Stat Tiger: The Value of Avoiding Big Plays

Columnist Stuart Carter writes about the need for the Auburn football team's defense to give up fewer big plays in year two with Ellis Johnson as the coordinator.

With just 1:05 remaining in the 2014 BCS National Championship Game the Auburn defense had allowed only 316 yards to the nation's No. 6 rated offense. Florida State entered college football's championship showdown averaging more than 519 yards per game, but was held to 25 percent below its season average against the Tigers.

It was the 49-yard pass play by the Seminoles late in the game that finally broke the back of the Auburn defense. It was also the type of play that haunted the AU defense all season, a group that surrendered 35 plays of 30 yards or more.

Defensive Coordinator Ellis Johnson noted that he believes the defense made positive strides last season, but could not overcome its "big play" issue. Auburn regularly made stops on third downs and inside the red zone, but the big plays allowed often placed the Tigers in a bind.

"I don't mean to diminish that and the importance of the red zone and what we did, but you also look on it and we gave up almost 500 yards and 153 in two plays," Johnson said of last season's Alabama game. "It was a gutsy performance and a gritty performance, but frankly we've got a lot of things we've got to do better if we're going to really be a good defense."

From 1992-2013 Auburn's defense has allowed a play of 30 yards or more every 42 snaps defended. The 2013 defense surrendered a big play every 28.3 snaps, the lowest ratio by an Auburn team during the same time period.

Even though the big plays allowed accounted for only 2.4 percent of the plays defended, the yards gained from the big plays accounted for 21 percent of the total yardage surrendered. Johnson commonly refers to the big plays as "trash or garbage" yardage. Take away the 35 big plays surrendered and the Tigers held their opponent to 4.55 yards per play while defending 954 snaps. Add the big plays into the equation and the Tigers allowed nearly six yards per play.

The defense played its best game of the season against Florida State, but it was that final big play which permitted the Seminoles to steal the game late. "I don't mean to take away from any of the positive things, but the things that we do during the course of games to create the problems (big plays) that has got to stop or we're not going to win a championship," Johnson said.

Over one-fourth of Auburn's total yardage surrendered (26.3 percent) during the 2013 season was the result of the 35 big plays allowed. The Tigers allowed an average of 44.3 yards per big play throughout the 2013 season.

Looking back over the past 15 seasons, Auburn has allowed an average of 1.5 big plays per game during victories and 2.5 big plays during losses. In nearly half of their losses from 1999-2013 the Tigers surrendered at least three big plays during the game.

During Auburn's last 305 games the defense has surrendered 304 plays of 30 yards or more. Of those 304 plays, 72.3 percent have come through the air.

Of the 35 big plays allowed last season, 80 percent were given up on pass defense. When you consider most big plays allowed are the result of alignment and assignment errors, it makes complete sense the majority of the plays allowed would come on pass defense.

Ellis Johnson makes a point about the 2013 defense while in California for the BCS title game in January.

When Johnson arrived on the Auburn campus, his top priority was proper alignment and preparation before the snap. Immediate recognition and responsibility reduces the probability of defensive breakdowns.

Gus Malzahn wants his offense and defense able to line up quickly. "I've been pleased with our defense about playing fast and lining up and that's a big part of who we are," the head coach said near the end of spring drills. "That is one of our goals to leave spring being able to play fast, but not just playing faster, but being able to execute at a fast pace. That is when you get the advantage."

One of the primary issues for the 2013 defense was the multiple injuries and loss of personnel in the secondary, including players lost before the season even began. Auburn was forced into moving personnel around to create depth as well as the best available starting lineup.

Had the Tigers fielded a complete and healthy secondary on the night of the 2014 BCS Championship Game, they would have likely been victorious. As it was FSU quarterback Jameis Winston had his second worst efficiency rating of the season against Auburn's defense.

Though the majority of big plays have come via the passing game, the Tigers need to improve their run defense in 2014. When teams can establish their running game it allows them to remain balanced. By maintaining offensive balance, it creates more opportunities to catch the opposing defenses in poor alignments.

Taking away the run will make Auburn's opponent more predictable in its passing attack. This is substantiated by Auburn's No. 9 national ranking in allowing first-downs during third down conversions involving pass offense. Once the Tigers made their opponent predictable, they performed well on defense on third down and inside the red zone last season.

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