Dissecting Gary's Crowtons: How to Beat Auburn's Defense

Much of the talk on LSU message boards swirls around the issue of how will the vaunted LSU defense handle the super-talent, athletic marvel, Cameron Newton and the powerhouse Auburn offense. Rightfully so. It's the old irresistible force vs. immovable object thing, I suppose. All eyes and media attention will certainly be turned to this issue, but truthfully, I don't think that will be what decides the game. I trust that our defense will be up to the task. Auburn is the best offensive team we have faced all season long. We hold our opponents to 126.14 yards under their average, per game. We hold them to 12.5 points under their average, per game. In my estimation, it's easier to stop scoring than it is to score. I've seen many high-powered offenses meet their demise once coming up against a great defense. I've rarely seen a great defense get roasted.

So all that being said, I think the most important aspect of this game will be the LSU offense. This space is typically reserved for a review of some of the plays from the previous weeks game, but coming off an uninspiring, uninteresting game against McNeese, I thought it better to highlight what's coming up against Auburn. How can we attack their defense? How can LSU run an effective offense, even if that doesn't translate to a ton of points?

Let's start by reviewing Billy's excellent primer regarding the Auburn offense. If you haven't read it yet, you should. But I want to focus on one primary aspect of this piece right now: pace.

  • Speed up the game - Accomplished by snapping the ball within 5 seconds of spotting it. This makes the offense the aggressor and takes the defense out of their routine of reading and adjusting to the formation.
  • Lengthening the game - Making the game take longer to finish, and subsequently testing the conditioning of the defense. In his words, a 48-minute high school game involves only 7-8 minutes of actual playing time (a few seconds for each play). If you can lengthen this by 2-3 minutes, you are effectively making it a 5-quarter game. You go for it on 4th down, try onside kicks, and do anything you can to get the ball to your offense's hands.

By Malzahn's very admission, he wants to extend the game. He wants his offense to run as many plays as humanly possible. The idea is pretty simple... the more chances we have for plays, the more chances we have to score. The more times our offense takes snaps, the more tired the defense grows. Ironically, Chavis typically forces teams into the same scenario. Sans the North Carolina game, I can only remember one play where we were beat "over the top," and that came as a result of Brandon Taylor vacating his deep zone on a blitz and we still had good coverage on the play. For Chavis, every offensive play is an opportunity for your offense to make a mistake. Three and outs are ideal, of course. But if you are going to make yardage, you are going to make it underneath, and you are going to have to do it repeatedly to get to my endzone. It's the philosophy of the Tampa 2 defense... you can't beat us 8, 9, 10 times in a row without making a mistake. Thus far this season, it's worked very well.

So, what does this have anything to do with the LSU offense, you say? It's simple really. You've heard it plenty of times before: "the best defense is a good offense." Well, sort of (I actually think Malzahn's offense may be counter-productive to his defense's success). But the best defense is an offense that keeps the other team's offense off the field.

I've seen a lot of hand wringing about how LSU should not only start Jarrett Lee but let him fling it wildly, 40-50 times a game because Auburn's pass d is so suspect. To me, that's a recipe for disaster. A) We aren't a pass first team. Why change your identity? B) Every incomplete pass is a loss in the sense that it makes the game longer. Yes, I know, Auburn has been effective against the run.

Team YPC Yards
Kentucky 3.7 110
Arkansas 4.9 138
South Carolina 2.8 79
Clemson 4.0 187
Mississippi State 3.5 110

 

Other than Arkansas, Auburn limited every meaningful opponent to 4.0 YPC or lower. An accomplishment, right? Well, they also still yielded over 100 rushing yards in every game but one. To give you some perspective, LSU has allowed 100 total rushing yards twice this year (McNeese and Mississippi State). We limited Vanderbilt and West Virginia to fewer total yards than they limited Clemson to rushing yards. Obviously their defense isn't on par with ours, but to me, this says Auburn can be run on.

However, lining up and running it 50 times a game will not suffice. We almost must tactically strike through the air. Here is an outstanding breakdown of how to attack different defenses. Auburn runs a Cover 2 defense and these are the major weaknesses (if you don't want to read the piece): deep middle and sidelines, off tackle rushing. So how have opponents attacked Auburn? And more importantly, how should LSU?

