The 2020 LSU offense will go down as one of the top offenses to ever suit up and play on Saturdays. We have all thought it (or dreaded it), what would happen if someone actually played offense in Baton Rouge? There has never been a lack of talent in the Bayou. Creativity on offense? Yes.
One of the main reasons Les Miles was fired was the lack of offensive production by the Tigers. Everywhere around the SEC, teams were turning to the Spread, but the Tigers were stuck in an antiquated system that lacked points. Orgeron was trying to get the right pieces in place and was running out of chances.
Enter Joe Brady, the nameless faceless offensive assistant for the Saints. In the Spring of ’18 Orgeron invited the staff of the Saints to come and visit. Understanding the offense needed to simplify after the Canada debacle, embrace the Spread wholly, and step further into modernity, the Tigers turned to one of the best offensive minds in the country in Sean Payton.
The main focus of the meeting would be on Saints OC Pete Carmicheal, but when the topic of RPOs and college offenses came around, Brady stole the show. Outside of the Saints office, many did not know that Brady was actually the mastermind behind many of the packages that featured do-everything athlete Tysom Hill. Brady would talk to LSU offensive staff about RPOs and the “college” packages they used in New Orleans.
Though Orgeron was not present for the meeting, he definitely heard about it. Brady had impressed the Tigers staff. Coach “O” couldn’t hire anyone at that point, but he got the chance following the ’18 campaign. Orgeron made his move. Brady would have to decide, stick with the Saints as an assistant to the assistant or go reshape the LSU offense. Sean Payton told reporters in January that he had told Brady he was making a mistake, then added: “So much for what I know!” Brady took a chance on the Tigers and it paid off immediately. The addition of modern, forward-thinking passing combined with Ensminger’s run game propelled LSU to its first National Title since 2007.
The Tigers offense will go down as one of the most efficient offenses to play since BCFToys.com began keeping track in 2007 (’18 Oklahoma is the only other at 2.20). QB Joe Burrow (#1 overall in ’20) would win the Maxwell, O’Brien, and Heisman completing the trifecta of offensive awards. Burrow would throw for 60 TDs (that’s 4 a game!) and would finish as the NCAA’s all-time leader in passer rating. The LSU QB would barely miss out on the completion percentage record. Regardless the Tigers would put up the most points in the NCAA’s history.
The WR corps of Jr. Justin Jefferson (1,000+ yards), So. Ja’Marr Chase (22nd pick in ’20 & Biletnikoff winner), So. Terrance Marshall and Jr. TE Thaddeus Moss (you know, Randy’s son) would collectively dominate opponents through the air. The use of multi-purpose RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (32nd pick in ’20) punished teams on the ground and Brady would use his ability to catch with routes out of the backfield. Most importantly, the offensive line was dominant, winning the Joe Moore Award that goes to the best O-line unit (three were drafted in ’20). The Tigers had it all.
LSU would lead the nation with 48.4 points a game. They scored on everyone, even Bama (46) and Georgia (37). The Tigers racked up over 568 yards a game, with over 400 yards through the air. To say they were dominant is an understatement. Mississippi State would hold the Tigers to 36 points in their matchup on October 19th in Starksville. It seemed the Burrow led Tigers were unstoppable. Then the other Tigers came to Death Valley, holding LSU to a season-low 24 points and put a scare into Orgeron’s dream season.
The Odd Dime Goes South(east)
Let’s be clear, the Auburn defense didn’t really stop LSU. No one did. LSU racked up 500 yards of offense and Burrow went 32/42 with a QBR of 85. Edward-Helaire racked up 136 yards on the ground with Ja’Marr Chase tallying 123 in receiving yards. Everyone got their numbers. What the Auburn defense did that no one else couldn’t in ’19 was make the Tigers work to score and force turnovers. LSU went 0-2 on 4th down and gave up an interception and a fumble. That’s four turnovers to Auburn’s one. In the modern game, that is how defense wins. Points and yards are going to come, the question is, can you make the offense work and survive the haymakers?
Chase may have had 123 yards receiving, but he didn’t score, and only had a long of 45. Helaire would rush for 136 yards, but only had a long of 26 and most of it came in the late stages of the game. Everything was earned and the Auburn defense survived the shots. The vaunted LSU offense stalled near the middle of the field several times or couldn’t punch it in the Red Zone or in FG range. How did Auburn do it? They turned to a Big 12 staple, the Odd Dime. Well… at least an SEC version.
