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Ode to the Auburn Defense

Gus Malzahn and Kevin Steele first bump celebrate together after a score in the second half.
Auburn football vs Arkansas on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019 in Fayetteville, AK.
Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics
Gus Malzahn and Kevin Steele first bump celebrate together after a score in the second half. Auburn football vs Arkansas on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019 in Fayetteville, AK. Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics


Throughout the past couple of seasons, the identity of Auburn football has slowly become that of a defensive team, led by 4th year coordinator Kevin Steele. Despite the presence of Head Coach and offensive guru Gus Malzahn, who created some incredible offenses in 2010 and 2013, the defense has recently taken center stage for the Tigers. 

The shift truly began with the hiring of Steele from LSU before the 2016 season. Steele succeeded one year coordinator Will Muschamp, who improved the defense slightly but was limited in what he could do since he was coordinator for only one year. 

Under Steele the defense improved from 57th in scoring the year before to 7th during his first year at the helm. Since then, the defense has embodied a bend but don’t break mentality, rarely ranking in the top 20 in yards allowed but always top 20 in terms of points allowed. In fact, during Steele’s four years as coordinator, the defense’s worst year in terms of points allowed was last season when they allowed 19.2 points per game which was ranked 14th in the entire country. It’s also important to mention that during that very same season season, the offense ranked 99th in time of possession which could be a potential factor in the higher scoring average by opposing offenses.

This season has been one of the Tiger’s best on the defensive side of the football, lead by two monsters on the line of scrimmage in four year starter Marlon Davidson and fellow senior Derrick Brown, two of the best to ever play on Pat Dye Field. Steele’s trademark while here at Auburn has been the front seven and Brown and Davidson have been one of the reasons why. The two seniors have dominated in their time here at Auburn and have continued that trend this year, with both on pace to set career highs in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. The two have also engaged in a race for awards, with each winning SEC Defensive Lineman of the week three times.

This defense, like others under Steele at Auburn, does not exactly fill up the stat sheet and rank in the top of the country in terms of yards allowed, but they do embrace a bend but don’t break mentality. Despite facing 3 offenses in the top 30 in scoring, including LSU who was number one at the time, as well as five in the top 60, the Auburn defense has yet to allow 24 points or more, one of only 8 teams to do so, and are ranked 12th nationally. 

The passing defense has struggled as well, ranked 63rd in the country with 221.4 yards

allowed per game. The defensive backfield is arguably the weakest area of this vaunted defense; however, it is important to give context behind these numbers. Auburn has already faced two of the best quarterbacks in the country in Justin Herbert and Heisman favorite Joe Burrow, with Jake Fromm and Tua Tagovailoa on deck. 

Another contributor to the struggling pass defense is the amount of times teams are throwing the football because the Auburn front seven has shut down the rushing attack. Auburn ranks 19th in rush defense, allowing just 122.7 yards per game. They have allowed only two 100 yard rushers through nine games, including Lamical Perine who gained 88 of his 130 yards on one run. With the rushing attack mostly stifled, teams have had to air it out downfield in response. 

Only two teams have attempted under 30 passes out of Auburn’s nine opponents, 

including 49 by Kellen Mond and 42 from Joe Burrow. Considering the volume of pass attempts thrown against this secondary as well as the quality of offenses and quarterbacks played, 63rd in the nation is not nearly as bad as some make it out to be. 

While the defense has flourished, the offense has struggled. In each year since Steele joined the staff, the defense has been ranked higher nationally than the offense in scoring as well as total yards. The offense has also struggled in keeping the defense fresh and off the field as they have not cracked the top 60 nationally in terms of time of possession in those four years. 

This defense, led by some very experienced seniors on the line of scrimmage, has quickly become one of the most respected in the entire nation. One concern, as is with every college team, is how they will handle the loss of talent and experience, specifically with Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson. Concerned fans should look no further than the linebacking corp if they are concerned about Steele’s ability to replace talent. The Tiger’s lost all four starters from a year ago, including outspoken leader Deshaun Davis, and were looking to mostly rotational players, including incoming freshman Owen Pappoe, to take over. Led by K.J. Britt, the unit has done more than simply fill in for the lost talent. The unit has been a revelation this season and has been one of the better groups in the country

This defense under Steele has become one of the best in the country, and with more recruits like Jay Hardy, who just committed on Nov. 6th, coming in, the unit is showing no signs of slowing down.

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