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Clemson vs. Alabama: Defensive Film Review

Blown coverages ruined an all-time great performance from Clemson's front 7.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This one hurt. Not that I was particularly upset (in proper perspective, how could I be), but because it was such a bitter disappointment. I wondered all year if I could get through a review in the event of a loss, and here we are.

As you know, these reviews are meant for objective analysis; I don't point out who blew an assignment or lost his matchup to bash a young man or vent frustration like a message board hack. I determine the coverage (when able) and analyze what went right or wrong on each play to teach our readers, not to spew negativity or pile on 20 year old college students...and nor should you. Please remain mindful of this in your comments.

Clemson took the game to Alabama and won in 2 of 3 phases. The performances at quarterback and along the front 7 were otherworldly and deserved a championship. The Clemson offensive line -- a strength in its own right -- held its own against what was considered the best defensive front in recent memory, while on the other side Clemson's defensive line owned the line of scrimmage and showed that Alabama's was perhaps not even the best front in the stadium.

If you told me Clemson would outrush Alabama the reaction would've been, "SWEET BABY RAY'S we blew them out didn't we?" Alas, special teams and safety busts were the recurrent weaknesses all year, and only Alabama was good enough to make Clemson pay. It's a shame, because they ruined dominant performances by Deshaun Watson and the beasts along Clemson's defensive front. Most who watched the game -- and even a surprising amount of rational Alabama fans in Glendale -- know Clemson largely outplayed the Tide.

It hurts. It's the most disappointing loss possibly ever, but it was not a calamity. Clemson earned respect long ago, and the performance against Alabama justified it.


Alley = area between the OT and WR. BCB = Boundary Cornerback, Bullet = ILB A or B gap blitz. C0, C1, C2, C3, C4 (quarters) or C6 (quarter, quarter, half) = coverage scheme by the secondary. DIME OF DOOM = a twist on a 3-2-6 formation in which Jayron Kearse steps into a SAM role (meaning it looks like 3-3-5), generally to blitz or spy. FCB = Wideside or field cornerback. Fire = S, NB, LB blitz from the outside D gap. Green Dog = man blitz when your man stays in to block or is not in the formation. IZ = Inside Zone or Zone blocked play inside the tackles. Jailbreak = 7 or more blitz. LOS = Line of Scrimmage. Man = man to man coverage. OZ = outside zone run or zone blocked play off-tackle. PA = Play Action. PBU = Pass broken up. Red Dog (overload) = LB and S/NB blitz on the same side. Robber = S or LB moves to take away crossing routes. C3 Sky = SS moves up two yards, takes flat, CBs and FS take deep thirds. Soft = CBs/NB playing well off the WR until he gets to the 1st down line. Stretch= zone blocked run just inside the last offensive player on that side. Stack = the 3 LBs are stacked directly behind DL. Stalk = WR blocks DB in front of him. Sweep = TB/QB run, often FB/ H-B lead play to the D gap. TO = Triple Option. ZR = Zone read option play.

Coach/Player shorthand: BJ = B.J. Goodson, Mack = MacKenzie Alexander, OD = Dorian O'Daniel, Shaq = Shaq Lawson, Tank = Cordrea Tankersley.

Thoughts within a play are separated by a comma. (,)
Each play is separated by an ellipsis. (...)
First downs are separated by a paragraph.
Comments on a drive are in italics.
Offensive Personnel is listed as a 3 digit number where it is listed: # of RBs, # of TEs, # of WRs like 212, which is 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR.

Images courtesy of ESPN

Defensive Play by Play

1st quarter

1st drive, 14:54, Alabama 21, 0-0

1st & 10, 113 shotgun tight vs 4-3 cover 2, jet sweep motion and PA fake to Henry, Coker takes his outlet to Ridley in the flat, Mack zooms in and cuts him down, loss of 1...2nd & 11, 113 ace bunch right vs 4-3 under, quick toss sweep to Henry STONED by Boulware who split the gap, but Shaq lined up offside...2nd & 5, 112 ace vs 4-3, counter, BJ fills his gap and brings Henry down, gain of 5...3rd & 1, 122 shotgun vs 4-3 jailbreak, safeties in, IZ handoff, Shaq and Reader are sealed and there's a small hole, gain of 4...

1st & 10, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 man cover 1, Blanks out wide in nickel role, Bryant in for Shaq, PA bucksweep, Coker wants to throw a tunnel screen but Ridley and Mullaney ran into each other, Coker throws it away, Mack and Blanks were both there anyway...2nd & 10, 113 shotgun (Howard flexed) vs 4-3 cover 4, jet sweep motion IZ handoff, Reader is DOUBLE TEAMED BUT FOUGHT HIS BLOCKERS BACK INTO HENRY, who is swarmed by Tank and Bryant, well done Mr. Reader...

