I would like for you to comment in your column on which defense you prefer in the secondary, man or zone. Also, your preference on a 4-3 defense. I enjoy your column.–Paul Reeder
A lot of that has to do with what your defensive personnel can do well, but you also factor in who you are playing and their style of play on offense. So many college football teams are throwing the football so well today it is hard to play zone against them.
I believe to be successful defending the pass you have got to disrupt the timing of the receivers near the line of scrimmage, which is not conducive to playing zone coverages. Now if you've got a real long yardage situation, zone is fine.
One thing that I don't like, and it kind of baffles me that people continue to do it, is I do not like a three-man rush while playing in a zone because you are vulnerable to a good quarterback when you give him plenty of time to let his receivers get open. You can try to play a three-man rush and play man coverage with five underneath and a three-deep zone behind it. On paper that looks good, but now you have a problem containing the quarterback if he is a player who can run the football so that can create a big problem for a defense.
With Auburn's 4-2-5 defense or a 4-3 front I think you have to play a mixture of zone and man to be successful. The 3-4 defense is good and it's been around for a long time, but a lot of teams that use the 4-3 or 3-4 as a base formation do other things, too. For example, Alabama recruits saying they play a 3-4 when in fact they run 68 percent of their snaps playing a 4-2 with a nickel back so they are really more of a 4-2 team than a 3-4 team.
I like to get the extra big defensive linemen on the field when you're playing against a physical offensive team like Stanford or Alabama that's going to bring an extra tight end or extra offensive lineman into the formation, When offenses do that with 300-pounders a defense needs to match up those guys up with big guys, which is what Auburn did this year vs. LSU and Alabama. Auburn didn't execute as well as it needed to in the LSU game, but what defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was doing made sense. As the season went along the Auburn defense got better at executing what it was doing and that was case when the Tigers defeated Alabama in the final regular season game.
Whatever defense you line up in you have to be able to match the offensive personnel and you have to be able to maintain gap integrity while maintaining leverage at the corners to stop the run. Additionally, you have to be able to consistently rush the passer.
Last year's Auburn team finished way down in the conference standings in total defense, but it got better defending third down conversions and played extremely well in the red zone. That, combined with a strong offense and good kicking game, was enough to enable the Tigers to win the SEC title.
I wasn't familiar with exactly what Coach Johnson was going to do when he came in to Auburn as defensive coordinator last season, but as I watched it I realized it was very familiar to what I was coaching as an assistant at Alabama in 1965. We were playing with a four-man front and two inside linebackers with a weakside linebacker we shifted outside to cover the split end.
One of the things that makes Gus Malzahn's offense difficult for defenses to handle is the ability to attack opponents with the option while shifting before the snap and using motion. That changes assignments for defensive players. While it might be easy for coaches to explain to their players how to make those changes, it can be difficult to get executed properly in competition at game speed vs. fast-paced offenses. That is why some of these college coaches are trying to change the rules to force offenses to run at a slower pace.
I don't think there is any question that in college football right now that offenses have got the defenses on the run. The best chance for defenses to stop well-executed, hurry-up style offenses that have good personnel is to line up with superior defensive personnel that will prevent you from giving up big plays. It's still hard for even good offenses to put together long scoring drives that take 15 or 16 plays because there is a good chance that the offense is going to make a bad play and stop itself.
(If you have a question or a subject you would like me to write about in future columns, you can email it to PatDye@autigers.com.)
Editor's Note: This is part of a series of columns that College Football Hall of Fame member Pat Dye is writing for AUTigers.com about the game he played and coached. An All-American player at Georgia and one of the top head coaches in SEC history at Auburn, he also served as a head coach at East Carolina and Wyoming.