Since the FSU game, but also during the offseason after the Orange Bowl, everyone seems to be asking me "What the hell is wrong with our defense?" The problem is complex, but basically we’re deficient in every area relating to defensive play and offseason training will affect the offense as well. There is not one cause or one symptom that you can point to and say "if they fix this, then they’ll be alright" because defense involves some things like intensity and emotion that you cannot rep in practice.But my thoughts are that the problems come down to the following:
- S&C problems, which feeds into
- Coaching, anytime you’re this bad the coaches have to take some blame, and it starts with Dabo Swinney. You can’t put this just on the Defensive Coordinator, or just the DB coach, etc.
- Players are not playing to the level they are capable of reaching or have proven they can reach.
- Fundamentals are awful: we don’t use our hands well, we don’t place our feet well, our pursuit angles are garbage, we don’t keep our pads low, and didn’t tackle well at all in the last game.
- Depth is poor, due to two things: poor recruiting results and strategies, and not playing the guys you knew you would have to run with last year.
- Intensity. Our defense plays passive at times, and doesn’t bring the pain on every play. Guys put their heads down when they give up a big play, when they really have to forget about them.
- Personnel usage
The strength issue again comes up in the area where it is most important, the trenches. There are too many guys up front who need to be strong enough to get off those blocks when they forget their technique. We got pushed around up front in the Florida State game, but this is a problem that goes back to last year’s defense. Veteran players like Andre Branch, Thompson, and Rennie Moore got pushed around up front because they were not strong enough to fight off blockers. The only thing that saved them was their quickness. Malliciah Goodman is a senior this year and he still got owned by Nick O’Leary, a TE who should not be able to block a senior defensive end with Goodman’s measurables. Unfortunately for Goodman, he’s as slow as molasses out of his stance. Vic Beasley getting blocked is understandable, but with another year of S&C, if he’s not able to fight off all comers with his speed then there’s a big damn problem here that "time" won’t fix. Grady Jarrett and Reader still need to refine their body composition to play more up front for a whole football game. Christian needs to gain muscle without losing his speed, and he has not gained enough. The same thing would go for Townsend. If Teek made it into games, then he would get owned on the perimeter just like Christian does now.
In the secondary, you should recall how both FF and I have complained about our lack of physicality for years. The last few years we’ve played primarily M2M coverage, and usually Press Man at that. You cannot play Press without a successful jam. We do not know how to jam receivers. We barely use funnel techniques properly because we’re not strong enough. We have never been able to get off blocks at the CB position, and GT has killed us as a result. Florida State successfully jammed and rerouted our WRs, as did VT in the first game last year, because they were more physical at the point of attack. Clemson is not. Our jamming ability is absolutely horrible.At all three levels, we’re not strong enough to fight blockers when our technique is bad. Linebackers are unable to get offensive linemen off of them, and sometimes get stuffed by RBs who should not be able to do so as consistently as we’ve seen. This cannot continue and change needs to be made over S&C.
This feels like a broken record. It is the S&C staff’s job to take players with the good measurables and ingredients and translate that to the football field. We constantly hear about how ____ benches some high weight, or power cleans some exorbitant amount, but when I see them on the field they don’t look like guys who could push a feather. It doesn’t mean jack what a player bench presses if it does not help him win individual battles at his position. When I see it over and over, it always comes back to Batson.
Anytime there are these many things wrong with the team, the coaching staff as a whole has to be held responsible. Brent Venables may have inherited problems that are unfair to him, but there is not enough time devoted to some very fundamental things in practices if this FSU tape is used as evidence. When tackling is bad, you have to spend more time on it. When guys can’t handle blockers, you have to spend more time on it. Folks just want to blame the coordinators when they see problems on one side, but the head coach watches practice and the game film, and he can change the regimen anytime he wants. He can tell BV to spend another 10 minutes on fundamentals out of the 2 hour practice. It’s his job to get in there and fix it just as it is all the defensive coaches’ jobs.
There is also a general IQ portion that the position coach is responsible for. That can be "don’t lose the ball in the air" or "don’t turn your head to the QB early in M2M coverage". Apparently things like this are not being communicated well, and that one goes on the position coach directly. If the player doesn’t want to learn it because he’s lazy, then you can bench him. The position coach has to communicate this, and the player has to get in the film room and study it when he’s not in class. You’re not going to win conference and national titles if you, the player, do not spend time in that film room with your coach. 20 hours a week barely gets it done. We cannot require players to do more than this much work, but as Danny Ford said to his guys "You don’t have to show up for voluntary workouts, but I don’t have to play you either." If they want to win, then this defense better show up to work. We let other teams outwork us.
Ultimately it falls on Swinney’s head, and he has to communicate it to his coaches and his players that it gets fixed or some people won’t be here next year.
