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2011 Position Analysis: LB and the Defense under Kevin Steele

Our last defensive review covers the defense as a whole and LB position under Kevin Steele in 2011. I think you cannot properly evaluate a defensive coordinator until after his 2nd year installing his system, and the system was quite complicated. We had 3 years of it and noticed a substantial decline in some areas, while some were just the one bad year. We've covered Kevin Steele's defensive philosophy considerably here before. This post will not revisit the schematic information.

How we will evaluate Kevin Steele, as LB Coach and Defensive Coordinator.

  • Gameplanning/In-game adjustments.
  • Recruiting
  • LB discipline and gap control
  • LB pass coverage skills
  • Tackling
  • Turnovers

Steele is a former Rivals recruiter of the year and had a long track record of successful recruiting accomplishments. His assigned regions are the PeeDee where his family is from (Dillon), with parts of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and SE Florida. Unfortunately, Dabo Swinney prefers to hold his coordinators off the road more than Bowden, and during the season they are essentially nonexistent in recruiting. This is something we agree with, but it does keep a good recruiter off the road. As such, Steele never really lived up to the stellar recruiting rep that he brought with him to Clemson.

In 2010, he pulled in only one recruit, Martin Jenkins, and that because of a friendship with Martin's father. His name was hardly mentioned in the 2010 cycle, despite coming on staff fairly quickly after the 2008 season.

In the last cycle, Steele knew he needed Linebackers and he delivered. Steele and Brooks tag-teamed on LB Stephone Anthony, and Steele landed Lateek Townsend and B.J. Goodson to satisfy a glaring need on our defensive depth chart. Clemson's staff decided to back off Tacoi Sumler for unknown reasons, taking Adam Humphries instead, but Steele probably would've had another 4-star WR committed if allowed to continue recruiting him. Steele entered the Tony Steward recruitment a bit later and he is credited to Jeff Scott.

In this cycle, Steele didn't get much done himself. He would make sure to meet the players who came on visits but was otherwise unsuccessful it appears. He's not credited with any specific recruit this cycle, but I would credit him with Shaq Lawson and he had a hand in Burrell.

Overall Steele had one great year in recruiting and two very disappointing ones, considering his acumen in this area.

Clemson Defensive Stats

Major Clemson Defensive Statistics under Steele
Category/Statistic 2009 2010 2011
Run Defense 151.10 128.46 (3.5ypc) 176.86
Pass Efficiency D 110.88 116.24 133.47
Pass Defense 162.79 191.85 217.5
Scoring Defense 20.43 18.77 29.29
Sacks Per Game 2.57 2.38 1.85
Total Sacks 36 31 24
Tackles for Loss 7.29pg 7.38pg 5.07pg
Interceptions 21 15 14
Total Defense 314 320.31 394.36
FEI Defensive Ranking 19th 7th 50
Defensive Efficiency Ranking 32nd 13th

I wasn't expecting a good defense this year. What I hoped for was a weak performance at the beginning of the year that would improve greatly as more youngsters got playing experience, and to finish in the 25-40 range in total D. I hoped that we could stick around the Top 25 in scoring as well. That turned out to be far from the result.

Clemson tumbled in every statistical category except INTs, which judged on the whole is totally unacceptable. Lets look at the pass defense first.

In 2009, we had two corners that I felt were underrated and underappreciated by the fans. Crezdon Butler was pretty damn good, with good size and good speed. Chancellor got shit on a little more by fans, but he was good in his own right. Both of them had good safeties helping them deep in coverage, and the coverages were not confusing to them. Well when those two graduated, we had to start Brewer and Sensabaugh, who weren't excellent cover men at the time, and had to burn Robinson's redshirt as a result. Coty improved his stock immensely this year and Brewer did improve in 2010, but they were not to the previous levels.

A problem that came up more last season was the inability to be correctly adjusted to the formations pre-snap, and it looks worse this year. I think this points to the root problem of the whole Steele scheme: overcomplexity. This was Spence's problem too. Those teams spent so much time preparing everything in the playbook that they really werent prepared at all.

