It was clear from the start of the game that Gus Malzahn was going to empty the playbook against Alabama, breaking out the reverses, wide receiver passes, Wildcat throwbacks to Chris Todd and subsequent attempts downfield, and any other plays he thought might misdirect, confuse, or otherwise take advantage of the strong Alabama defense. In the early going, it worked, helping Auburn take a shocking 14-0 lead before the Tide offense got rolling for the first time and put a touchdown on the board.
As the Tide offense began to move the football, the Alabama defense stiffened, forcing three and outs on Auburn's first two possessions in the second quarter, winning the field position battle in the process. Midway through the quarter, after the second three and out by the Tigers, an 11-yard return from Javier Arenas gives the Alabama offense the ball at the Auburn 45 yardline.
Alabama lines up in 12 personnel, with an H-back in motion across the formation from left to right and a tight end on the line of scrimmage. The two players to watch here are Julio Jones to the bottom of the screen (weak side) and Marquis Maze to the top (strong side). Auburn is playing with a 4-3 look and what appears to be zone coverage in the secondary, possibly with some man-to-man principles. Jones will run a deep crossing route, threatening the safety in between the hashes, while Maze runs a deep post route, threatening the same safety.
- McElroy drops back and fakes the handoff to Ingram, sucking all three linebackers in towards the line of scrimmage. McElroy's first read is the cornerback to the top of the shot, who is giving Maze a big cushion in coverage -- McElroy stares him down.
- The safety in the middle of the field appears to be responsible for the middle third -- in between the hashes. He's reading McElroy's eyes and sees him staring down the cornerback to his left. However, the safety has not begun his backpedal as Maze approaches within five yards of his depth -- Maze will get behind him, meaning the safety probably made a mistake by not getting into his backpedal after seeing the vertical stem on Maze's route, but that's hard to say without knowing the specific coverage.
- Jones breaks his route inside after several steps and begins to threaten the same safety in the middle of the field.
- It's difficult to tell from the angle of McElroy's head here if he checks on Jones, likely his second read, or if he's just checking the safety in the middle of the field. Regardless, the cornerback playing Maze has good coverage on the primary receiver, remaining deeper than Maze at all times.
- Notice that the offensive line protects extremely well, with a perfect pocket for McElroy to step into and deliver the pass downfield. Notice as well that if Jones had run a crossing route, he would be free behind the linebackers.
- The safety in the middle finally reads McElroy's eyes and Maze's route enough to bail out in coverage as Maze gets behind him.
- Jones will enter the area vacated by the safety as the cornerback passes him off, presumably to the safety between the hashes or the safety deep with bracket coverage on Jones.
- As McElroy prepares to release the ball into double coverage, having seemingly never checked Jones on his deep crossing route. The cornerback has deep positition on Maze on the post, while the safety from the middle of the field recovers enough to get underneath the play to defend an underthrow. His recovery is aided greatly by the fact that Maze heads back inside towards him on is post. McElroy is about the release the ball into double coverage.
- Jones is completely wide open at this point and would have an excellent chance at scoring a touchdown if McElroy passes him the ball and the two defenders covering Maze do not react quickly. In all likelihood, McElroy never sees him.
- The safety who had bracket coverage on Jones now reacts to McElroy preparing to release the ball, but during the play never takes even a single step to cover Jones, who adjusts his route to head away from that defender anyway.
As he does throughout the play, the cornerback has deep position on Maze and a chance to make a play on the football. It's slightly out of his reach and hes bobbles it once...
And again, failing to secure it before he steps out of bounds in the back of the end zone.
The Stats of the Day post looked at McElroy's passing numbers from the season, noting the strong start and finish to McElroy's season, with an inconsistent, inaccurate middle. Though this particular poor throw is from the Auburn game , the final contest for Alabama before the annihilation of Florida and part of his strong finish, it illustrates several important points about McElroy: 1) he has a tendency to stare down his first read, resulting in a failure to check down or go through his progression to find open receivers, and 2) when he does see open receivers, he sometimes is so afraid of throwing an interception that he doesn't give his receiver a play on the football.
Had McElroy gone to his second read -- Julio Jones -- he would have seen his receiver streaking across the middle of the field wide open, uncovered by anyone in the secondary. It's important to note here that had McElroy shifted his eyes to Jones just before the safety between the hashes bails out into coverage in the second frame above, Jones may end up being covered, but that seems unlikely. It's a virtual certainty that had he targeted Jones, it would have resulted in a big play.
McElroy's tendency to stare down receivers brings up another point -- he does not do a good job of manipulating defensive backs with his eyes. Where he looks is where he wants to go to the football and he will wait for that receiver to come open. He will rarely move a defender, then throw the ball to a receiver entering the vacated area. As a defense, taking away his first read becomes the main priority.
On this play, had McElroy tried to fit the ball perfectly into Maze, it probably would have been intercepted. Instead, he overthrows it a bit and though the only player who has a chance at the ball is the cornerback -- McElroy's cautiousness pays off and helps avoid a turnover. There were several other big plays in the other two games I watched where the 'Bama quarterback cost his team touchdowns by missing open receivers -- once early against LSU when he missed a wide open Jones in the end zone for an easy touchdown. Jones had no play on the ball. Early in the same game, he missed Marquis Maze going deep on a double move, throwing the ball long and out of bounds. Maze had no play on the ball. On a trick play out of the Wildcat, McElroy had a a wide-open H-back down the seam, but overthrew the ball.
Once again, for whatever reason, McElroy is extremely cautious and works hard not to turn over the football. But as a result, he often makes it difficult for his own receivers to make a catch, often failing to even give them a chance. This mindset is reflected in his low number of touchdown passes at times and also his low number of interceptions and could even have had an impact on the Tide settling for so many field goals during the stretch where McElroy struggled.
Though Alabama does not throw deep extremely often, they do like to take some shots downfield, mostly off of play action. Whether or no the Texas defensive backs can stay with the Alabama receivers on those routes and whether or not McElroy can give his receivers a chance to catch the ball may be the difference in Alabama scoring a touchdown at a critical point in the game, settling for a field goal, or punting. The former Southlake Carroll star is not likely to throw an interception in such a moment, but there's also a strong chance no one will have an opportunity to catch it.