What really confuses me, and is quite disheartening, is how these players have digressed mentally. I remember Goodman as a freshman, and he actually made a few plays then. He did more in fewer snaps as a freshman behind Bowers than he did as a junior starter. He was faster out of his stance and the quickness helped him not get reached as often. Branch was actually nastier as a younger player too and digressed against the run, even though his sack total went up. We’ve lost enough players up front since 2011 so that the digression is not as evident on this team, but it’s a huge problem for our secondary. Rashard Hall was a freshman All-American. He played smarter as the roaming FS in C1/C2 situations. As he was brought into the box more, he really became worse. His pursuit angles are horrid. Jonathan Meeks was on a Top 25 pass defense too and played a quality number of snaps backing up DMac, but as a starter he has gotten worse in pass coverage and still plays some games as if he had no arms. I want a safety that wants to kill an opposing receiver over the middle, and neither of these two has developed this tenacity. Darius Robinson has become considerably worse this year, and what troubles me most about it is that it has become evident in M2M coverage, which we played all year last year. He doesn’t seem quick enough in the hips to play the corner spot. His head is coming unscrewed and he’s not physical at all. Brewer could be decent if they left him at CB, playing over Darius, but as a Safety he shows he has no knowledge of pursuit angles. Breeland is the only one back here playing at a level we can win with.
Every one of the guys who have regularly played the last 2 seasons in this secondary is capable of raising his level of play, and they haven’t.
If you want the more concrete explanations for our problems on specific plays, I could point those out as well. It all starts on the defensive line. Florida State didn’t do anything to us that showcased a problem that I couldn’t see coming at Auburn or Ball State. Our DTs are playing more "read" techniques up front out of 4 point stances, and this is meant to teach them to read the movement of the blocker instead of the outright attacking style we had used before. You read his movement initially, diagnose the play, and then get off the block. If you cannot get off a block, the offense has no reason to try to double-team you do they? Our DTs aren’t drawing those, and every free lineman goes straight to the second level. Some guys are not staying low enough, because when you stay lower than the opponent you make it difficult to move your body out of the way. Stand the offensive lineman up, and he can’t generate as much momentum on his own. Our tackles and ends all engage, and then don’t move. They let themselves get pulled in close to the blocker, and once that happens he can control them. They don’t or can’t use their hand and arm strength to fight his hands away. The guys on the edge, Christian, Goodman, and Beasley/Barnes, don’t keep their outside shoulders free to force the cutback to the inside. They don’t move their feet into the backfield and make the blocker lose his leverage or force him to hold. They just go wherever he wants them to go. These stretch zone plays are killing us for this very reason.
The linebackers are less hesitant than a year ago, but they do not respect the cutback. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the backside LB scrape beyond the hip of the RB on flow away. You CANNOT do that. He must not lose that leverage on the runner. The biggest runs in football all go behind the backside LB. Auburn killed us on this a month ago, and FSU had several big runs, one a 41 yarder, because the backside LB overpursued the play.
Gap control suffers because of the things mentioned. If you have no gap control then you have no run defense. It all starts with technique, but still I see guys who don’t know that they are supposed to cover a gap and not someone else’s gap. The MLB does not attack HIS gap when he has a ‘clear’ read. He hesitates and gets blocked. Vic Beasley had outside containment of the C-gap in one play this week, tried a spin move into the B-gap, and Manuel took the ball 20 yards downfield as a result. YOU HAVE A GAP, there is not going to be anyone in that GAP when you aren’t there! DTs have the A/B-gap based on their alignment, and I see it completely clear. When they try too hard and try to do too much, the defense suffers as a whole. Everybody stands around waiting for someone to make a play and it makes all of them screw up.
I thought tackling had improved some in the first 3 games, and the lack of depth and conditioning became evident late when we were tired because we could not tackle well at all against FSU. However, our pursuit angles, particularly from the Safety and OLB spots, are horrid. Safety hasn’t improved at all in this area since last season. You won’t make a tackle if you cannot put yourself in position to make it properly.
I think too many people are too quick to blame the players for not being talented enough to stop anyone the last two seasons. There is a talent component, which we’ve hit on in all of our recruiting class assessments for the last few years, but we’ve had teams full of Jovon Bushes and John Leakes who had almost no talent but played way better than the group we’ve got up front now because they had better fundamentals and more experience. Nevertheless, the recruiting angle has to be looked at as a contributor.
I’ve said for the last few years that we lacked an elite DE recruit to make up for the departures of Bowers and Branch. We needed those guys like S. Tuitt, J. Bullard, Sam Montgomery, Clowney, or Jeoffrey Pagan to fill the holes in pure talent left behind by the NFL draft and graduation. What we did sign was a lot of 3-tech/SDE tweener types and no elite pass rushers. We signed a bunch of bodies like Rod Byers, Tavaris Barnes, Kevin Dodd, etc., who need development time to be good. They aren’t going to come in and play without development by the S&C staff and experience. Vic Beasley still needs another year in the weight room plus the training table. Nkemdiche fills a key hole in our talent level from day 1 at SDE to replace Goodman, and we have commitments from others to help, but they won’t be here this year to fix this mess.
