Film Room: What worked, should've worked and *really* didn't work for Auburn's offense vs. Missouri
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WR Koy Moore (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
By now, you’ve probably seen a lot of the numbers.
On Saturday against Missouri, Auburn’s offense ran 66 plays for 217 yards. It was Auburn’s second-lowest yardage amount for a game in the last five seasons, only trailing last year’s Iron Bowl. It was the lowest yards per play average in an Auburn win since the 2006 Cotton Bowl.
In the second half, Auburn had more punts (6) than first downs (5). After scoring two touchdowns on two possessions in the first quarter, the Tigers went three-and-out four times over their next eight drives. They had the fewest passing yards (135) since the final game of the Gus Malzahn Era.
Auburn’s 17-14 win over Missouri was the latest step in what has been a consistent trend of offensive regression against quality competition. Instead of improving in the second season under Bryan Harsin — who has an offensive coordinator he knows well in Eric Kiesau — the Tigers’ offense has gotten worse.
Saturday’s game was impacted by injury, to be completely fair. Starting quarterback T.J. Finley did not play due to a shoulder injury suffered against Penn State. That led to Robby Ashford, who made his collegiate debut earlier this year, getting his first career start.
On top of that, Auburn’s struggling offensive line — which has already mixed and matched throughout the first month of the season — had center Tate Johnson leave the game due to an injury of his own six plays into Saturday.
Auburn’s offensive output was extremely bad Saturday. But it wasn’t completely bad, especially when you look at the first two drives and some of the explosive plays created by certain players. There aren’t a ton of silver linings, yet they’re easier to find when a team (miraculously) doesn’t lose.
No matter the performance, the Film Room stays open. This week’s edition — based on rewatching and charting all 66 of those offensive plays — is divided up into three sections: What worked for Auburn’s offense against Missouri, what should’ve worked and what really didn’t work.
Everyone can tell the offense didn’t play well as a whole Saturday, and it’s just the latest in a string of such performances.
However, instead of totally focusing on all the bad — and there’s a lot of that — it’s important to look at what worked and what came close to working to see where there might be ways to create some improvement in the weeks ahead. And, by examining what really didn’t work, there could be even more lessons to take away for the future.
What worked against Missouri
One of the biggest aspects of Missouri’s defense that stood out in the rewatch is just how much time the visiting Tigers spent blitzing. As we mentioned last week, Missouri defensive coordinator Blake Baker is a protege of Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz — whose unit gave Auburn fits in Week 3.
Unsurprisingly, Missouri spent all week looking at what Penn State did well against Auburn and tried to replicate it. Missouri was very flexible with its fronts, switching between different numbers of down linemen and using standup edge rushers to attack Auburn’s offensive tackles.
Then the visiting Tigers got really aggressive with their inside linebackers and some of their defensive backs. On the 63 non-screen plays Auburn called, Missouri sent some sort of blitz 44 times — which is nearly 70% of the time.
Whether it was a linebacker, a defensive back, two linebackers, some sort of combination of linebacker and defensive back or just sending the whole house, Missouri made a concerted effort to keep Auburn’s offensive line under fire.
The inside linebackers usually got a head start before going downhill, which gave them an advantage on runs between the tackles. Extra pressure from defensive backs challenged Ashford in the pocket and created even more havoc on rushing attempts.
Here’s an example from Auburn’s first offensive play. Watch how the linebackers are already playing the run before the ball is even snapped. That creates more congestion down the middle, which leads to more penetration and knock back, which leads to a one-yard loss for Tank Bigsby.
Now, that’s an example of a play that really didn’t work, but it’s included in this section to show just how aggressive Missouri was against Auburn’s running game. With Ashford at quarterback, the Tigers wanted to establish the ground game, especially after abandoning it for stretches against Penn State.
There wasn’t a whole lot of success for Auburn’s running game against Missouri. Take out the sacks, and the Tigers averaged less than 3 yards per carry. Bigsby finished with 18 more yards after contact than he had total yards for the game.
When you look at the true rushing calls that did work against Missouri, there’s a pattern. Auburn had six carries go for 5 or more yards. Of those five, only one of them went between the tackles — Ashford’s touchdown run on a quarterback draw on Auburn’s first drive of the game. (More on that one later.)
The other four either went behind the offensive tackles or around the edges of the offensive line. Bigsby broke a 14-yard run on a cutback after Missouri overplayed the inside and several Auburn offensive linemen were able to get to the second level.
Bigsby had another successful run he bounced to the left side on the first drive of the game, once again against double A-gap blitzes. Ashford kept a zone read and hit the edge for a six-yard gain on the opening drive to get Auburn into the Missouri red zone.
