The 2015 version of the Iron Bowl features two teams going in opposite directions. While Alabama continues ascending towards another SEC Championship and another berth in the College Football Playoffs, Auburn seems to be circling the bowl as they spiral downwards to a 7th place finish in the SEC West. This season the Tiger family I’ve talked to seems to have inadvertently wandered onto a tilt-a-whirl ride and now they are begging for the ride to finally come to a stop so that they can just go somewhere to throw up.
In watching the Tigers this season, it does appear that they’ve gotten better since the Kentucky game as they put up a good fight against Ole Miss and Georgia and even beat the Texas A&M Aggies in college station. The secret to their success has been to abandon any semblance of a passing game and just hand the football off to anyone in the backfield. As it happens, Alabama sports the #2 ranked rushing defense in the country. Advantage Bama!
From the Alabama perspective, the Tide comes into this game on a roll. The Tide offense gashed LSU & Mississippi State while the Bama defense ripped the Heisman out of Leonard Fournette’s hands and then stuck it in a place that Dak Prescott can’t quite reach. It’s been a few past few weeks if you are a Bama fan and more fun appears to be on the horizon. Here’s what we are watching for this week…
Alabama on Offense
Mississippi State may have given future Tide opponents the blue prints to stifling the Alabama running game. Basically, the Bulldogs committed 7, 8 and 9 men in the box in an effort to stop the beast that is Derrick Henry before he could get those long strides churning. Of course, as we all found out (and as we predicted here in the W2W4) when you crease that kind of pressure then big plays are going to happen and that’s exactly what happened to the Bulldogs. A 60 yard pass to Ridley. 74 yard run by Henry. Then a 65 yard run by Henry. Basically, when you commit those kinds of numbers to the line of scrimmage, you are leaving yourself open for the big play.
Why is this relevant? In watching the Auburn game against Georgia, new defensive demi-god Will Muschamp committed 8 men into the box repeatedly, opening up several deep shot opportunities that the Dawgs couldn’t cash in. You may recall the last time Alabama faced a Will Muschamp defense but, if you don’t here are some numbers to jog your memory: Blake Sims passes for 445 yards. Kenyan Drake 87 yard TD. Amari Cooper 79 yard touchdown. Henry averaged nearly 6 yards per carry. And that Florida defense was a MUCH better defense than this year’s Auburn squad.
In watching the Mississippi State game, the Tide line narrowly missed opening holes for touchdown runs on four other occasions so it’s hard to see how Auburn will be able to completely contain the Tide running game. Yes, there will be negative plays as the Tigers love to slant their defensive line. When they guess right, it’s deadly effective. When they guess wrong, backside runs carve them up like a Thanksgiving turkey. It will be fascinating to see how Auburn attempts to contain both the run and the big plays in the passing game. Here’s what else we’ll be watching for after studying the Georgia game….
Soft Cell: There should be no “tainted love” for Alabama’s slot receivers against Auburn as they play way, way off the slots. Screens, hitches, curls and slants should be very effective against the Tigers. Basically, they crowd the line of scrimmage with 8 defenders but if the play is a pass, they scramble back into a zone defense. The two corners and the safety typically play off since they have no help from one of the safeties.
Tush Push: Auburn slants their line quite a bit so it’s not uncommon to see Montravious Adams (1) and Devaroe Lawrence (94) slamming deep into the backfield making interior runs very difficult to pull off. These two were also extremely effective up the middle in short yardage situations so working the edges in short yardage should be the order of the day.
Reading is Fundamental: Auburn hasn’t defended the zone read at all this year so don’t be surprised if you see Jake Coker keep a couple of zone reads for good yardage. Auburn’s run fits are extremely sound as they are well schooled in getting to the interior gaps to stop the run. However, this opens up the flanks to the zone reads and to other plays like…
Fly Guys: If ever there was an opponent begging to be gashed by the fly sweeps, it’s Auburn. Time and time again whether it’s Louisville, Jacksonville State or Georgia, they consistently give up the outside runs for big yardage. Look for the flip passes to Ardarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley to be wildly effective. In fact, don’t be surprised if you see Stewart running some wildcat or something odd like that. Auburn is just so bad at stopping the zone read and the outside runs. Incidentally, if it’s at all humanly possible for Kenyan Drake to play (we hear he’s been practicing this week), then this is the type of game he was made for.
Big Time: With AU crowding the box, look for Alabama to take to the air with some deep shots on 1st downs. Georgia had numerous 1 on 1 opportunities here but failed to convert. Look for Bama to go for the jugular early and often.
Backfield in Motion: With Auburn slanting their line, look for Bama’s line to escort them in that direction while their TEs and FBs crack back on the end to open up the backside running game. There are big gainers to be had here.
