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Clemson Defense Xs and Os Preview

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

I'm jacked for football to be starting and jacked to be contributing to the high level of Xs and Os analysis that this site has been known for since its inception.  It seems like another life and a long time ago, but there is coaching and playing on the high school and college level in my background. I have no regrets for not making coaching a career, but let's just say, I do miss the smell of the grass and the sound of air horns and whistles around this time every year.  So, I hope doing the Defensive film review each week gives you as much satisfaction as it will bring me.  Dr. B was excellent with the reviews and built up quite a database of Xs and Os on this site over the years. Those posts remain in the archives and I encourage you to refer back to them as they are very informative.  I don't speak for anybody else but I want his hard work and dedication to have a place here as long as this site is up.  I have the same goal as Dr. B and feel like there should be an outlet for Tiger fans to get Xs and Os analysis.  That being said, my experience and passion is on the defensive side of the football.  Know that in each defense there is an alignment and a job for each player on every variation of a defensive call vs. every formation the offense can choose and every play the offense can run from that formation.  Therefore, since I'm already longwinded, I pictured myself getting excited and making this first article 430 pages long and boring everybody to sleep.  So, I'm imposing a strict 3,500 words limit on myself and I want to show you some nuances of the game that you can watch on Saturday.  If you can digest the information below, it will make both Clemson football and the big game this Saturday more enjoyable and hopefully give you better ability to form your own opinion of our defensive performance in the game. Now, after you read this, know  that I am going to be in the gamethread on Saturday and that during the game I do switch back and forth between being analytical and emotional, so please disregard the emotional stuff.  :)

Let's begin with a little background on "The Other" Coordinator, Brent Venables. It seems like we've done a lot of praising the coaching ability of Bill Snyder on STS lately.  Well, it may or may not surprise you to know that Venables is from the Bill Snyder coaching tree. He played and coached under Snyder at KSU which is where he met Bob Stoops.  When Stoops got the head coaching gig at Oklahoma, he brought Venables in to be co-DC with Mike Stoops and later, Bo Pellini, who are also great defensive minds. Venables would eventually become the outright DC at OU and was then ridiculed by some members of their fanbase despite advanced stats showing that he was excellent.  Their loss has been our gain so far.  This will be year number 3 for Venables at Clemson and it will be a year that begins with pretty high expectations for the defense.

Next, and before we get into Venables defensive concepts and strategy, I want to let you know what I'll be looking for this season as far as individual performance is concerned.  I want you to know that I know what I'm talking about and that you can trust me to give you analysis that is as accurate and thorough without bogging you down too much in terminology. Ok, maybe a little, but I'm not here to talk over your head and lecture you. I want to talk WITH you and be of service to help you learn more about the best game on the planet.

What I'll be looking for this season:

Sound Technique- Does the player have the necessary fundamentals to perform at a high level and not be a liability to his teammates.  Some of the things I will be looking for are pad level, hand usage, gap control, taking proper angles, shedding blockers, footwork in getting to their drop in pass coverage, backpedal weave, foot placement of DBs, jamming, funneling, opening their hips/one step turns, and one step changes of direction.

Plays their assignment - Occasionally it will be debatable as to what is a player's particular assignment.  However, usually by the end of the play, it is pretty clear what the coverage/gap responsibilities were for each man.  We saw several missed assignments involving safety reads last season. Those were obvious. I hope to bring some of the non-obvious to the table for you.

Tackling - Tackling has been a real problem in the secondary since Marcus Gilchrist, Deandre McDaniel, and Byron Maxwell left.  McDaniel and Maxwell, in particular, were thumpers.   We haven't had a thumper in the secondary since then.  As I see it coming into the season, we have no real thumpers and only two proven tacklers in the secondary, Robert Smith and Martin Jenkins. Both of them are sure tacklers, and that's ok.  I'll take that. I prefer intimidators back there but wrapping up and getting the ball carrier on the ground is the goal and the new targeting  rules have to be taken into consideration as well.

Shedding Blockers - We did a lot better with this in 2013 than we did in 2012.  We still have room for improvement though.  We've had serious issues getting off blocks in the secondary.  I still don't know why more teams just didn't put the ball on the corner in a regular old school sweep like UGA and FSU did.   Sweep plays were basically a free 10 yards all season. Opponents would run it and then go away from it for some reason.  We did better on iso, power, and zone read this year but, I'm concerned that we will be worse at LBs filling the correct gap without Shuey in there. On the flipside, we will hands down have a better athlete at Will this year.

