Auburn started the 2009 season with a great 5-0 record. The season has caught up to Auburn exposing flaws that an explosive offense was able to cover up. The main flaw that deserves immediate attention is Auburn's lack of defense, more specifically Auburn's lack of defensive coaching.
A quick look back at Auburn's game by game performance will show that the flaws on defense were actually glaring and not hidden. Auburn gave up 13 points to Louisiana Tech in its best defensive performance of the season.
Since then Auburn has given up 24, 30, 30, 22, 44, and 21 points. That is hardly a defense.
Auburn is giving up huge amounts of yardage per game. These performances on defense have fans lusting for defenses from lowly teams from around the country. If Auburn had defenses like that of Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Air Force, Army, and even Arkansas State, Auburn may be undefeated to this point.
What is wrong with Auburn's defense?
Since fall practice, the over-used excuse has been lack of depth. Other excuses thrown out have been injuries, loss of keys players from last year, and lack of talent.
What is the real problem? Poor coaching. Unfortunately, this is likely the bulk of the problem on defense. Why?
This is how I would describe Auburn's defense to someone who has not seen them play. Auburn's defense is soft.
They have a great defensive end in Antonio Coleman and they have one or two good, sometimes great, defensive lineman. Their defensive secondary is stout with Thorpe and McFadden on the corners and Etheridge at safety.
The secondary is thin and is suspect to injuries and making too many tackles.
The middle of the field is soft, and exploited by every team they play. Linebacker play is non-existent. If Auburn doesn't stop a team after the first or second set of downs, a touchdown is sure to follow.
The Auburn defense's best friend is poor play by opposing quarterbacks. Opponents will likely stop themselves with poor execution before Auburn makes a stop.
I sat down to watch the Auburn vs. Kentucky game this past Saturday night with high expectations that Auburn would rebound from their loss to Arkansas. After Auburn stalled on its first offensive drive of the game, I decided to focus on the positions that make up the weakest part of Auburn's defense.
It did not take long to see the problem. There are fundamental problems in the linebacker play.
I'll use positions to keep the players' names out of the issue. Once again this is a coaching issue, not a player issue, as the same flaws are showing up at multiple positions.
The poor play is a result of poor tackling technique and fundamentals.
Auburn's middle linebacker became my focus on the first defensive series. The players seem to be keying on the blockers and not the ball carriers.
The first time I ever stepped on the field as a linebacker, I was more clued in to the offense than Auburn's linebackers were Saturday night. I was in the eighth grade and it was my first time playing, ever.
Auburn's linebacker play is completely un-instinctive. Some of the best linebackers ever, Butkis and Lawrence Taylor, had a knack for finding the football—a nose for it. The linebackers for Auburn were following blockers and not the football.
When you are defending the run, you follow the ball. If the player does not have the ball, he is not a threat until he becomes a receiver.
A linebacker's first few steps are instinctive and follow the track of the ball. As long as you stay with the ball and move laterally with it, it will not get past you.
In the first series, the ball went to the right (in the arms of the running back) and the middle linebacker was going left. There were several plays where Kentucky ran up the middle or off left tackle, and the middle linebacker was completely out of the play. The ball was down before he joined the pile.
The first seven or eight runs of the first series were the middle linebackers' (and outside linebackers') responsibility. Etheridge was the most effective tackler of the night from the safety position. The linebackers could learn a few things from him.
Next, on top of the lack of a nose for the ball, the linebackers and a couple of the defensive backs have been victims of not being able to make open field tackles. The linebackers are taking poor angles to the ball and are playing inside-out rather than outside-in. I have seen several plays where the linebackers were in position to make the tackle and instead of attacking the block to the outside and getting in front of the runner the linebackers chose to shoot the gap inside of the blocker and by the time they made it through the running back had turned the corner and was 10 yards up field on the way to a huge gain. The later technique has resulted in several of the big plays Auburn has given up for a touchdown. Once the linebacker takes himself out of the play, no-one is left to make the tackle. One of the staples of Chizik's most successful defenses was the ability of the defenders to funnel-in runners to the middle of the field where there was inside help.
Also, the secondary and the linebackers are failing to "break down" in their open field tackling. They have come up to make the tackle, not broken down, and with little to no move by the runner, have flown past the runner. This has taken them out of the play and once again, given up the big play because there is no one left to make the tackle.
The bottom line: Nobody expected a Gene Chizik-coached defense to play so poorly. This is probably because Chizik is not likely involved as much as the Auburn fans thought he would be. Chizik is the head coach and seems to have delegated almost all of the responsibilities over to Ted Roof. As head coach, Chizik has a lot of responsibility and may not be able to be as "involved" in the defense as he wants to be. This was evident in a few sideline shots where Chizik walked over to Roof to give Roof defensive advice. Chizik was business like in his demeanor and Roof looked "a little laid back". Chizik looked dressed up and Roof was wearing a sweatshirt. When Chizik advised Roof, Roof's body language suggested, I am acting like I am listening but I am not. It looked like it went in one ear and out the other.
Let’s examine this further. The weakest part of the defense is the linebacker corp. Roof is the linebacker coach. The defense as a whole looks like three individual groups not playing together, this is a coordinator issue. Fundamentals are poor, this is a coordinator issue. Roof's best mark on his resume is taking a 119th ranked defense and improving them to 79th in total defense and 61st in scoring defense. Under Roof, Auburns defense has slid backwards and now has about an equivalent defense to that of a Roof coached Minnesota defense. As a coordinator, it is time for Roof to step it up and to start taking responsibility for the poor play on the defensive side of the ball. As for Chizik, Auburn fans are expecting a Chizik-like defense and are getting a Roof-like defense. Pardon the pun, but the Roof has been blown off of this defense. Granted programs like to give first year coaches a little lee-way but remember a year ago a coordinator at the same school was fired mid season for giving the same sub-standard type performance from his squad. Auburn is 72nd in total defense and 76th in points allowed. Auburn could take its best 11 defensive players place them on the field without coaching, let them play with instinct alone, and achieve those types of results.
Lastly, Auburn could explore moving some players around to shore up depth and performance issues at the linebacker position. Gabe McKenzie has made the transition nicely to defense and given his size, speed and nose for the ball he could make an excellent linebacker. Also, Auburn has a few extra receivers that will likely not earn playing time at Auburn and could make the transition to linebacker. Auburn has experimented with running a 4-2-5 defense swapping a linebacker for a defensive back. Another option would be to run a 5-2-4 defensive. Auburn could take an athletic lineman such as Coleman or McKenzie and put them in as a fifth lineman in a role much like a linebacker where they are free to move about from gap to gap. Imagine Coleman shooting a gap from a linebacker position, he would create problems for an opposing offense.
In summary, Auburn's defense has under-performed this year as a unit. It is time for Gene Chizik and Ted Roof to take some responsibility for the fundamental flaws. A fundamentally sound defense can achieve great results with lesser talent. The unit needs to aggressively attack the ball, to pursue the proper angles, to attack blocks appropriately, to break down in the open field, and to make fundamentally sound tackles. Chizik and Roof need to accept responsibility and need to step it up on the coaching front. We'll see if defensive changes are made for the LSU game, if not Auburn will be in for a long season. If changes are made, and the offensive picks up their game a bit, Auburn could continue on to finish strong.