The Play is the Thing: Auburn blew coverages against tight ends and fullbacks on play action. Nysewander and/or OJ Howard could have a few big catches.
Goal Line: Auburn plays straight man to man coverage on the outsides and then crowds everyone else at the line of scrimmage in goal line situations. Slants to the receivers are open but so are any running plays to the outside. UGA tried the middle of the Auburn line three times at the goal line, turning the ball over on downs. The next time they were down there, they ran a fly sweep and cruised into the end zone.
Spread ‘Em: Auburn’s run defense seems much more susceptible when it is spread out so look for Alabama to be in the spread formation much of Saturday afternoon. Carl Lawson (55) is consistently hell bent on getting up the field so look for some running plays to target his side of the football field as he leaves his running lane open.
In Two Deep: Auburn probably plays more zone than most teams and they keep their safeties in two deep much of the time. With the LBs concentrating on their run fits, typically the area right behind them (but in front of the safeties) is wide open.
- Many of my notes read something like, “Fly sweep turns the corner AGAIN.” Can’t overemphasize this enough – Auburn hasn’t been able to defend this all year long. Alabama really needs to concentrate on working over the perimeter of the Tiger defense this week.
- Auburn read one screen very well but gave up chunk yardage against screens at other times. Quick screens to the slot receiver were available as they were typically uncovered, leaving the outside wide receiver to block the one corner on that side of the field.
- Do not be surprised if Henry struggles between the tackles as AU looks very strong there. Alabama will have to take advantage of their opportunities for big plays down the field in order to loosen up the 8 man box.
- One very interesting story is that of Kenyan Drake. Dude broke his freaking arm two weeks ago against Mississippi State but was back at practice (doing individual drills) this week. The fact that he’s back at practice suggests he’ll play Saturday. If that happens, we are concerned about 1) ball security and 2) the sincere lack of faith the staff has in Bo Scarborough and Damien Harris. If Drake can’t play, neither Scarborough nor Harris is a viable “fly sweep” option so we wonder if they’ll give that role to someone other than Ridley or Stewart.
- Remember these Auburn defensive rankings: 83rd in total defense, 82nd against the pass, 82nd against the run and 116th in third down defense. Auburn’s defensive rankings are actually worse this year than they were in 2014.
Alabama on Defense
Jeremy Johnson finished the Georgia game 14/22 for 61 yards. Folks, that’s a measly 2.8 yards per attempt. Sean White went 1/5 for 1 yard in that game so you can pretty much surmise why Auburn lost to UGA. The Tigers pounded out 213 yards on the ground against Georgia and they rushed the ball 52 times versus only 17 passes against Texas A&M so running the football is what they desperately desire to do. Auburn is actually really good at it, too, as they actually nationally rank one spot ahead of Alabama in average rushing yardage per game this season. So, the Alabama game plan should be simple: stop the run & just rush four to allow as many defenders as possible the opportunity to catch one of Johnson’s wayward footballs.
While Auburn’s strength is running the football, their usual threat of a running quarterback isn’t quite as threatening this season. At 6’5, 240 lbs, Johnson has the type of build you’d want to have for a running quarterback. However, Johnson runs the football with the commitment of a politician and the heart of the Tin Man so Alabama’s defensive keys should be simplified this year. As usual, if you follow the pulling guards or follow the H-Back then they will lead you to the football 99% of the time. While there’s lots and lots of “window dressing” in the backfield, the line and the H-Backs always tell the true story. And, with Alabama’s dominant front four, we think the Tide defenders should be able to sift thru the garbage and find the ball easily. Sure, Auburn will “run another trick play, b-tch,” as Scott Cochran loves to say and, yes, they will take a shot or two down the field. But, this season the Gus Bus appears to be running on four flat tires and it will be difficult to hang 6 on the Tide, let alone 60. Here’s what to watch for when Alabama is on defense…
Mystify Me: In watching Auburn this season, they time and the manner Gus changes out his quarterbacks is completely mystifying. Just as one of his QBs is finding his groove, Malzahn substitutes in the other QB and it all goes to hell in a hand basket. This has happened against Kentucky, Ole Miss and Georgia and it leaves you wondering what on earth he and his staff is thinking. Against Georgia, they asked a one legged Shaun White to roll to his left and throw on the run. I mean, it honestly makes no sense whatsoever…
Short, Short Man: EVERYTHING Johnson throws is behind the line of scrimmage and I mean EVERYTHING! The times Johnson was asked to throw the ball down the field, he consistently missed high and wide and he exhibited poor footwork, poor mechanics and no belief in the routes whatsoever. In fact, it appeared that the AU staff dialed up four different deep shots that Johnson bailed on and refused to throw the ball down the field. 10 of Johnson’s first 15 throws were screens and his downfield throws were way off the mark. Stunning.
