Florida State defense v. Auburn offense BCS Preview: Man Up. Quickly.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn's offense is hot, explosive and unique. How does FSU get stops?

Despite Florida State being on pace to score the most points in the history of college football, and having the Heisman Trophy winner in Jameis Winston and a host of other elite players on offense, it seems that most fans are more interested in seeing Auburn's offense against Florida State's defense.

And because this angle pits two elite units against one another, it is indeed the more interesting side of the ball. Auburn has a truly fantastic offense -- one ranking 10th in the F/+ rankings over the course of the season, but also one that over the last six weeks or so of the season has been as good as any offense in the country.

Florida State will not shut down Auburn's offense, but it is probably the best defense Auburn has seen, and should be able to get some stops. And if its elite defense can get more stops against Auburn's elite offense than Auburn's good (but not elite) defense can get against Florida State's elite offense, the Seminoles should win the game.

For a breakdown of Auburn's offensive philosophy and recent changes due to Auburn's 2013 personnel, read Chris Brown's piece. Then come back and finish this. Back? Great. Let's break down the essentials.

Get lined up fast, but be multiple

This seems simple, but it really is not. Auburn runs its offense at a blistering tempo when things are going well. And the Tigers have been very good at creating big plays this year when teams are not properly lined up. Alignment is huge in football, and it a defense is outgapped, it can be gashed (FSU fans saw this in 2012 against Florida thanks to some awful defensive adjustments, or lack thereof).

But it's more than getting lined up quickly against the tempo. It's knowing the assignment and executing the assignment. But it's more than that, too. It's varying the call so that Auburn cannot anticipate what defense Florida State will play.

Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt addressed this earlier in the week.

JEREMY PRUITT: ... You've got to be able to get lined up. These guys go extremely fast. You can watch Coach Malzahn over the years, wherever he's been, goes really fast. Seems like he gets teams discombobulated a little bit. You've got to keep them cut off. You've got to eliminate the explosive plays in the pass game, and you've got to create some turnovers. They're going to make some plays. Once they get down to the red area you've got to make them earn it, try to hold them to field goals. Whether it's a week or a month, they get a month, too, they get the same amount of time. So I don't know that there is an advantage to that, but it is what it is, and that's the things that we feel like we've got to do to be successful in this game.

As did linebacker Telvin Smith

Our biggest concern is to make sure we're lined up. It has nothing to do with them. If we line up and execute, there's no way we're going to lose the ball game.

And so did Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.

COLLINS: "As you had to get lined up and they go fast, we don't want to be in a situation where our kids didn't have their feet set. Even though we might tip our hand to what we're doing, at least we're lined up. Sometimes you see defenses aren't in their stances and they get gashed. So that's important when playing them, just simply being ready to make a play."

If Florida State cannot get lined up against Auburn's tempo, it will lose the game. Period. I don't think FSU will struggle to do so, but these points build on one another.

I do think that striking the balance between simplicity and being multiple against Auburn's zone read is very important. As the linked article indicated, Auburn is very multiple with how it runs its zone read, and Gus Malzahn is a lot like Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson in that he is able to change up the blocking schemes in how he runs the zone read play. Florida State has to change up how it defends the play enough to keep Malzahn off balance at times, but it also must keep things simple enough for its defenders to not be confused by their own scheme, as Auburn's offense is confusing enough in its own right.

There's also the question of how much Florida State should pattern read against Auburn. The Tigers are unconventional, and while Florida State does not run all of the pattern-match that Alabama runs, it might be worth simplifying that aspect even a bit more to prevent coverage busts.

Know what to look at, and do only your job

All throughout the week, I heard from players about how important eye discipline and singular focus on the assignment are.

Christian Jones and Eddie Goldman discussed this with USA Today:

"You don't really know where they're going to end up with the ball. We've seen plays where they're supposed to run up the middle and they bounce it all the way out to the outside because a guy lost contain. It's real important, because whatever opening they see they're going to take it. Their ball-carriers, they know where to go when they get the ball. So it's real important that we stay disciplined, especially the interior guys, that they stay inside, and the outside guys stay outside.

"I feel like every job is important. No job is more important than the other because it's like a domino effect. If one doesn't do his job, then it's not going to work. So it's like, everybody's job is important."

Telvin Smith echoed the sentiment to Tomahawk Nation earlier in the week:

We're just going to go out here and play technique sound football. We're going to play for each other. We're going to make sure when the coach sends in the play, we do the right play and we're not going to try to be heroes out on the field.

...

That's what separates an average team from a great team. That's what I feel like has got us here all season. We've gone out on the field and executed. I feel like we haven't had any heroes that try to get on our defense. Everybody is playing assignment football. And that's what we're going to do Monday night.

...

Just got to be technique sound, disciplined with the run. You can't be a hero, like we've been saying. A lot of times you're in that ball game guys tried to get out their gaps, guys didn't have their eyes on the quarterback, guys tried to overrun plays, miss tackles. That's the biggest thing we saw and the biggest thing we've been working on.

...