Penalties - Some penalties are more ok than others. We'll use the situation to determine the severity of the flag.

Toughness - Will a player give 100% and lay his body on the barbwire for the benefit of his teammates.

Instincts - Read and Reaction time. Can a player move quickly to the correct area of his assignment and discern between down, distance, time left in the quarter, yards to go for a first down, formation, talent level of personnel, and personnel grouping to give them an accurate read?  Can they instantaneously take that read and get to their assigned spot?

Athletic Ability - These are basically a player's measurables and this probably falls under recruiting mostly. In most cases, I consider a player that doesn't have the base athletic ability to play at this level, a miss in recruiting.  At that point, it will take a very high level of football IQ, toughness, and coachability to be effective on the highest level.   Some of my favorite players ever are guys that would fail this category like Rob Bodine, Chris Lancaster, and Spencer Shuey.  However, the vast majority of the time, you need both iron (athlete) and heat (coaching) to make steel (good football player).

Alright, let's move to the meat of the article, defensive concepts and strategy.

Our base defense is the 4-3 Over.  I'm going to spare you the evolution of the defense and the countless adaptations. We'll focus here on Clemson under Venables and specifically, we'll use this as a primer for the game on Saturday.  Georgia is a pro-style team that runs a ton of formations so, they are a good team to start out with.  We'll get through some basic Xs and Os first, and then once we get that down, we'll dive in to the fun stuff...strategy and gamesmanship.

You've probably heard the terms "Over" and "Under" before as they refer to defensive alignment.  These terms refer to how the DL shifts toward the strong side. For time purposes, I will assume you understand the numbering system up front. If not and you want to learn it, and it's really easy to grasp, click here.

We typically shift the DL "Over" to the strength (TE/Y) and put the Sam to the weakside (away from the TE).  Starting at the TE (shown in image below), we lineup 7, 3, 1, 5 across the front. "Under" basically shifts the lineman to the weakside and drops the Sam to the line on the strongside in a 9 and goes 5, 1, 3, 5 from there.  Personnel-wise with us, it would be Barnes (7), Jarrett (3), Williams (1), Beasley (5).  Although, last year, the tackles alternated between the 1 and 3 a good bit.

Primarily, the DL's job in base 4-3 Over will be to control their gap by knocking the OL in front of them backwards with their first two steps, gaining control, and then redirecting to the play.  They want to maintain gap integrity, be aggressive, and get to the ball.  Stunts and blitzes will obviously change their gap assignment or responsibility, and we do a lot of that, but usually they will aggressively attack the gap over which they are lined up. Below is the front 7 alignment in base 4-3 Over. ("Closed" and "Open" end are just terms that mean strong and weak respectively. You may hear a LB make a call like "closed right" over the mic during a game and now you know what it means).


Schematically, the DL are lined up this way across the front to keep the OL from getting to the 2nd level (LBs). The alignment of the DTs will allow the LBs to fill the A, C, and D gap (edge contain) bubbles strongside and B and D gap bubbles weakside with minimal OL interference.  The Linebackers will lineup 4 to 5 yards off the ball with the MLB (Anthony) right over the center unless they shift strength, then he will move to over the guard.  The Will (Steward/Boulware) is lined up in the bubble between the DE and DT which is usually right over the strong side offensive tackle.  The Sam (Wiggins/Burrell/O'Daniel) will line up either in the B gap weakside (rarely) but usually further back off the ball, or, if he's on the wide side of the field, he'll line up back and outside the DE.  If there are twin WRs backside or they shift the TE strong side, then the ILBs will shift one gap and the Sam will almost always move to the slot.

Depending on the flow of the play, the Mike will usually be responsible for the B gap weakside and scrape A to C gap strongside.  Sam and Will have to set the edge with the DE on their side and typically fill the strongside A gap on flow away.  The problem is that those gaps go away a second after the ball is snapped, so backside filling is a feel thing and kind of an art form for a LB.  You have to know when to shoot and when to scrape.  When you find a LB that can do this, you just let them play.  Junior Seau would probably be the best example of a player with undisciplined technique who would do whatever he wanted...and he was always right.  He was the Picasso of the A and B gap.  For a quick example of what I mean, click here.

