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Containing DeShaun Watson on Third and Long

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Auburn's chances hang on our defensive line.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn's defensive line has gotten a lot of positive reviews this offseason.  They're talented and deep.  Clemson blogger Brian Goodison named this as the matchup he was most nervous about.  We'll figure out how good they are right out of the gate when they face a very good Clemson offense.

If Clemson can run at us and gain 5, 6, or 7 yards at will, we're in trouble.  The game won't be close.  I don't see them doing that.  I think Auburn will be able to put Clemson in a lot of 3rd down and 4+ to go situations Saturday night.  What happens on those third downs will decide the game.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: the challenge to defending Clemson is containing a true dual-threat quarterback like DeShaun Watson.  Most of the mobile quarterbacks out there are in the Nick Marshall model of runners who throw well enough.  Watson can run like Nick Marshall but he has a legitimately great and accurate arm.  He has a stable of great receivers.

So, what do you do?  A fan's first instinct would be to send pressure.  The issue is, when your ends rush aggressively upfield, you create lanes for Watson to slip through as seen here.  To counter that, around 2010, defenses started treating their entire line as "spies," holding their position and trying to corral the quarterback.  Once upon a time, it was the job of the offensive line to maintain pocket integrity; under these new schemes the job fell to the defensive line to keep the quarterback from escaping the pocket while slowly tightening the noose.

The issue with doing that with Watson is that if you give him a soft rush and time to throw, you just give his receivers more time to break free.  Watson is accurate enough to find them as he did here.  Alabama's defensive line gives a fairly soft rush.  They even keep a linebacker out of coverage as a spy.  Watson has neutralized five defenders and still has four seconds to throw a deep ball where the safety can't help.

Let's look for a new approach to one of the best defensive minds in the game, Gene Chizik.  North Carolina pushed Clemson to the wall last year in the ACC Championship Game despite having a severe talent deficit.  Here's a Clemson 3rd and 8 on an early drive.

3rd and 8

North Carolina lines up showing man coverage with two safeties on third down.  DeShaun Watson does the math.  Five offensive lineman and one running back (who the middle linebacker is responsible for) against four defensive linemen and one linebacker.  UNC is outnumbered and he's thinking scramble.  UNC sends the defensive end on the bottom of your screen hard upfield.  The DTs use a read and react technique.  They're not trying to get upfield, they're going to follow Watson.  The boundary side DE uses feigns a rush but drops back as a robber to prevent a quick slant route then becomes a second spy.  The result, he and the middle linebacker flow to the ball and run Watson out of bounds three yards short of a first down.  North Carolina used this DE as a robber/spy to great effect all night.

North Carolina also slowed them down on third and long by bringing pressure selectively and intelligently.  Later in the first we get a 3rd and 9.  North Carolina again shows man cover 2.

3d9

But this isn't a man 2.  Really, it's a man cover 1 (there's only one safety deep).  The linebacker over the slot receiver to the boundary side has responsibility for the running back.  When he stays in to block, the linebacker goes in on a delayed blitz.  The other two linebackers stunt and the defensive line maintains pocket integrity.  Watson feels the pressure, rushes his throw and the Tarheels hold.

Mix up you coverages and disguise pressure.  Here we are in a 3rd and 10 situation in the second quarter.

3d10

North Carolina is showing man cover one and a blitz from the linebackers on both edges.  Right before the snap, the defensive backs bail out to reveal a zone.  At the snap, the linebackers who are showing blitz bail to cover their zones.  The middle linebacker fires.  Watson misreads the coverage.  He thinks he has to get rid of the ball quickly and does, completing the pass short of the first down.

The Auburn front's ability to pressure and contain Watson on third and long is the matchup for Auburn fans to watch.  If Lawson, Cowart, and Davidson hold their own on the edge and slow DeShaun Watson's ground game, Auburn stands a chance.  If the defensive line lets Watson create first downs with his legs on passing downs, it's going to be a long night.  If we start having to account for Watson with multiple linebackers on passing downs, it's going to be a long night.

We know how good they are, we know how dangerous they are.  I would advise Auburn fans tailgating at Jordan Hare and around the world to raise a glass and toast DeShaun Watson in the tradition of British Naval officers: "To the confusion of our enemies!"