How was Clemson’s defense beaten last year?
Less than four weeks from now, the Bulldogs and Tigers will battle in one of the more anticipated opening games in a long time. Over the past few weeks, while finishing our highest-graded returners series, I’ve been reviewing and dissecting Clemson’s three biggest games from last season, and particularly the two losses: at Notre Dame and the playoff game against Ohio State.
First, we're going to examine Clemson's defense. Over the past two seasons, the Tigers defense has only given up 12.8 points per game in their 24 wins, but 41.3 points per game in regulation of their last three losses.
One important thing to remember when watching their defense is the unit returns almost every player and is obviously loaded with talent and experience. In fact, of the 29 players who played at least 100 snaps on defense last fall, only four are no longer on the roster (all lost via transfer, including current Bulldog Derion Kendrick).
Thus, watching Clemson's defense from last year gives great insight into what they'll be like in week one, as we examine the trends, data, and points of emphasis that hurt them in those games.
Early in the playoff semifinal game against Ohio State, it was clear the Buckeyes wanted to dictate the pace of the game. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is well known for his defenses making numerous checks and adjustments based on what an offense shows (see how much they move in most clips), especially even as the play clock winds down. Thus, the Buckeyes worked supremely fast in certain situations. The above touchdown came right after an explosive pass play, and the Tigers didn't even get lined up.
On snaps "early" in the play clock, the Buckeyes had 10 rushes for 76 yards, and Justin Fields went 7-8 for 122 yards and a touchdown.
When they didn't go fast, the Buckeyes would often wait and then shift or line up quickly and go before Clemson could make its normal check/call.
As you see here, the defensive line is barely set, and still moving in same cases—and the Buckeyes take advantage. Notice in both clips how much yardage Buckeye running back Trey Sermon gets before he's even touched, or yards before contact (more on that below).
The tight ends were a major part of both the Irish and Buckeyes game plans. In the two games, the tight ends combined for 13 catches on 16 targets for 165 yards, three touchdowns (all by Ohio State), and another seven first downs.
In the play above, watch two things: how great of a job the tight end does to sell the block and, most importantly, how much the motion across the field altered the Tigers' alignment and responsibilities, contributing to the wide open tight end.
First, the throw from Fields on this play is special. However, again, notice how the motion moves most of the Tigers defense and gets the bigger tight ends matched up against smaller defensive backs. Expect to see a lot of this exact formation from the Bulldogs this season and, likely, in the opening game, but with Darnell Washington as the inline tight end and Arik Gilbert as the offset one. A very dangerous combination to try and cover.
While the Buckeyes often used formation and motions to get the ball to their tight ends, the Irish used a lot of crossing routes. This play came against man coverage, but others (including below) against zone off a blitz. I would expect Todd Monken to use a combination of both, especially given the size and versatility of the Bulldog tight ends.
Play-action deep shots
Yes, I'm a broken record on play-action and the ability it gives an offense to attack a defense, especially down the field. The Tigers' defense, though, and their overall aggressiveness, was very susceptible to being hurt by it in both games. Justin Fields and Ian Book combined to go 9-12 for 215 yards and a touchdown off play-action in the two games. Notice in the Ohio State play, Fields also could've had a touchdown if he turned his eyes back to his right as well, as a Buckeye receiver was streaking wide open outside the numbers.
Handle the blitz
This element of the game will be the biggest determining factor in how Georgia's offense is able to move the ball and, ultimately, score. Venables and the Tigers blitz as much as anyone in college football, from any and all angles/positions. Their overall blitz percentage (40.0) is 12th-most in the Power 5, and that jumps to fourth-most on third down (51.3 percent). They are also quite successful at getting to the quarterback when they do, as they had the fourth-most quarterback pressures in the Power 5 when blitzing.
In the two losses, Clemson blitzed on 36 drop-backs and only generated two sacks, with the quarterbacks posting 87.3 and 82.8 passing grades. The blitz was handled up front and the quarterbacks were able to distribute the ball accordingly. The Tigers may be experienced in the secondary, but much like any defense, they were susceptible to big plays if the blitz didn't get home. The Tigers' 58.2 team coverage grade when blitzing was 34th in the Power 5. By comparison, Georgia's 77.1 team coverage grade when blitzing was fifth in the Power 5.
Winning the line of scrimmage
Yes, the Tigers were missing multiple key defenders in the first game, and they held the Irish to next-to-nothing in the ACC Championship game. However, the first game still happened, and when you combine it with what happened against the Buckeyes, you see a defense that, while very good and talented, was susceptible to being overpowered at the line of scrimmage.