Reader DT

Watch Reader fight off the initial double team from the center and left guard, get low, and knock the guard back into Henry. That's what you need from a 1-tech DT. Bonus points to Austin Bryant his hands against Cam Robinson...and that pump in the guard's face at the end.

3rd & 9, 104 shotgun vs 4-3 cover 4, drag route across the LOS complete to Ridley, Mack flies in a little too hard and Ridley shakes him, picks up a block and gets the first by a few inches...

1st & 10, 122 bunch left vs 4-3 over, toss sweep to strong side, Henry slips through Blanks' tackle in the backfield and squirts through for 3 yards, Reader and BJ on the stop...2nd & 7, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 SAM fire, jet sweep to Drake, met in the backfield by BJ but breaks the tackle, Kearse forces him out for a gain of 1...3rd & 6, 113 shotgun vs nickel (Carter) man cover 1 (Boulware and BJ blitzed and Dodd and Shaq dropped to essentially spy Henry/Coker), Boulware rips Henry in pass protection, flushes Coker who dances around and throws it in the dirt, incomplete. PUNT.

We saw very good and sometimes dominant play from the Clemson front 7 here despite allowing two 3rd down conversions. An encouraging start.

After two quick 1st downs, Clemson punts the ball right back.

2nd drive, 8:50, Alabama 41, 0-0

1st & 10, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 SAM fire, counter handoff away from the blitz, Green flies in from LB depth and meets Henry, gain of 1...2nd & 9, 122 pistol vs 4-3 BJ bullet, IZ, Pagano drives his man back but Henry stretches outside, eventually finds a seal and cuts up for an improbable 7 yards...3rd & 1, 122 shotgun vs 4-3 jailbreak run blitz, IZ, Henry bounces it to the B gap and nobody is there, safeties came down and Henry is off, 50 yard TOUCHDOWN.

Henry TD

The line stunted right so Clemson put itself in a numbers disadvantage immediately, BJ was sucked in too far and into the same gap as Boulware, then it's just a simple seal on Green and it's over. You see backs break a lot of long runs in short yardage if there's the slightest hole since the linebackers crash holes and the safeties are so far down.

Clemson answers emphatically with a beautiful touchdown to Renfrow. Oh my.

3rd drive, 5:09, Alabama 39, 7-7.

1st & 10, 122 ace vs 4-3 double LB fire blitz in front of cover 3, IZ handoff looks like Boulware may meet him 4 yards deep but Henry accelerates before Blanks trips him from behind, gain of 7...2nd & 3, 122 ace vs 4-3, IZ stuffed by Reader, wow this was all Reader since the Watkins was blown back by the double, just look at his hands push the guard away so he can fight through, loss of 1...

Reader hands

3rd & 3, 122 pistol vs 4-3 double LB bullet in front of man cover 1, everyone covered except Howard, Green looking around with no one to cover, we didn't adjust to pre-snap motion, that's on Green to signal a shift. Coverage bust #1.

Bust #1

Green needs to signal to Kearse that their responsibilities changed, you can see Kearse look at Green after the motion. Green needs to drop into deep C1 and Kearse needs to slide down to account for Howard.

1st & 10, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 man C1 FS blitz, PA ZR triple option, Shaq left unblocked on the read, Coker keeps but doesn't throw the screen option, he panics and Shaq smothers himfor the sack, loss of 6...2nd & 16, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 (Blanks split wide) C4/quarters, straight drop, deep go route to Ridley vs Tank, thrown out of bounds, Tank was there stride for stride...3rd & 16, 104 shotgun vs 4-3 man C1, sweep to Henry, good backside pursuit from Bryant who brings him down after a gain of 8...FIELD GOAL NO GOOD.

Clemson finishes the quarter with another touchdown pass to Renfrow. A live look at the stands:

2nd quarter

4th drive, 15:00 Alabama 25, 14-7 Clemson lead

1st & 10, 104 shotgun vs 4-3 Cover 3, PA, deep corner complete to Mullaney, Mack followed the go route deep, BJ and Blanks weren't deep enough to deter the throw because of the fake, Mullaney wide open for a gain of 30...

PA Mullaney

1st & 10, 122 pistol vs 4-3 FCB blitz, OZ stretch to Henry, Dodd splits the zone blocks and finds immediate penetration, wrestles Henry down with an assist from Shaq, phenomenal DE play as usual...

