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'Playing pretty well': Auburn defense hits halfway point
Oct. 13, 2014

Auburn's Montravius Adams, Gabe Wright and Cassanova McKinzy line up to tackle State's Josh Robinson

By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala.  Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has given his defense a passing grade at the halfway point of the regular season, and the stat sheet backs him up.
Auburn has its highest ranking in total defense in the last seven years, coming in 30th nationally after six games, and that's 57 spots better than the team finished last season and 30 spots better than in 2010 when the Tigers won the national championship.
"I think we're playing pretty well except for just mental mistakes," Johnson said Sunday.
Johnson and Auburn will work on that during this week with a team that has a 5-1 record and is ranked as high as sixth nationally.
The Tigers are coming off a game that suggests the defense was lost in Saturday's 38-23 loss to Mississippi State, but three of those scoring drives came on short fields after Auburn turnovers. State needed to drive just 33, 32 and 15 yards for three touchdowns. The critics will note the Bulldogs drove 71, 75 and 75 for their other scores.
"We're giving away some plays." Johnson said.
But... "I think we're a little bit better football than we're performing right now. Of course, that's what a coach always thinks."
The biggest issue, Johnson says, is one he's talked about all season: "We're not getting any pressure on the quarterback with four people.
"There's no question, right now, we're going to have to bring pressure to affect quarterbacks."
But the secondary, he said, is improving. The three interceptions Saturday, and 10 overall, say that is so.
"We're very young out back, and as they get more and more game experience -- this open date is going to help us, too -- I think we'll be a little more comfortable back there and make plays. Some of these plays we're not making, I think they'll make them."
The midseason report card comes in the shadow of the first loss.
"We played very average in some spots against a really good, balanced football team. You get what you got," Johnson said "Missed tackles went up, but a lot of that's because Mississippi State. Missed assignments went up, and that's Auburn. I didn't think our players played within themselves. I thought they sometimes tried to overplay, run over somebody else's area and make a play instead of playing within the system. Against a team like that, you're going to suffer because they're balanced.
"The other thing we really keep a close eye on, we call our accountabilities, finishing plays. We did a good job of that. We played hard, tried to play physical, and really, toward the end of the game, when the game was not in a situation where you think you have much of a chance to win" the Tigers continued to reverse the outcome.
Basically, Auburn's defense got to see how most other defenses live trying to defend the Tigers and their dual-threat quarterback in a hurry-up offense. Defenses can't substitute as they'd like against a hurry-up offense.

State also had quarterback Dak Prescott.
"It's like everybody talks about it every day, because you've got the guys like Cam Newton and they had Johnny Manziel," Johnson said. "That's the philosophy a lot of coaches are looking for. They want a guy back there that is a ball carrier that can throw the ball 40 yards. Any time you've got a player that can do that, it's just tough."
Separately, Johnson would not speculate if defensive lineman Carl Lawson may still try to play this season after off-season knee surgery.
"I don't know that. They just keep talking about how remarkably well he's done, but I don't know that. I think the hope was that he would be able to play before the end of the season. It's not something right now that's in the very near future that I'm aware of."

Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter:



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