In 2010, we really started to notice guys spending so much time signaling to each other that the offense would snap the ball and they would not be aligned properly. Playing defense is all about gaining and keeping your leverage, and if you aren't lined up correctly on the snap, you're putting yourselves at a disadvantage that will bite you. Even great talent can't overcome it all the time. If the Nickel or Safeties are arguing or still calling the coverage adjustment at the snap, then the scheme is not simple enough for them to execute.

Each opponent merits an adjustment by the DC somehow or another. It may not be much, or it may be a total revamp. The scheme has an answer for it, but if your answer is different each week, then the players can't keep it straight in their heads, and get confused. An example would be the following: you put in 2 coverage packages for the first opponent. In the next week, you put in 2 more, and rep those, but in the game you have to execute all 4. Now if you forgot the reason why you had to use the 1st package in the 1st game, and get confused about a formation that the new opponent shows, you might call the wrong one. We did call the wrong ones. Another way to look at it is to imagine each week having 4 basic coverages, with an adjustment to each formation the offense brings you. That's too much to process in an instant in a game situation. You cannot give a defense too many things to think about: they spend too much time thinking and get reactive instead of aggressive.

One of the reasons why we look reactive against GT is the complexity of our scheme with the answers we have to what they are doing. One of the reasons we looked so good against VT is their own relative lack of complexity, which let us play simple and eat them alive.

Now if Steele had focused on keeping things simpler and focusing on tackling fundamentals and jamming properly, he'd still be the DC at Clemson.

Gameplanning/In-Game Adjustments

We watch and re-watch Clemson's games each week as well as our opponents. We noted last year how well Steele manages in-game adjustments and cited the points per quarter allowed to illustrate his ability. Often times the defense would have just one or two bad drives in a ballgame in 09 and 10, with a key 3rd down penalty to give the opponent better field position and extend drives. That was not the case in 2011.

Opponent Scoring by Qtr, 2009-11
2009 2010 2011
Opp 1st Qtr 76 pts, 5.4 ppg 43pts, 3.31 ppg 110pts, 7.86ppg
Opp 2nd Qtr 80 pts, 5.7 ppg 80pts, 6.15 ppg 147pts, 10.5ppg
Opp 3rd Qtr 69 pts, 4.92 ppg 88pts, 5.23 ppg 99pts, 7.07ppg
Opp 4th Qtr 58 pts, 4.14 ppg 57pts, 4.38 ppg 54pts, 3.85 ppg

Note that this is not entirely defensive points allowed, I've not subtracted anything out.

In the first quarter of every game, an opposing offense is adjusting and reading what the defense shows them, and theyre not in any rhythm, so rarely do many teams consistently rip up their competition from the opening snap. This shows in the 1st quarter statistics in 2010. It does show up as well for 2009, but the scoring there is heavily influenced by Georgia Tech's Thursday night victory. If you take out that game, the 76 drops to 55 (also recall the way they scored, two ST's TDs).

Unfortunately in 2011 we shit the bed out of the gate several times on defense, which shows a complete lack of preparation by the defensive staff. Those numbers are outrageously high. Clemson gave up two 1st Q TDs 4 times, and neither Maryland nor Wofford should've ever been able to do that. Second quarter scoring is dominated by the clusterfucks that were NC State and WV.

Typically, Steele made pretty good adjustments at the half, and even with a horrific defense in 2011 that still comes out, but the 3rd quarter defense is still awful. It is skewed by WF's 21 point explosion along with the Orange Bowl, but its bad. Strangely enough we shut down most opponents in the 4th, when you'd expect our lack of depth and general fatigue to show up. However, the inability to prepare the defense early in games shows me that its not all about fatigue and depth with this 2011 Clemson defense. They were just plain bad.

Clemson plays a schedule where our opponents generally ran the ball nearly 1.5-2x as much as pass. The ACC is a very defensive-oriented league, meaning there are more conservative coaches who prefer to run the ball and play defense/field position battles. Once our defense showed they were unable to stop the running game, most opponents stuck with it, and saw no need to throw the ball. While the overall YPC is ok for many games, later in the season it didn't improve, and that shows a glaring lack of defensive tackling fundamentals.

