Oregon's offense heads into the 2019 campaign with a huge contest looming versus an Auburn defense that ranked 30th in the nation in opponent third down conversions a season ago. They are led by a defensive line that features three disruptive edge rushers in Marlon Davidson, Big Kat Bryant and Nick Coe. Coe led the Tigers with seven quarterbacks sacks in 2018.
Davidson has occasionally shown the ability to peel (come off of his pass rush to cover RBs) versus quick running back flares to the flats (see UGA '18-third quarter). As we spotlighted in the Tigers dominating 63-14 win in the 2018 Music City Bowl versus Purdue, even backup front seven personnel (i.e. Bryant) are capable of reacting to tipped passes.
It makes this a tough defensive line to puncture even if they aren't recording sacks. The team's front seven accounted for 15 of Auburn's 54 pass break-ups (T-30th in the nation) in 2018. Bryant, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 253 pounds, accounted for three of those pass break-ups despite starting just three games.
Derrick Brown vs. Oregon interior OL
Auburn defensive lineman and 2020 NFL first-round draft prospect Derrick Brown can win on twists/stunts, displays range and is capable of using his vision versus double teams. It will be important for 2018 second-team All-Pac-12 LG Shane Lemieux -a 38-game starter entering 2019- to win on his angle/cut-off blocks versus Brown's quickness. The Ducks have to take away snaps from the Tigers defensive front with some semblance of a running attack. Brown may match up slightly better with the Ducks' most versatile lineman, right guard Calvin Throckmorton (has actually played more at the tackle spot). In 2018, Oregon ran much more than they passed on first down. Passing on that down early in this contest could halt Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele from hiding the defense's intentions in obvious passing situations.
Herbert vs. Auburn third down disguise
For Herbert to enjoy sustained success in this contest, he and his offensive line have to be cognizant of Auburn's multiple disguises and line games on third downs. Dating back to his freshman campaign, he has protected the football relatively well. However, Auburn tied for 24th in the nation a season ago with 14 interceptions. Eight of the players responsible for 11 of those picks return, led by senior cornerback Javaris Davis. Davis -the team's longtime nickel back- enters 2019 with six career interceptions and one touchdown, and his pre-snap identification on this all-important down could help Herbert decipher the team's final coverage.
There are times when Steele will show a five or six-man pressure look in the pre-snap and then rush just four defenders with a two-or-three-deep zone behind it (see Purdue, Music City Bowl '18, 3rd and 10, 2nd QTR/14:14). In these instances, Herbert's patience will be tested.
Oregon's answer may be a dummy snap count that will attempt to force Auburn to show its hand. Herbert often looks to the sideline for the pre-snap adjustment before running the play (3rd and 8, 1st QTR, SJSU '18-defensive pass interference). In Week 3 of the 2018 campaign, San Jose State DC Derrick Odum would sometimes keep his linebackers and defensive linemen in stationary positions prior to bringing six-man pressures (3rd and 15, 1st QTR, incomplete pass, QB hit). In these instances, Herbert displayed pocket toughness to deliver the ball while getting hit by the unblocked blitz threat.
On the next five Oregon third down attempts (San Jose State '18), the Ducks posted a false start (3rd and 9, 2nd QTR), an incompletion to a tight end in the end zone while backed up (3rd and 13, 2nd QTR), a one-yard completion (3rd and 13, 2nd QTR), an 11-yard completion (3rd and 8, 2nd QTR) and an incompletion (3rd and 8, 2nd QTR). Many of the coverage concepts included two-or-three-deep zones mixed with split safety looks.
So what was the common theme prior to these third downs?
San Jose State's front seven (led by former NT Boogie Roberts) wreaked havoc on first and second down. The team's linebackers reacted to what they saw and forced the action. An inability to create forward movement in the running game (2.7 yards per carry) caused Oregon to stay in third and long much of the afternoon. For the game, the Ducks converted 39-percent (7-of-18) of its third down attempts. To even reach that mark against the Tigers front seven, Oregon OC Marcus Arroyo has to create manageable third downs for Herbert and his offensive line.
There will be many games for Auburn to study when attempting to corral one of the 2020 NFL Draft's top quarterback prospects in Herbert. One could argue that the Michigan State defensive performance in the 2018 Redbox Bowl ranks at or near the top of the list. Surprisingly, however, the job done by San Jose State DC Derrick Odum in slowing down Oregon's offense has some intriguing hints for Auburn DC Kevin Steele.