The other two runs were out of the same look — a spread shotgun formation featuring a tight end split out wide. On this play, Ashford motions Luke Deal toward the inside. At the snap, Deal levels a defender with a crackback block as right tackle Austin Troxell pulls around to the outside. He becomes a lead blocker for Bigsby, who picks up seven yards and a first down.
Later in the third quarter, Auburn runs this play again, and it’s one of its only successful snaps of the entire period. Deal clears out the edge, then Jarquez Hunter hits the corner and picks up eight yards on first down. Against an inside linebacker blitz, it’s slightly more effective than the above example.
Now, of course, it’s not like all runs outside the tackles worked for Auburn against Missouri. The Tigers lost five yards on a sweep to tight end John Samuel Shenker, which remains one of the more puzzling calls in Harsin’s playbook. Auburn failed to secure good enough perimeter blocking in the fourth quarter when it tried to go back to the crackback toss from above and lost 3 yards. The obvious gamble on these outside runs is that when the blocking isn’t good enough, it’s easier to get dropped for losses.
But it’s worth noting that Bigsby got 33 of his 44 rushing yards on the perimeter against Missouri on less than half of his total carries. All but one of Hunter’s rushing yards came around left end.
These aren’t massive amounts, yet compared to what Auburn was doing between the tackles — more on that later — it’s significantly better. Bigsby’s ability to break tackles and be explosive in space calls out for more chances to get to the outside. Whether it’s more tosses, sweeps, stretches or true outside zone plays, this offense could use more creativity in the running game, because it works when it’s tried.
The other thing that can really work on an aggressive, blitzing defense are quick throws, particularly toward the middle of the field.
Here, Missouri shows a lot of traffic in the box and threatens some blitzes. At the snap, true freshman Omari Kelly runs a slant toward the middle of the field. Even though Missouri’s linebackers don’t blitz, there’s plenty of room for Ashford to quickly hit Kelly ahead of the sticks for the first down.
This throw a) attacks open areas, b) gets the ball out of Ashford’s hands quickly before the rush comes and c) gets a young player involved in an easy way. That’s a triple-win for Auburn’s offense, which quickly dialed up a screen to fellow freshman Camden Brown on the next play.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ashford was 9-10 on throws between the numbers against Missouri but 3-8 to the outside. However, Ashford only threw one more slant the rest of the game — a largely ineffective short gain on third-and-long in the fourth quarter.
Additionally, Geriner’s third-down conversion through the air in the third quarter — when Ashford was dealing with a minor injury — was on a nice rhythm throw. Missouri sent a linebacker on a blitz, meaning that Geriner needed to get the ball out of his hands quickly. He fit in a pass to Shenker just ahead of the sticks, moving the chains for a first down in what was a field position-heavy punt fest by that point.
With Auburn’s pass protection struggling early in the season, Auburn could help out its young quarterbacks by utilizing more of these quicker throws, particularly if defenses are going to send extra men to crank up the pressure.
Another trend that came out of the rewatch was Auburn’s personnel and formation usage and how effective they were against Missouri’s aggressive defense. On the second drive of the game, the Tigers faced a third-and-6 inside the Missouri red zone.
Harsin and Kiesau’s backgrounds are both in pro-style offenses. Auburn wants to be able to run the ball downhill and play out of a wide variety of sets in order to give defenses a ton of looks.
However, though the first four games of the season, it looks like Auburn just doesn’t have the offensive line to have a bruising, between-the-tackles type of attack. On top of that, Ashford looks like a quarterback who is far more comfortable operating in the shotgun and in more spread-out formations.
Against Missouri, Auburn ran 47 plays out of the shotgun for 154 yards (3.28 per snap). Out of the pistol, the Tigers ran five plays for 24 yards (4.8). And when the Tigers went under center, they had 14 snaps for a total of 39 yards (2.79).
Personnel packages showed an even greater disparity. Auburn ran 43 plays with just one tight end on the field for a total of 206 yards (4.79). With multiple tight ends on the field, the Tigers had 23 plays for a total of 11 yards (0.48). The Tigers only had nine plays that went for positive yardage with multiple tight ends on the field.
Outside of the two touchdown drives to open the game, Auburn’s remaining trips inside scoring territory came in similar situations — the end of the second quarter and the end of the fourth quarter.
With just 30 seconds left on the clock in the second quarter, Auburn went with four receivers split out wide on three straight plays. The results? A scramble for 11 yards, a pass to Shenker for 18 yards, and a scramble for 13 more yards. The two scrambles weren’t a result of the pressure, either. Ashford saw the open space afforded to him and took advantage for good gains that set up a field goal try.