3rd down percentages are ideally under 30%, yet only the best teams get near it. Most coordinators will kill for that number, so 40% is a little more realistic. Clemson held 4 opponents under 30% in 2009, 7 under 40%. We held only 3 under 30% in 2010, 7 under 40%.

Many folks put the emphasis on run defense on the linebacker group, but the run defense is a team effort from the front 7 together (actually 8, since the SS is tied to the front) along with secondary support. If the DE is not covering the C-gap when he is supposed to, then you shouldn't expect the LB to be there -- it is not his assignment. Saying your run D isn't playing well just because the LB group sucks is not a fair or accurate characterization. Saying it is playing well just because your LBs have a good game isn't fair either. Everyone has a gap they are primarily responsible for and everyone must be there. Overall, no one was really where they should've been in gap control in 2011, not even Branch and Thompson.


Now I'll diverge from reviewing our defense as a whole and look at the LB Corps in particular. The LB position is unique and probably the toughest on the field to play because of having both run and pass responsibilities on every play and coverage call. Players have to be smart, disciplined in reading keys, and with enough size to tackle big backs and handle linemen blockers, and still cover smaller RBs and TEs in man/zone coverage.

Clemson primarily played a mix of Robber and 2-Man coverage in 2009, but played much more matchup zone in 2010. We've covered these coverage schemes before so we will not go further here. We spent last offseason covering many of the fundamentals to LB play that we need not go over here again.

The charts below show the most important LB statistics for 2009 - 2011.

2009 Clemson LB Statistics
Player Total Tackles TFL Sacks FF
Kevin Alexander 54 6 3.5 1
Daniel Andrews 4 0 0 0
Jeremy Campbell 15 2 2 0
Scotty Cooper 12 0 0 0
Corico Hawkins 18 3 2 0
Brandon Maye 95 7 3 4
Kavell Conner 103 7 2 2
Tig Willard 15 2.5 0 0

2010 Clemson LB Statistics
Player Snaps Total Tackles TFL Sacks FF
Corico Hawkins 692 73 9 3 0
Brandon Maye 312 45 1.5 0.5 0
Quandon Christian 354 31 1.5 0 1
Tig Willard 153 29 1 0 0
Spencer Shuey 67 18 0 0 0
Justin Parker 56 8 0 0 0
Daniel Andrews 31 5 0 0 0

2011 Clemson LB Statistics
Player Snaps Total Tackles TFL Sacks FF
Corico Hawkins 697 80 5 0
Tig Willard 635 75 2.5 0
Quandon Christian 411 36 1.5 0
Stephone Anthony 292 32 6 2
Spencer Shuey 48 27 (19 on ST) 0 0
Lateek Townsend 3 16 (16 ST) 0 0
Justin Parker 33 10 (7 ST) 0 0
Tony Steward 36 5 0 0
Daniel Andrews 28 5 0 0

Total snaps for the defense is nearly 1000 in 2011.

Well you can see how they've underperformed as a group in '11, issues with the DL and Safety play notwithstanding, and the general decline over 3 years. Thats bad coaching. I particularly like how we wasted a RS year of Townsend with just 3 snaps. I do now know if Steward would've gained enough confidence in his knee to get a couple hundred snaps to make the no-RS year worth it, but he wasn't on pace for that after 5 games. Hopefully he can get the Medical.

Looking at some of our fundamentals:

Getting off Blocks: We don't do it well, that much should be obvious. We're pretty shitty at block evasion as a group, even when we're in the gap assigned. In the 4-3 Under front, the WILL backer is protected (or nested) behind the 3-technique DT (see below diagram). We often play an undershifted DL even in Nickel. That means WILLs read of the near Guard is a bit tougher, but also means that no one has a clear path from the LOS to hit him and take him out of the play. This is why you dont see Willard eaten up by blockers as much. For MIKE its not that simple. He is not protected by anyone and has a clean read of the Guard, but both the Tackle and Guard have clearer paths to block him. Hawkins is probably the worst of the bunch at it, since he stands there waiting to be blocked far too often.

