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Clemson Offense: Opening Up The Running Game

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Clemson used a completely new formation against NC State last October and never used it again. That is pretty weird! Let's take a look at what the formation was, why Clemson used it, and what some of the plays were.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

So way back in October during the NC State game I noticed something interesting out of Clemson's offense. We ran numerous plays out of a formation I didn't recall seeing in four years under Chad Morris. I don't think I ever saw it in the 40 games before or the 8 games after the NC State game. As far as I know, this one game was the only time the formation was ever used.

Now that I have some free time from school I was able to go back and take a look. Deep in the archives I found a piece from June 2011 about different formations the Chad had in his playbook. This is the formation in question, 2 Back Right/Left:

This formation is a variation of Clemson's normal spread doubles:

Besides the formation being flipped, the 3 receiver is now in the backfield with the quarterback. When the right side is unchanged, as in the first image, it is 2 Back Right. When the left side is unchanged, like it would be in the second image, it is 2 Back Left. What makes this formation different than a regular split back formation is the alignment of the 3 and 4. In this look, the 3 is at the "normal" alignment for a running back in the shotgun. Both he and the QB are about 5 yards deep, with the 4 being just a step deeper. The 4, the actual running back, is about 7 or 8 yards deep.

Right before the snap, the "3" motions to the far side, field side, strong side, whatever you choose to call it, of the formation.

So why did Clemson bust this formation out? As the announcers for this game pointed out, Clemson's run game had been struggling up to this point. 88 yards against UGA, 101 against FSU, and 92 against UNC just isn't going to cut it. The coaching staff had to find a way to get much better production from the running game; this formation was a way to do that. The formation, with its pre-snap motion and the plays run out of it, is designed to put the defense in a bind and open up the run game.

We can see how the defense is put in a bind by just watching the first two plays. When Humphries motions out, Watson reads the linebackers, particularly the Mike. If the linebackers start drifting out to cover Humphries, then there will only be five defenders in the box instead of six. If both linebackers stay home, like the above image, then Watson can throw it out to Humphries for an easy gain. 

These easy, high percentage passes are an extension of the run game. They can also open up the interior run game. If the linebacker moves with the motion and leaves five in the box, then Watson has the option to hand off to the running back, the "4", on an inside run.

As you can see in this image and the above video, both the Nickel and the Mike react to the pre-snap motion, leaving the Will as the only man in the box. The center, Ryan Norton, was able to get to the second level almost immediately.

What doomed the play from getting more yards was Reid Webster losing his block, allowing his man to push inside, and then Norton playing patty cake with the Will, allowing the Will to make the tackle for only a 4 yard gain. Even if Norton alone had held his block then this play gains at least 5 or 6 yards easily. That is the beauty of packaged plays like this. It forces the defense to react on your terms.

You can see this conflict in action again on the next drive. When Humphries goes in motion the Mike and the Nickel both shift drastically to cover the motion and threat of a quick screen.

The Will then flies to the line of scrimmage to where he thinks the hole will be. Norton had been able to get into the second level the first time so he's trying to prevent that. His problem is that Norton and Webster managed to double the NT and wall him off. The defensive end on the near side thinks its a pass and Kalon Davis has no problem with forcing him wide and out of the play. 

Here you can see how large the hole is. Not pictured is the safety who is about 8 yards away at this point. Gallman makes the safety miss and is tackled by the recovering Will after an 8 or 9 yard gain. 

The next play Clemson ran out of this was just a basic 3 man Verts play. The outside receivers, the "9" and the "2" ran Go routes. The "5", in this instance TE JayJay McCullough, runs a seam route. As you can see in the clip, the Nickel slides over to take away the screen to Humphries. The Mike doesn't get over to McCullough so he gets a free release up the seam before being picked up by one of the safeties. The other safety is over Williams, the "9", to help out the corner on the boundary side. Hopper, the "2", has a one on one with the field side corner. I wish we could have seen this with Sammy Watkins, because there are very few college corners who wouldn't get beat deep by him. Clemson essentially has two one on ones in this play because the Nickel has to respect the screen to Humphries. If he runs with the "5" up the seam then Humphries will be wide open. We all know that the Chad loved to take deep shots; this was the built in deep shot play for this formation.

Another important part of the Morris playbook was the QB run game. This formation has that too.

In this play the tackle away from the motion, LT Isaiah Battle, leaves the weakside defensive unblocked. Battle moves up to the second level to block the Will linebacker. At the same time, the center, Jay Guillermo on this play, pulls to block the weakside end. The end, thinking its an inside handoff to Gallman, crashes down, helping Guillermo seal him off.

The Will linebacker is thinking the same thing as the weakside end and runs himself out of the play. Battle is able to ignore him and move on to the Mike linebacker as the Mike tries to get back into the play. Watson moves to make it look like he is throwing the screen to the "3", Artavis Scott, before following the lead block of Gallman on the safety. 

Watson is able to get about 18 yards with some nice moves. If David Beasley had been able to block his man more towards the middle of the field, then Watson could have gone between Beasley and Gallman, rather than bouncing outside of Gallman, with only the backside safety between Watson and a touchdown.

The fifth unique play that Clemson ran out of the set was a play that had a second screen, this one to the running back, away from the "3" motion.

The tackle away from the motion, LT Isaiah Battle, cuts the defensive end, the guard next to him, LG David Beasley, heads out to block the safety that had dropped down, and the center, Jay Guillermo, gives a nudge to the defensive tackle that had been matched up with Beasley before getting downfield to block for Gallman. This play fails because Battle doesn't get his man on the ground.

The last unique play that Clemson ran was a fake screen to the "3" with the normal blockers, the "5" and the "2", running slants.

The motion side guard and tackle attempt cut blocks on the end and defensive tackle, Watson does a pump fake to the "3" and throws it to the "5", TE Stanton Seckinger. Both the "2" and the "5" fake like they're going to carry out their normal blocks before running slant routes. The "5" runs his route into the giant between the Mike and the Will.

Not only does the "3" motion create space for the "5", so too does Gallman's play fake. Gallman fakes like he is receiving a handoff and draws the Will linebacker and Strong Safety a couple of steps closer, giving Watson more room to throw.

If Seckinger had caught the pass then he would have been in a footrace with the Free Safety to the endzone.

Not only does this play a counter to defensive over pursuit on the screen to the "3", it also counters the defense dropping a safety into the box like NC State did on this play. The "5" gets a free release because the Nickel is so concerned with a screen to the "3" and he his able to run right past the Mike, who has no idea someone is running behind him. The safety has dropped down in run support and leaves a massive void for the "5" to get some good yards after the catch.

Clemson entered this game needing a spark for the running game. Busting out this formation helped with that; Clemson had 226 yards and 2 touchdowns on 50 carries, good for 4.5 yards a carry.

I hope to see more of this formation next year. It allows Clemson to package multiple plays into one and is a great way of putting a defense, particularly the linebackers, into confusing positions and making sure that they are always wrong.