Auburn Football: How Ellis Johnson's D Fits with Gus Malzahn's Offense

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Auburn Football: How Ellis Johnson's D Fits with Gus Malzahn's Offense

It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson may have one of the country's most unenviable tasks among defensive-minded coaches, playing opposite Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense every single week.

His defense plays with as little rest as possible, taking on a ridiculous amount of snaps during games and in given stretches, as the Tigers offense does little to keep it off the field.

As always, running a successful uptempo offense is one of Malzahn's biggest points of emphasis this season. In theory and in practice, the better Auburn's offense is doing, the less rest Johnson's defense is getting.

That sounds almost torturous for the 61-year-old veteran coach.

Yet lately, he's almost made it look easy. 

"We've sort of settled into who we are and what we are," Johnson said Sunday.

What they are, as it turns out, is the perfect defense to play across from Malzahn's pace attack—and the perfect defense to help the Tigers win football games.

No defense would pitch many shutouts playing opposite an offense like Auburn's, and no defense could put up league-leading numbers if it was thrust into as many difficult situations as the Tigers are by their offense.

Auburn hasn't played flawless defense this season by any stretch of the imagination. It didn't last Saturday, when the Tigers gave up 41 points to Johnny Manziel and the famous Texas A&M offense.

Still, the Tigers left College Station with a "W."

"A lot of stuff we worked on through the spring and the early part of the season, we really haven't run much of it because we're starting to find our personnel and what they do best," Johnson said. "We actually took a pretty simple game plan into Texas A&M. It helped because our players were able to play a little faster."

As Johnson says, his players are finally starting to find their fit in his 4-2-5 scheme, and collectively, the group is starting to find its identity.

So far this season, three key factors have defined that identity: The Tigers have been versatile, the Tigers have been opportunistic, and the Tigers have been stiff in the red zone.

Johnson and the Auburn coaching staff have had to move several pieces around throughout the season, especially in the secondary, but each time, players have fit right in.

The Tigers have proven to have found a new nose for the football, having already come away with nine interceptions on the season as opposed to just two in all of 2012.

And, perhaps most impressively, Auburn has been able to flip a switch when its back is against the wall. The Tigers boast the second-best red-zone defense in the SEC, allowing scores on just 70.83 percent of chances inside their own 20-yard line.

Regardless of whatever situation the Auburn offense puts it in or how long it's forced to stay on the field, the Auburn defense possesses a "next-play" mentality that gives the Tigers just as good a chance at coming up with that big Robenson Therezie interception or that huge Dee Ford sack on the final drive of the game as in the first quarter.

The defense may bend, but it never breaks, and—so far this season—it's been there to come up with big plays when Auburn has needed it, time and time again.

But the best part about Johnson's defense?

It's improving, week-to-week, game-by-game.

And if the Tigers defense can keep improving as the offense keeps rolling, Auburn might just be able to put together a few wins down the stretch—and turn that dream run to end the season into a reality.

 

Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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