Alabama is not invincible. Sure, the front 7 is ridiculous and will likely bring the Clemson offense back to reality for stretches of the game. But that doom and gloom is for another article. Here, we focus on an offense against which Clemson actually matches up very well. If you read the defensive film review of the Orange Bowl, you can guess why: a similarly dominant defensive front and the stellar play of the cornerbacks in Man Cover 1 coverage.
Man Cover 1 against a vertically imposing team like Oklahoma was extremely risky, and quite honestly, surprising. Without two high safeties, Venables took away the run with an extra body closer to the line of scrimmage (a safety who was usually matched against a slot receiver or second running back in OU's 203 look). A linebacker spied to keep an eye on Mayfield's scrambles while another was usually thrown in on a bullet/fire blitz or played a robber zone.
The remaining safety had the deep middle to prevent deep posts and (which Alabama frequently employs as kill-shots), while the corners -- and to a lesser extent, the nickel -- held their own outside. This left Mackensie Alexander and Cordrea Tankersly isolated out wide, and thanks to their spectacular play, the aggression paid off; Clemson destroyed the OU run game and held up out wide.
This is the obvious strategy against an offense like Alabama's -- who want to pound you with the run game and underneath pass, then hit slow-developing play-action deep posts -- and thanks to stellar cornerbacks outside, Clemson in man C1 or various C3 blitzes matches up extremely well against it.
Derrick Henry is the engine that drives the Alabama tractor, but Clemson is better suited to stop him than most. Clemson's defensive line excels in havoc and TFLs; Henry is elite with any sort of momentum but pedestrian when forced to change direction or when hit without adequate momentum. Clemson has the personnel and aggressive scheme to get into the backfield and prevent Henry from gaining steam. It goes without saying that any sort of busted run fit would be nothing short of catastrophic.
In the Cotton Bowl, Henry didn't carry the ball on the first drive. Why? Lane Kiffin wants to feel out the opposing team's defense, and he anticipated Michigan State to key on Henry. Jacob Coker had a marvelous game, and was the reason Alabama moved the ball against the Spartans; not Henry.
Kiffin still battles a negative perception from head coaching stints at Tennessee and USC, but the man is unfairly stigmatized and a proven asset at offensive coordinator. Below, we outline the various looks and tendencies of the Crimson Tide offense.
Obviously, everything starts with Henry and the inside run. Here Bama is in a 122 ace formation with Derrick Henry in the backfield. Alabama fans will tell you this is one of their worst offensive lines in recent memory, but take it with a grain of salt because they are horribly spoiled. In this play you can see each guard reach the second level almost immediately and take out the linebackers, which provides Henry an open running lane. Give Henry a hole and he will run through virtually anyone.
How might Clemson (or anyone) stop this, you ask? First, Clemson enjoys spectacular line play, ranking 4th in Football Study Hall's adjusted line yardage. Clemson also frequently sends Ben Boulware or BJ Goodson on bullet and fire blitzes to both clog running lanes and wreak havoc in the backfield. It stands to reason that Clemson will penetrate the Bama OL, nullifying Henry's greatest strength on a fair percentage of runs. And when Henry does find a hole, he will meet two 240+ pound linebackers and two rather large safeties in Jayron Kearse (6'5" 225) and TJ Green (6'3" 205) who are more than capable against the run. It is inevitable that Henry will eventually break through and do his usual damage by his 20th carry; the key is to create enough backfield havoc to slow Henry and keep the Tide off-schedule. Clemson has excelled at this all season.
Run from the Spread
As we alluded to above, Alabama likes to hit the proverbial body blow before the haymaker downfield. The Crimson Tide employ frequent pistol looks to spread their outside threats and keep Henry directly behind Coker in the backfield, giving him ample room to gain momentum on a handoff to either side. Below, Bama rolls in a 113 pistol (H-back, trips right) while Michigan State loads 8 in the box. It's a simple inside zone with the "window dressing" to set up an eventual play-action screen, hitch, or go route outside.
On the handoff, the H-back acts as a lead blocker and Henry finds a tough 4 yards; the body blow they use to soften a defense before the eventual bomb downfield. The difference under Kiffin is the variety of looks they can run from; you don't think pistol or spread when you think of the Bama offense, and that's a credit to both Kiffin and Nick Saban's ability to adapt. At its heart, Bama wants to beat you with the run; but they can do so from a variety of sets.
