After accounting for pace and strength of schedule, Auburn's defense ranks a much more respectable 18th in Football Outsiders' F/+ metric, which seems more in line with what the tape shows.
Nevertheless, the tape reveals a few significant weaknesses in the Auburn pass defense, particularly on standard downs, where Auburn ranks only 63rd in S&P+. This is in sharp contrast to their #9 ranking in passing down (long yardage) S&P+.
The tape shows that the primary reason for this is that Auburn has struggled to stop the run on early downs (more on this in another article), which has forced them to commit more to stopping the run, putting extra stress on their secondary with lots of man coverage on early downs.
On passing downs, the Tigers can play it safer with soft zone coverage in the secondary while unleashing their outstanding pass rush, led by ends Dee Ford and Carl Lawson, a combination that has led to much better results. For example, Auburn has limited BCS AQ offenses to an 80.71 pass efficiency rating on 3rd and 10 or more, good for 17th nationally.
Below, we look at a few specific observations from the tape of Auburn's pass defense, focusing primarily on standard down situations.
Vulnerability to Double Moves on the Outside
One of the first things that jumps out on the tape is Auburn's vulnerability to double moves on the outside, with cornerback Jonathon Mincy particularly susceptible to giving up the big play.
LSU opened its game against the Tigers by going straight at Mincy with an out-and-up, resulting in an open receiver for what should have been a big game right out of the gate.
Alabama did the same thing twice when backed up deep in its own territory, with the first resulting in a 54-yard gain to Amari Cooper and the second in a 99-yard touchdown, as seen below.
Lack of Range at Safety
The above plays are also notable in what they expose about Auburn's safety play, as the safeties took bad angles and were slow to get outside in each case, exacerbating rather than protecting the corners' overaggressiveness on the outside.
Those issues can again be seen on another play from the LSU game on a touchdown called back for holding. Watch the poor angles and lack of footspeed from Auburn's safeties reveal itself again.
The same issue shows up yet again on the Texas A&M tape:
Lest one think the Auburn safeties have dramatically improved in this department since the Alabama game, observe the following clip from the SEC Championship game against Missouri.
Struggles Against Big Receivers
That score by Missouri jumbo receiver Dorial Green-Beckham brings up another weakness that showed up on tape: Safety Ryan Smith is the only one of the Auburn starters in the secondary over 6 feet tall, and the Tigers struggled mightily with big receivers all year.
Green-Beckham gashed Auburn for 144 yards and two scores. Texas A&M's Mike Evans had 287 yards and four touchdowns, including 42 and 64 yarders. Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief had 122 yards and two scores, including a 49-yard touchdown. Finally, Alabama's Cooper, another receiver with size although not as tall as the others, finished with 178 yards and a score.
The Tigers' smaller defensive backs have struggled getting walled off by bigger bodies and have not had success on throws above their heads, as can be observed on the following clips.
Struggles Against Play Action Down the Middle
All of these weaknesses are evident on the tape, but nothing sticks out quite as much—or as often—as the Auburn linebackers' struggles against play action. Thanks in part to difficulties stopping the run that force them to be extra aggressive against the run and in part to putting bigger, less fluid linebackers on the field, the Tigers have been vulnerable against tight ends and slot receivers all season.
Perhaps the best illustration of the linebackers' tendency to bite—and their limited athleticism—is found in the following clip from the LSU game.
LSU isolated linebacker Jake Holland in particular on this play, and FSU should do the same anytime he is on the field. Auburn recognizes this weakness, however, and puts the more athletic Kris Frost on the field in more obvious passing situations, meaning the best opportunities will typically be on first down.
Auburn has also consistently struggled against the "over" or "drive" concepts and deep crossing routes after the receiver has crossed the center line on both boot and play action, something I expect to see FSU target early and often in this game, as Kenny Shaw has been particularly adept on similar concepts all year.
Here's LSU's Jarvis Landry scoring on the second phase of a deep crossing route. Note how the linebackers lose him as he crosses the field.
Here's Odell Beckham, Jr. on a boot cross. Again, note the linebackers biting heavily on play action, opening up a significant passing lane for a sizeable gain.
Based on what I've seen on film, this is the biggest mismatch of the game. Auburn's struggles downfield against bigger receivers are good news for Kelvin Benjamin, and the issues at the safety position hurt against a speed receiver like Rashad Greene.
The difficulties against play action are great news for Nick O'Leary and Kenny Shaw—not to mention Jameis Winston, who has thrown with accuracy in that zone all year.
There's little reason to expect Florida State to go away from its bread and butter in the passing game. I expect to see a lot of the Houston and Smash concepts Fisher has run all year, along with a few tendency-breakers like the "Shake" route off a Smash concept and Sluggo (slant-and-go) routes off of Houston.
One nice thing about a concept like Houston in this game is that it consistently isolates O'Leary on a linebacker while providing a built-in deep option on every play to take advantage of a cheating safety or cover-4 look.
I think it's imperative that FSU avoid long-yardage situations in this game, as the Auburn secondary has been an entirely different animal when it has been able to put an extra defensive back on the field and play softer in the secondary while the ends apply pressure. FSU still has an edge on the outside in those situations, but the margin for error is much smaller once the linebackers come out and the safeties line up deeper.
As we have already discussed, Auburn's defense is also very good in the red zone, where they again do not have to worry about getting beaten over the top. They're vulnerable to big plays, but they don't break as easily once the field shrinks. That's how they managed to beat Alabama, which came up empty on three key trips deep into Auburn territory, any of which could have won the game for the Tide. As a result of this combination, I expect Auburn to take the same approach Miami did defensively, playing a lot more cover-3 and soft cover-2 with extra deep safeties than usual in this game in the effort to keep the FSU receivers in front of them. Given the Tigers' defensive success in the red zone, it's the prudent play to do everything possible to avoid giving up big plays in the passing game and force FSU to execute in the intermediate zones down the field and then rely on the high variance nature of the red zone to get enough stops to stay in the game.
Essentially, Auburn will be happy to give up lots of yards so long as they're able to get two or three key stops once things get tight. Florida State will have to be patient, with Winston avoiding forcing the football down the field, and FSU will have to have to execute in the red zone to wind up with a different result than Alabama did against the Tigers.
Obviously the best case scenario for FSU in this one is to jump to an early lead, scoring touchdowns rather than field goals and forcing Auburn to have to honor the run all the more, thus making the play-action game that much more dangerous. If they are unable to do that, this game will be obviously be more difficult for the Noles.