First off all, let's talk about their strengths: Nick Fairley.

That pretty much covers it. I kid (sort of), but Fairley is really the only exciting part of this defense. Their front four is solid, but not exceptional. Antoine Carter is a very solid player, but not a world beater. Fairley is the one to watch. As Drake Nevis is to the LSU defense, Fairley is to Auburn. He leads the conference in TFL and is tied for 2nd in sacks. he's a disruptor and a very, very active defender. The number one key for LSU's offense Saturday is getting this guy blocked up.

Otherwise, their defense is woefully lacking in playmakers. After watching them, there's just not a ton to get excited about. They don't cover well. They don't tackle well. They exhibit mental lapses. They aren't overly fast. They aren't overly big. I know this sounds harsh, but this defense reminds me a lot of Malleveto. Lacking in talent at key positions and generally poorly coached. Good defensive coaching can cover a multitude of sins. Our guys were so well coached last year, we still had a good defense with zero pass rush. Arkansas, even after yielding 65 points, is still ranked 32nd in the country. Why? They lack talent, but they are well coached. Auburn seems to be suffering from a lack of both.

So how should we attack them?

I took a few concepts from both Arkansas and Mississippi State that I believe LSU can run effectively. Obviously their offenses vary from ours, so I tried to only take from things we would run. For instance, MSU had a lot of success running the triple option from under center. I highly doubt we'll see that implemented. Now the option on the other hand... Anyways, for each play, I'll give you the screen shot then the diagram. I'm always looking to advance this sucker.

Throwing to the running backs.

Against both Mississippi State and Arkansas, Auburn struggled to defend throws to the running back out of the backfield. With Spencer Ware's role increasing and Shep's use in the backfield, I would not be surprised to see both of these two get multiple catches coming out of the backfield, and potentially some big plays.

Auburndefense5_medium

Play24_medium

Let me preface this by saying that part of the reason this play was effective was due to MSU running the triple option from this formation multiple times. I can't recall us ever lining up with two backs in the shotgun, but I may be mistaken. Regardless, we have certainly run the option and zone/read plays, which could very easily be transformed into something of this nature. Relf play actions to Ballard up the middle. The motion of the other back going right attracts the attention of the defense, who flow to their left anticipating the option play. Instead, Ballard is able to sneak by the 2nd layer of the defense and Relf hits him for an easy 22-yard gain. This is the perfect type of passing play for Jefferson. Relf didn't make a particularly good throw here, but Ballard was so wide open, it didn't matter. However, if the throw was good, it would have been six.

Auburndefense1_medium

As you can see, the Auburn corners are playing five yards off. Another key thing to note here is that Auburn LOVES remaining in their base d. They will sub and match at times, but for the majority (at least what I saw), they are going to play their base 4-3 lineup. Therefore, in this formation, a LB is over the inside receiver on the left side of the formation. Notice how the strength of the formation is to the left (2 WRs, 1 TE). Because of this, Auburn's safeties will adjust accordingly, both flowing immediately to their right to compensate for open deep sideline and the deep middle.

 

Play23_medium

However, Petrino's playcall brilliantly counters this. He realizes the safeties will cheat that way after recognizing the formation. Both the receivers on the left cut their routes short, and the TE runs up the seam to occupy the deep safety nearest the middle of the field. Now, here's what I find interesting. It appears Auburn runs a mixed coverage on the play. The safeties, middle and ROLB are 100% in zone coverage. However, it appears both the LOLB and LCB are in man. It's difficult to tell from the tape because the corner does appear to bail and does seem to be looking into the backfield, but he also runs inside with the receiver on the short route. Perhaps one of you coaches can inform me. Regardless, the LOLB is manning up with the back out of the backfield, and is now isolated. The WR on the right runs a subtle pick that halts up the LB just enough allowing Wingo to get a step streaking down the sideline, which is now wide open due to the safeties both flowing to their right. Wilson lays a nice toss in there, TD Hogs.

We run this formation, and this play bears a resemblance to what we did with Toliver against Florida with much success.

