So here we are at the first turn of the race, and we have seen that problems that we predicted in the preseason have developed into what we thought.
Everyone knew we would have issues at WR. Everyone knew we'd start a new QB, and that he would have teething problems, and a week before the season started, when Parker was announced starter, I predicted he would have some games where he looked like a freshman. Everyone also suspected the OL would be average at best; not one person told me that they believed it would be a strength this year. Many of us, including myself, did not expect Napier would turn this offense into a 50ppg juggernaut.
And what do we have after 4 games? A QB who looked like a freshman in 2 games, WRs that have not stepped up, an offense that cannot execute at times, and an OL that has been average.
I fail to see why any realistic Clemson fan would be surprised given what has happened around here the last few years....oops, 20 years.
But given that, there are things, that if improved soon, would really bring Clemson fans "All In."
1. WRs must catch the football. Its quite simple. There have been several key drops by all of our receivers this season that have killed drives. TCU's WRs caught passes that were high or wide, yet Clemson's cannot. Terrance Ashe cannot catch any throw on a slant or post route, that much is clear. Palmer has had drops, Allen has had drops, Dye, Jones, etc. etc.
2. WRs must learn to get open and run better routes. Making a cut on a hitch-n-go or a square-in is not rocket science. We do not run crisp, clean routes. Against man coverage the route continues at full-speed, against zone the WR stops in open grass, and our guys cannot grasp this. When in man coverage, we are not physical enough to force our way open. I'd rather see an offensive PI call and the ball be brought back than no one even try to get open by chucking a Cornerback.
3. Parker must improve his accuracy, and his mechanics. With our WR's drops, its clearly a two-fold problem. Parker throws high to the sidelines quite a bit, as well as wide. Many times he throws behind his receiver. He must improve his touch on short-to-intermediate throws. In addition, he has a tendency in pressure situations to throw across his body and does not set his feet to throw.
4. The offensive gameplan must create opportunities for the TE and WRs. On what was our best offensive drive of the season against TCU, Clemson used the TE to chip the DE and then run out into the flats on flare/wheel routes. Mike Palmer, D. Allen, and R. Taylor all caught short passes on the first drive.
However, where a TE is most handy is in taking on LB's in coverage over the middle. They are bigger and can muscle the 'backers out of their way in their route, and then take the hit from both safeties that will come their way. Clemson does not attack the middle of the field with the TE. Every team on the schedule will play Cover 2 defense at times, and the weak spot in a true Cover 2 is the middle of the field, at about 15 yards depth. How many of Palmer's catches have been in this area? We saw it work to Allen vs. GT and it nearly worked against TCU this week, so more plays MUST attack the seam.
Nearly every defensive scheme has a 'no-cover zone' from 1-5 yards off the line of scrimmage. If your TE can make a play, then attacking the flats with them like we do makes sense, but Allen and Palmer are neither fast nor elusive enough to do this, so I see no reason to expect big gains by continuously attacking the area when the middle of the field is open.
Additionally, plays must be designed to get our younger WRs involved. Nearly every play I see involves Parker locking onto Jacoby Ford and never looking off. That tells me that a) plays are designed with Ford as the primary progression, and b) that Parker has little confidence in their abilities. How can you expect Brown, Jones or Clear to step up, when so few plays are designed to go to them? (Ashe does have designed plays, but he drops them or doesnt get separation.)
We have 3 WRs at 6'4" or better, who can play. Just throw a fade or corner route and let them go get it. Who on our schedule has tall enough CBs to cover them? Tell Parker to look their way first and wait for the play to develop before immediately going to Jacoby.
A better way to use CJ and Jacoby would be to stretch the field vertically. ENOUGH of the short crossing routes and flanker screens. BOTH can outrun anyone the defense uses to cover. If the OL can protect for a 7-step drop play, then run one/both of them on a post/fly route to pull those safeties deep. Even if they end up double-covered, the TE will be sitting open in the seam underneath. With CJ as arguably the more elusive one, run Jacoby deep and use CJ on the screens or underneath routes, and have Ellington in the backfield.
5. The blocking must continue to improve. There is nothing I enjoy more about offensive football than well-executed blocking. I give credit to our line for stepping up against TCU's pass rush. Parker was not sacked once and even Lambert played ok. But in the redzone, scoring TDs is about TOUGHNESS up front and controlling the LOS. We still do not do that. On 3rd or 4th and short, we do not handle teams that stack up the box. They get penetration and blow up the play. All of our linemen are at fault. The OL play has improved overall this season, with certain exceptions by one player or two during a particular game, but if the interior line (which is supposed to be a strength) cannot blow people off the ball, you don't get first downs in short-yardage situations.
A secondary complaint is the WR blocking. If you want to run perimeter options and sweeps, not only do OLmen need to get around the corner, but WRs have to block people. Ours do not, and seem to take plays off when it comes to blocking. With 3 big receivers, we should be able to execute a crack block, and we still haven't learned how.
6. The playcalling must change, specifically the run/pass calls. In addition to attacking seams instead of the flat, we call some plays without reason or thought. On the first drive this week, we mixed up formations considerably, yet afterwards we fell into a pattern of I-formation and 1-back zone running and shotgun-passing. We threw 37 times in the rain this week, and 12 times in the 3rd quarter with a lead. Although I've discussed in the blog that only a handful of plays in the game were bonehead calls, we cannot throw the ball that much with a lead in a rainstorm.
The reason Clemson cannot convert on 3rd down is because we leave ourselves 3rd & 5+ because of poor calls on 1st and 2nd down. I did not see in this game, despite CJ's 100+ yards, any situation in the 2nd half where we ran on 1st and 2nd down. We led the whole 3rd quarter, and it only takes 3 plays of 3.3x to get a 1st down.
If a defense gives up the run, you always take it with a lead.
In the redzone, we run too many perimeter rushing plays, given that our WRs can't block. If we have success inside, then RUN AT THEM and establish that control of the LOS. Perimeter flanker screens should also go by the wayside.
7. LB play must improve. I realize this may surprise some people, but against GT our Backers got blocked out of plays quite easily. The Midline play that Nesbitt burned us on so many times has the Offensive Guards proceeding to the 2nd level and barely blocking the DTs. Maye got himself blocked out many times by poor technique. Conner failed to take the Wingback on the long GT touchdown. Scotty Cooper hasn't ever been mentioned. Alexander has but only because he seems to blitz so often.
Every team has had success with QB keepers and zone reads like this, because their Guards proceed to the 2nd level and block them out. If the DT can get to the play, great, and you can't tell him to "slow down" except in specific defensive adjustments, but we're getting beat by QBs because the LBs are no where to be seen.
If a few of these are fixed this season, Clemson could go a long way. If not, better get used to the idea of 7-5 again.