Dodd quick

2nd & 14, 104 shotgun vs 4-3 Cover 3 behind WLB fire, the RT takes Boulware and Dodd abuses the RG, Dodd gets home for the sack, can't blame him one bit for going pro early, he's earned some serious cash this spring...3rd & 18, 104 shotgun vs 4-3 (Blanks at safety depth) BCB blitz in front of a Cover 3 variant, Wilkins stunts outside and beats Robinson (the stud LT) but Coker dumps it underneath to Ridley in time, Mack flies in and trips him, no gain...PUNT.

We expected they'd find success in the intermediate passing game, particularly off play-action since the linebackers must afford Henry plenty of respect. We can live with it if the defensive line keeps getting sacks and TFLs to put Bama in passing situations.

Watson throws a pick on the second play of the ensuing drive, not a smart throw unless it's thrown far, far deeper. SUDDEN CHANGE.

5th drive, 11:58, Clemson 42, 14-7 Clemson lead

1st & 10, 113 shotgun vs 4-3, jet sweep reverse to Drake, monster block on Green prevents a TFL and Drake forced out of bounds by Tank, otherwise it's likely a touchdown since our pursuit committed so heavily to the initial jet sweep, gain of 6...2nd & 4, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 over SAM fire, bucksweep to Henry, Bryant is sealed by the pulling guard and TE, the LT seals Boulware in the gap and there's a hole, Henry bursts through and Goodson has to grab the facemask to pull him down...

1st & 10, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 over BCB blitz, IZ handoff to Henry, splits the B gap and gains 3...2nd & 7, 212 I form vs 4-3 MIKE bullet in front of (condensed) Cover 3, Coker forced deep into the pocket and fires incomplete to Ridley, Ridley's fault though since he ran right into Boulware's zone...3rd & 7, 113 shotgun (TE flexed) vs 4-3 straight zone drop, tunnel screen to Ridley picks up the first down since coverage was off, gain of 8...

Alabama punches it in two plays later, TOUCHDOWN.

This was actually one of Bama's most efficient drives of the night, and it came off a turnover and sudden change.

Clemson goes three and out.

6th drive, 7:55, Alabama 10, 14-14 tie

1st & 10, 113 shotgun trips left vs 4-3 FCB blitz, IZ handoff, Mack crashes down and pulls Henry down from behind, gain of 3 but Mack is out...2nd & 7, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 (Baker in for Mack) WLB fire, counter handoff, Boulware flies in off the edge and Wilkins pushes his blocker back 3 yards, but Henry splits them both and rumbles for 7 yards...3rd & 1, 122 pistol vs 4-3 under (safeties at LB depth) fake jet sweep IZ picks up 1 yard...

1st & 10, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 BCB blitz, counter handoff, Henry fights through the scrum before he is brought down by Dodd and BJ, gain of 5...2nd & 5, 104 shotgun (receivers stacked) vs 4-3 man Cover 2 (meaning both OLBs are in man coverage), PA 4 verticals, nobody open and Coker has to eat it, Shaq closes quickly for another sack...

Shaq attack

Look at his hands, Marion Hobby earns every penny.

3rd & 10, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 double LB bullets in front of man Cover 1, immediate pressure flushes Coker who runs out of bounds after a gain of 8, PUNT.

Clemson's pass rush is relentless, and it's kept Alabama off schedule. Keep them in 2nd or 3rd & long, and they are not a good offense. Losing Mack here was likely the difference in the game, since Bama moved the ball through the air so well in the second half. His injury altered our strategy and contributed to Green's touchdown busts, and Baker shied away from tackling Howard on the long pass of the game-sealing drive. It's a shame, because this defensive line earned a win and with a healthy Mack behind it, may have tasted the reward.

The Tigers' drive stalls after a penalty and consecutive TFLs. Clemson punts it right back.

7th drive, 1:45, Alabama 24, 14-14 tie

1st & 10, 122 pistol vs 4-3 Cover 2, PA, Dodd beats gets around the edge instantly and it's yet another sack, loss of 9, Bama goes into clock-kill mode, a 2nd down run is stuffed and a third down screen pass goes nowhere before Bama punts.

The defensive line continues to play out of its collective mind. It's an inspired, dominant effort from a group of first year starters who feels overshadowed by their Alabama counterparts.

Clemson drives into field goal range at the end of the half, but the field goal is blocked. HALFTIME.

3rd quarter

Clemson goes 3 & out to begin the half.

