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Nerd’s Take: Slow Offensive Start Continues

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Arkansas v Auburn Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

Apologies for this article coming a day late. It appears YouTube has really cracked down on full game uploads recently and it took some time for me to get a copy of the game. Thankfully, fellow contributor Drew McCracken was able to lend me his copy. Hopefully I won’t have this issue moving forward (stop being jerks YouTube).

As for the game itself, Saturday was weird. I was fortunate enough to attend the showdown and honestly the vibe was pretty low both before and after the game. It was clear the gut punch against LSU followed by a struggling offensive performance had a lot of Auburn people down. That vibe seems to have continued for the most part this past week.

And I get it. I really do.

That loss to LSU stunk. There was no reason to lose that game (EIGHTY THREE PERCENT POSTGAME WIN EXPECTANCY!!!??). Then to follow that with a 225 yard performance against a bad Arkansas team that included another failed 4th down attempt and two drives starting inside the 10 that resulted in 0 touchdown makes us all kinda feel like....

But here’s the thing.... Auburn is currently ranked as the #10 team in the country. Their only loss came on a field goal in the final seconds to the current #5 team in the country. They went to a neutralish site game and knocked off the current #11 team in the country. They covered a 30 point spread despite only producing 225 yards of offense. THIS IS A GOOD FOOTBALL TEAM!

The offense absolutely needs work (more on that soon) but honestly this is actually a pretty normal spot for Gus’s offense to sit this early into the season. Just take a quick peek at the numbers:

The fact that we continually get off to a slow start under Gus is an understandable frustration but I am encouraged by the fact that Auburn now sits at 3-1 on the season DESPITE some pretty bad offensive moments. This defense is REALLY good again (#2 according to S&P+) and special teams are a weapon once again (Anders is fine too). We also know what kind of level Jarrett Stidham is capable of playing at and that outside of Auburn’s opener against Washington he hasn’t really played up to that standard yet. But honestly, this offense was arguably in a worse spot at this point last season than they are right now.

Not saying everything is going to end up rosy red. There’s a chance this all goes sideways and Auburn ends up 7-5 but history tells us that stumbles out the gate doesn’t necessarily mean that Auburn is doomed to fail offensively all season long. In fact, they tell us the opposite story.

Ok, I’m done sunshine pumping... For now....

3rd Down Misses

I’m not gonna write about the offensive line. Why? Well because I know, you know, Auburn knows and you durn well better believe your bammer buddies know that the Tigers’ offensive line has had some problems. Nick Brahms acquitted himself well Saturday but there are still some concerns moving forward. Namely, Mike Horton, Marquel Harrell and Jack Driscoll are banged up and it’s shown in their play. I don’t wanna spend another week hammering on the failings of the big boys up front. You can read about that pretty much anywhere on the AU interwebs right now.

Instead, I want to highlight some big missed opportunities for this offense that didn’t have anything really to do with the offensive line. Yes, not having a consistent OL can cause some major issues for an offense but the Tigers are making it twice as hard on themselves by not converting some big chances when they get them.

Let’s take a look at a few failed 3rd down conversions against Arkansas that could have easily been converted.

Auburn went 3 & out on their 2nd drive of the game with it ending on this misfire. There’s some late pressure here but Stidham has time and space to hit his man. It looks to me like he and Darius Slayton just aren’t on the same page here. Slayton sits this route down a little earlier than Stidham is expecting. It’s hard to know for sure who was the one in the wrong but bottom line is this has to be completed. That’s at least 13-14 more yards of offense and fresh set of downs.

Auburn has move the ball down the field and are looking to keep the drive alive with a 3rd & medium conversion. It’s hard to see the routes run out of this 4 wide look but it appears Jarrett Stidham does a good job getting through his progression and finding his check down. Whitlow has snuck out of the backfield and is wide open. Pressure comes late from the QB spy which forces an awkward throw but this still has be caught by Boobee. This is a for sure 1st down and maybe even a touchdown if executed. Somebody here has to step up and make a play.

Facing a 3rd & long early in the 2nd quarter, the Tigers dial up one of Gus’s favorite plays - the Tunnel screen (Thunder in Malzahn lexicon). Outstanding effort by Prince Tega Wanogho along with a great throw by Stidham springs Darius Slayton for a big gain. But Slayton ends up being knocked out of bounds just short of the sticks.

Now it’s not 100% certain that if he cuts this back he gets a 1st down but I think if he sticks his foot in the ground and tries to split those two Arkansas defenders that his momentum probably gets him the 1st down. Maybe there’s no way to actually convert this (outside of Brahms getting a better block downfield) but I think Slayton could have done a bit more to try and convert this 3rd & long.

There’s been a ton of focus on another failed 4th & 1 attempt from Auburn but my bigger frustration is with the play before. Auburn should not have even needed to go for it on 4th down if they execute a concept they have killed opponents with this season.

Auburn’s running that Split Zone RPO concept I’ve written about previously. Jarrett Stidham is reading the end to see if he should give this ball to JaTarvious Whitlow or pull it and dump it off to Ryan Davis. The DE squeezes so Stidham pulls it and dumps it to Davis. However, his throw leads Davis away from the first down marker instead of towards it giving the unblocked Arkansas safety an extra half a second to crash down on the play. In the SEC, that’s all it takes.

If Stidham hits Davis in stride (like he usually does) I’m pretty confident that Davis can quickly turn this upfield for a 1st down. I also wouldn’t be shocked if he put an ankle breaking move on that safety and scores. Bottom line, Auburn doesn’t get it done here.

