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2010 Iron Bowl Analysis: Defense Key in Alabama vs. Auburn

Okay, it's Iron Bowl week, so I'm GOING BIG. My plan is to do not one but two editions of Unsolicited Advice for this game, one dedicated to the Tide defense, the other to the offense.

There's a lot more intrigue surrounding how the Tide will stop Cam Newton and the potent Auburn offense than how Julio Jones and company will carve up the Tiger defense, so I figured I'd start there.

I'm not going to preface my advice with a big to-do about how great Cam Newton is. What's left to be said at this point? If you want more fawning over him, go read an Auburn blog or something. Not that I'm denying his greatness...because I'm not. He just doesn't need anymore hype from me. I think everyone for Bama is well aware of what the challenge is here. (And if it makes any Auburn fans feel better, I'm resolving to avoid snide remarks about his eligibility. FAIR AND BALANCED.)

So let's talk about that challenge. What's the #1 thing the Tide defense is going to have to do to slow down the Auburn defense*?

Force Auburn into 3rd and long situations. Now, I know you might say, "That's the key to slowing down any offense," and you'd be right. But it's especially true for Auburn because so much of their offense is centered around the run or the threat of the run. If you can put them in, say, a 3rd and 7, the Tigers have to chunk a huge portion of their playbook and ask Newton to do some things that he's not extremely good at doing. If the game can be boiled down to Newton passing the ball against a confounding Nick Saban nickel scheme, you have to like Nick Saban's odds to win that match more often than not.

However, as 11 teams have already learned, getting Auburn to 3rd and long ain't easy. And if you can get them in that situation, there's still no guarantee Newton won't turn a pass play into a 50 yard run. So how can the Tide do what no one else has? I HAVE SOME THOUGHTS...

Finish tackles at and behind the line of scrimmage. I think this has really been the bane of the Bama defense all year, even moreso than the young DBs struggling in coverage. You expect that. You don't expect a Nick Saban defense to whiff on as many tackles as this year's has. It might be an understatement to say that there have been dozens upon dozens of instances where a Tide defender or multiple defenders have had a play stopped for no gain or a loss only to fail to complete the tackle and let it go for a gain (often a substantial one). That can NOT happen against Auburn. Their spread scheme creates wide open spaces on the field. One missed tackle at or behind the line opens up a world of possibilities for a guy like Cam Newton. In fact, that's how he's made a lot of his hay this season. But it's not just him you have to worry about. Onterrio McCalebb is a homerun threat in the open field, and Michael Dyer will hurt you if he gets to the second level of your defense. Auburn is going to be enough of a problem for the Tide defense without giving them "bonus yards" on second chances when you've go the play sniffed out. Finishing those plays will be key to getting Auburn into the obvious 3rd down passing situations Bama needs to create if they're going to get Newton off the field.

Defensive linemen must keep Newton in front of them. Another way Newton has preyed on opposing defenses is by taking advantage of overeager defensive ends that rush past him upfield, creating huge running lanes to the outside. The key for Bama's DL will be to never get deeper than Newton and always keep him in their sights. To borrow an overused phrase, "Don't try to be a hero." Every week I see ends who think they're going to throw their best Dwight Freeney on the OL and be the guy who blows up Newton in the pocket, and every week, they fail. You may get him once doing that, but more often than not, he's going to take the escape route you just created and hit a big gain. The ends and rushing linebackers just need to focus on holding the edge and providing a solid contain, and simply let the interior linemen push the pocket into Newton's face and funnel him towards their waiting arms, as opposed to chasing him around the field like wildmen in a race they will surely lose. This is another way the Tide defense can limit Newton's ability to create "bonus yards" if coverage is doing it's job downfield. You may not be generating sacks, but a throwaway incompletion is a win. And is especially preferable over a 6, 15, 30, or 75 yard run by the quarterback.

