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Film Study: How to Confuse and Contain a Mobile Quarterback

A look at how Auburn defended LSU's Brandon Harris.

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Let's get this out of the way first.  I don't know anything.  I picked LSU to score 35 points against our defense.  I thought Brandon Harris would make some plays and that our starting linebackers would be limited.  Had you told me McKinzy and Frost would be fully available, I still would have expected LSU to put up 17-21 against us.  I never imagined what I would see Saturday night.

I rewatched the LSU game yesterday looking for something to break down.  It was harder than you might think.  Auburn didn't give up a lot.  LSU had thirteen drives and only one score.  Seven of the thirteen drives were three and outs.  Auburn had zero takeaways.  Auburn only had one sack.  It's really hard to snuff out twelve offensive drives without a single turnover and one sack.  There are almost no traditional defensive highlights yet Auburn just smothered a young, but talented LSU offense.

So what happened?  Auburn went out and played sound, fundamental, team defense.  While it would be nice to have, we don't need the speed and aggression off the edge this year because we trust our linebackers and secondary to perform their assignments.  We have a solid defensive line that maintains their gap control.  We have linebackers who are able to scrape to the football and make plays.  We have a big, physical, nasty secondary that is athletic enough to play man.

We don't need to gamble as much up front as we did last year.  But, because the defense is a year older Ellis Johnson is showing more looks.  The shifting defensive fronts cause the offense to check into bad plays and give our defense a numbers advantage at the point of attack.

I picked a few plays from one LSU drive in the second quarter that demonstrate how Auburn was able to smother LSU and keep Brandon Harris contained:

Late Second Quarter, Second Down and Five from the LSU 26

Here is a second down and five in the second quarter against LSU.  Auburn shows a man cover two.

2d & 5 presnap

2d & 5 presnap

You can tell it's man by the aggressive posture the corners are taking relative to the receivers.  They are squared up, facing the receivers.  You can tell it's cover 2 because there are two deep safeties.  Auburn is threatening to blitz the linebacker at the bottom of the screen.  Auburn waits for LSU to send the play call in, then adjusts.

2d & 5 shift

Auburn runs a safety into the box showing a man cover 1 look.  The corners are still in man posture on their receivers and have come up even closer in a tight man look.  Auburn has one safety deep instead of two.  The Tigers are basically in a 5-2 allignment Pat Dye would find familiar.  Auburn wants to force LSU to either throw the ball (which by this point we were comfortable Brandon Harris couldn't do) or run into the teeth of a stacked defense.  LSU checked out of their initial play (which I'd be willing to bet was a run) to a hitch route.  Here it is live:

Notice a few things about this play.  First, Auburn's defensive line is rushing under control.  Only four men on the five man front are actually rushing.  The linebacker (Tre Williams) who showed blitz is actually a "spy."  He is keeping his eyes on Brandon Harris and waiting for him to take off.  The other defensive linemen are trying to create and collapse the pocket.  A sack would be great but their main concern is keeping Harris from escaping and creating a big play with his feet.  If Harris wanted to run, he'd have to give up ground by running backwards to get around the edge of the pocket.  That would give our linebackers or safeties enough time to come up and stop him for short gain.  The hitch is a good call against Auburn's defense.  Against a man cover 1 you want something that will allow your receiver to make a quick move to get separation from the defensive back that is far enough away from the middle of the field where the safety can help.  Harris may have also read blitz so he needed something that would get the ball out of his hands quickly.  But it was well-covered and the throw was off.

A word about the pocket.  Auburn's defensive line has to maintain "lane discipline."  You don't want your interior linemen getting too wide and opening a lane in the middle.  You don't want your outside rushers getting too far inside or outside and opening holes off guard or around the end.  You also want them to be mindful of their depth.  You don't want your ends getting deeper than Brandon Harris.  Keep him in front of you.  Doing this minimizes the space Harris has to scramble inside and forces him to run far back and wide in order to escape.  This is what it looks like when Harris tried to escape the pocket Auburn constructed with its controlled rushing later in the game:

Notice that he can get around the end but he has to run backwards and way wide to do so.  By the time he does, Auburn has brought a lot of help from the second and third levels to contain him.  Harris isn't going to be able to run anywhere.  Also note two things about the secondary here: (1) They hold coverage well.  Harris has the ball for a long time and no one comes open against the zone.  (2) They are physical even in a zone.  Reed has his hands all over his man.  Auburn's going to give up some pass interference and holding calls this year but trust me, the secondary would have already saved us the fifteen yards we received in penalties through solid, physical coverage.

