This article is a complementary piece to my Auburn personnel breakdown from Wednesday (readers might also check out the associated Reddit thread, where I posted 10 questions for Auburn fans and got a lot of substantial replies).
Today I’ll be breaking down the film from all 13 of Auburn’s 2018 games that I reviewed and charted for this project. All of the video clips I selected are representative in the sense that any play I’ve posted happened dozens of times over the season and these are just the clearest visual examples, though the more interesting stuff will naturally get more coverage. Hopefully this will demonstrate the strengths and opportunities Oregon will face tomorrow.
Thanks to Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer of the AU Wishbone podcast for their insights into the team. This was a great interview, going through Auburn’s roster, coaching, and the history of the team, with a lot of color and reminiscing about our respective regions’ encounters with the others’ football culture.
In 2018, this offense was a bit more traditional in the sense of being more focused on downfield passing and less on QB runs than other iterations in the past, and I expect with the QB choice that Coach Malzahn has made that’ll continue in 2019.
The core concept in this offense, however, remains the run-pass option. Some examples:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them in 1⁄2 or 1⁄4 speed.)
- :00 - The defensive end crashes on the inside give, the safety widens to deal with the fieldside sceen, so the read is a QB keep.
- :07 - The end crashes so the QB pulls it out, the backer does not pursue the sweep, so the read is to throw to the sweep man.
- :15 - The cat blitz catches the QB by surprise even though the safety coming down is part of his read. Surprise blitzes to confuse the decision tree are a big part of shutting this offense down.
- :29 - Another surprise blitz. The QB needs to see this coming and commit to throwing the ball immediately instead of riding the handoff fake. His throwaway earns an ineligible receiver downfield flag on #71 RT Driscoll, who’s run blocking.
I think Auburn’s best returning offensive player is #28 RB Whitlow, who’s a threat as a runner and a pass-catcher on a variety of plays:
- :00 - Basic outside zone read, nice patience by Whitlow to wait for the block to develop, and he gets another three yards after contact.
- :08 - Outside power with two pulling guards, the defense gets deep into the backfield and interrupts the pull so Whitlow improvises and cuts back inside for a nice gain.
- :21 - Classic screen concept against a blitz, the throw’s a little behind Whitlow but he corrals it and then shows some amazing moves to get extra yards.
Probably the most unappreciated personnel loss is the senior H-back #27 FB Cox, a longtime starter and a blocker who was used on virtually every play:
- :00 - A lot of good perimeter blocks on this outside run, but Cox has the key one turning the end inside. Check out his excellent footwork to keep his center of gravity balanced.
- :18 - A sweep by the incredibly fast #5 WR Schwartz; here Cox has to sprint out to seal the backer downfield.
- :34 - This play is made by Cox picking up not one but two pass-pro blocks.
The key to defeating this offense is eye discipline:
- :00 - The end reads this outside power toss the whole way, gets off the block cleanly and isn’t fooled by the stutter step to get a big tackle for loss.
- :07 - Here’s a fake handoff that leads to an end-around; the safety tracks it, absorbs the flanker’s block, and frees the corner to get there in time to make the shove out of bounds.
- :13 - The MIKE reads this immediately and gets to the gap before #64 RG Horton can make his pivot to block at the second level.
Auburn will be getting back a couple receivers who missed 2018 with injury; the only real returning experience at the position from last season was a true freshman who had a great debut, #18 WR S. Williams:
- :00 - Probably not a smart throw, and it’s ultimately ruled incomplete, but the effort and body control to nearly come up with this is incredible.
- :28 - Another questionable throw as he’s about to get sacked, but Williams plucks this out of the air for a touchdown.
- :45 - Two great moves to lose the DB on this route, watch how he keeps his balance despite those fluid cuts, and then times the jump and the foot down perfectly.
The biggest limiting factor in the passing offense is fairly poor pass protection blocking:
- :00 - This breakdown is due to miscommunication on the line; the guard/tackle tandems on both sides of the line let through a man because they don’t know their responsibilities.
- :12 - Another ill-advised throw, this rollout pass is hurried because #9 RB Martin misses his block badly.
- :29 - The defense brings five here in a disguise; #77 LG Harrell doesn’t recognize it, #54 C Kim gets beat, and #32 RB M. Miller gets rocked back in a comical manner.
I thought a number of problems in AU’s passing attack came from the playbook poorly utilizing the WR talent they were able to field:
- :00 - This boundary comeback route is never going to work on 3rd & goal because why would the DB give the WR the necessary cushion, there’s no drag route from #23 WR R. Davis and instead there’s two stop routes which bunch up the defenders, and there’s no patience to wait for the back to clear and walk in with a dumpoff.
