Auburn Defense In The Zone

The Auburn secondary is playing more zone as the season progresses and the results have been good through eight games.

Auburn, Ala.–-In Saturday's 27-3 victory over the Ole Miss Rebels, the Auburn defense held the visitors to just 186 yards passing on 35 attempts with one interception. At no time this season has an opponent thrown for more than 200 yards against the Tigers and they have just three touchdown passes in eight games.

The defense lived up to its billing in the victory as the Tigers allowed Ole Miss some underneath passes, but the longest gain of the day on offense for the Rebels was just 19 yards on a pass from Micheal Spurlock to Mario Hill. Coach Tommy Tuberville says that has been the plan for the Tigers all season under David Gibbs and right now things are going good.

"The great thing about our defense is we didn't have to blitz a lot," Tuberville says. "Sometimes when you blitz you tend to give up a big play. We've stayed away from big plays this year and usually when you make people go five, 10, or 15 yards on passing plays it's pretty hard to get to that number.

"I would probably attribute that to not playing as much man coverage and more zone. Last year was just the opposite. We blitzed more and played less zone. It showed yesterday that we're getting a lot better at zone defense. We're playing receivers a little closer in the zones. We got an interception. The guys are getting more confident."

Tuberville says that both David Irons (pictured) and Jonathan Wilhite have had to adapt to playing more zone defense this season.

Adapting to Gibbs' style hasn't gone smoothly for the Tigers as they had some difficulties early stopping the run against Georgia Tech and even Western Kentucky at times. Tuberville says that one of the drawbacks to playing so much zone is that it limits the players you can put in the box, but that's a chance the Auburn defense is willing to take because of the overall benefits.

"The negative in the zone means you can't play eight people in the box for the run," Tuberville says. "You can only have seven. If you're going to play eight then that means you're going to play man coverage on first down to get an extra guy. That's what Ole Miss did. They weren't going to let us run the football.

"But, when play-action happened we had Cole Bennett open and the fullback was open because those linebackers are up trying to stop the run. If you're playing zone those play-action passes don't work as much, but you're giving one less guy for the running game. We'll play eight-man fronts, but we haven't played it as much as we have (in the past)."

This season the Tigers have started six different players in the secondary, something that is good for competition in practice. It does have one drawback however and Tuberville says that he finally sees his defense becoming familiar with each other and playing as a unit.

"We're getting a lot more acclimated to playing with each other as a team," Tuberville says. "When you have a secondary they have to believe in each other to play together. These guys, we've been kind of moving them in and out, now we're pretty much settled on our starting corners. Gandy, we'll see if he starts this week depending on how they practice. We're getting a lot more familiarity with all the guys that are playing together and that's probably a big reason."

"It's more technique than coverage, how we play zone and how we play man," Tuberville adds. "We've been a little bit more aggressive in zone play the last five weeks once we learned the coverages. It has just taken a while. Will Herring, I think, has really benefitted from it. He's the guy with the most experience."

One difference this season than last has been the pressure on opposing quarterbacks by the Tigers. Last year Auburn was one of the SEC's best in rushing the passer, but this year have just 19 sacks in eight games. While some of that is due to injuries up front, much can be attributed to a style of play that has called for less men rushing and more in passing lanes this season such as the defense employed against LSU.

"That was just game-planning," Tuberville says. "It was a three-man rush. With the offensive linemen they've got a four-man rush would have been tough. We decided to defend and play our zone. Most of the time it worked. We played well, but gave up a few plays. That's going to happen with the receivers they've got and the time he had to throw it. We just kind of bit the bullet and decided not to give up the big play."

Another area where the defense hasn't been as good is in the turnover department. In eight games the Tigers have just seven interceptions and four fumble recoveries. That is a concern for Tuberville at the moment, but he's confident the more the defense plays together the more havoc they'll create for opposing offenses down the road.

"We thought last year we didn't get near the turnovers, of course we haven't gotten them this year either," Tuberville says. "You don't get them as much playing man. You get more turnovers and interceptions when you play zone and give the quarterback problems. As our pass defense and pass rush gets better, and it has steadily gotten better each game, our turnovers will start to rise if we continue to improve in our zone defenses."

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