To defeat the vaunted LSU offense, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was going to have to be creative. Like Phil Snow at Baylor, Steele took the Tigers’ base defense and tweaked it to fit into an Odd Dime mold. Unlike Baylor who made a wholesale switch to the 3-3-3, Steele would use this as a one-time base to stop the LSU offense. Steele reformated the personnel groupings and featured a 3-2-6.
As if playing a Flexbone offense, the Tigers completely changed their defense to attack certain aspects of LSU’s offense. Against Oregon, in the opener, Auburn played base defense (above). Their was the normal mix of four and three-down fronts. Outside of 3rd Down, the Tigers weren’t showing their cards. Against another top 25 offense in Florida, one that uses plenty of Spread sets, the Tigers stayed true to their base (below).
Nothing during the early part of the season would suggest the massive change in philosophy. In an interview after the LSU game, Malzahn admitted that the Tigers had actually been working on a changeup for some time. To slow the LSU offense, there needed to be a much different approach. The plan was to flood the zones or bracket LSU’s top WRs while giving the illusion of a “light” box. In fact, Malzahn admitted in the same interview that the point of the defense was to force LSU to run.
“They started running the football, which we kind of thought they would.
Really, that was part of the plan. We wanted them to run the football.”
Interestingly enough, this was a one-time concept for Auburn. Later in the year versus Bama’s prolific offense, they were playing base as well (below). Ole Miss? Played their base. The resurgent Minnesota Golden Gophers in the bowl game? Played their base. This was a truly a unique decision for DC Kevin Steele and the Auburn defense, and it almost worked!
The vaunted LSU offense took a few series to get a bead on what the Auburn defense was trying to do. After going 3-and-out on the first series, LSU would stall in Auburn territory and punt on their second. The third series is when the Tigers found fireworks, throwing four straight passes once they got to their 34 (three were deep shots or passes that traveled over 20 yards). The final three were explosives and LSU was on the board. Turnover on downs would be the result of the fourth series and a FG on the fifth series to end the half.
The game was truly a game of two halves. LSU came out of the gate with a controlled and intermediate passing game (the game would only see five deep shots). Of the 41 plays ran in the first half, eight were runs. As Malzahn alluded to, LSU turned to the ground game in the second. 16 of the 42 plays in the second would see the ball thrown. That’s a complete 180 in direction. Auburn’s defensive design was “perfect” according to starting DE Marlon Davidson in the same post-game interview as Malzahn, and for all intensive purposes, it was. The LSU offense was limited and forced to rely on a steady dose of Edwards-Helaire. It’s just the Tigers were that good.
The Auburn 3-2-6
If you are looking to find a Big 12 style 3-3-3, you are in the wrong place. How did Auburn wholesale change for one week and still be able to play most of their defense? Packages. Don Brown in his 2017 Lone Star Clinic explained that even in his 3-3 package, the fits were exactly the same as if he was running his four-down (below). The only thing that changed was the personnel and alignment on the field. The “R” ‘backer in the photo is technically the 3 technique. He is just aligned in a 40. The fits are identical to Brown’s four-down front, the presentation is just different.
Kevin Steele usually bases out of a hybrid four-down front, meaning he plays with a DE that is more linemen than ‘backer (Buck). The luxury in this is that the Tigers can bounce from an Over to an Odd with little packaging. For the LSU game, Steele would need to get creative. To get to the 3-2-6, Steel would drop a DT and DE, leaving his Buck (#1 “Big Cat” Bryant), a Nose (#5 Derrick Brown), and another DE (#3 Marlon Davidson). The main front used was the Tite Front with a “lag” Nose. Later in the game, the Tigers would start placing the Nose in “G” or 2i, essentially already lagged (below).
Other fronts used in Auburn’s Odd package were pretty standard. Outside of the Tite Front, Auburn featured what I call Okie (5/0/4i) and “Back” which sets the 4i in Okie to the RB. Finally, a Bear Front was used several times. The first half saw Auburn bounce around from front to front trying to keep the LSU offense off balance. For the most part, it worked. LSU was limited to 8 carries for 25 yards (3.13 average) and opted to throw the ball. Only after half-time did LSU decided to feature the run game.
Auburn didn’t “live” in their Odd Dime package. Once LSU decided they wanted to establish the run in the second half, Auburn moved to a primarily four-down front running an Over “G” with the Nose at a 2i. This front is great versus Duo and Inside Zone because it spaces the anchor points across the line and forces the Center to show his intentions. The entire game Auburn was getting to a four-man front, but by the second half, the Tigers were living in a more traditional look. Outside of your typical Over Front, Auburn featured what I refer to as a Jet Front with wide-5s and two 3 techniques inside (below), which gave them a pass rush while also being sound in the run game.
