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Answering the Tough Question: What’s Wrong with Auburn’s Offense

By on September 19th, 2017 in Football 34 Comments »

Auburn receivers are going to have to step up their play for the Tigers to be competitive in the SEC. (photo: USA TODAY Sports)

The past ten days have pushed many Auburn fans, regardless of predisposition, to a breaking point. Despite the disproportionate amount of unsatisfied fans crying out in desperation, a number that seems to be swelling by the day, it’s only three weeks into the 2017 season. Perhaps it is because most fans, regardless of their fandom disposition, have heard this record before. Auburn’s offense isn’t very good, and fans want to know and understand why and hear how it can be fixed.

After the Georgia Southern contest, many were uneasy with the performance, but it could be explained away as first game jitters and a limited play book. The trip to Death Valley wasn’t the head scratcher that was the 2016 game at Jordan-Hare where five different players lined up at quarterback. No, it was a head scratcher in a completely different sense because Auburn couldn’t produce more than 20 yards of offense in the second half,  which didn’t seem to be any one position group’s fault. Still, fans could possibly assert that Clemson is an elite defense, as it proved yet again against Louisville. They remained hopeful, especially with homecoming on the horizon before taking on a very bad Missouri team. 

And then this past Saturday happened. Auburn was unable to put FCS opponent Mercer away until late in the game, largely thanks to five turnovers,which is an issue in and of itself. However, even against Mercer, additional offensive issues surfaced. 

Jarrett Stidham shouldered much of the blame through the first two games for holding the ball too long and taking sacks. The offensive line absorbed much of the rest of the blame. Yet, these two positions are the result of failures elsewhere, specifically coaching and the receiver position. 

Receivers continue to under-perform under Kodi Burns. The same glaring issues have showed up in 2017 that were present last season. Coach Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey attempted to take the heat off the receivers’ inability to create separation by blaming the opposing defensive secondary for dropping into deep coverage every play. But that doesn’t answer why Auburn receivers can’t catch the ball.

The tale of the tape shows a continuation of what was seen against Clemson. First, the opposing secondary can easily diagnose a run or pass play from the snap because of the receiver’s first step. For the most part, there is no effort made in disguising a run versus pass play by the guys on the outside. If the receivers come out of their stance hard, it’s a pass play. If they don’t, it’s either a run play or a screen pass to the outside. 

This leads to the next problem: Auburn’s continued reliance on the four verticals pass-play scheme. It’s true that Auburn’s receivers can’t create separation, but it’s half play call/execution and half diagnosis by the defense. Any defensive back can keep up with Auburn’s streaking receivers if they have enough of a head start. Auburn’s route-running design is rudimentary, at best. And, it isn’t just the design, it’s also execution. It’s overly simplistic and, even then, Auburn’s receivers aren’t doing it right. Receivers’ coach Kodi Burns’ lack of experience aside, the style of play, play calling, and the development of the receivers comes down to who hired him—Coach Malzahn. 

This feeds in to how the defense’s game plan is adjusted. With no inside pass lanes to protect, linebackers can blitz at will, forcing the offensive line to continue blocking while Stidham holds the ball. The receivers never get open because the defensive backs are running stride for stride. This was the primary reason that Auburn was the worst in the nation at tackles for loss through two weeks.

There was an attempt to remedy this against Mercer, not with slants or crossing patterns but the continued reliance on pop passes and short outside breaking routes, none of which can or did break for huge gains, much less touchdowns. Despite throwing for 364 yards, Stidham averaged just 11.4 yards per completion with a long of 38 to Will Hastings. Though there were several completions of 20+ yards, these were not by design but the result of broken tackles. Auburn currently ranks 104th in the nation in this department, with last weekend’s game scored 88th. The completion percentage was astounding as Stidham hit 32 of 37, but the results weren’t impressive. This is not the Chip Lindsey offense fans expected, and this offense continues to be unable to adjust. 

