LSU at Auburn Preview
LSU at Auburn
Last year’s LSU game marked a significant turning point for Auburn even though they ultimately lost the game. Down 21-0 at halftime in Baton Rouge, Auburn scored 21 points in the second half and tripled their first half offensive production with over 300 yards of total offense in the third and fourth quarters. While coaches and players don’t put much stock into “moral victories,” it was clear to everyone watching that this was a different Auburn team and if there ever were such a thing as “moral victories” Auburn earned one that night.
There’s no doubt this year’s game is just as important with expectations being much higher and Auburn will have to play with that same fight and intensity for four quarters just as they did in the second half in 2013 to come away with the win. This year there is no such thing as a moral victory for either team, only a win or a loss. This won’t be a game for the faint of heart and, just like last year, it will be a defining game for Auburn.
LSU’s Strength – Defense
LSU is always loaded with NFL caliber talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Mix their talent with defensive coordinator John Chavis, one of the best defensive minds in the game, and you have a suffocating defense that’s well equipped to dominate every offensive style in football. Even the more modern up-tempo, spread offenses haven’t been enough to consistently overcome LSU’s defense since Chavis has been defensive coordinator.
So what makes LSU’s defense so great and how does John Chavis stop the seemingly unstoppable wide open offenses that are so popular? Below we’ll take a look at the base defense John Chavis likes to run against spread teams, the infamous Fire Zone Blitz, and a sub-package that has been in his playbook for some time that specializes in stopping those high flying, Air Raid attacks and how they can all be used to stop Auburn’s offense.
Base 4-3/4-2-5 Defense
Below is a pretty basic diagram of LSU’s base defense playing with a Nickel back. For clarification, a base 4-3 defense actually consists of 4 defensive linemen (2 defensive ends and 2 tackles), 3 linebackers, 2 safeties and 2 corners. When a defense plays with a Nickel back (as seen below) they usually substitute out a linebacker for a defensive back that is faster and can cover more ground, which is particularly useful against spread offenses. So, what you have in a Nickel package is 4 defensive linemen, 2 linebackers, and 5 defensive backs. More modern defensive schemes and adaptations of the 4-3 have evolved into what’s known as a 4-2-5 scheme in which the fifth defensive back is really a hybrid linebacker/safety both in physical build and responsibilities.
In the diagram above, we see an offensive set with 4 wide receivers (3 to the right, 1 to the left), quarterback in the shotgun, and one running back. For this example, the defense is playing a type of coverage known as “robber coverage.” With this type of coverage scheme, it’s difficult for the quarterback to recognize before the snap whether or not the strong safety ($) will drop deep and allow the mike linebacker (M) to cover the inside receiver or if the strong safety will come down. Even after the snap the strong safety shouldn’t immediately give away his intentions (hence the term “robber”) which adds to the confusion for the quarterback…he doesn’t know or can’t recognize how aggressive the strong safety will be on passes over the middle which allows the strong safety to get a better read on where the quarterback will go with the ball or he can drop down for run support.
The “Mustang” Package
The Mustang Package has been LSU’s answer to wide open, spread offenses that consistently base out of four and five wide receiver sets. This sub-package to the base 4-3 is what LSU has run against Oregon, West Virginia, TCU, Clemson, and Texas A&M, just to name a few, with a great deal of success.
In the section above we looked at the Nickel package which places 5 defensive backs on the field. In the Mustang package we have a total of 6 defensive backs on the field, adding a Dime back as well as keeping the Nickel back. The idea behind the Mustang package is pretty simple…it allows the defense to match the speed of the offense while still remaining relatively solid against the running game by leaving the mike and will linebackers on the field.
This package creates many issues for a quarterback and his offense. With six defensive backs on the field it’s much easier for the defense to disguise their coverage or shift in and out of multiple defensive sets both pre and post snap. Depending on down and distance the defense can jam receivers right off the line of scrimmage and still have help in the secondary with the two safeties, they can shift into a 4-3 set and play Tampa 2 coverage, or utilize zone blitzing with endless combinations of players bringing pressure and dropping into zone coverage.
