Ole Miss’ offense has been as impressive as any in the country. They currently sit third in offensive S&P+, third in explosiveness, and have scored at least 30 points in each game this season, despite suffering three losses.
The offense is loaded with a number of freakish receivers, but tight end Evan Engram is the most difficult to stop. Finding a way to slow him down will be the key to LSU’s success on Saturday.
Engram is a game-plan wrecker. Through six games this season, he has 37 receptions, 590 yards and 5 touchdowns. That’s more receptions and touchdowns than he had in either 2014 or 2015.
Stopping him starts with trying to locate him. Coach Hugh Freeze and his staff do a good job of getting creative and using Engram in different ways. They will bring him out of the backfield, line him up in the slot, or split him out as a traditional receiver.
He gave Florida State fits by moving from the backfield to the slot and consistently getting favorable matchups against linebackers in coverage.
Here, Engram is motioned across the formation (revealing man-coverage) before running an out-and-up double-move. The play isolates a Florida State linebacker in space who can’t hang with Engram’s athleticism. It leads to a big play down by the goal line.
Then he’s moved into the slot, where he is again able to beat an isolated linebacker, as well as split the Seminoles safeties, scoring a touchdown.
The pace of Ole Miss’ offense is what makes the versatility even more difficult to defend. When the Rebels increase the tempo, defenses have little time to adjust and figure out where Engram is lined up, let alone how they’re going to cover him. With the Rebels operating a no-huddle system, the defense is unable change personnel, allowing Freeze to move Engram to whichever matchup they consider the most favorable.
Moving Engram and playing with tempo often leads to defenses being misaligned and busting coverages.
On his touchdown catch last week vs. Arkansas, Engram was completely uncovered in the slot.
The linebacker responsible for covering him was lined up in off-man coverage and a full 2 yards inside, rather than being square. He gifted Engram the boundary, where he ran an out-breaking route, made a play, and scored.
Though he’s listed as a tight end, Engram is essentially just a larger receiver. Regardless of where he lines up, he runs a full route tree and a high volume of double-moves. Matching a linebacker on him simply doesn’t work.
So how does LSU’s defense try to slow him down?
It starts with getting their hands on him. On a number of Engram’s big plays this year, defenses are either leaving him uncovered or playing in off-coverage — like the above Arkansas touchdown.
The touchdown grab against Georgia is another good example. The Bulldogs give Engram a free release in man-to-man coverage. Safety Quincy Mager can’t disrupt Engram’s route and doesn’t have the length to recover once he’s beat.
Here’s another example from the Florida State game. He runs a delayed double-move, with star safety Derwin James in coverage. Without being jammed at the line of scrimmage, he is able to hesitate, sell the initial route, and then separate downfield for an explosive play.
Why do teams opt to give him a free release? The answer is three-fold:
- They don’t have a safety or cornerback they think can compete 1-on-1 with his size in press-coverage and on contested throws.
- They fear double-teaming him and leaving one of the difference-making receivers — Damore’ea Stringfellow or Quincy Adeboyejo — in 1-on-1 coverage.
- Or, they’re playing zone-coverage, wary of matching up man-to-man across the board against all of Ole Miss’ weapons and making communication easier against the no-huddle offense.
While all those reasons make sense, none of them have worked.
Engram was a menace against Georgia, with 6 catches for 95 yards and a touchdown. But in that game the Bulldogs showed glimpses of how to defend him. When they were in off-man coverage, they were lit up. But when they switched things up — using double-teams and late rotations to disrupt his releases — they were far more effective.
LSU should gamble, playing with just a single-high safety, giving a cushion to the outside receivers and having star safety Jamal Adams track Engram all night, with help over the top.
Only Adams has the physicality and short-area quickness to compete with Engram 1-on-1. And Adams is good enough against the run to allow LSU to play in its nickel or dime packages the entire game, without needing to worry about substituting.
Fortunately for LSU, they have cornerbacks who can match up with Ole Miss’ star receivers in coverage. They might struggle — everybody does — but they can sit on islands for spells while Engram is bracketed inside.
Facing so many different weapons, LSU has to pick its poison. So far, defenses have defaulted to doubling the outside threats, but keeping Engram in check will be the deciding factor Saturday.