Ferg’s Film Room: Why Auburn had passing problems and looking at the defensive dominance in Week 1

AUBURN, Ala. — Welcome to the start of the second season of Ferg’s Film Room on SEC Country, a deeper breakdown of the stats and the strategy of Auburn football.

The 2017 Tigers debuted with a lackluster passing game, a highly effective ground attack and a historically dominant defense Saturday night in a 41-7 victory over Georgia Southern. This week in the film room, all three phases will get a special spotlight.

Let’s lead off by breaking down quarterback Jarrett Stidham’s first game in nearly two years. Stidham said he has a lot to work to do this week before the team’s trip to Clemson, but his teammates will need improvement as well before the coaching staff opens the playbook wider in Death Valley.

MORE:  Jarrett Stidham shows some rust in up-and-down Auburn football debut

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Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham never looked completely settled in his first start Saturday. (Sarah Lundgren/SEC Country)

Passing game: It’s a team effort

Stidham’s debut wasn’t explosive by any measure. Stidham finished 14 for 24 through the air for 184 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. Here’s the full breakdown of his 24 attempts:

DOWN TARGET DESCRIPTION
2-6 Eli Stove 5-yard hitch (smash) to right sideline for 7 and 1st
2-8 Sal Cannella 19-yarder to right sideline after keeping play alive for and 1st
1-10 Eli Stove Quick screen to left sideline for 3
2-7 Darius Slayton Quick screen to left sideline is misfired high, good defense
3-7 Darius Slayton 35-yard fly to left sideline is dropped, near TD
2-9 Darius Slayton Pass batted down by rushing DE, almost INT
3-9 Will Hastings 5-yard slant to middle is forced, INT
1-10 Darius Slayton 5-yard hitch to left sideline, Slayton breaks tackles for 12 and 1st
2-5 Darius Slayton 17-yarder to right sideline after keeping play alive for 1st
2-9 Darius Slayton Pass toward right sideline, hit on release by DE, no chance
3-9 Will Hastings 5-yard out route to left sideline for 19 and 1st
3-7 Will Hastings 5-yard slant to middle for 15 and 1st
2-10 Kam Martin 5-yarder after scrambling, can’t hang onto it one-handed
3-10 Darius Slayton Quick screen to left side for 14 yards, Slayton fumbles
2-7 Eli Stove 5-yard hitch (smash) to right sideline for 11 and 1st
1-10 Darius Slayton 25-yard fly route, way off target, possible miscommunication
3-5 Ryan Davis 5-yard slant to middle for 19 and TD, checked into play
2-5 Ryan Davis Quick comeback on left sideline in RPO after CB cushions
2-10 Will Hastings 5-yard out to right side for 15 and 1st
3-6 Darius Slayton 10-yard dig to middle ruled incomplete, bad call
1-10 Devan Barrett 15-yard wheel route to left sideline misfired, too much air
2-11 Sal Cannella 10-yarder after getting open, Cannella drops it
3-11 Kam Martin 10-yarder after getting open on right sideline
1-10 Will Hastings 25-yard corner on left side for 19 and TD

A lot of factors contributed to Stidham’s so-so day, and none stand out as the primary problem.

For starters, this was a basic passing game plan by offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. Take a look back at what Stidham did through the air in one half of the A-Day spring game. That passing breakdown has a lot more variety — more shots downfield, routes such as sluggos and posts, and a good mix of downs and distances.

Only 5 of Stidham’s 24 pass attempts on Saturday came on first down. More than half of his attempts on A-Day were on first down. Auburn kept it simple for the most part and ran the ball right at Georgia Southern on the early downs. However, it’s worth noting Stidham’s best pass of the night came on first down:

(YouTube)

And notice the types of completions. Outside of that final corner route to Will Hastings, most of the completions were screens or hitches on the outside, quick-hitters to the slot receivers or times when the receivers just “got open” after Stidham bought extra time in the pocket.

Stidham also took 3 sacks, and three different issues cropped up on those. On the first, he was blindsided on a run-pass option (RPO) and fumbled, leading to a Georgia Southern touchdown on the fumble recovery. One of two things is the likely culprit — left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho could have stepped over to block the man on his right too soon, or Kerryon Johnson could have missed his assignment after not getting the handoff.

(YouTube)

The second sack was a typical coverage sack — Auburn’s receivers couldn’t get open in time, and the protection broke down after picking up the initial blitz well. On the third and final sack, Stidham simply held the ball too long.

That protection broke down a few times, as new right tackle Darius James was responsible for two notable incompletions when he allowed his man to get into Stidham’s face. The Eagles finished with 11 QB hurries, a tough number for an SEC offensive line to swallow vs. a Sun Belt defensive front.

