Film Room: Auburn's pass rush looks like it's heating up at the perfect time
In two of their last three games, the Tigers have got home with their front four. That bodes well for the Arkansas and Alabama games.
(Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
NASHVILLE — After Vanderbilt converted a second-and-24 and scored on a 30-yard touchdown pass two plays later for its first offensive points of the game Saturday, Hugh Freeze looked at Marcus Harris as he was coming back to the sideline.
The Auburn defensive tackle looked back at his head coach and made a vow.
“That won’t happen again,” Harris said, per Freeze. “We’re fixing to get it fixed.”
The next time Vanderbilt had the ball, the Commodores converted on a few late downs to set up a first-and-goal at the Auburn 10.
They wouldn’t go any further than that, thanks to Harris and his teammates up front.
With Vanderbilt spread out in an empty backfield, Auburn showed a standard four-down line, with Jack linebacker Jalen McLeod even putting his hand in the dirt on the edge. At the snap, Harris bulldozed his matchup on the interior, getting to the inside and bearing down on Vanderbilt quarterback Ken Seals.
All Seals could do was bail out to his left side. Unfortunately for him, that’s where inside linebacker Cam Riley was bearing down. Riley didn’t show that he was blitzing before the snap, but he made a beeline to the quarterback as soon as the ball was snapped.
Auburn manned up in coverage across the secondary, with one safety over the top to help out. The Tigers were going to send five rushers against a five-man protection, meaning that the Commodores had to win all of their 1-on-1s.
They didn’t. Harris made sure that strategy wouldn’t work. And even when Vanderbilt’s left tackle passed off McLeod to the left guard, he had no chance slowing down the hard-charging Riley, who was locked onto Seals. The result was an 11-yard sack.
Three plays later, Vanderbilt faced a fourth-and-goal from the 14. This was basically the ball game for the home team: Score a touchdown here, or watch a long drive that took up most of the fourth quarter go down with zero points.
Again, defensive coordinator Ron Roberts didn’t dial up anything exotic in this situation. He sent his four standard pass-rushers to the quarterback, and it worked.
McLeod got enough knockback on the Vanderbilt left tackle to push him into Seals’ vicinity. That caused the quarterback to bail out to his right, where former Vanderbilt edge rusher Elijah McAllister and Harris were there to force him into trying an extremely tough throw into a well-covered end zone.
Seals’ pass sailed out of the back of the end zone. Auburn’s defense once again had bent, but it didn’t break — and a lot of that had to do with the play of its pass rush.
“Just get after it,” defensive end Zykeivous Walker said afterwards. “Don't play around with them. Just attack them. Go ahead and get a win and get up out of here.”
Throughout the 2023 season, Auburn’s defense has done a good job of minimizing its weaknesses and playing to its strengths, coming together for a drive-killing unit that has far outperformed its talent level on paper.
One of those weaknesses has been the lack of a traditional pass rush. Roberts has had to rely more on sending inside linebackers and defensive backs as blitzers — which is one of the hallmarks of his defense, but not something you want to do too much against SEC offenses.
On Saturday, though, Auburn had its best day of 2023 in terms of getting after the quarterback. According to Pro Football Focus, the Tigers pressured the Commodores on 19 dropbacks and finished with a season-high five sacks.
And, as the goal-to-go pressures on Vanderbilt’s penultimate drive showed, Auburn succeeded without having to send anything extreme in terms of blitzes.
Of the 26 total pressures on the day — because multiple defenders can be credited with pressures on a single play — 20 of them came from Auburn’s defensive linemen and Jack linebackers. That’s more than the Tigers’ front had in the Texas A&M, Georgia and LSU games combined.
For Auburn, the Vanderbilt game was the second time in three weeks in which the defensive front really got after the quarterback. Against Ole Miss, the front four combined for 17 pressures, and Auburn got pressure on more than half of the Rebels’ dropbacks for the entire game.
While Auburn’s defensive line couldn’t keep it going a week later against Mississippi State — just three pressures and zero sacks from the front in what would be the heaviest blitz rate for the Tigers in SEC play — it responded in a big way against a Vanderbilt team that was No. 3 in the SEC in preventing sacks.
“Yeah, that was crazy,” safety Jaylin Simpson said of the pass rush. “They were in their bag tonight. But that’s what we always want. That’s what they can do. They just need to show up and do it from here on out, really.”
And even though Auburn would have loved to have this production from its pass rush all season long, this is the ideal time for the Tigers to be clicking in this department — because of who they face in their final two SEC games.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Auburn Observer to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.