At the second level of the defense is where things get interesting. By now many are familiar with the delayed rush used to get the fourth rusher in a three-down front. Aranda has Tite 4 and the Saban guys have Mint. In these fronts, the Nose will “lag” to the RB and the ILB away from the RB will insert on the guard versus pass. This creates a four-man rush on passing downs. Steele made this an auto check anytime the Tigers were in an Odd Front. This wasn’t just a passing down check, but an every-down call or an actual pressure. It got the Tigers into a four-down front regardless of formation. Below is an example.
The Mike LB in this defense would creep up near the line too, with a depth around four yards and would be in a “zero” alignment (or on top of the center). Instead of keeping another ILB on the field, Steele opted to remove him and play typical SS Jermain Sherwood (#9) stacked at eight yards behind the Mike. The deep ‘backer would be responsible for relating to #3 in the pass and following the ball versus the run. This stacked look is oddly similar to how Georgia played their box vs Georgia Tech’s Flexbone (below).
Technically Auburn is playing a 3-1-7, something that might be reserved for passing downs normally, but as Malzahn alluded to, the plan was to force LSU to run the ball. Auburn didn’t live in their package the whole game. 3rd Down has its own package and the Tigers would bring an extra lineman to get to a four-down front later in the game. The plan was to be multiple and force LSU to work to figure out the puzzle. Auburn didn’t even run a four-down front until the 3rd Drive, and that was to get a pass rush.
LSU’s run game is relatively simple, running Inside Zone, Duo, and simple Zone Read (they did run a same-side Power in the second half). The main way to tell the difference between Duo and Inside Zone is the path of the RB. For the most part, Duo and Inside Zone are relatively the same play to the naked-eye. Inside Zone is when the O-line is working away from the RB. The RB will press the near hip of the center reading the nearest LB. The cutback in IZ is more of a bend. Duo, on the other hand, is a downhill run, almost like a same-side Zone, except the RB is now running the midline of the guard. Below, LSU is running Duo. Notice the RB press upfield, not even aiming for the center.
Duo is more “gap” minded in terms of blocking where Zone is obviously more about relating to the next man over or “zone.” Duo also flips the play side. In Zone, the play side is away from the RB, whereas Duo is to the RB, which is why the RB hits almost in a straight line (Herb Hand, OL/Texas, did an excellent job breaking it down on Twitter). For the most part, LSU ran Duo and Zone Load (TE involved), changing the attack point of the RB. Read schemes, as I mentioned, were sprinkled in, but the majority of LSU’s runs were Duo, hitting the hole similar to the clip above. Several times, the RB winded back to little support. Below is a diagram illustrating how Auburn fit Zone Load.
The front four defenders end up in an Over Front. The Nose triggers to the “A” gap to the RB and the DE to the TE stays outside for contain. Front side, the 4i rocks out to contain and the Mike attacks the guard working to cross-face (3 tech.). The stacked ‘backer (SB) fits off the Mike from depth. Coverage wise, the Tigers are playing Cover 2 over the stack and 2-man to the “X.” The boundary CB is locked on “X” with cap support from the MS. One thing to note is the path of the boundary Safety (BS). He has the RB man-to-man. If the RB works away (run) the BS will sink and slide into the box (“B” gap/below).
LSU runs backside Glance reads like most offenses. This is a clever way a team running an Odd Dime can close the Glance while getting run support. The hash Safety sifts or sinks through the “Glance Zone.” The CB has the freedom to be aggressive on #1 because he is also covered by a Post Safety.
Many teams will put the “Y” and the RB on the same side as the Glance. The downhill motion of play-action triggers the Safety in most cases. Where Auburn is different is the tempo at which the Safety fills. In the clip below, watch how the Safety to the top hesitates in the Glance Zone before he attacks the ball. This coverage piece essentially eliminated the backside “Rattle” read. This is something that is gained from a three-safety look.
Auburn used a mixed bag of split-field and single-high coverages in the backend to disguise and create doubles on top targets. One constant in all coverages was eyes on RB Edwards-Helaire. The boundary hash Safety many times would play man coverage on the RB. Steele constantly bounced from single-high to split-field to try and throw Burrow off. Everything was there from 3 Buzz to weak rotation (6), 7 Bracket to what many see as the base coverage for Odd Dime teams in Tampa 2. The Tigers threw the book at LSU and outside of one series (#3), the Auburn DBs were able to make the vaunted LSU attack earn it.
