Thursday, December 12, 2013

Auburn's Offense Continued - Formations, Motion, Uptempo and Two H-Backs

When breaking down the Auburn offense there's a few things to note before discussing the actual X's and O's.

1. Auburn's offensive line is dominant and does a few things extremely well.
2. Nick Marshall is an exceptional athlete at QB.
3. Tre Mason may be the best running back in the country.

These three things play a huge role in Auburn's success this year and it is only because of these factors that Malzahn's offense is as efficient and effective as it is. I will be highlighting some of the things that make the Auburn offense go, along with reviewing the use of the uptempo offense and zone read and the use of two H-Backs in the game at the end of the post.

After reviewing some of their games the Auburn offense can be broken down into a few basic plays. These plays are run from a multitude of personnel packages, formations, and motions in order to give the appearance of being more multiple than it really is. This also plays a huge role in allowing Auburn's offensive line to master only a certain few schemes and perfect them.

Here are Auburn's base schemes:

1. The Inside Zone
2. Inverted Veer
3. Buck Sweep
4. Off Tackle Gap Schemes
5. Play Action Passing
6. Drop Back Passing
7. Screens

This list is even a little expansive because the inverted veer scheme and the off tackle gap schemes are essentially the same blocking techniques for the offensive line with some slight variations.

Malzahn is an expert in taking these base schemes and adding "window dressing" to disguise the simplicity and make the offense appear more multiple than it really is. The ways in which he does this are as follows.

1. Formations

Formations are one of the least expensive ways for Malzahn and other offensive coordinators to make an offense appear to be more multiple. Auburn's base alignment utilizes two receivers to one side, and one to the other with an H-Back and tailback in the backfield.

This formation is altered in numerous ways depending on the play, and it appears that players must understand where to align based on the play call. Receivers on the line of scrimmage will align tight to the formation, or split extremely wide depending on the call. Essentially all of Auburn's formations are simply variations of this. Sometimes the X and Y will align to the same side giving an unbalanced look. Other times the H-Back will be substituted for another receiver or running back and moved out of the backfield. Other time the Z will be placed into the backfield as a second H-Back (discussed at the end of this post).

2. Motion

Malzahn also makes use of motion in his offense as well. Some of the examples of motion include:

Jet Sweep
The use of running backs and receivers to run and fake jet sweep is a simple add. It appears that there are two distinct uses of the jet sweep. When a running back is split wide and comes in motion it is most likely the inverted veer or "Flash" play in which the QB has the option of giving to the running back on the sweep or keeping it himself.


The other use is more often when a receiver runs the jet sweep and utilized mostly as a decoy for the zone read play. In this case the receiver will provide a fake and end up blocking a defender for the QB if he should keep the ball (shown below).

Jump Motion
Jump motion is utilized by aligning the tailback directly behind the QB and having him motion moments before the snap to one side or the other. This is most often designed to give the defense as little time to prepare as many defenses key the side to the tailback in order to run specific stunts to throw off the QB read on the zone read play.

Standard Motion
The final type of motion utilized is a more standard type of motion in which a player moves from one spot in the formation to another. Two of the most commonly used by Auburn is motioning the tailback from an empty alignment into the backfield, and motioning a wide receiver or H-Back across the formation, usually to outflank defenders at the point of attack.

Reverse Motion
One of Auburn's main outside run plays is the Buck Sweep, often Malzahn will package a motion by a receiver to deep in the backfield to fake a reverse to help freeze defenders and help set up blocks. This is also used in the play action passing game as well as shown below (note the simplistic nature of the play action pass).

3. The Quick Huddle
Malzahn also uses a quick huddle often throughout games. Just as the uptempo nature of his offense is designed to take advantage of defenses, the quick huddle is as well. When utilizing the quick huddle the offense will align close to the line of scrimmage in a circle. Usually, the quarterback Nick Marshall will release receivers from the huddle to align, and then quickly break the huddle with the rest of the offense, aligning in seconds and snapping the football. Once again this is designed to confuse the defense, catch them off guard, and also disguise formations.


I have mentioned before that Malzahn's offense is not necessarily a "spread" offense in the traditional terms. On most offensive plays Malzahn has two running backs, and often a tight split receiver as well. However, Malzahn does utilize some traditional spread sets with four wide receivers in order to loosen the box up at points in time as well. Below is an example of a spread inside zone play. We see the three major options on the play:

1. Give to the running back.
2. QB keep.
3. Bubble pass to the slot receiver.

When Malzahn decides to use his uptempo offense he will often rapid fir the same play over and over, sometimes switching formations while doing so, and sometimes running from the same set for two to four plays in a row. During the second half of the Iron Bowl he did just this, utilizing the spread set shown above and the inside zone read play to stretch the Alabama defense horizontally. The zone read is the perfect uptempo play for Auburn, and is definitely enhanced by the skill of their offensive line, Tre Mason at running back, and Nick Marshall at quarterback. 