Other issues exist. No other running back received a hand-off other than Kam Pettway, who ran for 128 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries, good for a 3.75 yards per carry average. That wouldn’t even be impressive against an SEC West foe. Much of that could be attributed to the offensive line, which experienced a shakeup when Darius James left the game. Regardless, Auburn’s line could not get to the second level of the defense, and it meant Pettway’s facing contact at the line of scrimmage almost every play . Much has been made about the wrinkle that Auburn showed with Pettway in the Wildcat, but the fact that Auburn went to the Wildcat against Mercer should be frightening. First, it means Auburn burned a wildcard it could use in a big game and did so against a lowly FCS opponent. More importantly, it meant admitting that Auburn’s line needed the additional blocker afforded from going “hat-on-hat” allowed by the Wildcat. Certainly, the offensive line deserves a lot of the blame. It was supposed to be one of the best in the nation, but it is statistically among the worst. How does that happen?

Many wondered why Kam Martin, Malik Miller, or Devan Barrett couldn’t have taken some of those carries. Malzahn used his old line about riding the hot hand, but the truth is, the game was too close for him to trust any one else other than Pettway. While it worked and Auburn got the win, what would be said today had Pettway been seriously injured? In retrospect, what does it say about Malzahn for hammering Pettway with carries when he is obviously not 100 per cent? 

Across the SEC, the pre-eminent powers don’t always have it all and are frequently faced with getting production from a single area in order to go from good to elite. For Alabama, it is the right side of the offensive line. For LSU, it has been quarterback play for several years. To get to Atlanta, Auburn has to beat those teams.

In the preseason, commentators wondered if Stidham was the last piece of the puzzle for Auburn. Yet, Auburn’s offense has been nothing short of a disaster and has done so around Stidham, not because of him. When faced with the question of why Auburn’s offense has not lived up to expectations, it has become impossible to identify one group, much less one player. When that kind of scenario occurs, only one person can take the blame. 


  1. Derrick Roberts Derrick Roberts says:

    Dare I say this was ‘well executed’? Seriously good breakdown of the various problems surrounding this offense.

    One coach I really expect to start feeling some pressure is Herb Hand. No one else on the coaching staff – outside of Travis Williams – has a more experienced and talented group of position players to work with. Hand needs to get the right combination figured out so that the rest of the offense even has a chance at coming together. It all starts up front.

  2. Col.Angus Col.Angus says:

    You are spot on Zach. What is so frightening about the offensive situation is that the problems are clear to the untrained eye. We as fans can see what is going wrong, so what are opposing defensive coaches going to do? They must salivate when they see our ineptitude, knowing they have a week to prepare a defensive gameplan against us.
    When Malzahn is fired, and I don’t see anyway he escapes that fate barring a complete and miraculous turnaround, it will be because the coaches couldn’t coach elite football players to execute relatively simple collegiate football concepts in a sport they have all played for ten or more years. They aren’t teaching these guys to split atoms! They are playing football! This is simple stuff that they work on EVERYDAY in practice. They did this for a month in the spring and a month plus prior to the season. We show up for a few hours on Saturday and can diagnose the issues facing this team. But Malzahn and company have been at this 50-60 hours a week ALL YEAR They have had hours and hours of time to study film and work on technique, schemes and formations. AND THIS IS WHAT WE GET??? Its sheer and utter incompetance.
    And to make matters worse, I don’t even see an attempt to fix any of these problems. We just keep doing the same things over and over and over, when we know they don’t work. Or at least we as fans know. Maybe the mad genius, is actually insane…..he certainly fits the definition.

  3. Col.Angus Col.Angus says:

    And now Byron Cowart, wants to transfer. The implosion has begun. Malzahn is losing this team, just like Chizik did, and it is going to get ugly, quick.

    • ATL_AU_FAN ATL_AU_FAN says:

      I guess time will tell but, currently, I don’t feel that CGM “is losing this team”…

      Cowart never lived up to his hype; was playing third-string because of that; and wasn’t progressing.

