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Scouting Report: WSU vs. Auburn's defense

There's a new defensive coordinator on the Alabama plains. We preview Ellis Johnson's defense and what it'll try and do against coach Mike Leach's Air Raid.

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Auburn defensive unit
Auburn defensive unit

Auburn's defense wasn't exactly terrible last season, but it wasn't all that good either, allowing the "worst single-season defensive performance in school history". However, know that whatever defensive stats from last season you might read leading up to Aug. 31, when the Cougs head to The Plains and step on field in Jordan-Hare, they'll be facing a completely different defense.

Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn was brought in to replace Gene Chizik after last season's 3-9 effort, and coach Malzahn called on Ellis Johnson, age 61, to run the defense. Johnson comes to Auburn following a pretty dismal experience as head man for only a year at Southern Mississippi. Prior to that? He orchestrated two top 15 defenses at South Carolina from 2008-2011.

Johnson realized he was spending a lot of time in his Nickel coverage trying to defend various spread offenses and struggling to manage substitutions against up tempo teams. To counter the need for personnel changes, he began running a 4-2-5, slightly modifying a Nickel set. This defense has been around for over 40 years, since teams first started trying to defend the Wing T, but has recently been used successfully at the FBS level by Gary Patterson at TCU.


A 4-2-5 (notation for the number of defensive linemen-linebackers-secondary) plays with four down lineman; a nose tackle, defensive tackle, weak side end, and strong side end. Johnson prefers to slide his lineman, rather than flipping them based on formation strength or boundary. This means his tackles will both be able to play "0/1 technique" (on the center) and "3 technique" (outside shade on a guard), and both of his ends can be a speed rusher if the occasion calls for it.


Typical base alignments will have the "boundary" side (the side of the formation closest to the sideline) and "field" side. These are usually the "weak" and "read" sides, respectively. The read side defensive end will play an outside shade "5 technique" -- outside the shoulder of the offensive tackle -- and will often use outside leverage to speed rush. The read side defensive tackle will be a 3 technique, with few exceptions, and the nose tackle will line up in a backside 0 shade (or 1 technique in some numbering systems). This DT/NT alignment is a very common pairing, especially with 4-3 fronts. The backside DE is head up, playing a "4 technique."

The two linebackers are designated Mike (middle) and Will (weak side), and both play "30 alignment," or head up on the offensive guards and about 4 yards deep. Both are primarily concerned with run support, but will take "BOYS" (Back Out Your Side) and effectively wall inside routes by receivers. Wall technique is like it sounds, they screen them from crossing if possible, then continue running underneath.

Expect to see these six in the box for the majority of the game. They are able to vary some twists and slants, more or less independent of whatever coverage is happening behind them.

For pass protection, that means G/C will usually combo the NT, the opposite G will be manned on the 3-tech DT, and the RB will need to slide to whichever DE is beating his man. The battle between the T and speed rushing DE should be the one to pay the most attention to; that player is usually a freak athlete who's only purpose is to create havoc in the backfield when told to rush. In other scenarios, he can drop to an OLB position and give a 3-3-5 look, or 3-4 look if the "Star" safety (introduced below) comes in the box.


An adjustment you might see on short yardage, or if by some strange twist of fate the Cougs are running the ball well, is a move to this "power" alignment. DTs both move to 3-tech, the DEs are out at 5-tech and Mike is head up on the center. Will moves to the B gap on either side, depending on formation strength. Auburn went to this a few times during the A-Day game against 20 personnel sets.


The 4-2-5 has strengths in it's versatility -- as you might have noticed it can rather effortlessly transition between a multitude of defenses on the fly. This defense is capable of a lot of things with the right personnel at Star and DE. A final tally of its alignments: 4-2-5, 3-3-5, 4-3, 4-4, 3-4. And the coverage is just as adaptable. Let's look at what we should expect to see from it's base:


Ellis Johnson's defense has three safeties; a free, weak side, and "Star". The Star ($) safety is a linebacker hybrid that is capable of walking into the box for a more traditional 4-3 look, and Johnson can play two Stars instead of a weak side safety to give a 4-4 look. These players are traditionally undersized linebackers in high school, meaning 6 foot 1 inches and around 200 pounds. The Star for Auburn this year was a stand out during their A-Day game (spring game: video), Justin Garret. This is the key player on the Auburn defense, and his play likely will dictate the majority of reads for the Wazzu Air Raid. His coverage will be most similar to what the Cougs faced against Oregon State Nickel CB Jordan Poyer last season.

