Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele didn’t think he would ever have to face this kind of LSU offense. When Steele was the defensive coordinator for LSU in 2015, the offense he saw in practice every day finished the season averaging an abysmal 53% completion rate with 180 yards per game on 23 pass attempts. This was the norm for the Tiger football team for decades. Even in a year, 2013, where quarterback Zach Mettenberger put up 10.4 yards per attempt to finish 3rd nationally in the category, the team still only threw 25 times a game. The LSU offense that Kevin Steele would see in 2019 was drastically different than any LSU offense that Steele or the rest of college football had seen. LSU, to that point in the season, was throwing the ball 35 times a game. Joe Burrow was throwing the ball around 31 times a game while Myles Brennan slung it 4 times per game in mop up duty.
Besides throwing the ball a lot, Joe Burrow was throwing it with striking efficiency. In the 7 games leading up to the Auburn game, the senior quarterback’s line was 173/218, 2484, 29-3. That’s 354 yards per game and 11.3 yards per attempt with a 79.3% completion rate to go along with 29 touchdowns to only 3 interceptions. Wild numbers for any quarterback never mind an LSU one. Defenses spent their Saturdays getting torched as they trotted out the defenses they came up with during the spring and summer. Texas got bullied to the tune of 471 yards as Todd Orlando played Cover 1 against Burrow and LSU’s star studded cast of receivers. Florida saw Burrow go 21 for 24 with 293 yards and 3 touchdowns in one of the most dominant SEC performances of all time as Todd Grantham played his over defense.
Steele knew playing Burrow straight up was a fools errand so in the week leading up to the game he drew up a nice new defense that saw him play with 3 d-linemen in a tite front with 7 defensive backs to stifle LSU’s passing attack. They played off, they played cover 2 man, they tried everything to match speed with speed and often double cover the numerous threats LSU possessed. It was a success insofar as giving up 321 passing yards and 187 rushing yards could be called a success. Still, it was Burrow’s worst game of the season in terms of QB rating.
And so we thought maybe that the ex LSU defensive coordinator had found the secret defense that would unravel the LSU Tiger offense. Rush 3 players, find a way to get pressure and clog up the passing lanes. Auburn didn’t rush 3 that often but it set the blueprint for things to come.
For the first 7 games of the season, Burrow displayed incredible timing and accuracy to find Justin Jefferson on deep over routes, Ja’Marr Chase on glance posts, Terrace Marshall on digs to name a few of his favorite routes. When Joe was able to throw in rhythm, he was deadly.
Rhythm is a quarterbacks best friend. I’d say over 90% of a quarterback’s throws in his life, from pitch and catch in the backyard to practice reps to game reps, are thrown in some sort of rhythm. Throwers develop accuracy through this timing. Each route and route concept needs its own rhythm, it’s own timing to finish a dropback and it’s own angle to set the backfoot. When there is a deliberateness to the quarterback decision making paradigm, there is accuracy.
Here is an except from the PFF’s 2019 Quarterback Annual on a quarterbacks time to throw:
“It’s clear from the graph that quicker throws elicit more success for the quarterback, with an accompanying small variability. It’s interesting to note that a quarterback’s average time to throw (with correlation coefficient of 0.48) is one of the most-stable metrics we’ve studied for quarterbacks, suggesting a quarterback’s style of play is a pretty sticky characteristic. Also note that a quarterback’s success on quicker throws is more stable than his success on throws where he takes longer in the pocket, due likely to the fact that throws that require (or end up with) longer times in the pocket are dependent on more factors outside of the control of the quarterback.”
What we can take from that is that throwing in rhythm equals success. Now, however, as Kevin Steele showed his defensive coordinator colleagues around the SEC, not letting Burrow throw in rhythm seemed like the only way to stop him. In essence, treat LSU like they were an Air Raid team.
I had a take this summer thinking about how Air Raid quarterbacks (especially the pure Air Raid quarterbacks from the Mike Leach system) needed to relearn timing after they left that system. You don’t start for a Mike Leach offense and get played straight up on defense. Those guys have to wait around and buy time to make a play because the routes they want to throw early in the play aren’t going to be there often. In 2018, Gardner Minshew’s average time to throw was 2.80 seconds, well beyond the 2.50 seconds PFF threshold. This past season Anthony Gordon had a similar 2.78 seconds per throw. This is how defenses try to snuff out Air Raid teams.
Joe Burrow was about to find out the same frustrating truth when your standard down run rate is a lowly 118th in the country. Before the Auburn game, Joe Burrow was averaging an already pretty high 2.78 average seconds to throw. After Kevin Steele found the magic formula: an unprecedented 3.15. That is a wildly inappropriate number for a quarterback.
When Minshew and Gordon had to deal with these kinda defenses, they still threw the ball a ton but the efficiency numbers aren’t great. Gardner Minshew’s 7.2 yards per attempts and Anthony Gordon’s 8.1 don’t even begin to sniff the top 20 nationally in either year.
All Joe Burrow did was put up 10.4 yards per attempt in the second half of the season. That would put him 2nd in the country (where he ended up finishing when you include his entire season). There was barely a dropoff in efficiency. It’s hard to overstate how hard this change is on a quarterback. All of a sudden, defenses weren’t allowing Joe to do what he wanted to do and he responded by, well, doing whatever the hell he wanted to do.
The LSU pivot was able to play quarterback without rhythm and still put up jaw dropping numbers. He still wants to throw in rhythm. When the opportunities present themselves, he’s still a killer but instead of allowing defenses to force him to throw into tight windows or check the ball down when there is no pressure, he’s waiting around and making huge plays down the field.
We’ve really seen two Heisman winning campaigns from Joe Burrow. The first, a hyper efficient metronome who shredded whatever you put in front of him. The second, a lawless renegade who ran around and then also shredded whatever you put in front of him. It has been a special year.