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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.