Fire Zone Blitz
One of the more common calls from Chavis is the Fire Zone blitz, which fits in very well with the Mustang package. I’ve often heard the saying that when a blitz is called, someone’s band is going to play…meaning, either the defense will be successful and make a big play or the offense will recognize the blitz and a receiver will be wide open for a touchdown pass. The zone blitz, however, provides some protection against big passing plays even while blitzing. Just as the name suggests, the defenders who are not blitzing drop into zone coverage.
Another great thing about the zone blitz is that there is no blue print for who to blitz and who to drop into coverage which makes it difficult for a quarterback to read. The quarterback essentially has to make the right guess as to which defenders will be responsible for covering his receivers and which defenders will be applying pressure. It’s easy to overload a quarterback with information when there are six defensive backs roaming the secondary that shift and disguise their coverage scheme on every play. Below is an example of the Fire Zone blitz from the Mustang package.
In the example above we see that five defenders bring pressure, three defenders cover underneath, and three defenders cover deep. Now, which defenders are underneath and which ones are covering deep? To be honest, I’m not really sure based on the diagram. If I had to guess though (and that’s exactly what it is, a wild guess), the free safety (F) is covering deep (obviously) and I would think that both corners to the outside would cover deep as well. The underneath zones would be covered by the mike linebacker (M), the strong safety ($), and the nickel back (N).
Applying it all to Auburn’s Offense
In the examples we’ve looked at so far the offense’s base formation has been with four wide receivers, whereas Auburn’s offense utilizes three wide receivers the majority of the time and they also put more emphasis on the running game than Air Raid attacks. Having said that, the Mustang package would allow LSU’s defense to consistently rush four, five, or six defenders and still have more defenders roaming the secondary than there are receivers. If LSU’s front six or seven can contain Auburn’s running game and force them into obvious passing situations, they have the ability to cause problems for Nick Marshall and force some bad decisions.
The one weakness in the Mustang package though is that it doesn’t match up well with a power running game. I mentioned earlier that the defense can still be “relatively solid” against the run…”relatively” being the key word. The three man front with only one tackle and two defensive ends would never stand a chance against Auburn’s offensive line plus an H-back that are all blocking for an inside power run.
So, why would I think John Chavis will use the Mustang package against Auburn if they’re not an Air Raid passing attack and focus on the power running game? The answer is simple…it’s a versatile and flexible system that can morph or shift into virtually any defensive set that’s needed with minimal substitution. Not sure what I’m talking about? Look at the examples again. Substitute one defensive tackle for the dime back and you have a 4-2-5 set that’s much more formidable against the run but still leaves five defensive backs on the field. Sub out the dime back and nickel back for a tackle and linebacker and you have a 4-3 base set which is what Chavis has made his living on for the majority of his career.
The defense can always stay in the Mustang package with their six defensive backs and show a 4-2-5, 4-3, or even 3-4 look pre-snap and then shift into whatever defensive scheme is actually called after the snap. Throw in some zone blitzing and lots of roaming defensive backs that are extremely athletic and you have a defense that’s hard to predict and hard for a quarterback to adjust to. LSU’s defense is extremely flexible and John Chavis has the elite athletes to execute virtually whatever he wants at any given time with a very high success rate.
Keys to the Game
Auburn’s consistency on offense and its running game production will be the determining factor on Saturday. In order for Auburn’s running game to be effective though, Nick Marshall will have to run the zone read and outside of the second half of the Arkansas game, a few times against Kansas State, and one drive against Louisiana Tech it just hasn’t been run this year. My only guess as to why is because Gus didn’t want Marshall banged up before Auburn gets into the teeth of its schedule. Regardless of why it hasn’t been run though, the zone read will have to be implemented and have to be effective Saturday to open up the inside running game. It should be clear to everyone by now that the offensive line is not as dominating in the running game as it was last year…not to say that the O-line hasn’t been effective because it has been, it’s just not as easy as it was for Auburn last year.
