Auburn’s secondary has not been able to contain quarterbacks like Sean Clifford or Stetson Bennett this season.
PFF’s highest graded defensive back duo prior to the season is being exposed with high completion rates and Auburn is paying for it on the scoreboard.
“When you’re talking about WRs, DBs and plays like that, it comes down to winning your one-on-ones,” said head coach Bryan Harsin. "There’s some miscommunication that happens at times, but for the most part, I think we’ve communicated well in the back end."
Auburn has totaled just two interceptions nearing the midway point of the season. When it comes to red zone defense, Auburn‘s is ranked as the 123rd worst in FBS — out of 130 teams.
Offensively, problems catching the football have been a primary contributor to the Tigers' low-touchdown scoring issue.
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Auburn's receivers dropped a season-high seven passes against Georgia, plaguing the offense in red zone and third down situations.
Aside from skill groups, Harsin also realizes the impact a pass rush can have on an accurate quarterback sitting inside a well-protected pocket. The level of depth at the defensive line position isn’t quite what Harsin prefers though, with a former TE J.J. Pegues being rotated to the position to pick up for the slack.
In August, Auburn suffered a loss to its starting lineup and line depth when Harsin announced that starting defensive tackle Tyrone Truesdell was no longer with Auburn's football team or athletic program. He became the second former Auburn defensive linemen to transfer to the University of Florida in a 10-month span, as Daquan Newkirk made the transfer to the Gator program in January.
“As far as depth goes, we need to be better," Harsin said. "We’ve got guys, we just need to better on the defensive line and be more competitive within that group. O-line, d-line is where you really have to have really solid play every day. You gotta have competition on the d-line cause you’re gonna rotate d-linemen in and you gotta not lose too much when someone comes in. So you wanna still be able to do all the things your schemes are calling for from whoever’s in the game.”
Auburn was competing hand-in-hand with Top 10 Penn State before Clifford torched the Auburn secondary, throwing 28 completions and two touchdowns on 32 pass attempts. It was his highest completion percentage in his career at 88%.
The same thing could be said of Auburn’s efforts against Georgia, where the Tigers trailed by just two scores. Bennett then lobbed a ball to a wide-open Ladd McConkey for a 60-yard touchdown after beating his defender one-on-one. It stretched Georgia’s lead to three possessions, essentially deciding the game.
McConkey had 145 yards receiving on the season entering the game against Auburn. He left Jordan-Hare Stadium with his total at 280 yards and a touchdown. The freshman wideout who had yet to catch a touchdown in his collegiate career burned the Tigers for 27 yards a catch.
Kayshon Boutte did the same thing for LSU.
LSU has played the likes of Mississippi State and the McNeese Cowboys, yet the game against Auburn is the only one that Boutte has recorded over a hundred yards in.
“You’ve gotta be able to cover and challenge the wide receivers," Harsin said. "Guys will make plays, there’s times where you know there’s a spectacular catch. But if it's contested and you’re in a position, that’s the best we can do from a defensive standpoint.“
Harsin recognizes the need to adjust in practice for the play to translate into Saturday’s games. But as Auburn rides through its schedule and takes on teams that prioritize offense over defense, the Tigers' defensive backs will be expected to perform at a higher level than they have been when facing the likes of Jameson Williams and Dontario Drummond just a few weeks from now.
“It comes down to just your fundamentals and techniques of playing that position a lot of times," Harsin said. "Putting our guys in a position, I think we’ve done that for the most part, but when you get to a one-on-one, that’s why you spend all that time practicing to prepare for the one-one situations.
"Arkansas is gonna be very good. And their O-line, Coach Pittman does a very good job with that group in particular. You see that with his entire team, like I said, they play physical. I think that’s how they coach their players and you certainly feel that on the offensive side, feel it with the offensive linemen. And so the d-line, we gotta step our game up, we gotta have a better week in practice. We gotta go out there and play and be physical up front and do our jobs each time when they’re running the ball or throwing it, we have a responsibility."
Saturday’s game against Arkansas will be a testament to how much work Harsin and his coaching staff can achieve in just a one-week span, as it faces the No. 2 receiver in the SEC, Treylon Burks.
“Those are some of the things that I’ve seen that we’re gonna continue to keep getting better at, that we’re gonna focus on," Harsin said. "We need to be ready for every single week when we go out there and play. That's kinda football 101, that you gotta be ready for that every time and put yourself in the best position to be successful in the play."
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