The ability to match up with the LSU WRs and still have support was key to Auburn’s success. Auburn’s alignment also helped with containing the RB out of the backfield, especially when set to the one-WR side. The back-side Safety would leverage the RB while the CB would press the “X” WR. This made sure they were on different levels. There was always a Safety in the Post, and the stacked ‘backer would relate to the RB if 2×2. The clip below illustrates how Aburn’s two-high shell looked versus LSU.
Below is a clip of 3 Buzz. The hash Safety will insert inside the Nickel (Star) who is already aligned outside of the #2 WR. The Safety’s responsibility is to cap #3, while the backside Safety closes the Post. To the boundary, the hash Safety will take the RB man-to-man and the CB will lock up the “X.” Auburn chooses to send the Mike on contain and the stacked ‘backer relates to #3. Though LSU earns a completion, this is a typical coverage used by Auburn throughout the game.
The combination of two-high and single-high along with the multiple fronts tried to confuse LSU. Below, the clip shows Auburn in what looks like Buzz rotation. At the snap of the ball, Auburn drops to a two-high shell. Burrow, thinking he has single-high looks front side. The Auburn secondary adjusts to the routes and Burrow is eventually sacked. This is a great example of post-snap movement as a tool to complicate the reads for offenses.
As illustrated in the article, Auburn tried to leverage the RB by placing the backside Safety on him. If he ran, the Safety inserted through the Glance Zone. If the RB went out for a pass, the Safety had leverage and was able to match up. The luxury of having seven DBs on the field cannot be understated when playing an offense like LSU.
The Auburn coaches dared LSU to run and in the second half they obliged, but outside of some deep shots down the sideline, LSU’s passing attack had to work. Chunk and explosive passes were hard to come by. Of the 42 passes thrown, six went for gains of 15 or more yards and only four of those were +20 (long of 45). Burrow’s sole passing TD came on a Red Zone Fade for a 20 yard gain (irony here because this is one of the least efficient passes an offense can throw). Auburn’s defense, for the most part, did its job forcing LSU to work for everything they got.
Auburn showed during their matchup with LSU that even though the packaging was different, the scheme was the same. There was no wholesale change or a switch to a 3-3-3 like we see in the Big 12. The 3-1-7 that Auburn based out of made LSU work. The yards came, but the scores didn’t. This is a lesson all modern defensive coaches should learn. The modern game is an offensive one, and one predicated on space. Though Auburn gave up plenty of yards, those yards were earned. Kevin Steele designed a presentation that was hard for the LSU Tigers to decipher and Auburn closed-off space. LSU eventually would turn to the run in the second half and bully Auburn. The run game actually took Auburn out of their game plan forcing away from the 3-1-7 and into their hybrid four-down. But, that was the plan all along.
The SEC took notice too. Teams began experimenting with Auburn’s look. No one was able to match the production Auburn had. Georgia (above) played multiple snaps of their 3-1-7 version but ended playing more base in the end. Auburn in the second half had to move away from their Odd Dime package as well to handle the rushing attack of LSU. It was common enough I made a tongue-in-cheek remark on Twitter (below). The offense OC Ensminger and Brady put together was an absolute beast.
Look at all this Odd Dime in the Big 12…
— @The_Coach_A (@The_Coach_A) December 17, 2019
The use of an “all-11” personnel package forced the defense to show their cards when deciding on packages. The lack of subs also helped with the Tigers’ tempo. If no one leaves the field, the defense can’t sub. Having a Joker TE like Thaddius Moss and extreme athletes on the outside apply a ton of pressure on a defense. LSU’s use of the RB was handy as well. Option routes out of the backfield forced defenses to keep eyes on the RB. Auburn was able to help with this by assigning the Safety to the RB the responsibility of playing him man-to-man.
Overall, the 3-1-7 Auburn trotted out is something all coaches should look at when defending a Spread team. If transitioning from a 4-2-5 or 3-4, this particular package might be a way to present your defense in a different look and force the offense to run without a complete wholesale change in scheme. The lesson here is to create a different presentation without large-scale change. Auburn DC Kevin Steele was able to do that with relative success versus LSU. With the addition of Kendal Briles (Arkansas), Mike Leach (Miss. St.), and Lance Kiffin (Ole Miss) to the SEC West, this defense might become more common.
Author’s Note: I did a complete breakdown of the Auburn-LSU game, made a Hit Chart, and even a “big” Hit Chart on 11×17. Check them out:
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