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Gus Malzahn to "help" Jeremy Johnson. What does that mean?

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Avoiding third and long? Better play calling? Some of both or none of either?

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

I love watching or listening to post-game interviews. Sure, there's a lot of buzzwords and cliches from the coaches and players, but on occasion something interesting pops up. After a narrow win over Jacksonville State, Gus Malzahn had this to say...

I thought Jeremy did some good things, but I need to help Jeremy, too. I mean, I need to help put him in some better situations at times, too...

I've gotta get him in some better situations...

He's our quarterback. He's gonna be fine and I'll say it for the third time, I've gotta do a better job of helping him, and we're gonna do that...

Over the course of 10 minutes, Malzahn mentioned helping Jeremy Johnson three times. What does that mean? There are a few possibilities.

Staying ahead of the chains.

A team needs to stay "on schedule". It can't afford to get "behind the chains". An analyst using those phrases is just saying that the team needs to avoid 2nd or 3rd down and long.

Football Outsiders defines each play as either ahead or behind the chains by calling every play either a standard down or a passing down. Passing downs are defined as 2nd & 8 or more or 3rd/4th & 5 or more. On such plays, it is much more likely the offense will pass the ball. All other plays, including 1st and 10, are called standard downs. The offense is just as likely to run as it is to pass.

Has Gus put Jeremy in tough situations by "getting behind the chains" too often?

Nope.

Auburn's leverage rate (percentage of plays that are standard downs) was 76% against Louisville and 72% against JSU. The national average is only 68%. This means Auburn has faced 2nd/3rd and long less often than most teams.

But who has Auburn turned to when it does get in a bad situation? Jeremy Johnson. And that could be another way Gus plans to help.

Calling more run plays on 2nd/3rd and medium/long.

The first two pairs of bars in the graph below show how often Auburn ran the ball in certain situations in 2014. (From Bill Connelly's Auburn Preview)

When the 2014 Auburn team had a standard down, it ran 76% of the time, more than the national average of 60%. But that's to be expected. Since Malzahn has returned to Auburn as head coach, Auburn has been a run-heavy team. This year, Auburn ran on 69% of standard downs against Louisville and 81% versus JSU. Both above the national average and both in the ball park of last year's numbers.

When the 2014 Auburn team had a passing down, it ran only 32% of the time. The national average was 33%. That makes sense. You pass a lot more often when you face 3rd and long. Against Louisville though, Auburn ran on only 20% of passing downs and just 15% against JSU. This tells me that, though the Tigers don't get behind the chains more often than a typical team, when they do, Gus looks to Jeremy to bail them out, twice as often as other teams look to their quarterbacks in the same situation.

Look at the down and distance of Jeremy's five interceptions this year.

  • 3rd & 12
  • 1st & 10
  • 3rd & 19
  • 2nd & 7
  • 2nd & 11

Three of the five are passing downs, and two of those were third and really long.

So maybe Auburn should rely on the running game a little more when it gets behind schedule. But this offense will never live up to expectations if Gus has to hide Jeremy from the defense. Maybe there's something else he can do to help him.

Setting up more big plays.

Since everyone has been harping on Jeremy's ability to go through progressions, Gus was asked if Melvin Ray was the primary read on the touchdown play to force overtime. His response:

He was. We had some different reads right there but we were trying to set it up. The play before, the guy was really peeking, so we felt like we had a chance and Jeremy made a really good throw and Melvin did a great job with the "arm-over" just like Coach Craig teaches it.

The Montgomery Advertiser's video of the play has the best look at how the play worked. Melvin Ray turns back toward the quarterback like its another Hitch and the cornerback takes a big step that way. With the cushion between receiver and defender reduced to nothing, the corner can only hold on for dear life as Ray runs by. Jeremy Johnson throws the ball high so that his receiver is the only one that can make a play.

On Tiger Talk last night, Gus said this was the same play as C.J. Uzomah's game winning touchdown against Mississippi State in 2013.

He did not mention that Auburn did the same thing last week, too. Ricardo Louis' touchdown was the same concept and was also set up by the comeback routes earlier in the game. Is this the only play that can be "set up"? Surely not. Maybe we can see more of this kind of play calling. But I think there's another way play calling could help Jeremy.

Running deeper routes to make the defense back off, and when they do, take was the defense gives you.

When Jeremy Johnson took over for an injured Nick Marshall in the 2013 Florida Atlantic game, he threw a bomb down field to Sammie Coates for a touchdown on his first play. In his two quarters of play against Arkansas last year, we saw Jeremy hit plenty of vertical routes.

Despite Rhett Lashlee saying he would like to take eight vertical shots each game, we haven't seen many passes travel further than 20 yards downfield. And if the defense isn't getting challenged deep, of course they're going to keep the underneath zones covered. And it's those underneath defenders that seem to be giving Jeremy the most trouble.

Now, Jeremy already knows how to take what the defense gives him. He hasn't done it consistently, but when Auburn needed to convert 3rd & 9 in overtime, he earned Gus' praise for doing just that.

That was his [Johnson's] fourth read, okay? And he hit the check down and the guy [Barber] made a play. They had a boundary blitz right there and they disguised it pretty well. He went through his progressions.

Three routes clearing out defenders, a blitz from the other side (JSU's #4), a smart throw by Jeremy, and a strong effort by Peyton Barber allowed the Tigers to convert 3rd & 9 and score a touchdown on the next play. Otherwise, they would have likely settled for a field goal in the first overtime.

So even if the deep routes don't get targeted, they can help the rest of the offense.

But where are Lashlee's deep shots? Where's Four Verts? What about NCAA or Y-Cross? Granted, broadcast views don't show downfield routes, so maybe they're being used more often than I think. And Jeremy's second interception in the Louisville game did come when he threw the deep ball, so maybe he's hesitant to throw it deep. Regardless, those type of plays need to be used to get the defense to back off. Then the short game and even the running game will open up.

What does Jeremy think?

So which is it? How does Gus plan to help Jeremy? By leaning more on the run game in passing downs? Or by calling better plays? Immediately after the game, Jeremy had an idea.

Sometimes we call plays into the wrong defense and we still, you know, I made a bad mistake just throwing an interception right to the guy but that's pretty much what he means. But it was all good, and I just gotta, you know, just take what they give me.

Jeremy points out that the defense sometimes has the perfect call for the offense's play, but puts the blame on himself for forcing the play anyway. He knows he has to take what the defense gives him.

LSU isn't going to give him much, but let's hope Jeremy is able to find it and take it. With Gus Malzahn's help, of course.