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Red Zone Problems in the Iron Bowl

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In a GIF-less rant, WRE tries to explain what caused problems in the red zone.

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Bill Walsh, one time coach of the Stanford Cardinal and the San Fransisco 49ers, had this to say about his red zone offenses.

I have seen many teams march the ball beautifully, but right around the 15-yard line, they are already warming up their placekicker, because right at that point defenses change, the field they can operate in changes, and suddenly their basic offense goes all to pieces.

My contention is that if we are on their 25, we're going for the end zone. Failing at that, we will kick a field goal. In an evenly matched game, I don't want to try to take the ball from their 25 to the goal line by trying to smash it through people, because three out of four times, you won't make it. Unless you are superior. Of course, if you are vastly superior it makes very little difference how you do it.

Walsh was the father of the West Coast Offense, a pass-heavy system designed to maintain possession and stretch defenses horizontally with short, accurate, and consistent passes to sure-handed receivers. Of course he didn't want to try and smash the ball through people.

I think Gus Malzahn, on the other hand, would love nothing more. But there is still some merit to the idea that defenses change when the field gets shorter. And last Saturday, Alabama's defense made the better adjustments.

Through Auburn's first possession (that didn't begin with a turnover), Alabama played Cover 3 which allowed them to bring a safety down into the box for run support. The Crimson Tide did a good job of disguising which safety would come down, and when the run went in toward that safety, it was stopped for little to no gain. However, when the run went the other way, it was good for at least five yards if not more.

Once Auburn reached the end zone, the safeties didn't have to play as deep and they were quicker to commit to stopping the run. This did slow down the run game a bit, but not as much as you might think. Instead, it really hurt the passing game.

Nick Marshall has a very strong arm and he's had plenty of opportunities to display his strength over the last two seasons. In yards per completion, he ranked 13th nationally last year and ranks 13th this year, too. But when the top can no longer be blown off the defense, a quarterback has to rely on decision-making, accuracy, and timing, things Marshall has and has improved on, but things that are not his true strengths.

Of course, the blame isn't all on Marshall. There were some balls thrown that would have been tough grabs, but the intended receiver was the only one who had a shot of catching it, only the receiver didn't actually catch it. Then there is the play calling itself. On 1st and Goal from the Bama 7, Malzahn called three straight passes. I get that an incompletion on first down seemingly mandates another pass to make up for it. And when that one is incomplete, the only chance at a touchdown is yet another pass. But it's frustrating to watch regardless.

Another problem with the red zone passing game is the utter lack of an intermediate threat over the middle. We did see the addition of a consistent slant route threat in Duke, but nothing else threatens those linebackers between the hashes, five to ten yards deep. And when something short like that is thrown, there are zero yards after the catch.

I don't know what to think about this. Does the playbook not include those throws or are the coaches not calling them because of what they've seen from Marshall? Or maybe the coaches don't call those plays because the passes would get batted at the line of scrimmage. Regardless, this is quite a hole in this offense. One that isn't going to ruin the offense, but one that can be exploited by defenses if they know they don't have to defend it, especially in the red zone.

Auburn had a great red zone offense until this game. Part of that has to do with what Walsh said. You won't make it unless you're superior. Auburn has a good offensive line, a great back, and a dynamic threat at quarterback. But when matched up against equally talented players in crimson, the playing field was a bit more even. Auburn couldn't just run it straight at this defense in the red zone and the solutions through the air just didn't connect.