Follow the Leader: Gus’ running schemes haven’t changed too much over the years and this year is no different. Typically there’s going to be the threat of a fly sweep from different formations and lots and lots of motion, then they pull their guards and run the football down people’s throats. However, about 85% of the time if can find Auburn’s H-Back (#27 – Cox and #36 – Pettway) then you can follow them to the football. It’s uncanny how much Auburn leans on these guys as blockers and how predictable the runs are when they are in the game. PS – Georgia blitzed heavily off the H-Back side of the formation with huge success.
Hello – Is it Me You’re Looking For?: Auburn loves to leave defensive ends unblocked and, if you’ve been reading this blog or following the Vines on Twitter, you know that Alabama has learned to take advantage of this blocking scheme with devastating effect. Basically, when the end realizes he’s unblocked, he launches an assault on the backfield, blowing up anything and everything he finds. Sometimes, Auburn pulls a guard around – a la Texas A&M – for protection but the Tide defenders have shown us that they control the leverage and the power in those encounters. Look for a big day from Jonathan Allen, Denzell Devall and Ryan Anderson.
Can’t Hurry Love: If Auburn finds success with a running play, look for them to hurry back to the line of scrimmage to run it again and again until Alabama stops it. If you see the Tigers hurry to the line of scrimmage and the QB doesn’t bark out any signals, it’s because they are running the previous play again.
Bounce House: Jovon Robinson (29) is a stud and is the Tigers’ best running back. Thankfully, he only gets a third of the carries. Against Georgia, twice they ran the fly sweep to one side and then Robinson started up the middle and then bounced outside in the opposite direction of the fly sweep. It’s a clever play as the defense typically misaligns too many defenders towards the fly sweep side of the field. They even used Robinson on a bit of a fly sweep so edge containment will be huge.
Eye of the Wildcat: Kerryon Johnson (21) runs a lot of wildcat formations for the Tigers (Note: Isn’t Jeremy Johnson supposed to be a wildcat?) and he has yet to throw a pass from that formation. Look for some trickeration from him in some manner this weekend.
- Look for Alabama to play a ton of zone defense this weekend. Also, don’t look for many blitzes except for a few run blitzes at the H-Back’s side of the formation.
- Auburn gave up quite a bit of pressure to Georgia’s front four, especially from their tackles. In passing downs, Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans should be able to introduce themselves to whoever the QB is taking the snaps.
- Auburn’s one shot to win this game is to take a number of deep shots down the field. Johnson was extremely reluctant to throw the ball even 10 yards down the field and never, ever threw it more than 15 yards. If White is in the game, it’s to get the ball vertically down the field.
- Watch the fly sweep guy as often times they don’t even come close to the QB. Auburn doesn’t seem to use the little flip play so the sweep guy isn’t a threat unless they are running parallel with the QB.
- At one point against Georgia, the Bulldogs had scored 17 points in the second half and the Auburn offense had generated a total of 15 yards in the same half.
- Johnson pump faked three or four WR screens and then was asked to throw the ball down the field. He refused.
- Don’t be surprised to see Rashaan Evans used as a spy this week.
Alabama on Special Teams
Cyrus Jones has certainly gotten the attention of all future Tide opponents with punt returns for touchdowns in his last two games and, happily enough, Auburn is ranked 67th in the country in covering punts. Georgia actually scored the game winning TD off of a punt return so look for Alabama to win the field position battle here.
Alabama’s kick coverage team is outstanding, ranking 18th in the country in covering kicks. However, Auburn is ranked 5th in the country in return yardage so something has to give here. Each time that Adam Griffith pounds the ball into the end zone, high five your neighbor b/c it’s a big play.
The Tigers’ Daniel Carlson is ranked 2nd in the SEC in field goal percentage and he’s made FOUR kicks from beyond 50 yards. Meanwhile, Adam Griffith’s hot streak of field goals still has him in the back of the pack in field goal percentage – he’s currently ranked 10th.
There isn’t much not to like in this match-up if you are an Alabama fan. Auburn features a completely one dimensional attack and Alabama’s defense should absolutely devour the Tigers’ running game like it’s a Thanksgiving feast. This will obviously put the Tigers in passing situations and they have shown absolutely no ability to throw the forward pass whatsoever. So…
They favorite is usually the victor in these contests and this year should be no exception. Unless Alabama has a sudden rash of injuries on offense or turns the ball over repeatedly, then Auburn should have a very, very, very difficult time scoring on Saturday. But, thankfully, their tilt-a-whirl season will finally come to an end and they can begin to make their travel arrangements to the Birmingham Bowl…
Final Score: Alabama 27 Auburn 12