At other times, Stidham’s receivers let him down. Darius Slayton was targeted the most and made a couple of impressive plays, but he had a bad fumble and a couple of costly drops. Sal Cannella missed a possible first-down grab. Separation seemed to be an issue in the first half.

And when the receivers were able to get open later in the game, Stidham looked gun-shy. Stidham had his share of misfires and missed opportunities, too, including an interception in the first quarter. He had a tight window, and he didn’t lead Hastings enough with the tough pass, giving Georgia Southern a chance to undercut it for a pick:

(YouTube)

Here’s how Stidham’s 10 incompletions broke down:

  • Misfires: 5
  • Drops: 3
  • Pass breakups: 1
  • Interceptions: 1

And here’s how the receivers performed:

  • Darius Slayton
    • Targets: 9
    • Catches: 4
    • Drops: 2
    • Yards: 43 (4.78 per target)
    • Catch rate: 44 percent
  • Will Hastings
    • Targets: 4
    • Catches: 4
    • Drops: 0
    • Yards: 68 (17 per target)
    • Catch rate: 100 percent
  • Eli Stove
    • Targets: 3
    • Catches: 3
    • Drops: 0
    • Yards: 22 (7.33 per target)
    • Catch rate: 100 percent
  • Ryan Davis
    • Targets: 2
    • Catches: 2
    • Drops: 0
    • Yards: 23 (11.5 per target)
    • Catch rate: 100 percent
  • Sal Cannella
    • Targets: 2
    • Catches: 1
    • Drops: 1
    • Yards: 19 (9.5 per target)
    • Catch rate: 50 percent

Slayton was one of Auburn’s most reliable receivers last season. However, between the fumble and the two drops — one of which could have been an early touchdown — this gamelargely  was one to forget for him. The rest of Auburn’s receivers did well with their opportunities, but as the numbers show, they didn’t get many chances downfield.

Auburn will need a lot more out of its passing game against Clemson. Fortunately for the Tigers, most of the miscues against Georgia Southern are fixable, whether it’s Stidham becoming more comfortable, the play-calling becoming more adventurous, or the receivers and linemen tightening their techniques.

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Kam Martin had a pair of explosive runs Saturday night behind a strong offensive line. (Butch Dill/Getty Images)

Running game: Hulk smash

The passing game took most of the offensive spotlight this week, and for good reason. But the running game performed extremely well despite not having Kamryn Pettway and losing Johnson to an apparent right hamstring injury in the middle of the second quarter. Auburn averaged 6.6 yards per carry, and five rushers averaged  yards or more on their own.

A lot of praise goes to Auburn’s offensive line for that, especially Braden Smith. On the Tigers’ three biggest running plays, the All-America candidate at guard was a difference maker.

On Johnson’s touchdown, Smith was the pull block needed to spring the buck sweep to the end zone:

(YouTube)

On Kam Martin’s touchdown, he created a gigantic hole alongside Darius James:

(YouTube)

And on Martin’s late 61-yard run, he lined up at right tackle in an unbalanced set and knocked his opponent several yards back:

(YouTube)

No matter what happens to Auburn’s passing attack this season, it always helps to have an offensive lineman who was once nicknamed “The Hulk.”

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Auburn defensive end Jeff Holland celebrates a big night against Georgia Southern. (Butch Dill/Getty Images)

Defense: Dominance in depth

Auburn’s defensive performance against Georgia Southern was simply historic — and it goes beyond giving up the second-fewest yards allowed in program history. The Tigers didn’t allow a single third-down conversion. Take away one 25-yard run from quarterback Shai Werts, and Auburn held Georgia Southern to less than a yard per play (0.96).

The triple-option offense is meant to confuse defenses and make them chase the game. It can tire out top-notch teams, especially in the early season heat.

But that didn’t happen to Auburn on Saturday night. The Tigers played fundamentally sound defense on almost every play. Sometimes, Auburn’s athleticism allowed single players such as Nick Coe to take out several options in one snap.

(YouTube)

That’s huge for a defense that had to replace several key players from last season and relied on a ton of rotation. Auburn kept things fresh, and the performance levels never dropped.

That all started up front. Here’s a look at the snap breakdowns for each of the units Auburn’s dominant defensive line trotted out Saturday night, excluding the final drive from Georgia Southern.