Third and Five LSU 26

Here is the next play.  It was well-designed and worked well (before the targeting call at the end).  Watch how Auburn disguises their coverage.

3d and 5 presnap

Auburn is in their 3-3-5 look but something is wrong.  You can't believe the signals their sending in this presnap look.  Our corners are in tight man-to-man.  But we're also showing a three deep zone.  Our outside linebackers are lined up on the line of scrimmage showing an edge blitz.  This look combines two common looks Auburn has given out of the 3-3-5.  Auburn loves to play tight man and blitz off the edge and Auburn will also play a 3 deep zone with zone underneath.  But Auburn does not run these two looks at the same time.  Auburn waited for LSU to audible then jumped into their final look:

Post Audible Shift

You'll notice that Auburn is now showing man to man with a single deep safety (man cover 1) and still threatening to rush five including the two linebackers blitzing from the edge.  But Auburn had another surprise after the snap:

3d and 5 final

The "blitz" wasn't a blitz at all.  The edge rushers move in a controlled manner up the field to again create and collapse a pocket.  Tre Williams puts his eyes on the running back and when he realizes that his man is blocking instead of running a route, runs a delayed blitz.  As before, it would be hard for the mobile Harris to scramble either up the middle or around the edge without Williams finding him.  Now here's the really interesting part.  Auburn showed a five man front but in fact, the nose tackle, Angelo Blackson, drops into coverage.  This is similar to an old "zone blitz" concept but given that pretty much everyone except the lone deep safety is in man, Blackson is really more of the world's largest "robber."  This is what the Nebraska Black Shirts used to call "Cover 11 Robber" coverage but their robber was usually a safety or linebacker taking a shallow zone.  (For the interested, here's an article on how Carolina does it with Luke Kuechley.)  Blackson drops into shallow zone coverage in the middle of the field looking to knock down or intercept any short crossing routes.  This is a fairly unusual coverage and Harris probably wouldn't expect Blackson to be there.  As I said before, this play really worked well until the end.

3rd and 10 from the LSU 41

This is a play that occurred later that same drive.  LSU again faces third down and Auburn goes back to their 3-3-5.

3d & 10 presnap

On first glance, this looks similar to the third and five play we looked at above.  Auburn has three deep safeties.  Auburn's corners are playing off the ball and look like they're showing zone coverage (although Auburn will run soft man coverage with their corners out of that posture as well).  Auburn appears to be playing four underneath zones.  Auburn has a safety on the line showing blitz.  Auburn's middle linebacker and star corner are also in position to blitz from the outside and have shown signs of wanting to blitz.  To be safe, LSU keeps its running backs home to block.

3d & 10 post snap

As we discussed in the summer, the defense has an inherent advantage over the offense.  Offenses are proactive, defenses are reactive.  The offense can always bring more players to the point of attack than the defense can handle.  Here, because Auburn has confused the freshman quarterback, Auburn's defense has created a numerical advantage.  No one blitzes.  Auburn is rushing three defenders against seven blockers.  LSU has three receivers running routes against eight defenders.  Expecting the blitz and tired of having the pocket collapse, Harris "flees when no man pursueth" him.  In the end, Harris throws the ball into heavy coverage and the ball is almost intercepted.

So what are the takeaways from Saturday?

(1) Auburn has the best defense it has had since 2006.  Each level of the Auburn defense, line, linebackers, and secondary are good enough to hold their own.

(2) If Auburn has a weakness, it's the lack of a dominant edge rusher.  Ellis Johnson has transformed this weakness into a strength by designing a controlled approach that contains mobile quarterbacks, maintains gap discipline, and lets the linebackers run free to make plays.

(3) Auburn's secondary is talented, big, and physical.  They can hold coverage as long as they need to.

(4) Our biggest challenges are still ahead but the teams we've faced have been excellent warm ups for the teams to come.

If anyone has a play they'd like me to look at just ask in the comments below.