Nick Marshall and his receivers will also have to get the passing game going early, maybe even as early as the first series, which means Auburn’s receivers must have a great game. If Auburn’s receivers drop passes as they did against Kansas State it will be a long night for Auburn. Sammie Coates and D’haquille Williams will be challenged by LSU’s very talented secondary but their lack of experience could get them beat on some big plays.
While LSU’s defense is extremely athletic and talented they’re young and inexperienced playing a big game on the road against a conference team. Regardless of their age or experience level though you can bet that Chavis and the LSU defense have studied film from the Kansas State and Louisiana Tech games and will have a plan for stopping Auburn’s offense. They know stopping Auburn’s running game is important and will probably play with six or seven defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop Cameron Artis-Payne and contain Nick Marshall.
One of the best ways to stop an offense like Auburn’s is to keep your defense in base packages or sets with each defender knowing and understanding what his responsibility is and sticking with that assignment. Obviously, that’s always easier said than done but Kansas State’s defense did this very well which allowed them to stop Auburn’s running game. To go a step further though Kansas State also showed multiple fronts throughout the entire game that led to some confusion on Auburn’s offensive line. As I mentioned above, John Chavis is great at masking coverage schemes and using his base defensive personnel to either show or play out of multiple looks and when you have the caliber of athletes he has to work with, size and speed are never an issue.
Offensively, LSU will be starting a true freshman, Brandon Harris, at quarterback who will be making the first start of his college career Saturday night. Harris is an athletic quarterback with a strong arm and he’s shown the ability to stand in the pocket as a play develops to let his receivers come open and make a throw. If the play breaks down he is certainly a threat to run and can make plays with his feet. Without question he’s the most athletic quarterback Auburn has faced so far this season and the most talented.
The LSU offense under Harris is a bit unknown at this point. Typical LSU offenses have been a power running game using big offensive linemen and big running backs to wear down opposing defenses. With Harris in the game though we may very well see more spread sets with multiple wide receivers as Harris is not afraid to spread the ball around and throw deep. So far this season Harris has completed 22 of 30 passes with one interception and six touchdowns…that’s incredibly efficient for any quarterback.
The biggest disadvantage for Harris right now is his lack of experience but he has three very good receivers in Trey Quinn, Malachi Dupre, and Travin Dural along with two punishing running backs in Leonard Fournette and Kenny Hilliard to get the ball to. Given Harris’s lack of experience I think it’s safe to assume that Auburn’s defense will come after him early and often, showing some different looks to confuse the young quarterback. Containing him when he breaks the pocket could be a big issue for Auburn though and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Harris makes a big play or two with his feet.
I think this is going to be a hard hitting, hard fought game by both teams and I think it will probably come down to the fourth quarter. Some people may think that LSU’s quarterback situation may be a disadvantage for them, and that may prove to be true, but they’ve had far worse quarterbacks before and still managed to win big games because of their defense and the exceptional level of talent they have on the field at all times. Some people may think that their youth on defense will hurt them which may prove to be true as well, but Les Miles isn’t called the Mad Hatter for no reason and John Chavis didn’t just start suffocating explosive offenses yesterday.
When it’s all said and done though I think the Mad Hatter keeps the rabbit in his hat and doesn’t have enough magic to come away with a win. John Chavis will challenge Malzahn’s high scoring offense but the Gus Bus starts firing on all cylinders at the right time Saturday night with some big plays from the usual suspects. I have a feeling this one is going to be a nail biter with a dramatic finish.
Auburn wouldn’t have it any other way…
Auburn 27 – LSU 24
Play diagrams can be found at: http://www.sbnation.com/college-football/2014/5/15/5709380/lsu-defense-john-chavis-spread-offenses
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