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Auburn per-play stats: positives and negatives

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It’s been a tenet of this blog that ever since Gus Malzahn arrived on the Plains, the best statistical measure of Auburn’s defense isn’t total yards allowed or scoring defense or any other “counting stat” that depends just as heavily on how many plays the defense faces–which should always be a substantially higher number than average, thanks to Malzahn’s preferred tempo and love of the big play–but on yards allowed per-play. Yards per-play isn’t a perfect measure of performance (a long series of 4-yard gains can obviously be very productive even if a 4-yards-a-play-allowed average is an excellent number for the defense), but it still ought to be a more accurate than total defense.

But as it turns out, Auburn’s per-play statistics and accompanying total play numbers (as highlighted by commenter John and Auburn fan JD at TSK) are even more interesting than just “hey, the defense isn’t that bad.” Those numbers:

Offense: 193 total plays, 74th in D-I; 7.2 yards-per-play, 9th in D-I. (Total offense isn’t bad, either: Auburn’s 21st.)

Defense: 234 total plays, 118th in D-I; 4.4 yards-per-play, tied for 20th in D-I. (Total D: 61st.)

So … definitely some food for thought there. The questions I think are raised, and my best attempts at answering them:

If the offense isn’t running at Malzahn’s full-tempo pace and the defense is holding opponents to the 20th-best mark per-play in the country, how has the defense been on the field for that ridiculously many snaps? I think there’s a couple of factors, aside from the handful of snaps Clemson took in overtime:

1. Despite the slower pace thus far this season and relative success on offense, Auburn’s far from monopolizing the ball; the Tigers rank 95th in time-of-possession. Why? Most of Auburn’s possessions have ended one of two ways: a huge play and quick score, or a three-and-out. Neither keep the defense on the sideline for long.

2. We’ve discussed Ted Roof’s bend-but-don’t break approach ad nauseum, and it’s done its job on the scoreboard, but this is where the price is paid; Auburn’s actually done decent work on third downs (36th through three games, a spot ahead of Ohio State), but big gains against soft coverage on first and second down, especially early in drives, has resulted in a lot of long drives.

Put the two together, and you get two games already with 80-plus snaps for the opponent. It’s also worth noting that Auburn’s D has been (like the offense) somewhat boom-or-bust: they’re tied for 6th in TFLs and 25th in sacks.

Should Auburn be worried? How can they restrict the number of defensive snaps in the future? I think it’s far from time to panic; between the extremely high number of quick scores vs. Arkansas St.. and the equally odd number of three-and-outs against Clemson, I don’t think 80-snap games are going to be a regular occurrence. The numbers should regress to the mean a bit; if Auburn’s still in the country’s bottom 10 after, say, the Kentucky game, then it’ll be time to start worrying about the D slipping into the same second-half woes that plagued it down the stretch in 2009.

But all the same, now that Clemson’s big-play-dependent offense is behind us, it really might behoove Roof to start playing more aggressively on first and second down. If Auburn’s not going to substitute liberally (and at linebacker and corner, they’re not really substituting at all), the long-term benefits could outweigh the short-term risks.

I would not, however, advise slowing down the offense, since on the basis of the Clemson game, it works better the faster it goes. If it could just work better in the first half–building a lead and then slowing things down later with the game (theoretically) in hand–that should be enough assistance from the offense’s standpoint.

So does that 4.4 and 20th spot mean that Auburn’s defense isn’t all that bad? Three games isn’t much of a sample size, especially when one of those games is against Arkansas St., but it’s encouraging, yes, and without question a better indication of Auburn’s defensive quality than the misleading total defense numbers.

If Auburn’s offense was really the ninth-best in the country, shouldn’t they have put up more than 41 points in regulation the last two weeks? Well … yes.

To this point, as mentioned, the defining characteristic of the Auburn offense has been its extremely high level of variability. After three games, Auburn’s touchdowns have covered 3, 36, 2, 48, 71, 38, 2, 39, 12, 12, 8, and 78 yards … meaning that Auburn’s average scoring play has covered 29 yards, and that’s not even discussing the other long passes Auburn’s completed that haven’t resulted in immediate touchdowns. This is a dangerous offense, at the least.

But when Auburn hasn’t been putting up those huge gains, of course, they’ve been giving the ball back to their opponent with a quickness, either via turnover or the three-and-out. With the exception of a couple of those second-half drives against State, it’s been all-or-nothing, smashing success or total failure.

So what does that mean for the future? It seems unlikely that Auburn’s offense will continue to remain so manic-depressive; one way or another, they’re going to come back to the statistical mean.

But there’s two ways for this to happen. The depressing possibility is that the big plays dry up while Auburn sees only a modicum more consistency down-to-down, resulting in neither long drives nor huge scores … and a rather terrible offense. The other, though, is for Malzahn to continue finding the plays down the field while ironing out the kinks in the effort to maintain possession … giving Auburn the best of both worlds and the truly complete offense we expected entering this season.

Now, I may be admittedly viewing things though a pair of orange-and-blue colored glasses, but I think Auburn will edge towards the latter outcome. The Tigers have been plagued by negative, drive-killing plays so far; lots of penalties, lots of tackles-for-loss (86th in the country in TFLs allowed), lots of sacks (56th there, and that’s with Auburn only throwing the ball 20 times or fewer a game). Maybe I’m just wrong, but I think with an offensive line this experienced, those problems are fixable. We’ve settled on a tailback rotation; Newton should continue to improve as a passer; the line should be better than it’s been. There should be more extended drives, and we know Malzahn’s not going to stop going downfield. I think if Auburn’s already at 7 yards per-play, some improvement on the scoreboard should be on its way.

And overall? I’ll point you towards this link again, where Auburn’s per-play margin of +2.8 ranks fourth-best in the SEC … despite the fact that Auburn’s played a tougher schedule than anyone in the conference other than Georgia (and maaaaaaybe Florida). It’s not all the Arkansas St. game, either; Auburn finished at +1.6 against Mississippi St. and +2.0 (!) against Clemson. Again, per-play numbers aren’t totally accurate … but that’s still a pretty damn good sign that things aren’t nearly as bad as “17-14” and “27-24 in OT” might indicate.

I think. Probably. If the defense doesn’t get some rest … and the offense can’t keep up its rate of home runs … things might unravel in a hurry. But for the time being, I think there’s a lot more encouragement here than not.

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