      Sean White got into trouble and was suspended for two games then, after the game Saturday night/Sunday morning again proved to be less than mature. He was dismissed – as appropriate – and CGM set an example.

      I don’t see two players leaving the program as an implosion. It wasn’t deemed an implosion when Duke Williams and Jovan Robinson left – or were politely asked to leave.

      I haven’t yet seen this team give up like the Chizik team did.
      To date, these players are playing hard till the end.

      My opinions and nothing more.

      Now, that might change and your prophecy come true. But right now, Col, I have to respectfully disagree with some of your sentiments.

      We shall see what Saturday night brings. If all goes downhill then I may very well feel differently.

      WAR EAGLE!!
      Give ’em Hell, Give ’em Hell – Stand up and yell – HEY!

      • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

        Cowart was a breakdown in recruiting. You can blame the services or the coach that recruited him.

        But, who wouldn’t have taken him? He was worth a scholarship just to say Auburn landed the number one guy.

        • ATL_AU_FAN ATL_AU_FAN says:

          Oh, I’m not at all saying AU shouldn’t have taken him – that was a no-brain offer. And, as you state, who would’t have taken him?
          I was only stating my opinion of what has transpired since he arrived on campus.

          And, according to Cowart himself, he said he is leaving due to lack of playing time and to return to Florida to check on his ailing mother.

          Cowart states, “My main reason was my mother’s health is more important. Me being an only child, got to get back to home to her. Plus I already wasn’t playing enough and contributing to the team.”

    • Tigers5711 says:

      We didn’t lose anything with Byron Cowart as he never developed into the great player a 5* should have and Sean White was a good QB that never learned to scramble without getting hurt. He just isn’t bruiser like Cam and he just never learned to slide after a gain.

  4. AUJTJarhead AUJTJarhead says:

    The first hammer to drop must the dismissal of Jay Jacobs. He is the one who keeps hiring these inept coaches.

    • Tigers5711 says:

      You just have to wonder WHY and HOW can a Malzahn team who came within 13 seconds of a NC in ’13 fall so far and so fast? It reminds us of the fall after the NC we won in ’10.

  5. meathead530 says:

    Has 2012 returned? Sigh. This program is falling apart. War Eagle anyway.

    • ATL_AU_FAN ATL_AU_FAN says:

      Can we wait and see what happens? Three games in and the record is 2-1 with the only loss coming against the defending National Champions by a total of 8 points.

      Sure, the Mercer game wasn’t inspiring in the least but it still counts in the Win column. If there is to be a “letdown” game then the Mercer game was the best game for such to occur.

      War Eagle!

      • Bwojcio1 Bwojcio1 says:

        I agree with you. 4 less turnovers against Mercer and nobody would be negative on the Tigers right now. I have been more worried about whats going on internally on the team. I don’t think White and Cowart leaving is an implosion but it does seem like there is a screw loose somewhere inside Auburn Athletics as a whole. The Clint Myers drama was insane. I wish Bruce Pearl had more of an impact in every sport. Pearl fills the air with good vibes.

  6. Tigerstripe Tigerstripe says:

    Being a receiver is one of the toughest positions to play today…it takes discipline, courage to run across the middle and a heart of a thoroughbred. When you're not apart of the play, you're expected to block these tiny, quick, shifty cornerbacks. Sprint out every play, make disciplined cuts at the right timing only to see another receiver get the toss. Line up, do it again, over and over – in a hurry up fashion no less (well use to be). Also need the stamina and strength to catch the ball when it's your turn. Let up and those cornerbacks know you're not part of the play.

    This is why an unrecruited walk-on like Hastings made it at this level – because he has these tools and a willingness to get after it. Others who attend more games than I and get to see the whole field might be able to verify that our receivers just aren't disciplined and willing to work for the ball every play.

