Auburn needs more than Lawson to improve defense
Carl Lawson’s absence from Auburn’s starting defense last season was noticeable. The sophomore spent the year recovering from a torn ACL he suffered last spring, and, not coincidentally, Tigers logged 11 fewer sacks than they did the year before, dropping from third in the SEC in 2013 to third-to-last in the conference in 2014.
Many have wondered how Auburn’s defense, which allowed at least 30 points in each of the final eight games of last season, might have been different had Lawson been a part of it. Some have even questioned whether former defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson might have a job right now had Lawson played last season.
The defense certainly wouldn’t have been worse with Lawson playing a role up front, but in studying the numbers it’s not as though the Auburn defense was stellar outside of a lackluster pass rush.
Yes, Lawson’s absence did hurt the pass rush, and it caused shakeup along the defensive line that had numerous players playing out of position to compensate. This absolutely affected not only Auburn’s pass rush, but its ability to stop the run with its front four as well.
But for what it’s worth, the Tigers only allowed five more yards per game on the ground in 2014 than they did in 2013. That’s a modest increase at most.
And to those who think Auburn’s inability to generate a pass rush without Lawson was what caused such dismal showings in pass defense, namely in a loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl, the numbers say otherwise. Even with a less disruptive front four, Auburn actually allowed 26 fewer yards per game through the air than it did during its conference championship run in 2013. The Tigers ranked 12th in the SEC last year in allowing 230 yards per game; they ranked 13th in 2013 in allowing more than 257 yards per game through the air.
Might a pass rush have helped Auburn post a defense that ranked in the top 10 of the 14-team SEC? Certainly, but it’s not as though the Tigers were a dominant defense when Lawson was in the lineup making plays.
And it’s not just Lawson who was missing up front. Auburn also lost star defensive end Dee Ford, who left for the NFL after the 2013 season, and LaDarius Owens, another returning starter who spent much of last year battling his own injuries. The issues Auburn faced along the defensive line had to do with much more than the absence of one menacing pass rusher.
This isn’t an argument against Lawson; the guy is a stud, he’ll likely have a huge 2015 season, Auburn will be better off and fans will be happy to watch it all unfold. But if those fans think Lawson’s return, especially after rehabbing a tough injury and spending a year away from the field, is going to immediately reshape the defense, they’re being naive (and that’s the nice way of phrasing it).
The Tigers have a few experienced talents to replace in the secondary like Jermaine Whitehead and Jonathon Mincy, and they have a few more to replace up front, namely NFL defensive tackle prospect Gabe Wright. They have a new defense to learn under new DC Will Muschamp. They have new pieces to work into the lineup like five-star signee Byron Cowart, and they have to find a way to work Lawson back into game shape.
Auburn’s defense wasn’t very good last season, and it cost Ellis Johnson his job. But to be fair, the defense wasn’t very good in 2013 either, masked by an electrifying offense and a few miracles against Georgia and Alabama on its way to the last-ever BCS Championship Game.
Perhaps changing coordinators and schemes will bring the improvement Auburn has sought on defense. Lawson will certainly help, but he’ll also need help. Anyone who thinks otherwise is putting themselves at risk of disappointment come the fall.