Below is the video of the uptempo five play drive. Note that the only reason Auburn comes out of this uptempo is because they are forced to because of an injury to an Alabama player.

In total Auburn ran the zone read five times, giving the ball to Mason three of the times and throwing the bubble to slot on the other two plays. Overall, the zone read and its use of double teams can be demoralizing for interior defensive linemen, while the bubble by the slot places alley players in a bind with coming into the box to stop the run and also limit the damage done by a completion on the bubble.


Another package that Malzahn has utilized this season is two H-Backs at the same time. Below are two examples of the way in which two H-Backs (H and Z) are used.

The first is a zone read play in which the tailback motions into the backfield before the play (this is a great example of Malzahn using motion to add window dressing to his most used play). The two H-Backs are used to arc away from the zone and provide lead blocking for quarterback Nick Marshall if he keeps the ball on the zone read. It appears that Marshall has been encouraged to keep the ball when they utilize the double lead, most likely because he is so skilled and the mismatch created by at least one of the H-Backs blocking a defensive back.

The second play is an example of the inverted veer with the sweep portion being a jet sweep (this is often referred to as "Flash", with the same play with a set running back being "Dash"). On the play the H and Z are once again used as lead blockers to the outside, however, instead of it being for the QB it is now for the tailback who is running the sweep. As with many of Auburn's plays this is a read play and the QB does have the option to keep the ball inside and follow the pulling guard.

The two H-Back formation provides Malzahn with two elite blockers, often setting them up to block smaller defenders on many plays. The use of this package is also another example of the way in which Malzahn dresses up his base plays using different formations and motion, while changing nothing for the guys up front.


  1. I think much of the success of the offense can be attributed to the offensive scheme taking advantage of unprepared defenses. Going to the SEC Championship Game, in particular, Missouri was caught mis-allocating the strength of their defense, playing gap deficient, and playing out matched. Auburn focused on the weak side of the offense, where Missouri's 42 cover 4/6 lacked force/support and could easily be out-leveraged.

    The formations alone are conceptualized to allow for an advantage with leverage, numbers, or space, or personnel mismatch. For example, the base offense is 21 personnel. With the spread look alignment of the offense, a defense might send a Nickel unit out to cover the "spread".

    The location of the Y is an old alignment used notably by Vince Lombardi with the Packer Sweep. The Y has space and leverage on his side, and sometime size/weight, so that he can create running lanes without having to execute an extremely precise block. Or, he is in an excellent position to crack on a linebacker. Missouri allowed the Y to crack on LBs freely, while not having any defender replace the Y as force.

    The H is basically a glorified Guard and behaves as such, constantly pulling across the formation, though he is used to seal a corner or lead up to the 2nd level. Thus, you might assume you have a 6 lineman personnel group. I have not seen a defense treat the Auburn O as such.

    On a side note, I was surprised at how badly Alabama played on defense- how unprepared they appeared. They appeared average, at best, and confused by what was going on. The Auburn offense does the same old things everyone does, simply with a different look. It is a failure of the defense to be caught off guard by misdirection and up-tempo when the offensive concepts are basic concepts. I expected a more disciplined, tough approach.

    I think the first point is especially correct:
    1. Auburn's offensive line is dominant and does a few things extremely well.

    2 and 3 are less correct, in my opinion:

    2. Nick Marshall is an exceptional athlete at QB.-- I think he is a pretty average athlete. The scheme and players supporting the scheme create advantages for him. His best attribute appears to be his read decision-making. I think there are many QBs who could be successfully substituted for him in this system.

    3. Tre Mason may be the best running back in the country. -- Can be attributed to the scheme and personnel creating for him. He is not an extremely dominant RB. When I watch him I do not see a "man among boys" so to speak. He plays his role well, with a high degree of successful execution. I think any number of RBs could be successfully substituted for him in this system.

    Good summary of the offense, of course the real excellence lies in the team execution.

  2. Jon, I agree with your point about defenses treating the Auburn base alignment correctly. On a vast majority of plays the Auburn offense has 8-10 guys in the box, and will still consistently see 2-high looks.

    The more I watch the Alabama game, the more confused it seemed they were. This offense is not drastically different than what Malzahn did his last time around and even a novice like me can pick up on their tells and tendencies with play calling, so it must be a whole different ball game out on the field.

    As far as Marshall and Mason...I'm not lobbying for the Heisman or anything, but I do believe that Nick Marshall is an exceptional athlete at QB (although not a dominant passer, he doesn't need to be). Mason isn't a man among boys, but I can't really think of the last college running back who was since Peterson.

    Overall, the more I watch Auburn the more I realize it's all about the execution like you stated.