  • Paul James III, Derrick Brown, Andrew Williams, Marlon Davidson: 10
    • Brown lined up at DE on 1 play
  • Jeff Holland, Andrew Williams, Dontavius Russell, Nick Coe: 9
    • Brown lined up at DE on 3 plays
  • Jeff Holland, Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, Nick Coe: 7
    • DL responsible for 4 TFL and 2 sacks
  • Paul James III, Byron Cowart, Andrew Williams, Nick Coe: 7
  • Jeff Holland, Derrick Brown, Dontavius Russell, Marlon Davidson: 6
    • Brown lined up at DE on 1 play
  • Jeff Holland, Byron Cowart, Dontavius Russell, Nick Coe: 4
  • T.D. Moultry, Byron Cowart, Tyrone Truesdell, Markaviest Bryant: 3
  • Paul James III, Byron Cowart, Andrew Williams, Marlon Davidson: 2

The starting defensive line — Holland, Brown, Russell and Davidson — only played together six times Saturday night. The versatility of Brown, Davidson and Coe allowed the Tigers to mix and match in their rotations.

A special spotlight must go on the group of Holland, Brown, Davidson and Coe, which appears to be the new third-down “Rabbits” package. In seven snaps Saturday night, that unit had 4 tackles for loss (with 2 sacks), 2 hurried incompletions and a scramble that went for just a few yards.

That is pure defensive line dominance on the money downs, and the pressure came from everywhere. In this sack, Davidson stunts from the inside and gets a free shot at Werts.

(YouTube)

That deep rotation carried on to the rest of the defense as well. Auburn didn’t go three linebackers a single time against Georgia Southern, thanks to the Eagles’ use of a shotgun and pistol-based offense.

Of the 51 snaps charted below, Auburn used a single linebacker in a dime package — usually top coverage and strong pass-rush linebacker Darrell Williams — 10 times. On the other 41 plays, the Tigers went with the standard two-linebacker set. What resulted was a nice balance between the top four linebackers.

  • 4-2-5 nickel: 41
    • Montavious Atkinson and Tre’ Williams: 18
      • LBs responsible for 2 sacks
    • Darrell Williams and Deshaun Davis: 10
    • Darrell Williams and Tre’ Williams: 5
    • Montavious Atkinson and Deshaun Davis: 4
    • Chandler Wooten and Richard McBryde: 3
    • Darrell Williams and Richard McBryde: 1
  • 4-1-6 dime: 10
    • Darrell Williams: 7
    • Tre’ Williams: 3

Montavious Atkinson got the starting nod for the Tigers, and he paired well with the highly experienced Tre’ Williams. The combination was highly disruptive, with Atkinson making big plays near the line of scrimmage and Williams coming up with a pair of sacks. Just having that extra starter-quality linebacker in Atkinson makes this veteran group even more dangerous in 2017.

The depth also was evident in the secondary, which was a unit that had plenty of doubts heading into fall camp. The versatility of players such as Javaris Davis, Jordyn Peters and Daniel Thomas made the difference, as they lined up in multiple positions throughout the night.

  • 4-2-5 nickel (CB-CB-NB-S-S): 41
    • Carlton Davis, Javaris Davis, Jeremiah Dinson, Stephen Roberts and Tray Matthews: 17
    • Jamel Dean, John Broussard Jr., Jordyn Peters, Daniel Thomas and Nick Ruffin: 8
    • Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Jeremiah Dinson, Stephen Roberts and Tray Matthews: 6
    • Jamel Dean, John Broussard Jr., Jeremiah Dinson, Daniel Thomas and Nick Ruffin: 3
    • John Broussard Jr., Traivon Leonard, Jordyn Peters, Daniel Thomas and Nick Ruffin: 3
    • Jamel Dean, Javaris Davis, Jeremiah Dinson, Stephen Roberts and Tray Matthews: 2
    • Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Javaris Davis, Stephen Roberts and Tray Matthews: 2
  • 4-1-6 dime (CB-CB-NB-DB-S-S): 10
    • Jamel Dean, Jeremiah Dinson, Jordyn Peters, Daniel Thomas, Jason Smith and Nick Ruffin: 4
    • Carlton Davis, Javaris Davis, Jeremiah Dinson, Daniel Thomas, Stephen Roberts and Tray Matthews: 2
    • Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Jeremiah Dinson, Javaris Davis, Stephen Roberts and Tray Matthews: 1
    • Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Jeremiah Dinson, Daniel Thomas, Stephen Roberts and Tray Matthews: 1
    • Jamel Dean, Javaris Davis, Jeremiah Dinson, Daniel Thomas, Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin: 1
    • Jamel Dean, John Broussard Jr., Jeremiah Dinson, Daniel Thomas, Jason Smith and Nick Ruffin: 1

When the final whistle sounded, the secondary had allowed only 8 passing yards on 8 pass attempts. Stephen Roberts came up with a pair of tackles for loss, and Thomas snagged the easiest interception of his life to end it.

From front to back, this was domination — no matter who took the field in an Auburn uniform.

The post Ferg’s Film Room: Why Auburn had passing problems and looking at the defensive dominance in Week 1 appeared first on SEC Country.

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