As the Week 1 battle between No. 6 Washington and No. 9 Auburn edges closer, one key matchup that stands out is Auburn’s experienced wide receiving corps versus the highly touted Washington secondary.
Washington’s defensive backfield has been labeled as one of the best in college football, and with good reason. The Huskies are returning two All-Pac-12 safeties in Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh and a group of talented corners with next-level potential.
Byron Murphy was limited to only six games last season after breaking his foot during practice before a Week 4 matchup against Colorado. He later returned to finish out the season and put up impressive stats in only six on-the-field appearances. In those games, Murphy had 16 tackles (including a sack), picked off two passes, deflected seven and forced one fumble.
Opposing quarterbacks were wary to throw in Murphy’s way last season as they posted a low 51.3 passer rating when throwing his way – good for 23rd in the country for returning corners.
But as much as Murphy locked it down on his side of the field, his counterpart Jordan Miller might have been even better. Miller’s season ended abruptly with a devastating ankle injury. But while on the field, he was a menace to opposing receivers and quarterbacks.
In the seven games Miller appeared in, he totaled 23 tackles, two interceptions, four pass deflections and one forced fumble. Those stats do not scream top-tier corner, but according to Pro Football Focus, Miller is one of the top corners in the country. Miller posted a 32.2 opponent passer rating when targeted, which is good enough for sixth-best for returning FBS corners.
In the wake of both Murphy and Miller’s injuries, the Huskies were in deep need of some players to step up, and that is exactly what Austin Joyner and Myles Bryant did. The duo brought in only 11 games of combined experience into the season but gave no signs of shying away from the spotlight. Bryant led the team in pass deflections with eight in 11 games and was also fifth on the team in total tackles.
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Joyner was the most efficient open field tackler on the team last season, tallying 40 total tackles, with 35 of those being solo. Joyner was no slouch when it came to coverage either. He returns having allowed the fewest yards per snap in coverage among Pac-12 cornerbacks with only 0.61 yards allowed.
Given that Jordan Miller comes back his old self, there should be a solid battle for a starting corner spot between Joyner and himself. Regardless, the outside is set, depth and talent-wise, for the Huskies no matter who gets the starting nod.
The corners usually get most of the attention or hype, but Rapp is probably the best overall prospect out of them all. Last season, he was awarded first team All-Pac-12 honors after an impressive sophomore campaign where he rounded out his game and improved his downhill tackling and run-stopping ability. In 2017, he totaled 42 solo tackles – up from 29 in 2016, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. In his freshman season, he displayed his ability to be a ball-hawk safety, intercepting four passes and taking one of those to the house.
Rapp is joined over the top by McIntosh, who also accompanied Rapp on the All-Pac-12 team on the second team instead of the first team. McIntosh is the epitome of a strong safety. He is strong, big and hits just about as hard as any other safety. The redshirt senior brings the most experience to the table appearing in at least 10 games in all three previous seasons. With a bit of Washington’s linebacker core dwindled, expect to see McIntosh using his versatility mixed with his aggressive play style to play in the box more than years past.
So, the question remains, how can Auburn execute a successful passing game against a secondary that allowed just 10 touchdowns through the air last season and was ranked 10th nationally in passing yards allowed?
To properly answer that question, it is best to give a basic understanding of the Washington defense first.
The Huskies has the quintessential modern defense that possesses players that can mix and match to multiple defensive schemes, but most notoriously the 3-3-5 and the 2-4-5.
The 2-4 and the 3-3 represent the types of players on the field. The 2-4 is going to feature only two true down defensive lineman and then in place of the typical defensive ends with their hands in the dirt, they are replaced by two stand up edge rushers.
The 3-3 will be just slightly different with three true defensive linemen with their hands in the dirt. This defense requires the defensive end to be strong and able to handle double teams or inside rush responsibilities. The 3-3 requires that the linebackers to be versatile in coverage and competent pass rushers along the edge and on the interior.
Washington typically runs this with a single high safety with certain linebackers and defensive backs playing underneath zone coverage while their lockdown corners hold it down on the outside for a base four-man rush with a deep three coverage scheme.
With seven players back in coverage, it is difficult for teams to have sustained success against this secondary, especially in the big play department. To put in perspective the effectiveness of this defense, last season, the Huskies’ secondary did not allow a 40-yard play until their 11th game of the year.
Now, if the running game is Auburn’s bread on offense, then the deep ball is its butter. So, the fact that Washington can eliminate one of the main facets of Auburn’s offense could pose a problem come Saturday.
But as good as Washington’s defense is, every team has a weakness that can be exploited in order to walk out of the stadium with a victory. After watching a few games where Washington gave up at least 200 yards through the air (five games), it was evident that Auburn still has a chance to have success throwing the ball.
A big storyline this summer for Auburn has been its offseason work with trying to implement the intermediate passing game with Nate Craig-Meyers and Darius Slayton. Against Washington that's exactly how you can attack the defense.
The Washington defense plays a lot of three-deep coverage. So, that leaves a lot of gaps, specifically in the middle of the field. Auburn will need to utilize the play action to draw the linebackers up that are playing the short zone coverage to open up huge holes behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties and corners.
Penn State had great success against Washington’s defense with the use athletic tight end Mike Gesicki that would line up in the slot and take advantage of the smaller corners and the less athletic linebackers of Washington. Auburn could do something similar with Craig-Meyers, as he has been its intermediate target with his time at Auburn but has just been underutilized. Slayton has spoken multiple times about his expanding route tree that spills into the intermediate routes, especially since it will be difficult to get any big plays going. Freshman Seth Williams has been making waves this fall as someone who could see playing time, and his big body could also make an impact.
With Jarrett Stidham’s elite ability to hit open receivers (66.5 completion percentage in 2017) and Auburn’s new suspected wherewithal to involve the intermediate passing game into the game plan, there is the chance that the Tigers can have the blueprints to expose the weaknesses along the Washington defense that few have been able to find.
But what really separates the Tigers from past teams is that Auburn has the reputation as one of the top running powers in college football and that should already set up the play action pass before the game’s first snap, giving them a slight edge before gametime.
The Huskies do not give up anything easy when it comes to the passing game, it will be a grind on every single play. But if the Tigers keen in on using play action to open up the huge holes behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties and corners, and use their big-body receivers to take advantage of the smaller Washington corners, Auburn will have a chance to finally walk out of Atlanta with a win thanks to a surgical passing attack Auburn fans have been waiting for.
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