It’s all about manipulating space and matchups. With more players out wide, Auburn forced Missouri to commit fewer players inside the box.
There were a few sets where the Tigers went ultra-wide, which was made famous by Baylor during the last decade. Look at how far out the two pairings of receivers are when Ashford snaps the ball. Auburn’s offensive line absorbs the pressure on what looks like a potential screen to Koy Moore at the bottom, then Ashford takes off.
With the offensive line occupying the Missouri defensive front, all Ashford has to do is get past that isolated linebacker in the middle of the park. Thanks to a little bit of help from Hunter, he does that for a touchdown.
Again, it’s all about manipulating space and matchups. Let’s go to the final drive of the fourth quarter for Auburn. The Tigers open it with a tight end in the formation, attached to the right side. There’s one safety in the middle of the field, as Missouri has put seven players in the box to try to limit a rushing attempt from Auburn.
Ashford sees 1-on-1 coverage on the outside with Moore and discreetly signals for him to run a fade route. Missouri reads running play on the run-pass option. Moore gets the opportunity and slams on the brakes for a back-shoulder ball that gives Auburn an explosive play into Missouri territory.
Auburn operated better Saturday against Missouri when it played with some more space and a little bit of pace. Harsin and Kiesau are going to want to continue to give it to their backs and play ball-control football, as that’s their style.
But operating with fewer tight ends and more spread-out formations not only helps out a struggling offensive line and a young quarterback — it was also a common denominator in most of Auburn’s successful plays against Missouri.
QB Robby Ashford (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
What should have worked against Missouri
This section isn’t going to be very long, but it was necessary to point out just how close Auburn was to putting up some much better numbers on offense Saturday.
One of the looks Auburn actually ran well from under center was specifically designed to take advantage of just how much Missouri was trying to roll downhill with its inside linebackers.
From an under-center set, Auburn fakes like it’s going to run a regular split zone handoff to Bigsby. Missouri’s linebackers crash hard downhill toward the talented running back. Instead, it’s a play-action fake, with Moore serving as the placeholder for a cross-field blocker in the split zone action.
The rollout gets Ashford throwing on the run on his natural side, and all he’s got to do is loft a ball right to Moore, who has plenty of space in front of him due to the chaos between the tackles. Moore makes the catch, cuts upfield… and seemingly trips on the 30-yard line. Instead of a huge play, it’s just a 9-yard gain.
Auburn went back to the look in the fourth quarter, with Moore getting 24 yards on it as Missouri sends both of its linebackers downhill. (You’ll have to watch it via this link, since the NFL — no clue why they’re involved — made a copyright claim on it.)
This came out of an RPO look in the shotgun, but it’s a similar play. Deal comes across the formation to fake like he’s doing his job in the split zone. Instead, Ashford pulls the ball back and has to loop it over the free rusher and into the path of Deal for a potential first down.
Ashford puts too much on it, though, and Deal has to make a really tough one-handed grab… just to get a single yard out of it. Put that throw on the money, and Auburn has a first down and maybe even more. At the very least, it would’ve avoided that fourth-down decision two plays later.
Here’s one more misfire from Ashford to Deal that stood out. In overtime, Auburn gets a single-high safety in a two-tight end formation — hey, they still can be plenty effective! — and Deal runs a corner route that splits the Missouri defense right down the sideline. Ashford has time and protection, but he overcooks his throw. Deal could have come down with it inside the 5-yard line.
It bears repeating that Ashford is still developing as a passer. A lot of his best work is happening on the run or in scramble-drill situations, but there are some good spots for him with his arm when the protection is there. He just has to get more consistent on those throws. If he got just a couple of them back against Missouri, there’s a chance Auburn would have won without the same level of chaotic drama.
RB Tank Bigsby (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
What *really* didn’t work against Missouri
Auburn really tried to get its inside running game going. It made sense, considering Missouri had given up some massive yardage to Deuce Vaughn and Kansas State two weeks earlier.
But the downhill rushing attack just did not work at all against Missouri. Auburn’s offensive line, particularly on the interior, gave up way too much penetration for it to be successful. Here’s an ugly stat: On runs that went inside Saturday, Auburn backs had 18 carries for just 20 yards.
I could pull clip after clip of Auburn’s running backs slamming into a wall of defenders from Saturday’s game. The stats speak for themselves: The Tigers had more yards after contact than rushing yards in total. Ashford’s draw play was arguably the only good inside run of the entire day. Auburn didn’t go away from its identity this time around, but it doesn’t mean it was successful in sticking to it.
