Evaluating the Auburn Offense - LSU 2016

John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

So we’ve all been concerned about Gus Malzahn’s offense in recent years to say the least, and for good reason. Then a few weeks ago, the excellent Chris B. Brown had an article detailing the implosion of Chip Kelly’s offense and how it became so ineffective and predictable. If you read it I’m sure some of you agree it was difficult to read as an Auburn fan because it felt so applicable to Malzahn. And then Matt Hinton wrote a similar article this past week about Auburn and how the predictability of Malzahn’s offensive tendencies is the major reason that Auburn is near the bottom of the FBS in negative plays. So with the always excellent LSU defense coming to town, things did not look good for the Auburn offense. If there was one ray of hope it was the fact that Malzahn seemed to recognize that there was a problem and reportedly handed playcalling duties over to Rhett Lashlee. So what did Lashlee do differently and how well did it work?

Well I’m just a random internet Barner, but after charting Auburn’s offensive performance last Saturday, I offer you my impressions on that question for whatever it may be worth.

What Went Right?

I’m told doctors are fond of a saying, something about doing no harm. It seems like a pretty good idea to me and Lashlee apparently agrees. The Auburn offense has many ailments including lack of explosive plays and red zone inefficiency but job number one in triaging this patient was to stop the massive bleeding that was Auburn’s negative plays. In this regard, Lashlee succeeded. Aside from a couple of sacks, Auburn’s only negative play was a statue of liberty handoff to Stanton Truitt. Coincidentally, this was one of the most Malzahn-esque play calls, happened early in the game, and things got much more conservative as the game went on. No carry by an Auburn running back produced a loss of yards (a few were really close but I’ll take it.)

Lashlee did a couple of things to make this happen. First, Auburn ran North/South between the tackles early and very often. By my estimation, more than 80% of Auburn’s runs were designed to go between the tackles. That’s a gutsy call against a front seven like LSU, but it mostly worked. Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway averaged 4.2 and 3.6 yards/carry, not eye-popping numbers by any means, but good enough, and most importantly consistently positive. These plays were quicker and not the slow developing run plays with various fakes and guards pulling to reach the defensive end we saw in previous weeks. And perhaps the inside run success allowed this, but the few toss-sweeps we ran worked very well. I counted 3 of them that went for around a 4.6 yard average. If you want to run outside the tackles against LSU that was a good play to do it with (the jet sweeps, not so much).

Second, Auburn’s relationship with the quick swing pass fundamentally changed. Teams have been teeing off on that play thus far this year and in response, Lashlee called it a grand total of two times in this game. Both were relatively safe and moderately successful early in the game. But more importantly, Lashlee added the quick swing pass pump fake twice in the game later on. I loved seeing this because I think it undoes a predictable Auburn tendency and takes advantage of what the defense expects when they play Auburn. In addition to producing two big downfield passing plays in this game, it gives opposing teams something to consider. They now have to worry about defending more of the field where before they felt comfortable cheating towards the flat when it looked like a quick swing pass. And when Auburn does throw the swing pass again hopefully this will earn the receivers a bit larger cushion.

We also saw a couple of old-school screen passes to the running back as well. I can’t remember the last time I saw Auburn run one of those. Tunnel screens to a wide receiver, sure, but inviting the rush and throwing to a back? I don’t remember one of those since Tubberville left. Granted we didn’t run it a lot or with great success, or with as many linemen to block downfield as you usually see, but I liked this too as a good response to defensive lines that have been making a beeline upfield towards Sean White & friends. Once again, Lashlee is giving defenses something to think about.

What Needs Work?

While I appreciate why Lashlee went as conservative as he did, there were times when it cost Auburn, several in the red zone. The first example that comes to mind is the slew of 7 consecutive run plays at the beginning of the second quarter that ended with a Sean White coverage sack on a rollout forcing Auburn to settle for a field goal. I love the willingness to establish the run, and I can appreciate the Malzahn idea of running the same play multiple times if it was successful, but I think this got carried away to an extreme on this drive. Pettway had 4 consecutive runs between the tackles in the red zone on this drive. Sometimes that’s great and you pound an opponent into submission, but I thought that was an unreasonable expectation against LSU. What establishing the run also lets you do though is to play off of it. Had Auburn been able to come up with a creative complementary play earlier in the drive, they may well have gotten a touchdown before going to White as a last resort on third down.

And this leads me to one of my biggest takeaways from the game. I’m a Sean White believer. In my mind he’s one of this team’s biggest assets. He does good things with the football the vast majority of the time and he almost never puts the ball in danger. In this game he threw for 73%. Most years I would have killed to have such an accurate quarterback at Auburn. He did miss a couple of deep balls, but I only counted two blatant misfires from White, definitely no more than three. But Auburn is really waiting until they have to go to White on third down most of the time. And even though White faced 12 plays of 3rd and long, he completed 8 passes on those 12 plays and converted 5 of them for first downs. I think we’re putting him in less than ideal situations and he’s still performing very well. So, what if we set him up for success instead?

I find Bill Walsh’s arguments that teams should be willing to throw on early downs more often very compelling, but Auburn apparently does not. On first down, Auburn ran the ball upwards of 82% of the time against LSU, and north of 60% on 2nd down. I again appreciate the desire to establish the run, and I don’t expect the run/pass split on 1st down to be an even 50/50, but I think White can do some good things if we allow him to throw more on early downs. And having established the run, we can set him up for more success with play action passes on early downs. Of the 16 passing plays on early downs, only 4 had a typical play action element to them. Four more had the deep end around play-action before a deep throw but I wonder how useful that is given how seldom Auburn actually carries through on that fake. I’d much rather see Auburn faking what defenses are looking for and have seen all game than something that haven’t seen even on tape in quite a while.

So What Does This Mean?

We saw Auburn identify its biggest offensive problem and absolutely nip it in the bud. That gives me confidence going forward. We also saw some things that didn’t work and some that did after fixing the negative plays that we can address going forward. When Malzahn said last week that this offense was "really close" last week, I rolled my eyes as hard as any Auburn fan out there. But now I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that notion. We just beat LSU at their own style of football, and outside of the red elephants, I don’t think any remaining defense on the schedule is tougher than LSU’s. Let’s not forget how good of a defense LSU. They are as talented as any unit in the country and very well-coached. And even though they limit what you can do on offense, we still moved the ball very well all game. We’re going to have more offensive success. We all want Auburn to score more touchdowns and I think they can. If Tony Stevens doesn’t drop a couple balls and if Johnson gets one more foot one of his runs, then Auburn would have started to really put LSU away. I’m usually not such an optimist, but put your orange and blue-tinted glasses back on folks because the Auburn offense is starting to look bright again.

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