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Nerd’s Take: Analyzing Auburn’s Offense

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Believe it or not, Auburn’s offense did get better Saturday but concerns still remain.

NCAA Football: Mercer at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Before I go any further, yes I am well aware that all of this was against a middle of the pack FCS team. I am also fully aware that Auburn only held a seven point lead midway through the 4th quarter against that team. Only scoring 24 points against an FCS opponent is not something that gives anybody the warm and fuzzies.

However, like most things in this world, it’s not a black and white issue. In the gray in between, you see a quarterback that is starting to find his footing, a more balanced offensive attack and the potential for bigger things down the road. You also see a rushing attack that continues to struggle to assert it’s dominance, questionable personnel decisions and too many dadgum turnovers. Auburn’s offense made strides Saturday but there is still improvement needed across the board before this offense can put up points against some of the best defenses in the country.

Jarrett Stidham’s Performance

Saturday was the best Jarrett Stidham has looked in an Auburn uniform this season. He wasn’t perfect but as the game went on, I thought he really started to get comfortable in this offense.

It didn’t start that way though. Once again, Stidham opened the game holding the ball too long and watching the pass rush.

Facing 3rd down late in the first quarter, Auburn goes with 10 personnel (1 RB, 4 WR) with trips to the top of the field. Stidham does a good job of working through his progression and finding Eli Stove open on the sideline for the first down. But it takes him WAY too long to find Stove. He has to do a better job of getting off that first read quicker and finding the open man. Great job by the offensive line on this play.

For most of the first quarter, Stidham struggled getting the ball out quickly. He would eventually make a beautiful pass for a nice pickup but he won’t have this kind of time in the near future. However, during the second quarter I thought things started to click for Stidham.

Stidham is looking deep but there appears to be no one open. From another view, you can see he’s trying to hit the dig over the middle to Will Hastings but there are too many bodies in the way. For a split second, it looks like Stidham is going to bail out of the pocket again but instead, he avoids a rusher, resets his feet and checks it down to Kamryn Pettway. I am pretty sure this is the first time he had hit his checkdown man all season instead of trying to scramble or throwing it away, that’s an important step for a quarterback.

He also started showing more poise against the blitz.

Mercer runs a zone blitz here out their 3-3-5 nickel package. The Bears are in Cover 3 Sky, which means that the two outside cornerbacks and the strong safety are covering the deep thirds of the field. The free safety (#5) comes on the blitz along with the weakside linebacker (#2) while the strongside backer (#52) drops into coverage. Stidham sees the blitz, throws it to the vacated area and Nate Craig-Myers makes a nice catch for the first down. Stidham throws this in rhythym and quickly gets the ball out before the pass rush gets home.

Seriously though, this was a ridiculous catch.

By the end of the game, he was looking incredibly comfortable and was shredding the Bears defense.

Auburn is actually in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) on this play but Jalen Harris is lined up in the slot to the boundary side. Stidham drops back, waits for the long routes to open up, steps up into the pocket and delivers a bullet to Kyle Davis for the big play.

I still need to see Stidham perform at a high level against a better defense before feeling confident that he’s found his footing. His slow starts are also a bit concerning but I thought overall he was outstanding Saturday. I mean when you have the second best completion percentage in SEC history, that’s a solid day.

He needs more help from his wide receivers though who frankly just seem soft. Nate Craig-Myers was out muscled for an interception. Kyle Davis, Ryan Davis and Eli Stove literally had the ball ripped out of their hands by smaller Mercer defenders. Those guys have to start playing with a bit more fire and toughness. If this Auburn offense is really going to takeoff, the Tigers are going to need these guys to start winning more 1 on 1 battles and show they can make explosive plays. It’s looking like they have the quarterback to give them those chances, time for them to step up and make those plays.

Running Game Woes

While the passing offense showed improvement, Auburn’s rushing attack continues to underwhelm. The Tigers rushed for only 146 yds against the Bears on 43 attempts. That’s 3.4 yards a carry. Not what you want to see from an SEC offense against an FCS defense.

So what’s going on? Is it missed assignments by the offensive line, bad playcalling or overloaded boxes? Honestly, it’s all three.

Auburn is in 11 personnel again against Mercer’s base 3-4 defense. Pre snap, I would really like to see this checked to a quick pass to the outside. Auburn has 2 guys being covered by one but instead they choose to run it. It’s outside zone and frankly Auburn has the numbers for this play to succeed. However, Casey Dunn doesn’t get off his double team quick enough to reach the playside inside linebacker. The result is the backer runs through a wide open hole and forces Pettway to cut this play inside sooner than he planned. The result is a minimal gain.

This isn’t a bad playcall though like I mentioned above, it might have made more sense to get the ball outside where Auburn has numbers. Still, this is setting up to be a big play with Golson taking care of the end, Cox coming around to fit on the SAM but one missed assignment blows it up.