    The Byron Cowart methodology of playing will eventually be the wave of the future. Sign-on and if things don't pan out and the program isn't the right fit to get you to the pros, just cut and run elsewhere. Millennials…

  7. easyedwin easyedwin says:

    Let us pause; take a deep breath and calm ourselves. It is September. We have tons of football yet to play. Stidham looked much better last Saturday. Our turnover to total yards is 510/ 5. That is 102 yards per turnover. 102 yards is more than the length of the field. Without the turnovers, Auburn would potentially add 5 touchdowns. That is +35 points which = 59 points to Mercys 10. No player, nor coach has forgotten the game of college football.

    I look for a nice win in Columbia Saturday. I think we win by a large margin [20 points or more]. Then comes the real fun with cousin Eddies bulldogs on September 30th. When I was at Auburn they were called Maroons, and we all had a “meh” attitude about them. Not any longer!

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      I agree with SOME of the sentiment. Yes, we rolled up yardage. Yes, we should have scored five more times.

      That has nothing to do with why Pettway received EVERY carry and why he was running the wildcat.

      And, also nothing to do with why we cannot develop receivers.

      • ATL_AU_FAN ATL_AU_FAN says:

        I'm looking for a nice win in Columbia also. But, Zach, to your point, I don't understand only using Pettway, either. Running him in the Wildcat, to me, isn't as puzzling – it worked.

        AU will have KJ back Saturday night and, behind him, Martin and Miller. AU may not need Pettway – And I hope they can and will rest him so that, hopefully, all four will be available for Miss. St.

        Developing receivers? I'm halfway ignorant so I'm unsure what this actually means. And I'm not being sarcastic or anything like that. They have to run their routes, catch the ball, get as many yards after the catch as possible, and don't FUMBLE the ball.
        To me, that’s not development, that's just being a good receiver.

        • Bwojcio1 Bwojcio1 says:

          Our receivers don’t seem to committed to running their routes with an attitude. They are all slow off the snap except lil Hastings.

  8. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..I have one big worry about Mizzou. Their defense has been atrocious thus far, but the defensive line has actually been pretty decent. Their problem is tackling, and that their secondary couldn’t cover a wet sock. Can Auburn take advantage? If Auburn sputters, Missouri does have some offensive weapons, and could make a game of it.

    • ATL_AU_FAN ATL_AU_FAN says:

      Mizzou worries me a bit also – But that defense gave up 43 points in a win against Missouri State and then gave up 31 and 35 to USCe and Purdue while only scoring 13 and 3 in those same games.

      Pettway is a bit banged up, yes, but KJ will be back and there are Martin and Miller behind him.

      I know that being 15-point favorites on the road sounds impressive against an SEC team but, as we all know, Vegas just attempts to get an equal number of bets on each side and then make their money from the VIG. Auburn is clearly the favorite in this game, and not just by Vegas odds.

      I’m just hoping the sleepwalk against Mercer is the one “letdown” game and AU moves forward. I’m just not as “doom and gloom” as some others. Frustrated? Yes.

    • dyingculture dyingculture says:

      Missouri’s starting nose tackle, a senior, is currently serving a six game suspension for academic fraud.

  9. B-REAL says:

    Last time I will comment on this,but everybody knows that your QB is the leader of the offense.The last Two years White was that leader when Gus finally let him be.They went to war with him on the field and went on a win streak last year and almost looked unbeatable.Stidham hasn’t proven anything and is announced the starter and know the OL can’t block the WR’s aren’t running there routes good,Pettway and Kyle Davis are suspended with White.Hmmm wonder why the offense isn’t playing well?

  10. B-REAL says:

    If Gus doesn’t win Saturday night he should be let go.Kevin Steele coach the rest of the season and hire someone who can manage a roster,play the best players,and not play favorites.

    • multipurposepaper says:

      A loss against Missouri, given how truly awful they are, would set wheels in motion, I am sure.