You can't go out and try to do too much. You can't go out and say because they've got 20 yards on this run, I'm going to make sure I get a tackle for a loss, because I know what it's going to do. Because at times they could switch up the whole play on you and run something else and then you really messed up because you didn't do your assignment. As long as we go out and execute and do your job, what we've been doing all season, we'll play a great ball game.

Lamarcus Joyner:

We as secondary guys, we just can't be Superman. If you watch the film, a lot of guys do a lot of undisciplined things, and that's how they give up the touchdowns. Auburn is a consistent team that pound the football and they do it well. So we just have to do what we do and keep that eye discipline and make the tackle or anything when technique meet opportunity.

...

And it forces defenders to be disciplined for 60 minutes. And that's hard to do. It's human nature to wander off or for a guy on secondary to want to be Superman or for a linebacker to want to be Superman. So you have to master your position and do your job against these guys.

And it's kind of crazy. It's one of those teams where some teams you may be able to do undisciplined things and get away with it. It's almost as every time you do something undisciplined against Auburn, they expose it. You're getting exploited. So they make you pay. So you have to be disciplined for 60 minutes.

...

Everybody do the things we've been doing all year, paying attention to details and no one being Superman; trusting in each other, trusting the D line to take care of their assignments and the linebackers and the secondary to stay disciplined, because that team forces you to stay disciplined for 60 minutes.

It's clear the defense has been schooled on playing assignment football and being focused against Auburn. As discussed above, Florida State's defenders must first know and understand what they are keying on each play, and react only to that key, and not the considerable window dressing that Auburn throws at the defense. Even if Auburn is moving the football with some success due to one defender being beaten, other defenders cannot eschew their assignments in an attempt to overcompensate. If they do, Auburn has shown that it will hit big play due to defenders being out of position.

Understand, then go: FSU's speed could prevent big plays and cutbacks

I think this is a very important aspect of the game. We have heard about Florida State's two inside linebackers being undersized, which is true. But they are also extremely fast, with Telvin Smith being perhaps the fastest linebacker in the country. While the lack of bulk is a disadvantage if Auburn's blockers are able to get to the second level, it is an advantage in the waiting. game. Much like Barry Bonds had such amazing eyesight and hand quickness to wait a split second longer than everyone else before turning on a pitch, so can Florida State's inside backers wait just a bit before pulling the pin and firing on those outside runs Auburn likes to hit.

Alabama's linebackers are bigger and slower, and they had to get going earlier, or risk being walled off to the outside. That also means that they had more mass and momentum to stop when they realized that the play was not going to the outside, but was rather headed to the inside on a misdirection run. Florida State is a lot faster side-to-side than Alabama was at some linebacker positions, and that could also help to prevent the cutback run, provided FSU trusts its closing speed and does not pursue too quickly.

Nothing free: Man up, load the box and bring some pressure

This has been a very strange year in the SEC. Typically, the conference produces great cornerbacks. But without looking it up, can you name two or three cornerbacks from any Auburn opponent? No And certainly not two or three close to what Florida State has in Lamarcus Joyner, Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams. Remember, Auburn did not play Florida.

Auburn is a team that lives on freebies -- screens, run plays in which the defense is misaligned or simply doesn't have numbers at the point of attack, etc. And Auburn looks to run tempo off those freebies. Florida State has had a month to prepare for the tempo, so the alignment should be better than most defenses against Auburn. But the freebies should be reduced as well, because of Florida State's secondary. And that means reducing the situations in which Auburn can play its tempo. While Auburn does not pass all that much, many teams have been forced to play a lot of two-high coverage with their safeties to protect their cornerbacks. Florida State will be able to play a lot more man coverage with a single-high safety than any team that Auburn has faced. That means an extra man closer to the line of scrimmage, which changes angles and numbers.

So while Auburn's offense will be a new beast for Florida State, so to will FSU's defense for Auburn, though perhaps to a lesser extent.

Dabo Swinney discussed this with ESPN The Magazine:

"When a defense is dominant in the back end, it throws of the rhythm and timing of the offense. That's why the Seminoles match up well with Auburn. Their belief in their man coverage will offset the numbers advantage Auburn usually gets with its run game. They'll force the Tigers to win through the air." -- January 2014 Issue

Swinney saying that is significant because his Clemson Tigers run something that is very similar to what Auburn runs. He knows the offense and has faced Florida State's defense.

Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham spoke about this:

GRANTHAM: "I think you have to insert a safety in there or a corner to try to create negative plays. Your big people have to hold the point of attack on double teams. The edge guys have to set the edge to close out the seam. Your linebackers have to recognize the redirection and come back with the tight end and the puller."

By manning up Florida State not only has more numbers against the run, but it also helps a lot with the bubble screen game.

Ideally, Florida State wants to challenge Auburn to complete passes down the field. That's a bit of a scary proposition because Nick Marshall does have an excellent arm, and even the best cornerbacks get beat at times, but given the alternatives in playing Auburn, it makes the most sense. Plus, just as up-tempo offenses in basketball don't run off made buckets, Auburn does not go to tempo after incompletions 30 yards down the field.

Of course, FSU won't be playing all man coverage. There will be some zone, and some split-field coverages, with half-man and half-zone, depending on formation.