8th drive, 13:46, Alabama 36, 14-14 tie

1st & 10, 203 shotgun vs 4-3, IZ handoff gains 4...2nd & 6, 203 shotgun vs 4-3 WLB fire, PA swing pass to Drake, who appears corralled at the corner but nobody forces him out and he turns it, gain of 7...

1st & 10, 104 shotgun vs 4-3 WLB bullet in front of...well it's a bust, PA fake, Howard fakes a block on a potential screen then wheels downfield, Green is frozen in an underneath zone in the middle of nowhere, TOUCHDOWN.

Green bust 1

This looks like it's supposed to be Cover 6 (FS takes a deep half on the boundary side, SS and FCB take deep quarters on the field side) but Green freezes on the PA and doesn't drop into his deep half. It could also be Cover 3, which means the bust would be on Tank who didn't drop to cover his deep third. Even with the all 22 angle it's a stab in the dark to determine the call since it was bungled so badly.

Clemson drives downfield but stalls in the red zone when a perfectly thrown corner ball is ripped from Scott's hands on the way to the ground. Field goal good.

9th drive, 10:02, Alabama 26, 21-17 Clemson lead

1st & 10, 122 ace vs 4-3 quarters, PA, the pocket collapses in a second and Dodd gets home for another sack, my goodness Dodd.

Dodd again

2nd & 17, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 WLB/FS overload, jet sweep motion IZ handoff, Green rushes in and shares the tackle with Shaq, gain of 1...3rd & 16, 104 shotgun vs 4-3, OZ stretch, Reader chases down the line and wraps Henry up for a gain of 2, holding penalty declined, PUNT.

This defensive line has kept Clemson in the game. They've neutralized Henry and put nearly unstoppable pressure on Coker. Forget WRU, the DL development is even more astonishing.

Gallman punches it in to give Clemson the lead.

10th drive, 4:42, Alabama 17, 24-21 Clemson lead

1st & 10, 122 tight pistol vs 4-3, IZ, BJ fills the hole and stops Henry for 3...2nd & 7, 122 pistol vs 4-3 quarters, PA naked bootleg flare to Howard in the flat, Blanks gives chase but Howard has the corner for 20 yards...

Naked bootleg

This is Kiffin's adjustment against Dodd's dominance vs the right side of the Bama OL; with Dodd riding high on his sacks, he's prone to over-aggression and a naked bootleg flare is the perfect call to counter it.

1st & 10, 113 pistol vs 4-3, IZ, interior DL creates a scrum and Henry has nowhere to go, Wilkins finishes him off for no gain...2nd & 10, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 BCB blitz, rollout away from the blitz, pass thrown low to Stewart and incomplete...

It me

It me.

3rd & 10, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 double LB bullet in front of man C1 (Shaq drops to cover Henry but spies when Henry stays in pass protection), straight drop, 10 yard curl route incomplete, Blanks had tight man coverage and forces the drop, PUNT.

The Clemson drive stalls and the Tigers punt rolls out of bounds deep in Bama territory.

11th drive, :43, Alabama 5, 24-21 Clemson lead

1st & 10, 122 shotgun vs 4-3, jet sweep motion IZ, huge hole in the B gap but Tank fills beautifully and prevents a huge gain, only 5...2nd & 5, 122 shotgun vs 4-3 WLB fire, Boulware has a free shot and moves down the line to pull Henry down for a 2 yard gain...

4th quarter

3rd & 3, 122 shotgun vs 4-3 man Cover 1, Coker  feels pressure which isn't there and airmails one, Ridley was open against Tank's soft coverage but our pressure is in Coker's head, PUNT.

We've taken away Alabama's run game. This is monumental.

Clemson enjoys wonderful field position but punts from Bama's 40, touchback for a 20 yard net...

12th drive, 13:06, Alabama 20, 24-21 Clemson lead

1st & 10, 122 pistol vs 4-3 BCB blitz, Tank bails on the blitz though and runs to the flat when Boulware is there, Coker fires to Steward who got in front of Green on a comeback, Tank should've committed to his blitz and contested the throw...

1st & 10, 122 pistol vs 4-3, stretch handoff, BJ flies into the gap hard and wrestles Henry down for a gain of 1, beautiful linebacker play...2nd & 9, 104 shotgun vs 4-3 (OLBs split to cover slots), ZR handoff, Henry stretches it outside, Tank flies in from the edge and grabs Henry's feet for a loss of 3...3rd & 12, 113 shotgun vs nickel overload blitz in front of quarters, Coker throws up a prayer to Stewart on the sideline but Green is a step behind and never locates the ball, Steward hauls it in at the 18, unbelievable...

