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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Defensive backs focus on tackling


Walt McFadden saw a Southern Mississippi play develop before it even began during the first quarter Saturday afternoon.

USM receiver Gerald Baptiste caught a screen pass 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, where McFadden delivered a crushing hit.

The play didn't force a turnover. It didn't affect the game's outcome. It was, however, a microcosm of the job the Auburn defensive backs have done so far in 2008.

"We're just working hard and studying the film and knowing the formations," McFadden said. "By them doing a lot of screens, we're not scared to come up and hit or anything."

Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said the cornerbacks' dedication in the film room has helped them snuff out screens and short passes on the field.

That, Rhoads said, makes McFadden's play much more enjoyable.

"It was a big part of our preparation, so that's what makes you feel good," Rhoads said. "We did a number of things in that game that the kids were prepared for, they worked at, they understood, and then they went out there and executed."

With spread offenses becoming more in vogue, there's a greater emphasis on cornerbacks with good tackling ability as well as coverage skills.

"The ability to play them off and press them up and do all that just adds to the weaponry that you have and what the offense has to adjust to," Rhoads said.

Auburn has played more loose coverage this year than it did last season under former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who left for the same position at Texas.

That means the cornerbacks have to be sure tacklers.

So far, they have been. Through two games, 25 of 53 completions have gone for 5 yards or fewer because the defensive backs are making tackles in the open field.

"I don't think it's too big of a challenge," said Jerraud Powers, who was named Auburn's Defensive Player of the Week after leading the team with eight tackles and also making an interception. "If they run a screen, I'm going to cover ground before he gets the ball and can go up field. So that's not a big deal, playing a couple yards off the receiver, because, as long as I do my part, I've got 10 more guys running toward the guy."

Powers leads the team this season with 14 tackles, including nine solo tackles.

McFadden said looser coverage and more zone defense enables the cornerbacks to play more aggressively.

"When we were in man (coverage), they wouldn't do anything but run us down the field, and then we don't know what's going on," McFadden said. "The crowd's going wild, and we don't know what just happened. Now we can see everything in our vision. It's a better thing for us."

It's also allowing more players to get to the football.

Still, cornerbacks such as McFadden and Powers don't mind handling tackling duties by themselves either.

"That's our whole identity," McFadden said. "Our identity is smart, physical tacklers."

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