I’m very sorry, dearest WBE readers, but I have something to confess: I haven’t been completely honest with you regarding my thoughts on Ted Roof.
I would expect the impression this blog has left over the course of the season is that–quarterback-contain issues aside–I’ve been perfectly happy with Roof’s first season as Auburn’s defensive coordinator. After West Virginia I noted how his defense hadn’t been all that bad aside from the two huge first-quarter plays and made up for it with the series of turnovers. After Ball St. I blamed the backups. After Arkansas I blamed the offense, after Kentucky the same twice over. Even after LSU, I was arguing that Roof’s defense was showing promise. I’ve made note of the lack of bodies and top-end talent Roof has to work with, the difficulty in becoming a unit’s third coordinator in three years, the even-greater difficulty of coaching opposite a Gus Malzahn offense that actively works against the defense and special teams that routinely give up chunks of field position.
Which is why I stand by all of those previous statements. Roof’s defense, relative to expectations, has been fine. Good, even, at times. But the statement I haven’t made is this one: Roof’s conservative, nonaggressive, soft-coverage schemes have–until last Saturday–driven me batty.
Not because I’m the type of blitzaholic college football fan who can’t stand seeing his team rush four or keep seven in the box on rushing downs. There are times and teams where giving receivers eight-yard cushions, keeping a pair of deep safeties, relying exclusively on your front four, etc. are absolutely the right strategies.
But philosophically, I haven’t been able to understand–until last Saturday–how they’ve been the right strategy for this team. Between the relative lack of blitzes and combination of soft zones and big cushions in coverage, Roof’s defensive aim has clearly been to prevent the big play, to keep opponents (as the saying goes) “in front of them.” Auburn’s generally been happy to back off and let opponents make short completions, run short runs, pick up a couple of first downs, and (hopefully) screw things up themselves before ever reaching the end zone. Just so long as they don’t get the big backbreaking play that makes things easy for them.
Again, as a general rule, I don’ t have an issue with that approach. (Against particularly incompetent offenses like early-season Tennessee, it’s absolutely the way to go.) But for this specific Auburn team? I didn’t get it. Our defense is both paper-thin and playing opposite an offense that ignores time-of-possession even when it’s working. To have anything left in the tank for the fourth quarter (or even the end of the first half), the goal for the Auburn defense can’t just to be to not give up points–it has to be to get off the field as quickly as possible, right?
So I would expect Auburn’s defensive philosophy to be the exact opposite of the bend-but-don’t-break approach Roof has adopted. Not only would a three-and-out be particularly helpful to this defense as opposed to a 7-play field goal drive, but a long score wouldn’t be quite as damaging–obviously giving up points sucks and is never good, but a one-play opponent’s touchdown drive would still have the advantage of both getting the defense off the field and putting the opponent’s hypothetically-Malzahn-exhausted defense back on the field instead. My thought was that Auburn needs to play a high-risk-high-reward kind of D: put eight in the box, go man-to-man press coverage and blitz, try to force a quick turnover or a three-and-out … and if you slip up and allow the big play, oh well, now the offense comes back out to go track meet on the opposition D some more.
Roof (and Chizik) opted instead for a strategy that would help opponent’s time-of-possession, put the maximum amount of stress on his team’s limited depth, and help neutralize the exhausting effects of Malzahn’s hyperdrive on the opposing defense … which, of course, is sort of the whole point of hiring Gus Malzahn in the first place. So why? More than once this season I’ve seen Auburn still playing soft coverage underneath even after the opponent has driven into Auburn territory and the offense has been cooling its heels for a few minutes, and wondered seriously, what the hell are we doing?
I’m not going to think that anymore–or at least, nowhere near so often–after seeing Dexter McCluster run for a 79-yard touchdown on Saturday. The most interesting thing about that play was how, from the standpoint of the Auburn defense, how uninteresting it was. A long McCluster touchdown was utterly predictable given that Auburn had already given up identical plays to near-identical players like Noel Devine, Randall Cobb, and Russell Shepard. If that bit of history repeating seems like maybe a fluke of memory and small sample size, it’s not–Auburn ranks 108th in the country in allowing running plays of 20 yards or more, and dead last in the SEC.
I can’t stress this enough: that’s happening with Auburn playing conservatively. What happens if Roof decides to roll the dice and press? Auburn is giving up big plays by the bushelful even with a defensive scheme designed to prevent them–how many would they give up with a defense designed to risk giving them up to start with? We wouldn’t be talking about a high-risk-high-reward scheme; it’d be all-risk-no-reward. Auburn would be getting gashed in a way that I’d bet would make the current level of gashed-ness look positively Tubby-stout by comparsion.
The other side of this coin, I suppose, would be the argument that if Auburn’s giving up big plays anyway, why not switch to something more aggressive? Because that assumes things couldn’t get any worse in this department, and I don’t think that’s the case; you’ve heard me list our defensive personnel issues a thousand times, but true-freshman-safety-overaggressive-first-year-linebacker-inexperienced-tackles-now-featuring-converted-first-year-JUCO-corner-at-other-safety doesn’t suggest to me that Auburn giving itself even less of a safety net is a good idea.
Things are far from perfect. I still have my gripes. (That QB contain thing, for starters.) I would prefer that as as soon as possible–like next year–Roof would find a way to feel comfortable playing a style of defense that doesn’t minimize the strength of its offense.
But as for this year? I think this is about as good as it’s going to get.