Stewart prayer

And so we reach the first in a series of swing plays in the 4th quarter which if one had a different result, Clemson likely wins. A prayer of a pass in serious pressure, completed behind a safety...

1st & 10, 122 shotgun vs 4-3 under SAM fire and BCB blitz from opposite ends, IZ handoff, Henry hammers into the line for 2 yards...2nd & 8, 122 shotgun vs 4-3 WLB fire in front of man, corner fade to Ridley against Baker, who does a great job to knock the ball away in the end zone...3rd & 8, 113 shotgun vs nickel quarters, Coker doesn't take a drop and throws off his back foot fearing pressure, throws high and incomplete, FIELD GOAL GOOD.

Not a bad drive by the defense at all, but a lucky deep ball cost us points. Brace yourself for the pain that follows.

Alabama onside kick successful. Beautifully done. SUDDEN CHANGE.

13th drive, 10:34, 50 yard line, 24-24 tie

1st & 10, 122 shotgun vs 4-3, counter handoff, Shaq gets immediate pressure and forces Henry to halt, Blanks gets a hit to knock him outside, and Watkins cleans up for a loss of 1...2nd & 11, 113 shotgun vs 4-3 hoooboy here we go again...

Green bust 2

Depending on the call, this bust is again either on Green or Tank. If it's C4, it's on Green, who didn't drop into his deep quarter. If it's C3, it's Tank's fault. Green obviously thinks he's supposed to be underneath in C3, whereas Tank gives up the seam like he expects help over the top in the form of C2 or C4. Meanwhile, BJ runs "down the pipe" like he would in Tampa 2 coverage, but if it's Tampa 2 both Kearse and Green would have deep halves; here both stay underneath. Total disarray.

Clemson wastes no time getting into scoring position, but stalls and kicks a field goal.

Shortly thereafter, special teams rear their ugly head again, and Drake takes the kickoff back for a touchdown...

Clemson responds with a touchdown pass of its own, but the 2-point conversion fails.

14th drive, 4:40, Alabama 25, 38-33 Alabama lead

1st & 10, 122 shotgun vs 4-3 under, stretch handoff stoned by Dodd, he shoved off the weak block attempt and wrapped Henry up for a loss of 3, it's almost comical how dominant Dodd has been...2nd & 13, 104 shotgun vs 4-3 man Cover 2, PA pass to Howard in the flat seemingly going nowhere but Blanks is blocked, Kearse is tripped, and it's on Baker to make the tackle, oh boy, Baker shies away and let's Howard turn the corner for what was ultimately the play which cost Clemson the game...

Howard sigh

Of course, it's no certainty Alexander makes the tackle, and Baker held up very well in his stead until this play. Alabama blocked well and matched a 180 pound corner in the way of a 240+ pound man. It's a tough break for Baker.

Alabama proceeds to convert two 3rd down conversions before punching in a final touchdown, taking more time off the clock and making a Clemson comeback all but impossible. A bitter end to a wonderful season and transcendent effort from Watson and the Clemson defensive line.

Defensive Summary

It was not surprising to see Clemson in 4-3 for the large majority of the game. Even when Bama spread the field with 4 receivers, Clemson only employed the nickel once or twice and never showed it's 3rd down DIME OF DOOM package. I expected more man C1 or C3, but we saw more C2 and C4. Ultimately, Bama needed blown coverages and some lucky breaks to move the ball through the air; the defensive line was dominant throughout and shut Henry down entirely in the second half. I can't say this enough, this defensive line earned a title and played the game of the year. The linebackers were very good, if not fantastic, as well. Special teams and blown coverages finally caught up with us, and even Alabama needed Clemson to beat itself to defeat the Tigers.

Player Grades

Game Ball: Kevin Dodd, of course. You've earned the 1st round grade good sir.

All-American: Dodd, Shaq, Reader.

All-ACC: BJ, Bouware, Wilkins, Watkins, Mack (based on snaps played).

Honorable Mention: Pagano.

Solid: Blanks, Bryant, Baker, Tank.

Less than solid: Green, Kearse (no catastrophic mistakes, but not the dominant force needed from a body like that).

Past game balls: Pagano (Wofford), Boulware (ASU, Louisville, Oklahoma), Alexander (ND), O'Daniel (GT), Lawson (BC, Miami, Syracuse, UNC), BJ Goodson (NC State), Wilkins (FSU), Kearse (SCar).