We continue our Q-and-A series with DKfromVA of SB Nation FSU blog Tomahawk Nation, this time looking at Auburn's defense matching up against the Seminoles' offense. For our answers to DK's questions, click here. Part 1, looking at Auburn's offense against FSU's defense is right here.
College and Magnolia: What makes Jameis Winston so successful as a redshirt freshman? Obviously, he's an extremely talented athlete, but there has to be more to it than that, right?
DKfromVA: Jameis Winston has everything one could possibly want in a quarterback. He's got great size, a powerful and accurate arm, and elusiveness in the pocket. While he's not much of a true running threat, he can run if the situation calls for it, and Jimbo has designed a few runs for him this year. But you're right - what sets him apart from other physically gifted kids is his grasp of Jimbo Fisher's offense. It's been remarkable how well Winston has understood and commanded this system, one that some FSU fans have maligned as "too complex" over the years. Jameis is understands FSU's route combinations, has a great rapport with his receivers, is good in pre-snap recognition, and rifles through his progressions to get the ball to the correct guy. It's this mental acuity that has led to his success in Fisher's offense as a young quarterback. He also handles Fisher's tough coaching very well. In this and the quick movement through progressions, he does well what EJ Manuel struggled to do. Winston is quite mentally tough.
CaM: If Florida State gets to do what it wants, how do the Seminoles set up their offense? Does Jimbo Fisher make a conscious effort to keep the offense balanced with Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. on the ground, or is he happy to let Winston sling it all over the field for most of a game?
DK: The Jimbo Fisher offense is predicated on being able to beat a defense in a lot of different ways. His favorite word, on offense and defense, is "multiple." To that end, the FSU offensive philosophy is to take what the defense is giving. If the opposition tries to load up against the run, FSU will throw to even out numbers in the box. If the opposition plays soft coverage, the ‘Noles will throw underneath hitches until the DBs come up to take them away. And if Florida State has numbers up front, they'll run. Obviously it's a great deal more complex than this simplification with constraint plays setting up shots and tendency breaking, among other things, but that's the basic idea. Some fans have complained about this in the past, calling it dabbling in a lot of areas and not having a "true identity." The truth of the matter is that Fisher's offense has been good to great since he arrived and is especially lethal this year when he has the personnel to do absolutely anything on offense effectively. This leads to a pick your poison situation for opposing defenses.
We've seen approaches from all over the defensive map in 2013. Teams have tried to blitz, play soft and aggressively in the secondary, force FSU to throw, etc. Nothing has been particularly effective. Florida State can beat you on the ground with its big, talented, and experienced offensive line and three excellent running backs. It can beat you with Jameis Winston throwing to perhaps the best WR corps in the nation and an excellent receiving tight end. It can beat you by working its way down the field in small increments or through big plays. It can even beat you after a subpar effort from its offense because its defense and kicker are so good. Now, I'm not sure that FSU can survive a BAD game on offense and defeat Auburn on January 6, but there are so many ways the ‘Noles can have success on offense that it's hard to see a dramatic failure on this side of the ball for the #1 group in the country.
CaM: Auburn has had success at getting pressure with its front four this year. Is Florida State's offensive line good enough to force the Tigers into blitzing to get into the backfield? Tell me about the Seminoles' big uglies.
DK: Florida State's offensive line is big, talented, and experienced. And probably most importantly, it is healthy. The ‘Noles have had great injury luck this year overall, and particularly on the offensive line, where it has seen its bouts with injury in the past. The starters have played nearly all of the first team minutes except for those lost to a few minor in game injuries. LT Cam Erving won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the best blocker in the ACC and has had a nice year. Center Bryan Stork won the Rimington Trophy. RT Bobby Hart has had a great year. Honestly, the guards are probably the more talented position group than the tackles. Left guard Josue Matias and right guard Tre Jackson are very good players on the interior.
The line has produced a top-flight rushing attack at #11 in rushing S&P and has allowed FSU to reach #1 in passing S&P and passing downs S&P. The numbers showed that FSU was allowing a sack rate on % of Jameis's drop-backs that was a bit on the high side earlier in the year. I think that this had more to do with #5 holding onto the ball for too long trying to make a big play, something he's prone to doing and certainly one to keep an eye on January 6. The line has been able to have this success even without a true in-line TE to speak of. Nick O'Leary, while vastly improved in his blocking this season, is first and foremost a receiving threat. He's also Jack Nicklaus's grandson! Did you know that? You will by the end of the telecast. Anyway, FSU does not have another real TE threat after injuries in the pre-season and therefore relies on its backs in pass protection in addition to its line. Devonta Freeman has set himself apart from the other two in pass pro. While Auburn has excellent athletes in its front four, I have to think that FSU can hold up pretty well against four rushers alone. The Tigers will probably need to bring periodic extra defenders to get to Jameis Winston, at least if he's getting rid of the ball in a reasonably timely fashion.
CaM: Tomahawk Nation's fearless leader, Bud Elliott, said Florida State has the best receiving corps Auburn will face this year. The Tigers just saw an outstanding group of Missouri receivers in the SEC Championship Game, but would you agree with Bud? Who's the biggest playmaker, and what makes the group so good?
