Junior defensive end Carl Lawson (55, above) has the potential for a breakout season with the Tigers.
Last season the Auburn defense was dead-last nationally in tackles for loss, averaging one every 18.2 plays defended. The national average during the 2015 college football season was one every 11.5 plays defended.
Auburn’s inability to penetrate the opposing backfield on a consistent basis was a primary reason why the defense often remained on the field too long. With Carl Lawson being out the majority of the season due to an injury, Auburn’s pass rush ranked No. 117 nationally when it came to sacks, totaling only 19 for the season.
When Auburn won the Southeastern Conference Championship in 2010, the Tigers had 35 sacks and 32 during the 2013 SEC Championship season.
The team’s new defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, has placed a significant emphasis on becoming more physical. “What we wanted to accomplish in the spring was a relentless effort and pursuit to the ball,” he said at the conclusion of spring practice. “Create a dominating attitude with effort. Then we wanted to be better tacklers.”
Coach Kevin Steele talks to a group of campers in Miami.
More importantly to Steele than schematics and formations in spring drills was effort and technique. With the increase of teams operating from spread formations while using tempo, Steele said he believes depth is pivotal to being successful. The veteran coach is looking to establish what he considers 18 starters on defense. This strategy should provide a sound playing rotation of quality depth to combat defending a higher number of snaps. The foundation of the 18 starters will be important for keeping a fresh front four and establishing a more consistent push from those players.
During the past 20 seasons, Auburn has averaged a tackle for loss every 11.5 snaps defended. Auburn has reached this ratio 11 times over the previous two decades, compiling a winning percentage of 73 percent. During the nine seasons the Tigers failed to reach this objective, Auburn won only 54 percent of its games.
From 2002-2014 the front-four averaged 51 tackles for loss during the season. Last season the line totaled only 21.5 tackles for loss. Steele knows the defense will only be as good as the front-four allows it to be. “We preach about affecting the passer, and we are slowly but surely getting in that direction,” the coach said. “You want to be able to do it with a four-man rush and not have to pressure (blitz) all the time. You get the wrong quarterback in pressure, you get yourself in a bind."
During Auburn’s last three championship runs in 2004, 2010 and 2013, the defensive line averaged 29.5 sacks. The combined sack total by the line during the past two seasons is 27, with 12.5 during 2014 and 14.5 last year. During the past 20 seasons Auburn has won 81 percent of the games when it has won the tackle for loss battle and only 51 percent when the opponent out-performs the Tigers in this category.
Steele knows for Auburn to become a hard-nosed defense the Tigers must become dominant up front. With 17 scholarship linemen available in 2016, they should have plenty of options in their rotation. This year’s front-four features the best combination of depth and talent seen on an AU defense in at least a decade. Twelve of the linemen were ranked as 4-stars or better based on Scout.com ratings.
From 1996-2015 the defense averaged 6.5 tackles for lost yardage, winning 77 percent of their games when reaching that mark. The Tigers won 57 percent of their remaining games, which reveals the importance of generating negative plays.
Auburn's ability to dominate the line of scrimmage has fallen off since the Tommy Tuberville era. From 1996-2008 the Tigers had at least 6.5 tackles for loss during 52 percent of their games. During the past seven seasons (2009-2015) they managed at least 6.5 tackles for loss in only 30 percent of their games. When they did reach this statistical goal, the Tigers produced an overall record of 25-3.
The last four seasons have been even worse, with 6.5 tackles for loss occurring in only 25 percent of the games. Last season the defense reached 6.5 tackles in only one game, the opener against Louisville.
Forcing negative plays is primarily a combination of talent, effort and scheme, which just happen to be the three elements Steele demanded during Auburn’s spring camp. The emphasis was to install the base defense, but with a primary focus on effort, tackling and technique.
Because Steele’s defensive philosophy and schemes are similar to former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp used last season, the transition should be a smooth process for the players. The base defense will be similar to last year’s, which should allow the players to focus on making plays rather than adjusting to a brand new scheme. With a limited crossover to Steele's defense and Auburn’s depth up front, 2016 could be a banner year for making plays in the opposing backfield.