Perimeter Runs

Auburn's ends struggle at holding the perimeter. This actually means, believe it or not, the option could be a very effective play on Saturday. As much as it may pain some of the LSU fanbase (and stupidly so), JJ's ability to run the option will be very important in this game. We also saw last weekend an implementation of an off-tackle toss play to Michael Ford. Don't be surprised to see that bad boy again. God love Ridley, but his burst to the edge does not match Michael Ford's. Further, getting Shep involved on Jet sweeps in the run game will only give us another option for perimeter runs.

Auburndefense4_medium

This play look familiar? It should, we've run it identically. This is simple, and with Auburn's woes defending the perimeter run game, extremely effective. Bring Shep in motion across the formation, zone block in the direction of his motion and give it to him on the jet sweep. In this case, Bumphis picked up 11.

Play25_medium

This is the basic play. If we are able to get Shep's speed on the perimeter, big plays will come.

Bubble Screens

Auburndefense6_medium

This is one part of our offense we've begun to institute more liberally with Jarrett Lee in the game. We ran them with some success against Florida, and tried about a dozen of them against McNeese without much success. Against both Arkansas and Mississippi State, Auburn proved particularly vulnerable to the bubble screens. Early on, Arkansas started by hammering them underneath with short throws.

Play26_medium

It's obvious Auburn is scared of getting beat deep, so they are going to give you these underneath throws. However, they really struggled to tackle, so there's a great chance one of these can turn into a long gainer. Also, I'd love to see our WRs block with the technique State used rather than the stalk blocking we use. State's guys just went for the cut. It's difficult and if you miss, play over, but if you land it, it's more effective.

Slants

The slant is the play Toliver obliterated Florida on. I've also seen JJ throw it well too, so it's a play both of our QBs can operate. With the soft coverage dictated, slants underneath should be available all day long.

Auburndefense3_medium

This one is straight out of the old Steve Spurrier playbook. Slant, slant, slant baby. Every receiver we feature (TT, RR, Shep) is talented after the catch. On this play, Wilson hit Childs in stride and he took it into the end zone. The play was well executed, but also a great example of Auburn's poor tackling/pursuit/technique. It never should have been a touchdown. Every route was run at about 7 yards length. Petrino was trying to move the chains. But I'm sure he'll take it.

Play27_medium

We run this formation, but I'm not sure I've ever seen the triple slants like this. Would love to see us execute it.

Verticals

Now for the part that gets everybody excited, vertical passing. Yes, some of the biggest weaknesses in the Cover 2 are the deep middle and deep sideline, which can be exploited through vertical routes. To take advantage of this, you need to be able to occupy the deep safeties to get them far enough away from the middle of the field or the sidelines... wherever you are targeting. I cited an early example of Petrino using a formation to do this to isolate a RB on a LB in a wheel route.

Auburndefense2_medium

The real problem can come if your MLB doesn't get enough depth in his drop. That creates an area (albeit typically a small one) where a WR can get behind him for a big gain. If the ball is thrown properly it will come in fast and with just enough touch to sail over the LB's head. On this play, Wilson threw it perfectly, so much so Danielson exclaimed, "There's not a backup in the country that could make that throw." As you can see, both safeties bail to cover the deep halves and help on the deep sideline routes. From there, it becomes the linebackers responsibility to take the inside guys. Adams sprints up the seam and uses his speed to get behind the dropping LB. Wilson drops the ball in there nicely, touchdown.

Play28_medium

The design is simple. The TE stays in to chip and then pops out for a safety outlet if all the deep throws are taken away. The question is, can Lee or Jefferson make this throw? I don't expect to see a ton of this from our offense, but there is a chance we could see it this weekend.

So, there you have it. That's how you (or how I would) attack the Auburn Cover 2. They are certainly susceptible to many things. As I said, I'm not overly impressed with their tackling or coverage ability. They seem to be out of position frequently. To top it all off, they suffered more injuries to their secondary, which was already struggling. Auburn doesn't run a lot of exotic stuff. They don't really try and disguise coverages or blitz from every angle. They will blitz, on occasion, but it's not like staring at the Alabama defense.

I expect to see a heavy dosage of Ridley, Ford and perhaps even JJ in the run game. Honestly, this is what an ideal drive against their defense should look like:

Auburndefense7_medium

A nice mixture of run and pass that keeps Cam Newton chilling on the sidelines. If we manufacture two or three long drives such as this that result in scores as well as taking some clock down on our other possessions, we stand a great chance at winning this ball game.

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