With wide receivers as good as the ones at the University of Alabama, screens and other behind-the-line passes are not sacrificing big-play potential. Those wide receivers can still make those safe passes into big plays while knowing more traditional big-play opportunities are coming.
In the Iron Bowl, there may be more need to turn those short passes into big plays.
The fate of the Alabama offense in its trip to Auburn could swing on the screens, pop passes and other short, quick passing concepts UA deploys for two reasons: Mac Jones and the Auburn defensive line.
Mac Jones has started only twice (against significantly inferior opponents) and been thrust into duty in two second halves due to Tua Tagovailoa injuries, but that playing time has been enough for a trend to emerge. According to passing charts by secstatcat.com, 26.3 percent of Tagovailoa’s attempts were behind the line of scrimmage. For Jones, that number is 34.2 percent.
Jones has been given the freedom to test defenses deep, with 22 passes traveling 10 or more yards in the air according to secstatcat.com, but in Jones’ case, it generally comes with more screen passes as set-up plays.
“I think every game we’re always trying to script some plays in the beginning that we feel like are going to give all of our players hopefully some success early in the game, whether it’s formation-based or the kinds of throws you want to make early on in the game to sort of get people some confidence and some positive plays,” UA coach Nick Saban said.
If UA’s offense is going to follow this trend of throwing behind the line of scrimmage more often with Jones than it did with Tagovailoa, UA will need to turn them into big gains if UA is going to continue being among the nation’s more explosive offenses. UA is tied for third in the nation with 81 plays of 20 yards or more and tied for sixth with 37 plays of 30 yards or more.
Doing just that is something this wide receiver corps is proud of, and they know it’s mostly done through blocking. Jaylen Waddle’s primary memory from his 54-yard touchdown catch, on a screen against Western Carolina, was the block from Jerry Jeudy that allowed him to get to the sideline.
“Without that block, the play is dead,” Waddle said.
Waddle added of the pop passes, when a receiver goes in motion across the formation and receives a simple pitch forward from the quarterback: “I like it a lot for how it opens up the offense and gets the defense on edge, not knowing what to expect next.”
Then there’s the wrinkle of Auburn’s defensive line, which could be the best in the nation. Marlon Davidson has been the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week four times this year and Derrick Brown has received the honor three times, in addition to being a finalist for national awards including the Bednarik, the Outland and the Nagurski.
“I think their defense is one of the best defensive teams in the country, probably anchored by two really good players up front,” Saban said. “You’re going to have to finish blocks. We’re going to have to play well together as a team to get a hat on a hat, and same thing in the passing game.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s run or pass, those guys are pretty dominant players. This is the most challenging front that we’ve played this year.”
Davidson is leading the SEC in tackles for a loss (12 1/2) and tied for the SEC lead in sacks (7 1/2). Most teams that face Auburn have to do something to help their quarterback avoid the consistent pressure they apply, especially when paired with the blitzing packages brought by defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. The quick passes are a way to do that, and thus another way UA’s use of the quick passing game could swing the result of the game.
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson