said that the rotating also serves them well when they're not on the field because the players communicate with each other between drives to make sure they know exactly what to expect.

"Our coaches do a great job of rotating us and keeping us fresh constantly and it does help," Frost said. "It also helps in rotating us when he just wants to get his point across about a certain play or what they're doing to us, and that way, when the person who just came out of the game comes to the sideline, he can tell you, 'Well, Coach wants to say this to you. You get on the phone with him and talk to him and you guys get on the same page.' It's all about being on the same page while staying fresh."

This weekend Auburn will face yet another offensive test from Florida Atlantic quarterback Jaquez Johnson. While he's not Johnny Manziel, he presents some similar challenges because of his ability to throw and run. Completing 60.6 percent of his passes for 1,060 yards and six touchdowns with five interceptions, Johnson has added 346 yards and a team-high five touchdowns on the ground this season. Frost said with the guys they have already faced and especially last weekend's game, the defense feels much better about taking on mobile quarterbacks because of the success they've had recently.

"It comes back to basics and just rules of angles," Frost noted. "Approaching that game we knew what to expect. We knew the kind of quarterback he was and the talent that he has so it's like I said: we get better every single week.

"We've shown that we've gotten better every single week and we're going to continue to get better every single week so that is what we've focused on and continued to do that. We got better in the areas that we weren't so good in before and we've got better in the areas that we were doing well before."

There is no area where the defense has improved as much as in the red zone. Second in the SEC in that department, allowing just 17 scores in 24 opportunities, the Tigers are currently 13th in the country in red zone defense. That's up from 48th at this same point last season.

Ellis Johnson is in his first season with the Tigers.

While that has been something to hang their hats on, Johnson said the problem area continues to be allowing big plays. That continues to be a focal point for Auburn and the veteran coordinator said it must get corrected heading down the home stretch of the 2013 schedule.

"The big thing is that we give up too many big plays outside the red zone," Johnson said. "They (Texas A&M) hit at least four of their touchdown passes, at least three of them were outside the red zone. It looks cute on the statistics. We did play tough down there and did some good things, but the big plays are the ones that are disappointing."

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