On tape and on paper, Florida State has the best defense Auburn will face this season, the perfect unit for stopping a Tigers team that produces the nation’s most exciting run game.
The Seminoles have beastly brutes along the defensive line stout enough to stop the run, and they have a group of players in their back seven (linebackers and defensive backs) who are among the fastest, most athletic and best tacklers in the nation.
Here’s the thing: Alabama had all of those things, too, and the Tigers rolled up 296 yards rushing on the Tide, by far the most they allowed in a single game in 2013.
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This is why I love football and absolutely cannot wait until the national championship game. Several facets of the game intrigue me. I want to see if Florida State, which hasn’t been battle-tested like the Tigers or faced adversity anywhere near what Auburn has, can finish the game if it’s close and goes deep into the fourth quarter. I want to see if Auburn, which has been in slugfests all season, has one more epic victory left.
But as a former defensive player, I’m most looking forward to seeing if FSU’s vaunted defense can do what nobody has done all season: stop Auburn’s electrifying run game. On Friday, FSU quarterback Jameis Winston asked at a news conference, “Where in the rulebook does it say we can’t blow out every team we play?”
That sounds like a good plan, but like the great boxer Joe Louis once said: “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.” And as they’ve done to ‘Bama and Texas A&M and nearly everybody else, the Tigers will likely land some blows. The only question: Will they land enough of them against the ‘Noles to inflict fatal damage?
After watching tape, I’ve seen the answer will lie in two determining factors: the trenches and tackling. On Monday night, I’ll be watching the technique of Florida State’s interior defensive linemen and what happens every time a Tigers ball carrier gets a one-on-one situation in space. This will decide the game. Let’s take a closer look at what I mean.
For FSU, it all starts on the interior defensive line
Florida State’s defensive line is built to stop the run. The ‘Noles up front are big, aggressive and talented. They’re also well-coached and among the best technicians I’ve seen on tape at the collegiate level this season.
Defensive tackles Timmy Jernigan, Eddie Goldman and Jacobbi McDaniel most often use the “2-gap technique.” That’s a technique where hulking, Sumo-like linemen are taught to engage in the martial art of hand-fighting with the offensive lineman across from them, unlike smaller interior linemen in different schemes who are taught to use quickness to penetrate a single gap.
The interior defensive linemen in FSU’s scheme are often assigned to not one, but two gaps (those on either side of them). At the snap, they are taught to do four things:
1) Punch the chest plate of the offensive lineman to stand him up
2) Control him by “grabbing some cloth” (jersey)
3) Keep extension so the offensive lineman can’t engulf him
4) “Club,” “rip” or “snatch” the offensive lineman to shed the block and close off either gap when the first opposite color shows. (That opposite color could be the ball carrier or another blocker, such as an adjacent offensive lineman trying to chip and climb to one of the linebackers or a pulling offensive lineman trying to get through the line to block one of the linebackers.)
When interior defensive linemen execute this technique properly, it prevents offensive linemen from getting to the second level to block the linebackers, who can then run freely and make plays.
In one of the most vital matchups of the game, I’ll be watching one of the best centers in the nation, Auburn’s Reese Dismukes, and his two guards, Chad Slade and Alex Kozan, going toe-to-toe with FSU’s Jernigan (the Seminoles’ fourth-leading tackler and leader in tackles for loss), McDaniel and the incredibly impressive sophomore Goldman.
Violent and strong with their hands, both Jernigan and Goldman are among the best interior defensive linemen I’ve seen on tape. If they are able to engulf Dismukes, Slade and Kozan, allowing speedy Seminoles linebackers Telvin Smith and Terrance Smith to run freely, the Seminoles will have a great shot at slowing Auburn’s run game.
If, however, the interior trio on Auburn’s offensive line can get some movement on the Seminoles interior and climb up to get in the faces of FSU’s linebackers – something they’ve excelled at this season — the Tigers are going to turn the football game at the Rose Bowl into a track meet and shouts of “War Eagle” will ring through Southern California.
“You can have all the pretty boys you want,” Dismukes said. “But whoever wins the line of scrimmage all day is usually going to be who wins the football game.”
Why one-on-one tackling is mandatory against Auburn
When I played in the NFL, each player received a grade sheet the day after a game with a point total that reflected how well you played. The point scale ranged from 1 to 5. The better the play, the higher the point value. We received points for each tackle, forced fumble, fumble recovery, pass break-up, interception, sack, etc. We also had points taken away for negative plays.
The worse the mistake, the more points you had deducted from your total. We were penalized for mistakes such as mental errors and improper technique, but the mistakes for which we were penalized the most were poor effort (five points) and missed tackles (five points).
I’ve always wondered why “missed tackles” aren’t found anywhere on a stat sheet. Any defensive coordinator will tell you that stat is as important as interceptions and sacks. To tackle well, you have to do four things in your technique:
1) Eyes on target (keep your head up — you can’t hit what you can’t see)
2) Buzz your feet and keep gaining ground (especially just before and on contact)
3) Shoot your arms
4) Wrap up
Much of Auburn’s success on the ground this season can be attributed to missed tackles by the defense. The Tigers’ scheme often forces defenders to be a step out of position and reaching, instead of allowing them to get their pads on the ball carrier to make a good, clean tackle.
On top of that, the Tigers have some athletic freaks toting the rock. As I wrote in an earlier piece this season, Gus Malzahn’s offensive play-calling genius at Auburn is a matter of simple mathematics. The Tigers use quick motions and shifts to confuse defenses, screw up the number count and catch defenders out of position. (You can see examples of this here.)
Luckily for Florida State, its secondary has the most speed and athleticism of any Auburn has faced this season and is talented enough to handle the Tigers in space.
Standout hybrid safety/nickelback/cornerback LaMarcus Joyner, All-America safety Terrence Brooks and true freshman safety Jalen Ramsey — who started his first three games at cornerback, becoming the first true freshman to start at corner for FSU since Deion Sanders – are all studs and some of the best tacklers in all of college football.
But they haven’t faced a team like Auburn yet. Being talented enough to stop the Tigers in space – again, Alabama had the talent, too – and actually doing it are two different things. Auburn’s offensive scheme forces defensive coordinators to answer the question: One-on-one, can your athlete take our athlete to the ground?
If you’re a football junkie like me, this is the battle, along with the interior line wars described above, you want to pay attention to during the BCS title game.
If Auburn’s offensive line wins the confrontation in the trenches, its four primary ball carriers – QB Nick Marshall and RBs Tre Mason, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne – will continuously break through first-level defenders and put pressure on the FSU secondary to tackle those dynamic runners in space. If FSU’s interior D-linemen handle their business, most threats won’t ever reach the secondary.
The Seminoles do have the ability to blow out the Tigers, as Winston mentioned, starting with the most talented and complete defense Auburn has seen all season.
But as the Tigers might say, they’ve faced great defenses before, and not one has come close to stopping their attack yet.
Coy Wire played college football at Stanford before a nine-year NFL career in Buffalo and Atlanta. He’s currently a college football analyst for FOX Sports 1 and writes for FOXsports.com. Follow him on Twitter @CoyWire.