Aubserver Mailbag 141: How much better is the offensive line this year?
This week: Payton Thorne, offense vs. defense, running vs. passing, looking ahead to basketball, corn dogs, biscuits and Cam Newton
(Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
Later tonight, Auburn is going to face arguably the best offense it’s seen since Joe Burrow and friends down in Baton Rouge in 2019.
That’s how incredible LSU is playing right now on that side of the ball with Jayden Daniels leading the charge — and it looks nothing like the team that Auburn limited to hardly anything through the air in the matchup inside Jordan-Hare Stadium last year.
But the minds of Auburn fans, at least in terms of this week’s mailbag, are still on the offense. And that’s completely understandable, because the Tigers have an opportunity to get things rolling after an off week against an LSU defense that has been just as bad as its offense has been good.
This week, you asked about Auburn’s offensive line, Payton Thorne, the slow start for the offense as a whole, the Tigers’ history with run/pass balance and a fun hypothetical with the 2023 schedule. We also got several questions about Auburn basketball and, of course, a lot of food. It is LSU week, after all.
Thanks for your continued support of The Auburn Observer and adjusting to a tweaked schedule this week, with The Stretch 4 going out on Friday and this mailbag getting pushed back to Saturday ahead of a primetime game. Let’s go.
How has Auburn’s offensive line performed relative to itself in past seasons and this year, relative to other SEC teams? In run blocking, pass protection. But, if possible, also in penalties or errors made, because it seems like fewer mistakes this year?
Has anyone on the line performed much better or worse than expected?
Let me start by getting on a small soapbox. This is usually where I would plug in offensive line statistics from the great Football Outsiders, which I’ve done for years. I could call up metrics like adjusted line yards, stuff rate, power success rate and sack rate and compare what Auburn has done so far in 2023 to the rest of the SEC and its own recent past. It would be an easy and informative way to answer this question.
But I can’t, because Football Outsiders doesn’t exist anymore. For 20 years, FO was the place for football analytics, becoming nearly as influential as Baseball Prospectus has been in its respective sport.
Then the company that bought Football Outsiders ran it into the ground and went bankrupt. The site is dead. You can’t even pull up old stuff on there anymore. It’s just the latest frustrating example of how corporate mismanagement has destroyed so many great sports media properties. (And, truthfully, it’s a huge reason why I don’t want to leave The Observer and work for another company again. I’ve been burned twice, and it’s not getting any better.)
That being said, we’re going to have to do some more digging from various sources to show Auburn’s offensive line performance. I’ll use some Pro Football Focus numbers here, but I won’t go with their grades — they’re too subjective, and they’re basically asking a bunch of low-paid data folks to know exactly what was supposed to happen on every play call for every game. That, to me, is way less useful than straight stats.
Let’s start with run blocking. If you look at the raw numbers, Auburn’s yards per carry is down from 2022 to 2023, both overall and against Power 5 opponents. However, that all can’t be attributed to the offensive line. According to SECStatCat, Auburn’s rusher are averaging 2.41 yards before contact this season, up from 2.02 last season. In 2021, that number was 1.81.
The Tigers are creating some more holes and getting better movement on the ground, but their backs aren’t as good at breaking tackles and finishing runs as they were last season. That’s the Tank Bigsby effect. (We also discussed Jarquez Hunter and his slow start to the season in last week’s mailbag.) Something else that stands out from SECStatCat is Auburn’s low percentage of broken plays (13.62%), which is also an improvement from the last few seasons. Like John said, there have been fewer errors.
Pass protection gets trickier, because giving up a sack isn’t always on the offensive line. Sometimes, as the case has been for Thorne this season, the quarterback holds onto the ball too long. Sometimes, there are too many rushers for the line to handle, and the pressure needs to be picked up by others.
According to Pro Football Focus, Auburn opponents have generated 37 pressures on 152 dropbacks this season. That’s a pressure rate, roughly, of 24%. Last season, opponents had 160 pressures on 403 dropbacks. That’s nearly 40%. Although the sack rate is slightly up — 15 sacks allowed in five games compared to 30 sacks in 12 games last year — the overall pressure rate seems to be significantly down. Of course, Thorne has not been the “scramble out of pressure” type that Robby Ashford was last season. That’s going to affect the sack rate, too.
In the penalty department, Auburn’s offensive linemen were flagged 35 times across 13 games last season (2.69 penalties per game). So far in 2023, it’s 16 in five games (3.2 penalties per game). That’s an area where Auburn can improve, and it went from a ton of flags against Texas A&M to just one against Georgia. Auburn absolutely needs to play clean games to have a chance to beat SEC opponents. That’s even more important on the road, where the Tigers will be this weekend.
As for individuals, I’m still quite impressed that Gunner Britton hasn’t allowed a pressure this season, despite playing multiple positions. I think we’ve seen some errors and breakdowns from Izavion Miller at times, but that’s understandable for a JUCO player making this jump. The eye test has been favorable toward Dillon Wade overall and Kam Stutts in the run game. Avery Jones has been a steadier hand at center, yet the snap issues against Georgia need to be cleaned up. We also haven’t seen Jeremiah Wright play since the Samford game, and I wonder if that will continue after the off week.
In summary, Auburn’s offensive line has improved. It’s not a dominant unit by any means, but that shouldn’t have ever been expected from a line made up of mostly transfers looking to take a step up in competition. (The Tigers grade out as a middle-of-the-pack offensive line this year in the SEC.) If Auburn’s backs can start breaking some more tackles, the running game will look even better. And while there have been some rough patches in pass protection, it’s not nearly as bad as it has been recently.
The offensive line, for the most part, has done its job. It’s far from perfect, but there have been clear upgrades here. There are definitely more concerns and doubts about other aspects of Auburn’s offense first and foremost, starting with the passing game.
No doubt that, on the offensive side of the ball, no one person can be blamed. Like you said in Tuesday’s read, all those positions need to be better.
But I’m interested in the plays where Payton forces the motive — specifically throwing straight to the opposing defense. The Georgia game was so much better, barring the last play, which I personally don’t count.
Every other game he forces the issue, and the results are frustrating, and I am sure frustrating for him as well. What are your thoughts on this?
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