DK: I believe that I would, and probably for reasons other than a lineup of Mizzou and FSU wideouts and an evaluation of talent. I think that what makes Florida State's wide receiver group so good is the array of skill sets that they have and the complements that they present to one another. The one you've probably heard most about this season is 6'6" Kelvin Benjamin, who has vastly improved this year after being the definition of inconsistent during his first two. He's figured out how to use his size effectively without committing offensive pass interference and is very difficult to stop when he high-points the football. He's also really hard to tackle at 235 pounds. Then there's Rashad Greene, the fastest of the trio. He's the one you'll see catching hitch after hitch if Auburn plays off of him on the outside and making them tackle him, something Clemson did not do too effectively on his long TD in such a situation. Finally, senior Kenny Shaw is the best route-runner of the group and a major threat in the middle of the field. He's slightly bigger than Greene, is sure-handed, and also returns punts for Florida State. Shaw is a very reliable slot receiver.
So, Florida State has three receivers that present different stylistic threats. Because of this, I think they're the most complete WR unit in the country and probably the toughest to defend. An opposing secondary needs size, speed, and technique to defend all three effectively whether in man, zone, or combination coverage. Add in someone like TE Nick O'Leary or backup slot receiver Kermit Whitfield and the problems only multiply. It's also entirely plausible that having a Heisman winner throwing to the group overvalues its production relative to others, but that's for individual determination and doesn't really change the argument unless #5 is not playing.
CaM: When Winston struggles -- which, admittedly, isn't often -- it seems to be as a result of having plenty of time in the pocket and being forced to let a play develop. Is that an accurate statement?
DK: I think it is. One of the few knocks on Winston is that he's very aggressive and is always looking to make a play downfield. Now, this is a double-edged sword. Many times when he's held onto the ball too long he has made such a play. Many others he's been sacked, and a few times he's thrown an interception. So, for Fisher, while I'm sure he's drilling Winston on getting the ball out on time, I also don't think he wants to take away his natural aggression. While both of these teams still got drubbed in terms of offensive output, it has seemed to me that what Florida and Duke did in playing physical man coverage against FSU's wide receivers gave Jameis the most pause. Now, man presents significant problems against FSU's skill guys, but Jameis annihilates zone coverages. If there is a book out on Winston, and I'm not sure that there is, it's man coverage that forces him to be patient. When the receivers aren't open right out of there breaks, which Duke and Florida frankly achieved through grabbing the hell out of them, Winston has had more difficulty getting the ball out. This isn't easy to achieve against FSU's wideouts and probably has the added problem of making a defense more susceptible to the run, but yeah, it's just a pick your poison scenario.
CaM: What matchup for Florida State's offense against Auburn's defense -- individual or unit -- favors the Seminoles most?
DK: On paper it has to be the FSU wide receivers against the Auburn defensive backs. We think AU is going to have to devote a lot of resources to defending Kelvin Benjamin, which will have the effect of opening the middle of the field for Kenny Shaw and Nick O'Leary. I'm curious to see how the Tigers will try to defend O'Leary in particular. I'm not convinced that Therezie is a great matchup for AU on O'Leary because of his size, and linebackers have their own issues in covering him. Devoting a linebacker to him in man gives the ‘Noles numbers in the running game without safety involvement. And if there's one thing the Tigers can't have happen on defense, it's FSU running the ball so effectively that the safeties have to come down to take away easy rushing yards. That would spell disaster for AU over the top. If the Auburn corners play soft to keep the ball in front of them, Greene and Shaw will catch hitches and bubbles all night. There aren't a lot of good answers for the Tigers in the defensive backfield unless the front four absolutely whips the FSU offensive line all night.
CaM: What's your biggest concern regarding the Auburn D?
DK: Auburn's front four. To me, this is the matchup to which it boils down on this side of the ball. I don't think the AU linebackers or defensive backs can play with FSU's skill guys consistently. But, the Auburn D-line is very talented, and if there's one way to give the offense a multitude of headaches and take away the effectiveness of those skill guys it's to get beaten up front. The challenge for Ellis Johnson and AU is that they're going to have to do this in both major ways. They'll have to control their gaps in the run game and hold FSU to moderate rushing success without involving their safeties. At the same time, they'll have to get after Jameis Winston in passing situations without breaking contain if they're playing man coverage downfield. All the while, Auburn's defensive line will have to avoid getting too far upfield to open up draw plays or Jimbo Fisher's lethal screen game. Jameis Winston is absurdly good against the blitz, so they'll probably have to do all of this without too much help from other position groups. Basically, this is a huge ask for the AU defensive line. But stranger things have happened than a position group playing the game of its life, and I'll have my eyes on this talented group for the Tigers.
CaM: "If Florida State scores ____ points, I guarantee the 'Noles will win." Fill in that blank.
I think it's 45. I can't see Auburn scoring that many against FSU's #2 ranked defense by F/+, both because they're really good and because the ‘Noles offense plays at a snail's pace compared to Auburn. There just won't be enough possessions to go around for both teams to score in the 40's absent ridiculous points per play numbers. It will be interesting to see how Auburn plays on defense from this perspective. Will they want to play conservatively and make FSU drive the ball, lengthening possessions in hopes of a mistake or red zone failure resulting in 3 points instead of 7? If so, it's easy to see how Auburn's tempo might not reach its maximum cumulative effectiveness if FSU's defense is off the field for 5 minutes at a time and not facing the total number of snaps it otherwise would. Will the Tigers choose to play aggressively to try to force mistakes while likely giving up a few big plays? While this could increase the effectiveness of tempo and the likelihood of a shootout, it could also very possibly create a situation where AU finds itself down a few scores to FSU, which would present a challenge for a run-first offense, even one as prolific as Auburn's. I can't wait for January 6 to find out the answers to all of these questions.