- :06 - This is a 3rd & long play with all five receivers heading downfield, but all of them stop short of the sticks and two are camped underneath against eight in coverage - there’s just no deep threat to draw off the DBs.
- :26 - AU keeps seven blockers back on 3rd & 7, releasing only three who are quickly smothered, and one of them is a fullback who’s virtually never targeted with the other being curls, nobody is taking the top off.
The fun wrinkle to the offense is a fairly regular use of an unbalanaced line, with Wanogho as tackle over to the right:
- :00 - I love the design of the first play, lots of interlocking parts with two fakes and multiple pulls, but it’s just too sophisticated for the blocking abilities of this line and #86 TE T. Brown.
- :09 - This works a lot better, pure power behind a ton of beef in 12-personnel and an unbalanced line.
- :31 - This is the most Auburn play I saw all year, showing off play-action out of an obvious running down in an obvious running formation ... and a whole lot of goofy luck.
DC Steele employs a 3-3-5, though it might be better understood as a 4-2 front: typically two DTs and an end, plus a BUCK on the line who’ll alternate between stand-up or playing with his fist down. In 2018 they excelled at all three levels - the line players, the two ILBs behind them, and the nickel secondary in pass coverage and run support.
Here’s all of those levels working to put together a great rush defense last year:
- :00 - The first play shows off the departing senior linebackers #57 ILB D. Davis and #49 ILB D. Williams. They diagnose the play before the ball is even snapped and cut inside the blocks for a TFL.
- :09 - Here’s Auburn’s best returning defender, #5 DT D. Brown, annihilating the guard and then staying with the play to make a tackle for loss.
- :15 - Highly drafted #12 CB Dean makes a hell of a play here, sniffing out the toss early and blowing it up.
This defensive front isn’t superhuman, though - I saw it get beat by multiple teams with simple hat-on-hat blocking:
- :00 - Nothing fancy here, a C/RG double-team on the tackle, the RT crushes #91 DE Coe inside, and the H-back cleans up #1 OLB Bryant.
- :18 - There’s effective blocking across the board here: a TE/LT double on #3 DE Davidson, the LG seals #8 DT C. Miller, the center chips Brown and then takes on Davis, and the slot man knocks out #6 S Tutt.
- :31 - More nice one-on-one blocking by the left side of the line on this counter: the TE goes inside then picks up Davidson, the LG uses #95 DT Russell’s momentum, and the LT reverses direction to get just enough of Williams to spring the back.
The defensive line presents a pretty ferocious pass rush up the middle:
- :00 - Brown is playing on the outside of the line, which is an interesting variation they use occasionally. Davidson stunts around, somehow the QB escapes, but Brown -- a 325-lbs tackle -- chases him down from behind.
- :17 - Gorgeous swim move and hit by Brown, just textbook stuff here.
- :33 - Brown completely annihilates the center and forces a fumble.
The secondary has a tendency to give up big plays, however:
- :00 - #4 CB Igbinoghene gets his hips flipped by the double-move and can’t change direction on this sideline route, leaving his man wide open.
- :17 - A great pass rush is wasted by poor coverage: the X-receiver just runs right by the corner in press man, the high safety can’t make a decision, and the Z picks up a DPI flag.
- :31 - The slot man here occupies three defensive backs, and there’s no one left to help Igbinoghene when he gets burned and then whiffs on the tackle.
Auburn’s most interesting defensive tendency is that on 3rd & 5 or longer, they go into cover-1 (man coverage with a single high safety) and immediately blitz everybody left on the field:
- :00 - #24 S Thomas does his job and gets the pass break-up of the slant, but note how tight the corners are playing to eliminate quick throws, and while Tutt is behind his man, the blitz generates so much pressure the QB can’t hit him.
- :07 - Similar coverage though a different blitz structure; this time #13 CB J. Davis can’t make the break-up, and #20 S Dinson has retreated so far back he can’t make the tackle before the sticks.
- :13 - Here’s the downside of this coverage - you’re isolated in space and if you hesitate on the break or can’t make the tackle, you’ve got very little help.
- :25 - We see again the basic gamble of this structure: the whole point is to force a very fast throw, so the DBs have to stick to their man like glue from the instant the ball is snapped. Here, #15 DB Peters makes one small mistake and that’s it, nobody on the rest of the field is in a position to make up for it.