We discovered last fall that Clemson does not practice shed drills with the #1s vs #1s. This is why our Linebackers sucked at getting off blocks last year, and didn't do anything to help us this year. Until some practice philosophy changes are made here, I am not optimistic.

Gap Discipline: Willard is around his gap, which is good, and Hawkins doesn't run himself out of his gap like Maye did. We noticed several times that Anthony wasn't in his, Wake being a prime example of that in his case. Christian wasn't holding the edge when we actually went to the Under front, and was pretty bad in the alley. This group as a whole seemed to know where to be, but not how to make plays.

Key reading: Between this, getting off blocks, and tackling, the primary difficulties of the LBs become apparent. We don't jump those key reads fast enough, and that is a big contributing factor to not making plays. If you don't read the Guard, you're probably getting blocked by him. If you never read the RB movement, which is tougher with backfield motion and any kind of spread option, you won't be in position to make a tackle.

Player Reviews

Corico Hawkins could be a serviceable player, but he's not cut out to start here and play 700 snaps a year. Hawkins isn't good at recognizing a Guard key and getting out of the way before the Guard nails him or grabs him; in fact, he almost never evades a blocker. He may understand the defense and reset the fronts well, which will get him PT under Venables too, but he's not going to develop into a great player at the pace he plays the position. You have to MOVE to be the MLB, and he doesn't move. He should've lost the position at MLB much quicker this season.

Justin Parker wasted a year of eligibility in 2010 and got even fewer snaps in 2011. Either he's completely lost in the scheme, or he's not a talented player and we were all wrong about his HS footage. I felt like he would get more PT after the praise they gave him in Spring, and he does look more flexible in the hips than in 2010, but if he can't get 100 snaps then he has a problem.

My opinion on Shuey has not shifted. He's the type of LB who would've played in the old 5-2 defenses or in goal line situations, but he's not going to be a great LB here. He doesn't have the speed. At least he's a very solid special teams player.

It was hard to evaluate Tig Willard last year since he played a whole season with one working arm. That arm is still frequently wrapped up, but he became a more solid player. He will not be a very good player though. He stays in his gap, but doesn't make plays. He isn't horrible in coverage but also isn't quick enough getting to the flats and picking up backs.

Of all our linebackers, Christian is the most disappointing from 2011. He has put on most of the needed weight to play SAM, but he regressed mightily in 2011. He was getting to the flats quickly in 2010, and didn't in 2011. His regression in coverage ability cost him the job as the 2nd LB in the Nickel set quickly this year. He didn't control the edge well either, so you don't want to use him in Under. He has never handled the option game, which shows lack of discipline in his keys. He's got the athletic ability to be a very good player, if he puts the work in this year. He cannot regress again in 2012 and continue to play. I think we'll see how Venables is as a LB coach with Christian and Anthony.

Stephone showed his instincts in the first game, but even though he played more, he seemed to play slower later in the season. That tells me he was confused and if the scheme was simpler, he'd have kept Hawkins under 400-450 snaps. He's got it though.

B.J. Goodson will come off RS this fall and challenge for PT at MIKE, but if he's got the instincts he's going to get some snaps somewhere in situations. Hopefully Steward will heal up to 100% and we'll see about him, but he didn't impress in his very limited action. I don't think he should've played and wasn't confident in that knee. Townsend should've been put on RS but the staff had no intention of doing so; he was suspended in the first 4 games. He at least shows the intensity to play LB from his ST play.

TJ Burrell steps in from the current signees and I don't beleive he cracks the chart at WLB here ever, I think he's a SS.

The Verdict

While I think Steele is a quality LB coach, there was something missing here for him in terms of practice philosophy. He also needs to simplify his scheme to be successful with it, because while he may know how to handle Zone read option (and I can see from film that he is telling them the right things), the information isn't filtering to the players. They could not execute his playbook this year. If everyone plays slow when you know they have the speed, then they are confused. Steele's scheme is paralysis by analysis, and thats why he had to go.