Now, let's move to Georgia last year and how we varied alignment. First of all, when they put the TE to our right, we would often declare the TE side to be the weak side of the field.  This put Beasley up against their TE, who he could handle better in the run game and kept him on Murray's blindside. However, it also put him further away from the QB.  The Sam now treats the TE like he would a slot WR.  From there, Venables called B gap stunts for Anthony and D gap stunts for Christian to generate pass rush.  This gave them a lot of problems. Below is an example of that alignment.


The Crawford INT was probably the defensive play of the game last year.  It was a backside bail by him off of an overload stunt on the opposite side (those two defensive calls put together are referred to as a Zone Blitz) with the Mike and Sam coming hard in the gaps on either side of Beasley.  This was the genius call that had people, including myself, raving about Venables' instincts.  Here's an example of that blitz in the image below (Note: Georgia lined up with a TE to the wide side and a FB in the I formation instead of 4 wide. This means Will doesn't go to the flat as it's shown in the image below. Will has to haul ass across the field and cover the TE.  Our Will was "Lead Foot" Spencer Shuey).  Shuey was overmatched and Murray threw underneath to the open TE coming back across to the short side on a crosser. He never saw Crawford moving to the middle of the field...INT.  Also, huge props on the INT return for Robert Smith putting his body on the barbwire and taking out an OT.


Justifiably, Venables was very afraid of Gurley last year and it showed in his calls. If Georgia comes out in 4 wide on 1st or even 2nd down, Venables kept base personnel in a good bit, which means that the Will and Sam both move out to the slot and get 7 yards of depth.  Usually we played C2 with 5 underneath in that alignment. A couple times we went man to man and had Shuey guarding a WR. Running base against 4 wide is the football equivalent of taking your glove off and slapping the opposing offensive coordinator (ie. daring them to throw).  The philosophy here is that we will either give up a 1st down through the air to keep the ball out of Gurley's hands, or ideally, get an incomplete pass or a sack that gets them off schedule and creates an obvious passing down on 3rd down.  If the latter happens, we are dictating to them. With the way our front 4 dominated them last year, we did a lot of dictating.  It also helped that their WRs weren't all that special.

If it's an obvious passing situation, we will go to a 4-2-5 Nickel and the Mike LB will move from over the center to over the weakside guard.  The Nickelback (who hopefully has more talent than the band of the same name) moves to the slot.   We have adjusted our recruiting of the Sam/Nickel position under Venables to reflect the job we are asking the Sam/Nickel to do.   This is a hybrid position that is asked to get a run fit in the box and sometimes, even when the rest of the secondary is in zone, asked to cover a slot WR man to man.  It's not easy to find cornerback feet in a LB body, but if we do actually have that missing piece in Wiggins/O'Daniel/Bullard, that would be huge.  We haven't had that since 2010, and believe me, we can do a lot worse than Quandon Christian.  We need one. This is a position to watch.  We also run some 3-3-5 Nickel odd front (0 technique NG) as well. The image below is our 4-2-5 Nickel against 4 wide.


Notice above, Anthony is out of position because he has to make sure Korin Wiggins knows what to do in his first game.

On Georgia's first TD last year, they lined up in the "I" with the TE to the short side and twins (2 WRs) to the wide side.  This pulled the Sam out of the box on the wide side and into the slot. We were lined up perfectly to stop the sweep to the boundary (short) side.  We had a CB alone on the edge and a creeped down FS in robber on that side with big Shuey as the LB.  The CB did his job, took on an OL, and turned Gurley in. Shuey then "ole'd" the FB Hicks to the outside instead of keeping inside leverage. He should have taken on the blocker and met the FB at the 24 yard line mano y mano and stuffed him.   I believe the kids refer to this type of cop-out as "weaksauce."  If you weaksauce with Gurley, he gone. The FS, Blanks, is in textbook position to make the play after Shuey spills him, but he never had a chance as he thought Shuey would actually do his job and take on the FB inside-out. That little momentary lapse of manhood got Shuey pulled for the next series in favor of Steward.  Shuey ended up getting his revenge on the FB later in the game but, I guarantee we will see this play again on Saturday.

