Time of the essence for Auburn's defense against speedy Oregon
PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- How fast must Auburn's defense move to match the pace of Oregon's ripsaw offense? Grab your cell phone. You're about to find out.
Pick a friend and send him the following text message: Meet me at 9 at Toomer's Corner.
That bit of alphanumeric telecommunication takes about 10 seconds to complete. That span -- between 10 and 13 seconds -- is the amount of time Auburn will have Monday from the moment Oregon back LaMichael James is tackled until Jordan Holmes snaps the ball to start the next play. (This applies only to when Oregon is "pacing," but the Ducks tend to do the most damage when they hit Warp 21, so Auburn has spent most of its time leading up to the BCS Championship practicing against that pace.)
Pick another friend and send that text again. As you type, consider all that Auburn must do in the time between when you click on your friend's name in your address book and when you press "send."
Even before the defenders involved in the previous play's tackle extricate themselves from the pile, they're looking to the sideline at defensive coordinator Ted Roof. Roof, who has extensively studied more than 900 Oregon snaps in the past month, will have a handful of calls in mind. Each corresponds to a different down-and-distance. The moment the previous play ends, Roof must make the call for the next play so he and his assistants can signal the alignment, coverage and any blitz or stunt to the players on the field.
"As a coach, you always try to stay one play ahead," Roof said. "You've got to have thoughts in your mind as things are happening. If it's 2nd-and-7, what happens if it goes to 3rd-and-1? What happens if it goes to 3rd-and-10?"
Roof also must decide if he wants to risk substituting players. An offensive lineman can play every snap. A 280-pound defensive lineman can't. Because he is required to accelerate to a full sprint and change directions on every play, he can't function at a high level without the occasional break. Auburn head coach Gene Chizik estimates his starting linemen are good for about 65 snaps. Oregon averages 79.25 plays a game. So if Auburn defensive end Antoine "Hot" Carter sees backup Corey Lemonier gesticulating wildly and screaming "Hot! Hot! Hot!" as he runs onto the field, Carter knows he must sprint to the sideline using the most direct route possible to avoid getting caught on the field when Oregon snaps the ball.
Roof and his assistants need about four or five seconds to properly deliver the call from the sideline. Auburn has tried in the past month to streamline its signaling process as much as possible while still ensuring the players understand exactly what the coaches want. There isn't time to correct a confused player, so the defenders must correctly process the signals the first time around. "That's the thing that has hurt some of the teams we're seeing on film," Auburn defensive tackle Zach Clayton said. "They're not getting lined up, and Oregon is catching them."
By the time the call comes in from the sideline, the Tigers have between five and eight seconds to line up and make any last-second diagnoses that could give them an idea what play they're about to see. Against Oregon, advance film study is critical. An opposing defender must know the Ducks' tendencies because he only has a few heartbeats to formulate his individual plan of attack.
Ideally, the Tigers will have absorbed so much of Oregon's offense that they can formulate a mental short list of possible plays if a safety sees receiver Jeff Maehl motion across the sideline or if a defensive tackle notices guard Carson York is a little light in his stance (indicating he's about to do something other than try to drive the man opposite him off the line of scrimmage).
Once armed with that knowledge, everything should be second nature for the Tigers. For example, defensive tackle Nick Fairley should have a better idea whether he is about to be double-teamed or if the Ducks have assigned a single blocker. The distinction is critical. Against a double-team, Fairley must drop low and try to split the linemen before they can merge and push him off the ball. Against a single blocker, Fairley should know which Oregon linemen are susceptible to which moves. One might have trouble with a quick swim or rip move, while another may be weaker against a straight bull rush. "It's going to come when I'm down in my stance looking at the guy," Fairley said. "That's probably when I'll decide. It's way more instinct. It's got to come to you naturally."
Thanks to the 37-day layoff, Auburn defenders have had plenty of time to study the Ducks. Last week, someone asked Tigers linebacker Craig Stevens how many hours of video he'd watched of Oregon's offense. "I'd say about a million," Stevens said.
If their coaches prepared them well enough, the Tigers' minds will automatically spin to the correct Oregon play -- or something close to it -- based on a combination of down-and-distance, personnel and formation. If Auburn players contemplate the next play for too long, they might hesitate after the snap and surrender six quick points. "You can't think a lot. For me, I don't like to think a lot," Auburn cornerback Neiko Thorpe said. "That's another thing that comes with practice. When you get your play, it shouldn't be a thought process. It should just be a habit. A way of life."
To a man, Auburn players preached the importance of fit. The term has nothing to do with the tightness of their jerseys. In football, fit refers to how a blocker engages a defender or vice versa. Because the members of Auburn's front seven typically are assigned one gap to patrol, how they fit is critically important.
If Taylor has the strongside A gap (the area between the guard and center on either the wide side of the field or the side with more offensive players) and linebacker Josh Bynes has the strongside B gap (between the guard and tackle), Taylor must engage his blocker with his head on the inside eye of the guard, while Bynes must engage on the outside eye of the guard. If both get caught with their heads on the same side, one gap will be wide open for the ballcarrier.
The challenge is that fit issues must be sorted out in the moments before the snap. Linemen will call alignments, while linebackers will yell instructions to one another to ensure every gap is covered when the ball is snapped. Because if they haven't figured out their fits by the time Holmes fires the snap back to Darron Thomas, they're too late. "That's all it takes," Bynes said. "That little tenth of a second late to where you're supposed to be. It can turn from a 3-yard gain to a 90-yard gain in a heartbeat. That's what Oregon has been doing all year to their opponents."
You've now read almost 1,200 words about a series of events that must transpire in the time it takes to send a seven-word text message. Is it any wonder the Ducks rocketed past so many defenses this season?
That could unnerve even the coolest defender. That's why Bynes believes the Tigers must take one of the best pieces of advice Douglas Adams offered in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. "Don't panic," Bynes said. "When guys panic, it turns into a disaster. We've got to keep our composure and not let the flow of the game get to us."
The key, Auburn players say, is to train themselves to think they have time -- even when they don't. "You have time," Bynes said. "If you make it seem like you don't have time, that's when it gets out of hand. You have to believe you have enough time."