Bend, Don't Break
What does Auburn football's defensive philosophy have to do with the second anniversary of The Observer? Quite a bit, actually.
(Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
“I’ll make it very simple: I’ll just say bend but won’t break. Year in and year out, I just think that’s what we always are. I think that’s what we go by. We might bend a few times, but we won’t break.”
The above quote is from Jaylin Simpson, Auburn starting cornerback and resident battle rapper. He said it Wednesday afternoon, three days before the Tigers’ season opener against Mercer, in response to a question about the identity of the 2022 defense.
The “bend, don’t break” defense is nothing new at Auburn. There were elements of it during the successful years under Kevin Steele. The thought process is that a defense can’t realistically hope to dominate an offense play in and play out. The modern framework of football just isn’t set up that way.
Case in point: In 2011, Alabama’s historic defense averaged just 3.32 yards allowed per play. A decade later, Georgia’s historic defense averaged 4.15 yards allowed per play. The definition of elite defensive play has changed, and it has had a trickle-down effect throughout the sport.
Today’s offenses value explosiveness and efficiency first and foremost. In that case, the best defenses are ones that can cut down the explosive plays and come up big when the field shrinks in scoring situations. Here’s another 2021 Georgia example: The Bulldogs allowed opponents to score touchdowns on just 28.13% of their red-zone trips. They gave up more between the 20s, but they were even more dominant than 2011 Alabama when it mattered the most.
Last year, under Bryan Harsin and then-defensive coordinator Derek Mason, Auburn put even more of an emphasis on being bend, don’t break. Mason utilized off-man coverages and more zone looks than in the past. It didn’t always work out, and the Tigers were No. 60 nationally in total yards allowed per game. But they ranked inside the top 30 nationally in points per game and explosive plays allowed — better measurements of how successful a defense really is in the modern game.
For an FBS vs. FCS game that is currently rocking a point spread of 31.5 points in Las Vegas, that “bend, don’t break” mentality should still come in handy for Auburn against Mercer this weekend. Yes, the Tigers would ideally show they are far above their lower-division opponents Saturday night and dominate on that side of the ball.
But Mercer isn’t the typical FCS program, especially on offense. The Bears ranked 15th in their division last season in yards per play (6.22) and averaged a respectable 4.37 yards per play against Alabama. They were also inside the top 30 in points per game.
Perhaps more importantly, Mercer is coming off a Week 0 blowout of Morehead State in which it scored 63 points. The Bears had 625 yards of offense on just 58 plays. They thrived on the explosive play, scoring offensive touchdowns that covered 90, 65, 56, 29 and 29 yards. They also had a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which caught the attention of Harsin in this week’s press conference.
“We just have to make sure that the shots don’t surprise us,” Simpson said Wednesday. “They had two scores on the glance (RPO), and they had a deep post or whatever — and special teams is going to play a big role, too. We just can’t be surprised, because they’re going to try to play with our eyes with all the movement that they’re doing, the shifts before the ball is even snapped.
“They’re going to try to play with our eyes a lot, and dink and doink from sideline to sideline, then surprise, here comes a shot. We just can’t be surprised.”
The thought process here for Auburn is easy: Keep everything in front of you and try to make an FCS offense have to sustain real-deal drives on an SEC defense. The size and talent advantage will win, and usually win big, if you can avoid the explosive plays that fuel closer-than-necessary games.
Fortunately, Auburn is already used to that “bend, don’t break” style of defense — and using it on much more talented opponents.
And I think the fan base is used to that mentality, too.
Right: 1/2 of The Auburn Observer at the NCAA Tournament in March
Left: Nathan King of Auburn247, who doesn’t know I’m using this photo — but at least he’s a subscriber. Subscribe and you might become as handsome as Nathan one day.
Photo Credit: Jake Weese, formerly of The Opelika-Auburn News and this special edition Observer
Today is September 1, 2022. That means this is the second anniversary of the launch of The Auburn Observer. We’re about to embark on a third football season together, and it’s quite exciting.