  11. Tigerstripe Tigerstripe says:

    Thankful to have a place like TET to go to and vent with others who have the same goals in mind – winning…

    • ATL_AU_FAN ATL_AU_FAN says:

      You are SO correct!!

      Winning is good – but it’s always Great to be an Auburn Tiger!!

      This is the best Auburn site on the inter webs by far!

      And I love how we can agree and disagree and always remain civil while respecting our members.

  12. audad says:

    My son (the AU alum) follows the team and several websites faithfully. My interest in the team is the result of him primarily. They are definitely a baffling football team. My brother, who likes to follow all kinds of betting lines, has informed me that a new one released yesterday now has Malzahn as the 3rd most likely SEC coach to be fired or resign this season with odds of only 7-1. That’s pretty incredible after only three weeks of the season for a team that many thought would legitimately challenge ‘bama for the SEC title this year, and is still ranked #15 in the country. I think this week is crucial. In what is probably their easiest conference opener in many years (or should be based on the talent on these two teams Saturday), they need to get on track quickly, dominate this game from start to finish, and have that stadium close to empty again just like it was when Purdue blew out Mizzou last Saturday.

    • ATL_AU_FAN ATL_AU_FAN says:

      I think Sumlin at aTm is toast and I think Jones at TN is a goner. I know it’s only his second season but I would put Odom at Mizzou on the hot seat ahead of Malzahn. Not even sure that Coach O at LSU wouldn’t be ahead of CGM – but, one never knows.
      If AU somehow manages to lose to Mizzou – I’m not sure Gus gets fired — tarred and feathered, maybe, and run out of town but probably not fired.

  13. multipurposepaper says:

    Really excellent piece. Money quote: “Perhaps it is because most fans, regardless of their fandom disposition, have heard this record before. Auburn’s offense isn’t very good, and fans want to know and understand why and hear how it can be fixed.”

    It’s been regressing for three years. It looks…uncomfortable. Seldom are the games where everyone is playing confidently and where the opposing defense is guessing. Especially against the top teams with whom we are told we should be competitive against.

  14. Orange Talon Orange Talon says:

    Perhaps the best take on the matter that I have read so far; I agree totally.

    It’s not Stidham, unless he just likes getting beaten up by 300 pounders
    It’s not the OL, unless Stidham isn’t really holding the ball to long (has to have OL protection to be guilty of holding it)

    Route tree and route running is the problem.

  15. Tiger4Life says:

    Zach- I’m with you…
    “Auburn’s route-running design is rudimentary, at best.”
    Clemson has a true dual threat quarterback– their offense is explosive ( our defense is great holding them to 14 at their place ) The Clemson offense showed up against Louisville…
    I like Stidham alot– he had an aerial circus offense at Baylor– here, not so much…
    Gus’ offenses are built on running the football- but you MUST have a RUNNING QB to execute it (see Nick Marshall and Tre Mason) along with a dominant offensive line…
    Either the recruiting has to pick up or the scheme has to change…
    Our Top 10 recruiting classes have largely been due to defensive line and WR’s– yet our passing game is not schematically up to the talent of the WR’s… Put Kyle Davis and Nate Craig Myers in the Clemson or Florida State scheme and you have 1st or 2nd Round draft picks…
    Even Sammie Coates caught enough DEEP balls to be drafted by the Steelers…(sigh)

  16. AtkinsonTiger AtkinsonTiger says:

    The article says, "the Auburn receivers can’t catch the ball." I must have been watching a different game than Zach.

    Sure there was a fumble and Nate Craig-Myers didn't fight hard enough for a 50-50 but i remember sitting in the stadium and watching several passes caught over the middle and Craig Myers making a one handed catch behind his back on a crossing route. Also the receivers caught 32 of 37 passes including 18 passes in row at one point in the game. How do we get the receivers can't catch the ball from that?

  17. broken_towel broken_towel says:

    Funny how people like me have been complaining that Gus sucks since 2013 have been chastised and insulted as fake fans for years. Turns out, we were correct.