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Life on the Island

Defending the edge against Auburn’s Zone Read play

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe;
every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,
as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were;
any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

John Donne can be excused for his opinion, having never witnessed the Auburn zone read play as a defensive end or outside linebacker in the SEC. But if he had, he would know the pang of Tom Hank’s character the the movie Castaway – unable to overcome the fate of being left all alone, virtually helpless as everything he’s been taught about his role in life is taken from him and slowly going crazy watching a ball drift away out of reach.

Defensive ends and linebackers in the Southeastern conference are a unique blend of size, speed, intelligence and tenacity. The emergence of edge speed rushers in both the NFL and NCAA football has led to large, explosive athletes gravitating to the end of the defensive line where their incredible agility, speed and leverage can alter the pace of the game by pressuring the quarterback into ill-timed throws or drive killing sacks. This issue has been illustrated in many commentaries on the sport, most notably by the now celebrated book and movie ‘The Blind Side’ by Michael Lewis. The game of football, Lewis asserts, was forever changed by the vulnerability of the West Coast offense to athletes of Lawrence Taylor’s caliber and their ability to apply pressure on drop back pass-heavy offenses.

But like anything, just because a situation is conventional in the present doesn’t necessarily indicate a permanent aspect of the future. The game of football is one of constant improvement and leverage of opposing tendencies, applications of force, and the opportunistic exploitation of vulnerabilities. One of the most dramatic examples of this is how the Auburn offensive scheme under Rhett Lashlee and Gus Malzahn attacks these skilled defenders on the edge of the line of scrimmage.

The Auburn offense of 2013 used a series of plays that leveraged the expected role of the edge defender against himself, often leaving him alone, untouched, unblocked and completely out of the play at the very point where his athletic ability was supposed to dominate.

At times it was a thing of beauty and magnificence rarely found on the field of play. One moment a talented and graceful athlete was poised to create a negative play, and the next he was alone in a seemingly infinite expanse, mournfully crying out to the vanishing object of his desire.


“Wilsonnnnnnn!”

In 2008, defensive end Ed Stinson (#49) was a 4-star prospect for Alabama. After redshirting during the 2009 season, he played in nine games as a Freshman in 2010, earning two starts, and played as a starter in each game over the next three years, including two BCS championship games. In 2013 he was a dominant part of the Alabama defense line, and will likely be a solid mid second round draft prospect for the NFL in April. In all respects, he was the prototypical size (6’3″, 293 lbs), speed and dynamic one would expect from an Alabama Defensive End of the Nick Saban era.

But on the opening drive of the second half of the 2013 Iron Bowl, he might as well have been on a desert island in the middle of the Pacific for all he was able to accomplish in stopping the Auburn drive. 

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After two plays to the far side, Auburn snaps the ball on the third play of the drive. Ed Stinson has a clear lane to the ‘mesh point’, or the hand off decision point of the zone read between Nick Marshall and Tre Mason. If you notice, Ed is not blocked at all, he is up from his stance and advancing with a clear path to the ball.

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One second later, Ed is yards behind the play, caught up in the wash of the line and well out of position to make a stop. Result: 10 yards and a first down for Auburn

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Fourth play of the drive, Ed is in the same position, facing the mesh point of the zone read again, untouched by any Auburn player. Only this time, Marshall keeps the ball and rolls right, and Ed pursues, intent on a sure tackle for a loss.

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But Nick Marshall quickly unloads on a designed sideline pass to Quan Bray, who gains 9 yards on the play, leaving Stinson grasping at air, unable to touch Nick Marshall for fear of drawing a penalty. Result: 9 yard gain.

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After two plays to the opposite side, where his counter part on the the right side does no better in stopping the ball carrier, giving up a total of 16 yards, Ed again finds himself unblocked with the ball coming his way on yet another zone read. This time Nick Marshall hands the ball off to Mason, who rumbles for six yards to the far side, leaving Ed futilely alone in the backfield.

Auburn now has a first down in the Alabama red zone, after marching 54 yards to the Alabama 15 yard line.

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On the eighth play of the drive, Ed Stinson finally makes his lone contact with the ball carrier. On yet another zone read, he is again unblocked and facing the mesh point between Nick Marshall and Tre Mason. Nick keeps it and attempts another out pass to Quan Bray. But this time, the coverage is too close and Nick pulls in the pass as Ed closes with him behind the line of scrimmage.

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But Nick accelerates and almost breaks that desperation tackle, and ends up with a solid two yard gain on the play.

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On what will be the last play of the drive, Ed faces a blocker for only the second time in the entire series as Nick Marshall hits C.J. Uzomah on the wheel route for a game tying touchdown.

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In nine straight plays of a game tying series, a starting defensive end was only blocked by an opposing player two times. In the seven remaining plays of the drive he was left untouched and alone on an island in the eye of the Zone Read whirlwind. Despite having the ball handed off directly in front of him less than two yards away on seven of those plays, he ended the drive with one desperation tackle after surrendering almost three yards, despite having his hands on the ball carrier two yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Keep in mind, this was not some random Freshman brought off the bench to substitute in a critical series. This was a four year All-SEC starting defensive end, a veteran of two BCS championship teams having his best year to date and establishing himself as a top tier prospect for the upcoming NFL draft. And yet he was as ineffective as Gilligan in getting himself off the island and helping his team on that series.