As many of you know already, this started as an experiment. Both Painter and I were laid off during a pandemic. We knew we wanted to keep doing our thing — writing and podcasting about Auburn football and basketball — but we didn’t have a place to do it.
While several of our friends, such as Matt Brown of Extra Points and Alex Kirshner of Split Zone Duo, went independent with their own ventures, we decided to give it a shot. The worst-case scenario was that we could do it for a season, and then figure out what was next after that.
The best-case scenario was where we quickly ended up. This became the best job I’ve ever had and probably ever will have. It’s gone from an experiment to what I want to do for as long as I can: writing the kind of Auburn coverage I love to do, hosting a podcast with one of my best friends and doing it all on our own terms. No bosses. No corporate mandates. No click goals. No restrictions. Full independence.
Of course, being able to do that and still pay the bills required the support of the readers and listeners. And the floodgates opened up there in a hurry. It took hardly any time for this to become self-sustaining, and that’s thanks to you. We wanted to create something different in what is already a talent-filled Auburn beat, and y’all went above and beyond in bringing life to it.
More than 800 paid subscribers came on board during our first year. As I write this newsletter, nearly 400 more have jumped on in Year 2, which was more than we expected. We absolutely smashed our ultimate goal of hitting four-digits in less than two full football seasons. This is a top 10 sports newsletter for the entire Substack network. Not bad for a niche outlet that does nerd stuff about two college teams in Alabama.
And, if I’m being honest, I’m even more thankful for the Year 2 growth than the initial Year 1 surge. That’s because a couple of months after our second year got going, Auburn football went on a five-game losing streak. The vibes in the fan base went south in a hurry, and they reached a new low around the drama in February.
Auburn basketball’s rise to No. 1 for the first time ever and a regular season SEC championship helped a lot. The Inner Circle showed there is a massive demand for in-depth coverage of Bruce Pearl’s program, even if former employers didn’t think so. We covered every single home game in-person and several of the ones away from the Plains, which was all fueled by your subscription money. We’re gonna do even more of that next season.
Still, after Auburn basketball’s unceremonious exit from the NCAA Tournament, things shifted here. Quite a number of people canceled their subscriptions. Some said they would be back in the fall — and they were! — yet I, a person who struggles with anxiety, worried that things were going backwards for the old newsletter. Are people gonna keep paying money for this?
But, come on. This is Auburn. Bend, don’t break.
The current state of Auburn football has given fans plenty of reasons to bend. The five-game losing streak is the big one. The internal investigation and the doubt around Harsin’s job security is another. Auburn was picked to finish last in the SEC West for the first time in two decades. The national narrative around the program is, largely, that a collapse is coming.
You couldn’t tell that from the Inner Circle, though. Over the past couple of months, thanks in large part to the increased amount of access we got during preseason camp, our subscriptions have completely turned back around. We’ve exceeded our peak from basketball season. The Observer is growing again.
Preseason interest and/or hope in Auburn football might be lower than usual, generally speaking. But, as Painter often said throughout the offseason, this program has a way of pulling people back in right before kickoff.
Here’s a perfect example of that: My story on Robby Ashford from Monday has already become our second most popular newsletter we’ve ever done. The Mailbag from two weeks ago is No. 4 all-time. The depth chart predictions from the start of camp sit at No. 6.
Bend, don’t break.
We say it on every podcast, or at least we try to do so: We can’t thank you enough. Thank you for paying your hard-earned money — in this economy! — to read these newsletters. Thank you for listening to our 200-plus episodes. Thank you for making Friends of the Program a podcast which already has a popularity level that is making me very jealous. We don’t do ads, unless your name is Homefield. We don’t really do any marketing. This is all y’all, and we’ll always be thankful for what you’ve helped build.
And, again, we’re not going anywhere. We’ll be there every step of the way for whatever this 2022 football season holds, and we’ll do the same for the basketball Tigers’ upcoming SEC title defense. There will be Film Rooms. There will be Observations. There will be Mailbags. There will be too many tweets. There will be discussions about grocery stores.
Tell your friends. Tell your enemies. And if you want to become one of our newest subscribers, get started by clicking the button below.
There’s always more room in The Inner Circle.