Alabama backed inside its own 10, 3rd & intermediate, what do you expect? A run and a punt? Below, Alabama again employs a 113 pistol, this time with trips to the left and a tight end on the line away from the receivers. Since they are effectively balanced in this formation, Michigan State can't key on a particular call. A fake jet sweep to Kenyan Drake pulls a safety away from the eventual screen, but the key to this play is the block from LT Cam Robinson:
This is a staple play amongst spread teams (Clemson runs a rather successful variant with a similar blocking requirement from Mitch Hyatt) who use motion and play-action to pull downfield help away, then count on an athletic tackle and a nearby receiver to seal the perimeter.
In addition to Henry's runs, Bama chips away at defenses underneath and horizontally with play-action to various receivers and tight ends. Below, Alabama employs a 104 shotgun, in which they still present a more than capable running threat (it's Derrick freaking Henry back there). Coker completes a play-action dig route against zone, and the play-action pulls the linebackers forward just enough for Coker to find the gap in between the linebackers and safety.
Henry draws so much attention because of his ability when he gets out in space. This phase of the game falls largely on Boulware and Goodson. Each performed extremely well against Oklahoma, but are still prone to over-aggression on play-action. Second behind a busted run fit and subsequent home run for Henry, it's the intermediate play-action passing game where we expect Alabama to find the most success. Clemson's front is dominant and will harass Coker and Henry in the backfield, and very good against the downfield shots thanks to a stellar secondary. A number of opponents victimized the Clemson linebackers in pass coverage -- particularly on crossing routes after play-action.
And here we see where Alabama truly beats opponents before returning to Henry to run out the clock. Again in a 113 pistol, here is the eventual play-action bomb. A deep seam to Calvin Ridley for a huge 50 yard gain to the 1 yard line. Ridley lines up in the slot, against a SAM/nickel, who blitzes in front of Man Cover 1 (what a coincidence). The strong safety steps up to cover Ridley in man, while the free safety retreats to cover the deep middle (hence the term Cover 1). Ridley beats both safeties, and the pass from Coker was on point as well.
Clemson enjoys phenomenal cornerback play and has mostly blanked deep receiving threats outside; the problems have come from slot receivers running up the middle due to poor personnel at nickel. We saw Clemson take its chances with Ryan Carter at nickel against Oklahoma, and aside from a few busts/mismatches he held up surprisingly well. You can still expect to see Travis Blanks at SAM far more than Carter at nickel, but Blanks vs Ridley in the slot is still a mismatch. Play-action with a back like Henry makes it all the more deadly.
Fortunately, Clemson also enjoys very good play from its safeties, both of whom are superior to Michigan State's. Potential 1st rounder Kearse and likely mid-round draft pick Green are a force against the run and great in deep coverage when in position. Ridley will not get behind these safeties with ease like he did Michigan State's, but it is still worrisome to picture either him or Drake against Blanks or Carter if the safeties pull themselves out of position on any sort of backfield action.
What Will Happen?
We showed you a variety of spread looks not because Alabama is suddenly a spread team, but to show you that this is a complete, balanced offense capable of beating opponents however necessary; they enjoy success in both heavy and spread looks thanks to a monster running back and viable downfield threats. Despite this, Clemson has the personnel up front and out wide to limit Alabama.
Brent Venables' strategy against Oklahoma was a suprise, but the dominant effort from the defensive line was not -- it was the quality play outside which allowed Clemson to play with aggression and keep the Sooner run game in check. Such cornerback play will allow Clemson to do the same against Alabama, but Kearse and Green have a much taller task both in run support and against a much more deadly play-action.
The Clemson offense vs the Alabama defense is the perceived strength vs strength matchup, but that is an ignorant notion; neither team has an obvious weakness. It is difficult to imagine either team eclipsing 30 points without a comedy of busts or turnovers. Bill Connelly's S&P+ metric predicts a 23.3 to 26.7 score in favor of Bama, and it's hard to argue with that margin. As for the winner, well, we hope he's wrong and like our chances. Buckle up, these are clearly the two best teams in America.
Alex's prediction: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