The Auburn Tigers lost the BCS National Championship Game, 34-31, to the Florida State Seminoles, but the Tigers defense put together one of its best defensive outings of the season. More importantly, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's unit played Florida State better than anyone had all season, including shaking the confidence of quarterback and Heisman winner, Jameis Winston.
Prior to the game, the talk was about Auburn stopping the highly touted Florida State attack. The Seminoles entered the game averaging 529.4 total yards per contest, pushing 207.4 on the ground and another 322 in the air to go with a 53 points-per-game total. Even on the road, Winston and Florida State were abusing opponents to the tune of 484.7 total yards per game and 46.8 points away from Doak Campbell Stadium.
Auburn's defense had its issues in 2013, and as Winston became the next big challenge, the quarterback who excelled against the blitz would have to be stopped by Johnson's group. The key, as was discussed here prior to the game, would be getting early pressure with the front four.
And the Tigers answered the bell.
Over the course of the game, Johnson used blitzes and worked multiple coverages, but the foundation was laid with the four down linemen who pushed to make Winston uncomfortable. Auburn did not use a ton of gimmicks; there were not a bevy of slants and twists to get the linemen off against Florida State. Rather, Johnson asked his linemen to win one-on-one battles, and they responded.
Here, you see Kris Frost mugged up at the line, forcing the center, Bryan Stork, to identify the possible blitzer, giving all four defensive linemen a chance to play solo football. On the snap, Frost takes a hard step before getting into coverage. Dee Ford and Carl Lawson run the edge extremely well, beating both tackles to the top of Winston's drop and forcing the quarterback to step up into the pocket.
Nosa Eguae is the beneficiary of this move; after a great push off the ball, he works back down to his initial rush lane to close off the interior opening to Winston. His slap of Josue Matias' hands gives him the separation he needs to not just be a deterrent to Winston, but also allow him to use his athleticism to close on and, ultimately, sack Winston.
It was not just the sacks that did it for the Tigers. On the play prior to Eguae's sack, Gabe Wright flashed to force Winston to throw the ball before he was settled and his receivers came open. Wright comes fast out of his stance as the left defensive tackle, takes an inside route on the right guard, Tre' Jackson, and gains control to get to the quarterback and force the ball to come out quick.
Again, just four guys in the mix for the Tigers. Four guys in the rush means seven guys playing coverage. Although Auburn used man-free and even some two-man in the ball game, the extra defenders were also able to help take away some of the interior routes.
After establishing the front four and using linebackers showing blitz then dropping back into coverage, Johnson decided to push the envelope by bringing pressure. On Winston's second-quarter fumble, the defensive coordinator adds another rusher to the mix in addition to working his defensive ends, No. 13 Craig Sanders and No. 10 LaDarius Owen, out of two-point stances.
Anthony Swain is the added rushing linebacker, while Jake Holland remains close to the line in a green-dog situation. Swain forces the back to step up, dives over the cut and drives Winston up into the pocket. The tackles, No. 50 Ben Bradley and No. 98 Angelo Blackson, disengage and collapse on the pressed Winston, resulting in a fumble.
Notice that none of the players involved in the first pressure or sack were involved in the big play of the second quarter for the Tigers. Depth along the defensive line allowed Johnson to demand max effort out of his linemen and then rotate them in and out to maximize their impact on the game.
Auburn made Winston uncomfortable, and it started with the front four. Dee Ford consistently beat his man around the edge, and the rest of the unit stepped up to the challenge of winning one-on-one battles. Mixing in timely blitzes, like this well-timed pressure from Cassanova McKinzy, after the Seminoles already struggled to handle the front four, and Auburn had a solid plan.
Unfortunately, when Fisher switched to a more quick-pass game and run game, the Tigers were put in a tough position, but they responded well. This unit only surrendered 27 points to the Seminoles, enough to get them a BCS Championship win if it was not for the special-teams explosion of Kermit Whitfield.
For Auburn, the future is bright despite the loss of Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae. This defensive unit should build on this performance and transition from a liability in 2013 to a team strength in 2014.