Auburn is able to play a fairly wide variety of coverages (read more about basic defensive coverage here). The five secondary players are set up to transition to Cover 4, 3, and 2 rather seamlessly. Against traditional pro style sets, the default would bring the star and weak side safeties into the box, lining up 3 by 3 off the defensive end and play Cover 3 behind it, or only the Star down and play Cover 2 or 4, looking like a 4-3 defense.

Against the Air Raid, I would expect their default to look like what you see above. During the A-Day game, the Tigers gave us a look at some of their alignment facing Wazzu formations. First is Ace.




The responsibility for calling out coverages is split between two players. The read side FS will call coverage for that side and the WS safety will communicate the backside coverage with the backer and corner on his side. For the description of coverage specifics, I'll be drawing heavily from a list of links provided by Coach Hoover, an excellent X and O resource. This may not be exactly what the Cougs will face on every down of their game against Auburn, but it should describe the Tigers' base coverage against 10/20 (one running back and two running back) personnel formations in the Air Raid.


On the weak, or boundary side, the WS and C play a combo man coverage commonly called "Blue", although the nomenclature can be different place to place. Both players read the #2 WR (for a defense, wide receivers are numbered outside-in on both sides of the field). The important line is 8 yards down field. If #2 WR makes an out cut before 8 yards, WS makes a "wheel" call and the C leaves #1 to come up on #2. If #2 WR cuts inside before 8 yards, WS makes an "in" call, passing him to the backer who walls, and then doubles #1 with the C. If the #2 WR pushes vertical past 8 yards, the WS takes him man to man and the C mans up with #1.

Any time coverage switches, it's an advantage to make that defensive read as difficult as possible. Double moves, wheel-curl combinations and crossing patterns that occur right at 8 yards complicate the defensive switch and man calls. Bubble/Jailbreak screens to the boundary could also be effective for short yardage. Z and X shallow cross patterns would also be difficult for the corner to chase across the formation (#2 gets vertical in this play and would force man coverage by the corner).

On the field side, the Star, FS and C play Cover 2. This isn't the normal Cover 2 where the corner squats in the flat, LB has hook-to-curl, and the safety takes the deep half. Instead, they'll be playing a version called "Robber". Robber coverage is popular with Nickel.

The FS will be about 10 yards off the ball, and over the offensive tackle. At the snap, instead of taking an angled deep half drop, the FS stays flat footed reading the offensive line. If he reads pass from line, he eyes #2 WR. The 8 yard line becomes important again. If #2 WR pushes vertical past 8 yards, the FS makes a "push" call and picks him up man to man. Any cut inside or outside before 8 yards, the FS will look to get under the #1, robbing a dig, curl or post.

The corner is lined up about 7 yards off the ball and bails, playing half coverage over the #1 receiver. The Star is responsible for inside and outside cuts by the #2 WR, and jumps under #1 (robbing) if he gets a "push" call by the FS.

The Robber/Blue combination is pretty standard, but not the only thing they can do from this alignment. For instance, Star and the weak side safety can both crash and the corners/FS drop in Cover 3. When determining coverage remember to check - corner depth, number of high safeties, number in the box. 4-2-5 can disguise things by toying with the number of high safeties and the number in the box it shows before the snap. It can't play with Corner depth all that much.

Put names and numbers to the positions by looking at the post spring depth chart.


Someone forgot to tell No. 21 Jonathon Mincey that despite the +80,000 fans in attendance, this was still a scrimmage. He now holds the honor of being the only college student-athlete (I've heard of) to be ejected from the spring game, and might be the very first application of the new 'automatic ejection for targeting' rule. Whatever, No. 86 Dimitri Reese probably deserved it...and the taunting was definitely necessary. Lesson learned, block the corner on a bubble screen or bad things happen to good people.

Expect this defense to show a few different looks. They didn't do a whole lot in the A-Day game, but defenses don't often show all their cards in the spring. The Base 4-2-5 should give you a good starting point for what they're doing but don't be surprised if they start to mix it up, especially if the Air Raid gets rolling.

If you care to focus on a position during the game, watch the Star (Justin Garret) or field side defensive end. Both will be very crucial to what WSU is able to do on any given play.

For more on the Auburn Tigers, check out College and Magnolia

Joel A. Erickson of also took a look at Ellis Johnson's defense. A link to his post on safeties is here; the others in his series are linked at the bottom of it. His series offers little in the way of Xs and Os or actual scheme, and is mostly coach speak sort of snippets, but you can get a little familiar with the names involved.

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