Other times it’s just math that causes problems.

This time the Tigers are trying to run in 10 personnel. They have trips to the near side and it looks like Mercer is in their 3-3-5 nickel package. Auburn has five blockers against six defenders yet try and run it up the gut anyway. It’s inside zone and Auburn’s OL does a great job. The problem is there is a 6th unaccounted for defender with a 7th quickly arriving. Pettway is met by those defenders and the Tigers are stopped short of the first down.

It looks like it’s supposed to be an RPO. I am not sure if Stidham just makes the wrong decision or if he’s coached to give it on a short yardage play, either way this play is setup to fail due to the number of defenders in the box. Instead, if Stidham pulls this and hits Eli Stove on the quick screen, this play could go for a touchdown.

Gus Malzhan’s biggest buggaboo since Nick Marshall has left is accounting for that extra defender in the box. With Cam Newton or Marshall, the threat of the QB run evened those numbers out. Although Stidham is capable of running the ball, that’s not where he excels and with only 2 QBs now on the roster it’s probably something Auburn shouldn’t do a lot. So how do you handle these overloaded boxes? Well true RPOs help and that showed Saturday.

Back in 11 personnel against Mercer’s 3-3-5 look, Auburn is running a true RPO here. Stidham is reading the nickel CB (#16). If he crashes (he does) then dump it out to Stove on the bubble otherwise give it to Pettway on the inside zone. Stidham makes the correct read and gets it out to Stove for the nice gain. At this point, most every play should be an RPO that allows Stidham to get the ball to the edge if teams continue to stack the box. If that means Auburn throws the ball 50+ times, that’s fine by me as long as we are taking what the defense gives us. Right now teams are crashing inside, determined to not let Kamryn Pettway beat them. Where Nick Marshall’s feet neutralized that extra defender and opened running lanes the Tigers need to rely on Stidham arm to do the same in the short passing game.

Auburn could also do a better job of attacking the perimeter with outside zone runs and buck sweeps. Maybe, gasp, put in a quicker back and attack the edge. That’s how Auburn scored their first touchdown of the season.

Why Auburn has refused to run outside in the past two games, I have no idea. The Tigers have a speedster in Kam Martin who could easily help the Tigers attack defenses to the outside and soften up some run lanes in the interior. Auburn has a hammer in Pettway who they seem to think can even those numbers in the box by breaking tackles like he did last season but you can’t rely on that philosophy for consistent success or against better defenses. Hopefully, with Kerryon Johson’s return this Saturday and Gus Malzahn’s assurance that Martin will have a bigger role moving forward, the Tigers show a little more variety in their rushing attack and unload that box a little for Bubba.

Touchdown Auburn

Last week, we sadly did not have any touchdowns to breakdown. This week we have far fewer than expected but after a 117 yd, 0 TD performance, I will take what I can get.

Auburn runs Iso Zone from 11 personnel inside the 5 yard line. Great job by Braden Smith fitting on the playside inside linebacker who is trying to plug the A gap. I am not completely sure why Golson releases the nose tackle to take the blitzing backside inside linebacker but it almost results in Pettway getting tripped up short of the endzone. Great effort by Bubba to get in for the touchdown.

If you thought the Wildcat was dead and buried after Kerryon Johnson’s injury then I have some bad news for you. Chip Lindsey has always been a big believer in the Wildcat and broke out a new version of it Saturday featuring Kamryn Pettway. Under Malzahn, the Wildcat package has typically featured an extra offensive lineman but Lindsey’s instead utilizes 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR). He stacks the TEs to one side and can run all sorts of looks but usually runs either power or counter. Auburn only ran power Saturday. On this play, Pettway just follows his blockers to the outside then beats the safety to the endzone who gets sucked down too far into the box.

Auburn actually has terrible blocking on this play to go along with too many defenders to block. Tommy Brown whiffs on his block and the safety comes flying into fill the alley. However, Bubba was tired of this game hanging in the balance and bounces off the two defenders and trots into the endzone. This play is all Pettway.

Looking Ahead

Things get real this Saturday. Auburn kicks off their SEC slate with a road trip to the struggling Missouri Tigers. This should be a great opportunity for Auburn to really find their rhythm on offense before heading home for what now appears to be a big time matchup with Mississippi State. All of Auburn’s goals are still in front of them from winning the SEC West, to an SEC Championship and even a playoff berth. But the time for figuring it out on offense has ended. While this Auburn defense is championship calibre it won’t matter if the Tigers can’t score points. I saw progress Saturday but we won’t really know if this team can compete until the coming weeks. Hopefully Saturday is the day this offense finally puts it all together and starts cranking out points, otherwise we could be in for a long year.

War Eagle!