But here’s one example that says a lot. Auburn goes under center and tries to get Hunter going between the tackles to start the second quarter. Look at how many Auburn offensive linemen are behind the line of scrimmage at the exact same time Hunter gets the ball in his hands. Here’s a screenshot:
When Hunter gets the ball, he’s already having to change direction nearly five yards into his own backfield. He gets swarmed shortly thereafter, and he has to do work just to limit it to a two-yard loss.
There were times when Auburn’s offensive linemen were able to get into the second level against Missouri, but they mostly came during the first two drives of the game. The rest of the way, the good run-blocking moments were rare.
When Auburn went in a heavier formation or looked like they were about to run the ball up the gut, Missouri got ultra-aggressive — and it worked. Missouri slowed down the Auburn inside rushing attack by pure force, outnumbering and outmanning the hosts in the trenches.
Trying to get the ball into Bigsby and Hunter’s hands makes a ton of sense. Auburn also didn’t seem to want to get Ashford throwing the ball 25 or 30 times in this game, either. But when it went between the tackles in obvious running situations, most of the positive gains had to come from the backs creating something on their own.
Here’s a wild stat: Auburn called running plays on 18 first downs against Missouri. Those plays totaled 35 yards, or less than 2 per snap. On the eight passing plays they called on first down, the Tigers generated 97 yards — more than 12 per play, with five of those snaps moving the chains again. Predictability killed Auburn on Saturday against a Missouri defense that had its number up front.
When it came to pass protection, Auburn wasn’t quite as bad as it was a week earlier against Penn State. (However, Missouri was coming off a game in which it had zero sacks against FCS team Abilene Christian, so…)
On the 28 snaps in which a quarterback dropped back to pass on a non-screen play, Auburn allowed pressure 12 times. That’s not a great percentage by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not nearly as bad as what happened a week earlier. And again, all the times Ashford scrambled weren’t solely because of the protection — he left the pocket early on some occasions, and they mostly were good decisions.
But when Auburn made mistakes in pass protection, plenty of damage was done. Here’s an example on third-and-long. Missouri sends extra men on this blitz, but it’s an initial edge rusher that wins against Kilian Zierer on the left side. Ashford gets clobbered from behind and fumbles the ball.
In the third quarter, Geriner got sacked on a play in which a linebacker got a free shot at him on the left side of the formation. It’s a little bit of a delayed blitz, as the linebacker reads when the back is releasing out for the pass after staying in to protect. The other linebacker takes care of the back, and the blitzing one gets a wide-open lane for a free shot on Geriner.
Without knowing the protection rules for this particular play, it’s hard to tell what went wrong for Auburn. But it was still a massive negative play that could’ve gone a lot worse for the freshman quarterback.
On Auburn’s next drive, in another third-and-long situation, a free rusher gets home again — this time, coming on the right side of the formation. Three offensive linemen take care of two rushers on one side, while the right guard and the right tackle double-team an edge rusher.
That leaves an interior man with a free lane to Ashford. Hunter does a great job of just slowing down the rusher, and that makes Ashford bail out to the right side. That puts him in danger of a defensive back who came into blitz, and his hurried throw well short of the sticks has no chance of being completed.
Those are two examples of the Missouri defense getting a free rusher on the left side of the formation and the right side of formation. Again, it’s not any writer’s job to assign blame, especially when we don’t know the play call. But it’s clear that the Tigers are having some sort of breakdowns in protection that are dooming some of these pass attempts from the moment that they start.
Everybody involved with Auburn’s offense can improve, especially after a game in which the numbers are some of the recent worst for the program against a team not named Alabama. The wide receivers can improve. The quarterbacks and running backs can do better. The tight ends need to be more consistent with their blocking on the perimeter.
But when it comes to Auburn’s offensive woes right now, it really starts up front. Auburn is unable to get any sort of downhill running game going, even with the likes of Bigsby, because of the losses happening along the line of scrimmage. The pass protection is also a major issue, especially with a new quarterback at the helm — even if he has the legs to manage some of the pressure on his own.
Four weeks into the season, Auburn largely is what it is when it comes to its personnel. The Tigers can correct and tweak things in terms of their fundamentals at a player level, sure.
But, for a staff under extreme pressure, a lot has to be done from them to best manage its current situation. Auburn has done some things to take advantage of who it has on offense and how defenses are trying to attack.
As the Missouri game showed, though, it’s not happening frequently enough. And the SEC opponents only get more talented from here.