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