Below is Shuey scraping from the inside and sidestepping the FB to the outside with his "great foot-speed?" instead of filling the gap and knocking that FB back into Gurley. Look at how much ground he gives up by dodging the FB. Now, look how easy it is for Gurley to get to full speed running north/south through the alley.  Even though backside LB got cut, if Shuey's on the inside of that block and meets the FB at the 24 yard line like he should have, Gurley has nowhere to go.


Shortly after that, and really for the rest of the season, Venables went to an aggressive robber coverage.  The kind of Robber that Venables was running, at times, was basically a 4-4, with 8 men in the box.  The image below is of that look. The Sam would line up 2 yards back and 2 yards outside the DE on the wide side and the FS would creep down into the box as another LB on the short side.  This would give UGA a press "man to man" look on the 2 outside WRs.  UGA would often check to a pass play and attempt to throw to a WR who was being guarded by Bashaud Breeland on an island.  Again, this is designed to take the ball out of Gurley's hands and make them throw.


Circled below is the FS, Blanks, getting' his creep on in robber.  He is what Murray is keying on and he knows it. He'll play a little cat and mouse with him. Murray may give a dummy count and then audible out of a run into a pass. Then, we may audible back.  I get a kick out of watching the "game within the game" like that.


The real gamesmanship in Robber happens when they switch from the 4-4 look (a run defense) to Cover 2 (a pass defense).  From a press man look (CBs are up tight up with the WR), the CBs can easily switch to the jam and funnel technique needed in cover 2.  The FS can bail out of the box, on, or before the snap and get back to the deep half that he is responsible for in Cover 2.  It also works the other way. The FS can line up at Cover 2 depth and run to the alley (the area between the end man on the line of scrimmage and the WR) at the snap.  This confused Murray because he hadn't seen it on film.  We didn't have the CBs to run this in 2012.   Eventually, though, he did hurt us by throwing underneath.

That's when Venables brought the heat. The DL took over the game and we forced 7 straight 3 and outs.  Georgia eventually got a first down on that fake punt in the 3rd quarter if you recall.  That sent our defense back out onto the field in sudden change and they responded poorly.  UGA countered our ILB blitzes with crossers and misdirection.  That led to Georgia's (and Gurley's) play of the game.  Let's look at that play from an assignment standpoint.


Above, this is a blast play, which is just an isolation play run outside the tackle.  You can see the hand off to Gurley and how Christian comes all the way over from the slot to take on the big FB and stuff him in the hole.  The FB is not even supposed to block Christian, but he made such a quick read that he occupies two blockers (FB and slot WR).  Look how he's going to make contact with his inside shoulder, leaving his outside arm free. By the way, if Christian is not there, look at that hole!! The DE, Beasley, has been totally caved in by the OT (72) and thrown into the NG knocking both of them to the ground.


Playside LB, Anthony, fills the gap but runs right into the OT that just buried Beasley. The backside LB is in fine position but he can't do anything now.  There's no gap to fill due to the carnage left by Beasley's demolition. Gurley is pressing the corner here.  If backside LB tried to fill through the carnage, Gurley would easily get the corner.


Concerned about Gurley's speed and the fact that no one is out there to set the edge, players take angles to get to the corner.  As you can see, several of our guys defeated their blocks in the process.  Gurley then makes a sick cut-back and runs right back to the area where the DE and NG are lying on the ground.  This is scary, and not just because of the vision, power, and change of direction ability Gurley shows here.  All of this happened because ONE guy got pancaked. When somebody doesn't do their job, the whole thing falls apart and other players have to try to do too much.

But the fact is, though, that we have a 240 pound DE in there as a 3 down player.  This is something to watch on Saturday.  Much like with Clowney last year, do teams begin to run at Beasley now that he has a reputation?  So, sweep and blast plays are my best guess of what they will try to do to loosen us up in the middle this year as opposed to throwing it like they did last year.

Well, I'm over my self-imposed limit of 3,500 words.  So, I'll be done for now.  I'll leave you with this quote from Brent Venables that sums it all up. See you all on the gamethread. Go Tigers, beat Georgia!

"The biggest thing we have to do is be violent at the line of scrimmage," Brent Venables, before the Georgia game last year.