We also have not signed much in terms of elite talent at DT. We lost out on some guys later in the process like P. Dukes or D. Brown. We knew this problem was coming and signed a bunch of numbers, but numbers does not equal depth. Numbers + experience + some talent = depth. Now all we have is a bunch of sophomores on the DL who the coaches didn’t play enough last year, and now we get to pay the Piper. I think Watkins and Reader are both good talents, and Watkins was thought to be elite, but he’s not coming along yet. This defense needs M. Adams up front.The staff saw and remedied the linebacker situation, but they burned the redshirt of Townsend and yet he doesn’t play. He’s not going to go in and magically be better than Christian; he’ll probably be worse overall. However if you don’t give him at least a few snaps each game he definitely won’t be ready for primetime when you have to play him.
Cornerback is where I feel like we’ve really needed to hit in recruiting, and its evident we have not. This is a spot where a young guy can come right in, like RB, because you usually either have it or you don’t. I completely understand the desire to have taller bodies out there, and agree with it, but we don’t have enough quickness in changing directions. They aren’t learning what I believe are fairly simple fundamentals to pick up at CB. We have needed a good cover corner and I don’t think we have a commit from a great one, nor do I think we have an exceptional one right now. Breeland can develop into one, but none of the rest is going to, not from my perspective. Blanks is a Free Safety and potentially a great one, but Peters is going to have to back him up and they won’t play Peters enough for us to see whether he was a hit or miss. I’m not confident Robert Smith can start at SS next year, but it looks like he’ll have to, and who backs him up?
How much can be said about recruiting the defensive linemen who are downright nasty and want to kill people, I’m not sure. I don’t know all these guys, but that kind of attitude is essential. The coaches can recruit it, and sometimes instill it. Clemson football in general has lacked the killer instinct for a long time. We’ve shown flashes, but it is not there like it once was. The Chad has started to bring it back to the offense, but it has not been there on this defense for the last 2 years. I want guys who like to smack you in the mouth and then talk trash in your face. We need to start wanting to hurt people again. Branch used to have that thug quality, and lost it last year. Clemson’s great defenses had guys who hit like they meant to break you in half. Go back and watch that 1989 Gator Bowl and tell me otherwise. Our defense needs an attitude adjustment.
The defensive staff and the HC bear the responsibility for all of this ultimately.
How can we fix it all this year? Well there is only so much you can do, you’re stuck playing youngsters either way. There is no reason to think we’ll get better if we start other guys who aren’t playing at all. The biggest thing is probably leadership. If this defense had a Jeff Davis-type, they’d be a lot better. Goodman is not a leader. Hall and Meeks have not taken the mantle. They need a leader to push them to get into that film room and study, and to bring the pain in practice as much as possible on Tues/Weds. You play like you practice.
There are some personnel choices that have to be considered as well right now. Robinson is not getting it done at CB. If he can’t fix his problems, move him to Safety.
Brewer cannot play safety, so put him at CB and stop moving him around.
Travis Blanks needs to be in the mix at Safety, but we almost have to play him at nickel right now when we go 4-2-5. Losing Jenkins hurts here. In any event, Travis should be on the field as much as possible.
Lateek Townsend needs to be given "something". We blitzed Christian off the edge all night against FSU, and yet the better pass rusher there is probably Teek. Note however that this was after Christian’s best game in years against Furman, so I can’t fault them for playing him the whole game. I don’t feel comfortable about putting a reckless guy in who doesn’t know his assignments, but at least try to use him for what he does well right now. If its 10 snaps per game, that’s OK, but don’t waste another year of his talent by giving him 10 for the season.
D.J. Reader should be in the game at NG a lot more. I think Jarrett plays low and with a good motor, Watson has at times been disruptive, and that Williams will be good at some point, but Reader has shown enough to at least get 30 snaps per. Carlos Watkins needs to play some since they burned his shirt.
Eventually Kellen Jones may become the starting MLB, but they have to do something with Anthony, Steward, Christian, and Willard this year. Steward needs to get 15-20 snaps per game going forward, at a bare minimum. If he’s able to make his cuts, I’d play him over Corico, hands down. He won’t beat out Willard yet but eventually I could see him as a MIKE or WILL and Anthony at SAM or WILL. There is just too much raw talent at this spot for it to be unproductive.
Finally there may be a need for some scheme tweaks in the front alignment. If the OL is going to the next level too easily, then we need to take that away by alignment. A Bear front would cover the interior 3 linemen and possibly keep the MLB freer to make plays. We currently line up in mostly G-fronts (2i, 3tech), and that is fine, but the zone blocking up front is just eating them up. Cover the open Center and keep him from helping double-team or letting them pass off defenders between linemen. Lastly, the 30 based front we used last week needs to go to definite passing situations only. We don’t have a NG, and you don’t play 30 fronts without a stout NG, ever.
It’s not going to fix itself this year but it has to improve for us to get to 10 wins; one bad day by the offense and its game over.