Such is the beauty and power of the zone read in the hands of a skilled quarterback. It can leave one of the best defensive players in the country flailing impotently in the wind, helplessly watching the ball recede into nothingness as his hopes and dreams come to naught. A conventional Caliban at the mercy of mystical conjuring by a gifted Prospero.

“I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer, that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island.” Caliban, The Tempest



You and all the rest of the SEC defensive ends, Caliban. You and all the rest.

14 Comments

  1. wpleagle wpleagle says:

    Now I know why I sat through sophomore English lit at Auburn! Great read, Sully – may the force continue to be with us.

  2. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..That was a magnificent morning read!

  3. Pine Mt Tiger Pine Mt Tiger says:

    Excellent read. A great primer on the zone read, and i loved the game you chose to illustrate it.

  4. Tiger on the mountain Tiger on the mountain says:

    Standing ovation…..beautiful stuff!! And there, my friends, is why the HUNH has Saban’s knees all wobbly….they simply don’t have a ‘package’ for that. BOOM!

    • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

      I did have one more line to add, but it didn’t fit anywhere else in the essay.

      “The only injury suffered by Ed Stinson was to his pride.”

      WDE

  5. restless6 says:

    Superb writing!

  6. MyAuburn MyAuburn says:

    I have written many posts on TET and you make me feel so pedestrian. Great job Sully.

  7. mvhcpa says:

    Beautiful breakdown, Sullivan. Those photos show the analysis you made in crystal clarity.

    Is the reason the D-end is left on that island simply because there is almost no way to react to a properly run zone read decision? In other words, is there too much reaction time / acceleration time needed for even an unblocked D-end to catch the offense (already at full speed)?

    Michael Val
    (who is glad he has someone to explain what really goes on on the football field, ’cause he wouldn’t be able to pick it out by himself!)

    • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

      You know, if I had a full understanding of how precisely the zone read works or how it should be properly defended, there’s at least a half a million dollars in salary I’m leaving on the table somewhere. All I know is that gifted athletes like Ed Stinson and outstanding coaches like Kirby Smart watch hours more film than I do a week trying to prepare for it and still seem frightfully inept despite their obvious experience and ability.

      What I do know is what I see in series like this one. There were others throughout the year, in nearly every game where the Auburn offense was clicking on all cylinders. It just happened that I’ve seen this game a few times, and felt this particular series was an interesting illustration of what I saw time and again throughout the year – SEC defensive ends in the backfield unblocked and bypassed by every offensive player as if they weren’t even in the game.

      And for long stretches of the game, they simply weren’t. Hopefully, another year of reviewing the film won’t give them any more insight, or if it does, Gus and Rhett will have developed even more maddening wrinkles in their offense.

  8. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..The zone-read magic we saw last season is very reminiscent of a lot of wing-T, veer and wishbone option we saw back during my high-school and college days. I believe that the bottom line is that defensive coordinators need to throw bodies at that thing, similar to the 9-man fronts that were used in the early eighties to extinguish the wishbone.

    …..Florida State showed us a bit of that, with very effective “cowboy blitzes” in the BCS Title Game. The mesh point on the zone read is a lot easier for a fast, shifty corner to read on that blitz. We’re going to see a lot more of that defensive technique this fall, I’ll bet. The real question is whether Auburn and other zone-read teams will then be able to throw it over the blitzing corner consistently. I feel like Auburn will. Others…. no telling.

    • mvhcpa says:

      Your first paragraph is extremely insightful, Acid–the zone read does look a lot like the wishbone, not just because of the options available. If I remember reading something somewhere right, the wishbone also left one defensive player unblocked, off of which you made THE fundamental read.

      I also saw something in the AU offense that reminded me of single-wing, and not just all the running: When one of the backs comes in motion from the outside of the formation towards the middle of the field, for a moment the line up of the backs is almost exactly like the single-wing, although that one fellow is already in motion. This is especially true of where the fullback (Prosch) was lined up on most plays–just behind the linemen, in the spot occupied by the single-wing “quarterback” (who was just a blocking back in that scheme).

      Also (I am sorry to keep blabbing), I saw some old movies of Georgia versus Yale (in the game inaugurating Sanford Stadium in the mid-Twenties), and the faking by the player taking the snap (at pistol depth, too), and eventual handoff to and running of the ball carrier, looked a WHOLE lot like AU’s bread-and-butter plays, especially as run in the Tennessee and Arkansas games. Like you said, though, the threat of the pass will keep nine guys from clogging the middle on defense, at least I hope, and I am pretty sure Nick picked up a whole lot of touch since the beginning of last year.

      Michael Val
      (who observes that everything old is new again)

  9. KoolBell KoolBell says:

    Interesting discussion, to go along with that fantastic post. I am completely dumbfounded by this wonderful offense Gus has devised.

    The only way to truly stop the run game, is to set yourself up for the passing game to beat you. The best example of this is the SEC Championship game of 2010. South Carolina’s defense led by our current DC Ellis Johnson, sold out in stopping the read option. They were somewhat effective in doing so, and paid the price for it. Cam Newton, and Darvin Adams made them pay for that mistake. Repeatedly. Then when USCe adjusted, Auburn ran it down their throat!

    These things that we have mentioned, along with the talent at Auburn have me giddy for the coming season. Now, all I have to do is wait….. Oh my patience has left me :)

  10. gonecoastal says:

    Nicely done, and extremely informative.

    I tried, but I can’t let this one go by: I understand that Saban is going to petition the NCAA rules committee to outlaw the zone read, in the interest of preventing injury to defensive ends’ pride….