Watching the Auburn Tigers play football is an exercise in a team working a system to near perfection. It is about the blocking, the angles and the reads off of defenders. So many see the end result, but the beauty of Gus Malzahn's work starts well before quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Tre Mason or any other Tiger explodes for a big gain.
The success of the Tigers is far from magic, it's a numbers game. Auburn plays the same numbers game that Air Raid teams play on deciding where to go with the football or when to check into run plays. The Tigers simply do it to move the ball on the ground with efficiency.
To treat Auburn with the care it deserves, it must be noted that the manipulation starts before the motioning into the jet sweep. It starts before the inverted veer or the zone read go into effect. The first problem Auburn creates is through the personnel it puts into the game and then how that personnel grouping lines up on the field.
Auburn works 20 personnel, using two backs and three receivers very well over the course of the game. The Tigers also push to 21 personnel, getting a tight end to the mix and will go 10 personnel with four wide receivers in the game. Generally, getting two backs into the game screams run, especially against a team like Auburn who is known for moving the ball on the ground.
Unfortunately, three and four wide receiver formations scream pass. Throw in the fact that Auburn spreads those receivers wide, and the manipulation begins for Malzahn's team.
This is the start of the numbers game for Auburn against the defense. Teams have to decide where and how it will distribute resources. With three and four receiver sets, what coverage should the team play? Auburn's a team that loves to run, how far out should the safety and money players be pulled away from the formation?
The addition of tempo from Auburn makes these decisions happen faster and forces greater discomfort on the defense. Then, prior to the snap, Auburn changes the picture by using motions. Here, simply moving C.J. Uzomah across the formation creates a panic for Alabama where both No. 32, linebacker C.J. Mosley, and No. 20, the extra safety Jarrick Williams, are trying to cross the formation while the ball is being snapped.
Pre-snap stress is a bear for defenses. As a defender, the goal is to figure out how and where an offense can hurt you and do the best, through alignment, work to minimize those elements. As Auburn stresses defenses with personnel groupings, alignment and finally pre-snap motions, the picture constantly changes for a defender working through his pre-snap reads.
Discomfort early leads to discomfort late, and discomfort during a play, for a defender, leads to guessing and mistakes. Auburn thrives on those mistakes. Whether it is the zone read or the inverted veer, Auburn's go-to play is the creation of mistakes, which is the lifeblood of the Tigers' offense.
Here, in 21 personnel, the Tigers get Marshall on the keep, pushing to the edge with a lead blocker. This play starts with confusion as two Alabama defenders are out of position due to the motion. However, Alabama recovers well, No. 42 Adrian Hubbard does his job and keeps his outside arm free, stops Marshall from cutting back and pushes him to the next defender.
Then, Williams becomes the mistake that Auburn feasts upon. Instead of doing his job and getting outside the lead block of Uzomah, Williams hesitates inside, allowing Uzomah's block to win two battles. First, Williams cannot get contain and second, he disrupts the alley-fill of safety, No. 26, Landon Collins.
Collins is coming down to fill the gap that Williams hesitates in to give the edge to Marshall. If Williams gets outside of Uzomah, as designed, Marshall is forced back to Hubbard and Collins.
Auburn truly stresses the opponent and the use of the zone-read and the inverted veer, making Nick Marshall the decision-maker. Making the defense uncomfortable and forcing guesses over reads and gap integrity is the currency in which Auburn deals. Here, on Marshall's long Iron Bowl touchdown run, a guess again creates space for the quarterback and he takes advantage.
Alabama plays well at the line of scrimmage, each player doing his job as expected. From left to right, on the line, each player is working to control a gap. Trey DePriest, No. 33, holds contain on the left. Ed Stinson, No. 49, controls the B-gap to the left side keeping his outside arm free. Brandon Ivory, No. 99, is doing double duty playing both front-side and back-side A-gaps. Jeff Pagan, No. 8, has swallowed up the double team, eliminating the B-gap on his side. Hubbard, No. 42, is the contain player to his side, sitting to catch the jet sweep coming toward him.
Throw No. 6, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, into the mix and there are a lot of Crimson Tide players doing the right thing. Except Mosley gets caught leaning. The senior is betting on the running back give, even with Marshall as a threat and jet action pushing to the edge wide.
Mosley hops down inside, gets trapped in the wash and, because he cannot flow over the top, Ricardo Louis blocks Hubbard, creating a crease through which Marshall explodes, getting loose in the open field.
That is what Auburn does to teams. By mixing in the inverted veer looks with zone read and the strategic addition of jet sweeps, Auburn gives teams two and sometimes three options to defend on a given play. When teams play the edge to take away the give on the inverted veer or the jet sweep, the Tigers have a counter. When teams pack inside to play the give or the keep on the inverted veer, Auburn goes a different direction.
Malzahn's strategy works. This team looks to win the numbers game through personnel and then, in moving pieces with motions, continue to stress defenses pre-snap. At the snap, the stress continues as players try to guess what Nick Marshall is going to do with the ball, instead of reading and reacting to each play.
Guessing always gets teams beat on defense, hence the reason play action often goes for big plays. Deception is a defensive killer and for Auburn, deception is the bread and butter that creates big mistakes that lead to big plays.
The Tigers live off of it, and it is beautiful to watch.