Defensive keys: Auburn vs. FSU

The 2014 BCS National Championship Game between the Auburn Tigers and Florida State Seminoles features two of the most explosive offenses in the nation. Led by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, Florida State leads the nation in points per game, points per drive and yards per play.

Conversely, Auburn, led by its efficient rushing attack, is averaging more than 40 points per game and leads the nation in rushing yards per game and rushes of 15 yards or longer.

What are the keys to slowing these offenses? Below are three areas of focus for each defense heading into Monday’s showdown:

For Auburn’s defense

1. Limit big plays -- Florida State gains at least 20 yards on one play once every 8.6 snaps, the best rate for any FBS team in the last seven seasons. On drives when the Seminoles break a 20-yard play, they score a touchdown 78 percent of the time and average an FBS-high six points per drive. In comparison, on drives when they do not have a 20-yard play, the Seminoles score a touchdown 20 percent of the time and average 1.6 points per drive.

2. Get pressure with front four -- When opponents send five or more pass rushers, Winston leads all players from automatic-qualifier (AQ) conferences in completion percentage (70.1 percent), touchdowns (20) and yards per attempt (12.4). Against standard pressure, Winston is completing 66 percent of his passes and has thrown seven of his 10 interceptions.

Jameis Winston Passing

This Season

Auburn, led by defensive end Dee Ford, must generate pressure with its front four pass rushers so that more players can drop into coverage and protect against Winston’s deep ball (he ranks third among AQ quarterbacks in completion percentage and touchdowns on passes thrown 15 yards or longer).

3. Slow Florida State on first down -- Florida State is attempting the fewest third-down plays per game (11.2) in the FBS, largely because of its success on first down. The Seminoles are averaging an FBS-high 7.8 yards per play on first down, including 5.7 yards per rush. Led by a trio of backs who have each run for at least 500 yards and eight touchdowns, Florida State runs on 55 percent of its first-down plays and gains at least five yards on 43 percent of those rushes.

For Florida State’s defense

1. Force Auburn inside -- Auburn is one of three AQ teams to run outside the tackles on at least 50 percent of its carries. The Tigers are averaging an AQ-high 222.1 rushing yards per game and 8.5 yards per rush on such carries. Florida State does not have many defensive weaknesses, but the Seminoles have struggled against runs outside the tackles. They have allowed 5.1 yards per outside rush compared with 3.1 yards per rush to the inside. Defensive ends Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman must set the edge and force Auburn inside in order to slow the Tigers’ dynamic zone-read rushing attack.

2. Get Auburn into third-and-long situations -- On third-and-three-or-fewer to go, Auburn has converted 76 percent of plays for a first down, fourth best in the FBS. When the distance to go is more than three yards, Auburn’s conversion percentage falls to 86th in the FBS. The main reason is Auburn’s ability to run to pick up the short yardage. On third-and-three, Auburn runs on 79 percent of its plays; when the distance needed for a first down jumps to four yards, its rushing percentage falls to 37 percent. Florida State must make Nick Marshall throw the ball, so slowing Auburn’s run game on first and second down is imperative.

3. Maintain gap discipline -- Entering bowl season, Auburn had 190 designed rushes on which the ball carrier was not touched until at least five yards past the line of scrimmage, 19 more rushes than any other AQ team. Many analysts have pointed to opposing defenses getting fooled by “eye candy,” which results in the defenders running out of their gaps before the blockers even get there. Florida State must maintain both eye and gap discipline in order to limit Auburn from breaking big plays with its zone-read rushes.