If it does that, it should be able to keep Auburn somewhat off balance at times. It's also important to balance getting lined up quickly, as discussed above, with not showing a look too early. FSU needs to stemm its secondary, showing a two-high look pre-snap, then shifting down as Auburn goes into motion.

Florida State will also need to bring some pressure at times against the run to get Auburn's offense off schedule. That might be with linebackers or with defensive backs. And because FSU's defensive backs are so good, it can afford to take more chances with pressures, knowing that it has the corners -- and safeties who used to be cornerbacks in Jalen Ramsey and Terrence Brooks, to reduce the risk. Auburn is not quite as bad at passing downs as you might expect, but it is still much better on early downs, and it is a much better rushing offense than passing attack.

Pressure is also important because while Auburn does run a very fast pace from play-to-play, some of its plays are a bit slow developing. The blitz is risky, but some situational pressures do have a chance to nail Auburn in the backfield for a loss. And that is important, because Tre Mason is extremely good at finding a few yards even when a play looks like it will be stacked for no gain. He reminds me a lot of Emmit Smith, thanks to his patience, vision and balance.

Auburn throws it better than you might think

The talk on TV is that of Auburn being an option team, which it is, and a team with some wing-t concepts, which it is. But TV also makes it sound like Auburn cannot throw the football. And that is incorrect. The Tigers are not Georgia Tech or a service academy. If Auburn was terrible at chucking it around, teams with average or bad cornerbacks would have taken their chances and manned up against the Tigers. Nick Marshall does have a big arm (Florida State and Georgia recruited him as a quarterback), and receivers Sammy Coates and Ricardo Louis can be dangerous.

How much 3-4 will Florida State play?

Everyone thinks of Florida State as a 4-2-5 defensive team because of its cornerbacks and the fact that FSU has been excellent from that set. But Florida State also runs a 3-4 defense, with defensive linemen at 300, 310 and 305 pounds on the interior, with Mario Edwards Jr (278) and Christian Jones (240) on the outside at linebacker, and Telvin and Terrance Smith on the interior. If FSU needs to big, its front-seven can be bigger than every defense Auburn has played with the exception of Alabama -- and even then, it's not much smaller than the Tide.

And FSU might need to go big. We think of Auburn as a spread offense, and it is, but Auburn's personnel includes a talkback, and then a fullback/h-back and tight end, both at about 260 pounds. That sounds like very traditional pro-style, even heavy personnel. Florida State might elect to play more 3-4 against the look, using bigger defenders to take on blocks. FSU has played the 3-4 against 2TE/1RB and 2RB/1TE formations this year, so the move would not be entirely surprising. The challenge in doing that is that Florida State is more vulnerable to sweeps and things in that alignment, to Edwards' side, but there are tradeoffs with any alignment.

Play blocks and pursue: Robinson v. Edwards Jr.

Gap integrity is extremely important and difficult against Auburn. The Tigers do a great job of getting lateral movement to create vertical seams with their zone read game. And they also do a good job of getting movement at the point of attack with some of the man-blocking schemes, like power, which they like to run to the left. Just as FSU's defensive backs and linebackers must be disciplined in knowing who to key, so to must Florida State's defensive line. They cannot try to jump around blocks and risk potentially creating a big hole for Tre Mason.

When Auburn runs the zone read, I expect them to more than likely run it to the right, with Auburn electing not to block Mario Edwards Jr. on the back side, instead electing to read him, and perhaps putting him in space with Nick Marshall, who is an excellent runner. But Edwards Jr. is a better space player than his size would indicate, and he has been quite good against the read option this year. I think that is more likely than Auburn blocking Edwards and electing to read Christian Jones, as Jones is about 40 pounds smaller, though I am sure it will happen some to keep them off balance.

When Auburn elects to run power, we will perhaps get to see one of the game's best potential matchups in Edwards, perhaps the best defensive end against the run in the country, against Greg Robinson, a 6'7, 340-pound beast of a left tackle who run blocks as well as anyone I have ever seen. Edwards won't be driving Robinson back into the backfield like he has done with other tackles, but if he can avoid getting dominated and washed down, like some of the ends Robinson has killed in recent games, it will greatly reduce the effectiveness of Auburn's power play.

Auburn's is a run game that is far more effective when running between the A-Gaps, but Florida State's Timmy Jernigan and Eddie Goldman are as good or better than any pair of interior defensive linemen the Tigers have seen since Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson of LSU. Auburn is pretty good at doubling and climbing to the second level, and Jernigan and Goldman must control the double teams. If FSU can control the A-Gaps, it will go a long way towards a Seminole victory.

Adjust to unbalanced

Because Robinson is such a blocking weapon, Auburn may try to find a way to get him matched up on someone other than Edwards so that he can blow open big holes. Gus Malzahn is very familiar with unbalanced sets, in which three linemen are on one side of the ball, with just one on the other. FSU cannot simply treat this as a shift. It must identify and have a plan of attack for it.

Goals

  • Hold Auburn under 5.75 yards/play before garbage time
  • Force 2 turnovers
  • 50-percent or fewer touchdowns allowed in the red zone

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