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Malzahn method: Advantageous aerial aperture arrives for Auburn

Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire

Auburn’s rushing game has improved over the course of 2016, and because it has done so, the passing game for the Tigers has opened up as well. Let’s go over a play from AU’s win over Ole Miss to show how the strong run attack is paying dividends for the pass attack.

To begin, here is the formation before the play.

offensive formation

Image credit: SEC Network

Auburn is in a bunch formation with two receivers and three guys in the backfield along with Sean White.

Darius Slayton is the receiver on the left side with Marcus Davis out wide on the right. Slayton and Davis will just run straight vertical routes along the hashes to clear out defensive backs. Davis going towards the middle of the field a bit will empty out the space between the hash and the sideline. That area is where Kerryon Johnson will run a wheel route out of the backfield.

What makes this thing work is play action on a fake end around. Eli Stove is the leftmost player in the backfield, and he burst on the scene a week ago when he took Auburn’s opening snap against Arkansas 78 yards for a touchdown on a jet sweep. By this point, Stove had already taken one of those two-inch jet sweep-like passes for 12 yards in this game, so the Rebel defense has to respect him here.

Two more things help the cause. One, Chandler Cox sells the fake to Stove by running laterally like he’s going to run block before pulling up and pass blocking for White. Second, Auburn did its very Malzahn-y thing where it huddled before the play, lined up quickly, and snapped it soon thereafter. It didn’t give Ole Miss much time to assess the situation before the ball went live.

Here is how the defense reacted.

defensive formation

Image credit: SEC Network

Three of the front four will head upfield as normal, but defensive end Marquis Haynes will take a slower and wider path because of the action by Cox and Stove.

In the defensive backfield, the two vertical routes by the receivers will manage to draw five guys up the field. Safeties Deontay Anderson and Zedrick Woods will drop back. Jaylon Jones will shadow Davis in man coverage on one side. On the other, both Montrell Custis and Derrick Jones will follow Slayton step-for-step.

All of this leaves two players in the middle. A.J. Moore will go laterally behind the line, keeping an eye out for the quarterback draw and giving Haynes backup on the potential end around.

Linebacker No. 3 DeMarquis Gates is who is left, and I’ve circled him. His job on this play is to cover Johnson coming out of the backfield. The initial action on the play looks enough like a run that he takes a step forward before realizing that Johnson is going out for a pass instead of blocking for Stove. Take a look at him on this slow-mo GIF. Gates is the one starting out on the “e” of the Ole Miss logo.

Gates biting on play action

Credit: SEC Network

We’re now only a half-second into the play, but it’s already too late.

Because Davis runs up the hash instead of merely going vertical by the numbers, he ends up in the way. Gates could’ve made it clear of the hash before Davis got to him, but that moment’s hesitation puts him on a collision course with the receiver.

Gates colliding with Davis

Credit: SEC Network

Davis essentially runs a pick on Gates, but it’s a legal one because there is not, as the rule says, “an obvious intent to impede.” Davis just runs forward and doesn’t push or hip check Gates. Meanwhile, Johnson is running freely back by the numbers.

The other crucial defender on the play is Zedrick Woods, but I haven’t highlighted him because he’s been out of the television frame. He dropped way back to give Jaylon Jones help over the top with Davis on the vertical route. The collision with Gates probably slowed Davis up enough that Jones didn’t need the help, but there was no way for Woods to know that would happen before the play.

Woods ends up coming over and pushing Johnson out of bounds, but not before the running back has gained 37 yards on the reception. Here is the play in its entirety.

WHEEL ROUTE

Credit: SEC Network

White is no Cam Newton when it comes to passing, but he can complete wide open wheel routes. Because Cox ended up blocking a fairly hesitant Haynes on the edge, it meant that the five Tiger offensive linemen were blocking just three defensive players. The numerical advantage gave White a perfectly clean pocket from which to throw.

The play did not happen in a vacuum. Up to this point in the game, Auburn’s offensive mix was 23 runs and seven passes. The passes were mostly short as well, such as the aforementioned quick pass to Stove. Nothing about three men in the backfield suggested that the Tigers were going to throw a pass up the field on this play.

That fact, however, is the brilliance of Gus Malzahn’s offense when it’s rolling. If the run game is working, then Auburn doesn’t need four verticals from a one-back set to go deep. Sometimes, it just needs one defender to make one wrong step.

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