The final play I wanted to highlight is another screen play where Auburn’s playmaker in space doesn’t make a play. The Tigers are running that throwback screen that went for a touchdown against Georgia last season to Kam Martin on 3rd & 6. The Anthony Schwartz motion draws a ton of attention and leaves really only one defender on the near side of the field that can make the play. I’m not quite sure whether Prince Tega Wanogho is supposed to seal this guy outside or inside but either way he doesn’t really do much. Still, one of the big positives of a screen is you get your playmakers a chance to make a play in space. Kam Martin HAS to make this guy miss and get the first down. He’s more than capable of cutting this back and as you can see, there’s no one close enough to stop him from converting the 1st down.

Auburn’s failures on offense aren’t just limited to offensive line play. They also aren’t just bad playcalling as some like to point to every time the offense fails. Instead, it’s a combination of inconsistent OL play, a rattled QB and Auburn’s offensive weapons misfiring at critical times. The good news here is that if any of those three issues get fixed, this offense will probably roll through everybody up to UGA. This week it’s critical this group fixes one of those problems and puts together some sustained drives. History tells us if it’s going to happen, it’ll happen this weekend.

Blitz Party

After LSU went max protect pretty much all game to slow down Auburn’s aggressive front four, Kevin Steele appears to have made the conscious decision to never allow that to happen again. A quick look at Steele’s impassioned speech before the game:

Auburn harassed Ty Storey all night though they didn’t actually come up with a lot of sacks due to Storey’s annoying ability to escape pressure or throw the ball away just at the last moment. But that pressure held Arkansas to a measly 3-17 on 3rd down. After converting two of their first third downs in the game, they only converted one more the rest of the night.

The most used blitz I saw on 3rd & long was a double twist look that Steele used out of Auburn’s Dime package.

The Tigers have Dime personnel on the field which means they have four defensive lineman (Rabbit package so their top four pass rushers), one linebacker (typically Darrell Williams) and six defensive backs. Jeremiah Dinson is the Dime and is lined up alongside Williams like a linebacker. Auburn has one safety deep with everyone else in man coverage.

This blitz is designed to attack the interior of Arkansas’ offensive line. The two defensive tackles are running a twist where one slants inside to the opposite A-gap while the other defensive tackle loops around into the other A-gap. At the 2nd level, Dinson and Williams are exchanging gaps as well. Dinson is attacking the B-gap opposite his side while Williams crosses behind and comes through the other B-gap. Both ends are tasked with rushing outside to contain.

As you can see chaos ensues for the Hogs.

No one picks Derrick Brown up because the left guard is taking Jeremiah Dinson. Meanwhile, both tackles are beat around the outside by Auburn’s defensive ends (nasty chop by Marlon Davidson). Storey gets the ball away but still gets obliterated by Big Kat Bryant.

I saw Auburn use this specific blitz a number of times with great success Saturday. It will be interesting to see if this becomes a staple on 3rd & long along with how other offensive coordinators adjust to this attack.

But there is a drawback to being blitz happy. Whenever you send a blitzer you leave an area of your defense vacated. Send the whole 2nd level like Auburn did often and you leave the middle of the field wide open. That can leave you susceptible to screens and draws.

Against more mobile quarterbacks I don’t expect the Tigers to be as aggressive on the blitz. I also suspect that as Big Kat develops as a pass rusher you will see Auburn not needing to blitz as often to get pressure. But given how effective they’ve worked this early in the season and the fact that more teams are probably going to try and use LSU’s protection game plan down the road, I do think you will see Auburn stay aggressive. I’ll also add these young DBs are SCARY when set loose on the quarterback.

Touchdown Auburn

Not as many touchdowns as I expected but not as many as there SHOULD HAVE BEEN. ISN’T THAT RIGHT MR. REFEREE MAN!!!

Auburn’s first touchdown was a thing of beauty. The Tigers are running Inside Zone and get a little help from the Arkansas defensive call. The backside linebacker slides down to the outside which is going to open up a huge cutback lane for Whitlow. Nick Brahms and Mike Horton both wash their man down while Whitlow’s path gets the MLB to hop a gap over. Boobee sees the cutback lane and it’s 6 points for the Tigers.

Auburn’s 2nd touchdown was less pretty. After KJ Britt returned a blocked punt inside the 20 yard line, Auburn’s offense preceded to crap all over itself. A facemask penalty kept the play alive and Jarrett Stidham is able to score on a busted play. The Hogs bring a blitz and it gets through but Stidham does a good job of escaping the pocket and then getting up field for the score. Shout out to Ryan Davis for that block, he at one point had two Hogs pinned.

If you aren’t scoring points on offense it sure helps to have a special teams weapons like Noah Igbinoghene. Watching this live, I was very frustrated when I first saw Iggy not run towards the massive lane to his left. But he was setting this return up for the big cutback. He follows his blocks, splits two would be tacklers with a sick move and then cuts back to open grass. You then get a taste of that 2nd gear Iggy possesses. He just absolutely pulls away from Arkansas in the open field.

I wrote about this touchdown earlier this week in Deep Cuts. This offensive line is capable of getting the job done and Whitlow is deadly when given a chance to make somebody miss at the 2nd or 3rd level. I still think this rushing attack can be a lot of fun this season.

BONUS TOUCHDOWN

I DON’T CARE WHAT THOSE DUMB REFS SAID. THIS IS THE GOAT INTERCEPTION RETURN AND IT’S STILL REAL TO ME DAMNIT!

War Eagle!