First of all, thanks to all who voted for the STS Defensive Player of the Year. Shaq Lawson took the honors with 39% of the vote, edging out runner up Mackensie Alexander's 35%. Now, on to the overall defensive review.
The Tigers fielded a dominant unit in 2014 who led the nation in nearly every relevant category. There were tons of questions about what 2015 would hold considering 6 of the top 8 defensive linemen on the team had to be replaced, including top ten pick Vic Beasley and stud DT Grady Jarrett. The Tigers also lost 3 linebackers from the two deep, including first rounder Stephone Anthony and fifth rounder Tony Steward. Lastly, the Tigers said goodbye to steady safety Robert Smith and "The Gambler" Garry Peters (who earned first team All ACC as a senior). That is quite a list of guys to replace!
But wait, it got even more challenging in the spring and fall as Ebo was kicked off the team, Korrin Wiggins tore his ACL, and Korie Rogers quit football before the team even played a snap. Coach Swinney didn't seem to bat an eye in the face of all of this and many just chalked it up to the usual Dabo optimism. Coach Venables and his staff got to work and soon had a unit that was turning heads the first month of the season. When the smoke cleared in Arizona, the Tigers had put a top 10 defense (total defense) on the field again. There is no doubt the defense played a huge part in the magical 14-0 run even though it didn't have to carry the team nearly as much as it did in 2014. We've had the position breakdowns already, so I will focus on the unit as a whole.
The Tigers were primarily in a 4-2-5 over for the majority of the season (exceptions being the games vs. option teams Wofford and GT). The Tigers were much more blitz heavy this season compared to last mostly to accent the strengths of Ben Boulware and account for the losses in the front four. However, as Kevin Dodd began to get more and more disruptive, the Tigers blitzed less down the stretch and relied on the four man front to generate pressure. The Tigers once again were one of the best in the nation (4th) at generating tackles for loss (and had the top two TFL men in the nation in Lawson and Dodd). Clemson was again dynamite on third down defense (5th nationally), and in sacks (4th nationally). It was extremely difficult to manage a multiple play drive against the Tiger defense this year because of the rate it generated tackles for loss. The "no fly zone" was particularly good, especially on the outsides with Mack and Tank, and allowed Venables the luxury of loading up on the opposing run games. The Tigers finished 11th in team passing efficiency defense (this number was really hurt by the Alabama game). The most important statistic, scoring defense, saw the Tigers finish 24th. Clearly this was a monumental effort from the defense considering the losses it faced. I know many, including myself, have a bad taste from the coverage busts that allowed Alabama to steal the championship game, but when you look at the season holistically, you begin to appreciate the job the Tigers did on this side of the ball.
The weakness of the defense was its relative lack of depth and lapses in focus. The first problem is largely to blame for the second, though eyes on the NFL was a problem for one or two of the key players as well. Several games which should have been 4 or 5 score blowouts were closer than they should have been because of these lapses which resulted in chunk plays and/or explosive touchdowns. There were some embarrassing breakdowns in the NCST game, Syracuse game, USCjr game, and UNC game as the defense felt the wear of the season catching up to it. The rest in December was much needed and the rejuvenated unit stuffed an explosive Oklahoma offense in the Orange Bowl, further supporting that fatigue was a major issue with the late season problems. The Alabama game was at times the greatest and the worst defense the team had played all year. In the end, the Tigers had one bad run fit, two busted coverages, and one terrible missed tackle ruin what would have been considered a Herculean effort on that side of the ball considering the opposition. Those four plays will particularly haunt the coaching staff as they ponder what could have been...or more to the point what SHOULD have been.
Some of the most impressive moments for the defense came in the early part of the season. The defense completely terrorized a very potent Appalachian State offense in game 2 after stoning the triple option of Wofford in game 1. This spoke to the versatility of the unit to adjust to the varying styles of attack it would see. Coach Scott Satterfield of the Mountaineers proclaimed then that all four Tiger secondary guys were "NFL guys." Considering it was very early in the starting careers of Tank and T.J. Green, this was quite the endorsement of the crew. Of course, now three of the four have declared early for the NFL draft and Tank certainly could have. The most satisfying game for many fans of this defense had to be the Georgia Tech game when Clemson held the Jackets to record lows in rushing under Paul Johnson. It has been a very rare thing to see the Jacket attack rendered as helpless as it was that October day.
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn't discuss the stellar three plus quarters of football the defense put on display against a very potent Notre Dame offense. The Irish offense was completely baffled for most of the game, couldn't run the ball, and found top WR Will Fuller blanketed by Mackensie Alexander all over the field. Even though the defense tired in the fourth when the offense went into a shell, it mustered the strength to stop the Irish on that pivotal 2 point conversion and preserve the victory.
Essentially, the defense was good when it had to be. There wasn't much slowing down the Tiger offense this season and the defense kept it where the Tigers were never down by more than a touchdown in any game until the Championship game. Even then, the defense had done enough to put the team in position to win before special teams helped the Tide gain control. The lack of depth in certain spots finally caught up to the team when Mackensie Alexander went out of the game. We will never truly know how much that loss changed the call decisions from Coach Venables, (which might have led to one of those busts in the secondary) but it certainly made a difference when O.J. Howard slipped Adrian Baker's tackle and set the Tide up to seal the game.
If I had to hand out grades for the unit by position, this is what I'd say:
DL: A+. This group was fantastic and managed to keep future NFL backs C.J. Prosise, Dalvin Cook, Samaje Perrine, and Derrick Henry under wraps for large chunks of those pivotal games. Not to mention the vast majority of the team's sacks came from the front four.
LB: B+. This group was nearly as good, but there were some bad run fits that led to explosive runs during the year which kept the unit from an A. The NCST game was pretty poor from the LB crew in particular. However, two All ACC performers and the defensive Orange Bowl MVP ain't too shabby.
DB: B. This group was A+ until the safeties began to have problems down the stretch. The nickle corner, usually Ryan Carter, got exposed a few times and we all know about the disastrous busts in the Championship game. The unit saw some big time wideout talent and shut most of it down, especially on the outside with Tank and Mack.
Coaching: A-. Hats off to the staff for putting together a very strong unit despite the vast array of personnel losses from graduation, transfer, and injury. The minus simply comes from the staff having to have SOME accountability for the communication problems that occurred at times. Still, I wouldn't trade this defensive staff for anyone's. They will have their work cut out for them once again as six starters depart, including 2 All Americans and 3 more All ACC level guys. However, after this year I think most of us will have a little more faith that the Tiger defense won't be some huge weakness in 2016.