Jason Caldwell

StatTiger Column: Stuart Carter Analyzes the Importance of First Down Performance to the Auburn Football Team

Stuart Carter writes about the importance of first downs in college football and explains why in his StatTiger column.

Defensive tackles Montravius Adams (above, left) Dontavius Russell (above, right) are returning starters for Auburn's defense.

Many defensive coordinators will concur that first down is the most critical down in football. We often associate third down as being the critical down because of the association with ending or extending a possession, but first down is where it all begins.

Offensive coaches will stress success on first down with the concept of establishing rhythm and continuity. For this reason defensive coaches want to take away this pace with the goal being to make the opposing offense predictable.

Last season the Auburn defense ranked No. 39 in first down defense or yards allowed per play on first down. This included a national ranking of No. 66 in first down run defense.

Auburn’s No. 39 ranking was a significant improvement from its No. 95 ranking in 2014. Auburn’s improvement in this area was one of the reasons why the Tigers allowed only three opponents to score 30 or more points during 2015 compared to the seven during 2014.

While at LSU as defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele was asked about defending the spread-pace offenses. The veteran coach said, “When you really break it down in its totality, you have to create negative plays and get them behind the sticks early in the downs. Then the big plays in this league have gone up tremendously in terms of the big explosive plays for the offense.”

Photo by Jason Caldwell

Kevin Steele is shown at an Auburn spring practice.

Hired to coordinate Auburn’s defense in 2016, Coach Steele continues to preach the basic concept of being physical and making plays behind the line of scrimmage. If Auburn improves on its No. 39 ranking from 2015 it will likely require more negative plays on first down to make that happen. During the first seven games of the 2015 season Auburn’s defense allowed 5.8 yards per play on first down. During the final six games the number improved to 4.8 yards per play on first down.

From 1992-2008 Auburn allowed 5.15 yards per play on first down. From 2009-2015 the yards allowed increased to 5.96 yards. This included an average of 6.04 yards per first down play from 2013-2015.

Last season the Auburn shaved off a yard per play on first down during the second-half of the season. This improvement allowed Auburn to surrender 13 percent less yardage and, more importantly, 26.9 percent fewer points during the last six games of the season.

Former Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson often spoke of having success in situational play defense. During the 2013 season under Johnson, Auburn ranked No. 12 in third down defense and was No. 10 nationally in the red zone. The Tigers also finished No. 23 nationally in tackles for loss. Success in situational play allowed Auburn to be competitive enough on defense, but the struggles on first down prevented the Tigers from becoming a dominant defense.

Auburn’s 2013 defense was indeed successful in situational play, but finished 105th nationally on first downs, allowing 6.54 yards per play. More success on first down would have permitted the 2013 defense more opportunities in situational play where the Tigers thrived that season.

Tossing out Auburn’s national ranking in first down defense in 2010 and 2013, the average ranking in first down defense of the SEC Champion the past 10 years was No. 5 nationally. From 1992-2015 Auburn compiled a record of 71-19-1 during games the opponent was held to 4.5 yards per play or less on first down. This includes a record of 17-1 from 2008-2015 and an average of 15.0 points per game when limiting the opponent on first down.

Over the past 10 seasons Auburn has compiled a 52-6 record during games the Tigers won the first down battle. This statistic alone emphasizes the importance of success during the early downs, which will be something to watch for this upcoming season.

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