Defensive backs must offer consistent run support and contain the edges. This has really irked me this year, but maybe I just got spoiled by bulldogs like Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson the past couple of seasons. The DBs have been some of the worst offenders when it comes to whiffing on tackles around the line of scrimmage, and they've been especially bad at knowing where they are in the play and what their role is in run support, specifically as it pertains to backside contain. Dre Kirkpatrick gets caught up in the trash and let's a run get outside him at least once a game. Robert Lester, for all his ballhawking skills, is a terribly inconsistent tackler. DeQuan Menzie does a lousy job getting off or around blocks at the Star position, at least by comparison to the standard Arenas set. Even the great Mark Barron has been guilty of overpursuing plays and losing track of his assignment this year. The only guy who seems to have gotten better as the season has gone on is DeMarcus Milliner, but is he mentally ready for the Auburn offensive scheme? Nobody attacks the edges quite as well as the Tigers have this year. Whether it's the 3 or 4 reverses they run every game, the fly sweeps and tosses to the deadly McCalebb, or just good ol' Newton busting out into the open field, they put your perimeter run defense to the test with regularity. If you can't contain it, you're done. They'll gash you all day. To win this game, this secondary must play far above the standard they've set thus far this season.

Defend the middle of the field in the passing game. Auburn doesn't do a lot in the passing game, partly because they don't have to, partly because, despite his gaudy passing efficiency rating, Newton is still not a very accomplished passer. He has a strong arm, but his accuracy is sketchy and his ability to make reads in a progression is unproven. I think Auburn OC Gus Malzahn has done a great job tailoring this offense around what Newton does well. But when you pay attention to the rare times Newton drops back to throw, he's throwing the same routes over and over again: 10 yard hitch on the sideline, 10 yard drag across the middle (usually to Darvin Adams), all the screen passes, the little crossing routes, the occasional deep throw. It's fairly rudimentary stuff that's easy to defend if you can get Auburn into obvious passing situations when you know it's coming (that being the afformentioned hard part). All that said, I've noticed one play in particular that has developed into what I'd call their "dagger" play in the passing game. (For my purposes, a dagger play is one you're ruthlessly effective at running and that is equally demoralizing to the defense.) It's a play action pass where they fake the read option then Newton pulls up and throws a middle seam route to either the tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen or slot receiver Emory Blake. They started running this more in the second half of the season, and they really like running it inside the 20 to get in the endzone. It plays to Newton's strengths because the run action creates some open spaces down field and allows him to simply power a throw through a large window off one read. And it really works on a defense's psyche because everyone focuses so much on that option, so when the tight end turns up in the endzone with the ball in his hands, it makes you question everything you're doing from that point forward. Bama MUST take that throw away from Newton (along with that 1o yard drag) and make him beat them to the outside where his mostly unrefined passing skills can present opportunities for the secondary to make plays on the ball.

And they can expect to see that middle seam to the tight end early, and perhaps often. Go watch tape of some of Bama's recent games. Ole Miss ran a similar play, but the TE dropped it off his hip with open field in front of him. LSU ran the exact same play as Ole Miss and completed it for a long gain. So did Mississippi State. So did GEORGIA STATE. I promise you Malzahn has seen the tape. If the Tide hasn't figured out how to stop that yet, they're going to lose. And by this point, maybe they would deserve to.

*"Slow down" is the operative term here. Even if the Bama defense shows up and tackles better than they have all season, covers better than they have all season, and makes fewer mental mistakes than they have all season, there is still going to be no "shutting down" this offense. Newton is going to get his yards. You have to be prepared to accept that. Even LSU (currently ranked #5 in total defense) gave up 500 yards to Auburn. In fact they were outgained by almost 300 yards in that game. But what was the final score? 24-17. Despite Newton and Auburn more than doubling them up in yardage, LSU slowed them down enough in key situations to be IN that game till the end. And if they had discovered an offense by that point in the season, they probably would have won it.

That's all Bama's D has to do. Just slow them down enough to let the offense win it.

I'll be back tomorow to talk about how they'll do that.

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