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What’s Wrong With Florida State’s Defense?

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The FSU defense isn’t as bad as it seems, but how does it match up against Clemson?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Florida State week is upon us. This sentence alone is enough to warrant a mountain of articles (and “NOLEFANHEAR” commenters, RIP my mentions) across the internet, but we at STS long ago carved out a niche within the Clemson fanbase for those who crave actual football strategy and analysis; no fanboy media fluff or clickbait news. It pains me to admit I haven’t had the time to write such an in-depth, strategic piece since at least the season preview back in August; only putting together meager clips and impressions of upcoming opponents for my scouting reports before I focus more intently on film review after each game. This changes for FSU week, thanks in part to the week off and the added hype of a titanic matchup, but mainly because FSU’s struggles on defense have drawn my curiosity.

Before the season began, I expected Clemson to field far and away the best offense in college football while FSU boasted the top defense. I even believed both teams would make the College Football Playoff; Saturday’s winner going undefeated, and its loser nursing only this one loss. Clemson’s struggles on offense are easy to pinpoint — the most glaring of which are turnovers and abysmal run-blocking — but FSU’s defensive struggles intrigue me, and assertions from those in Tallahassee range from poor coaching to injuries. I decided to take advantage of the bye week and go in-depth once more; this time in diagnosing where FSU has gone wrong defensively.

The usual disclaimer: each week I try to find areas wherein Clemson will be able to exploit the opponent’s defense, or where a defense will present Clemson problems. Given Clemson’s balance and talent on offense, these articles usually entail far more of the former than the latter; often seeming harsh on the opponent and overconfident in Clemson to the point of arrogance.

FSU-specific disclaimer: while I put far more detail and effort into FSU than any other opponent this year, this is a product of the week off and my curiosity in their struggles. I am not trying to melt the earth with bad takes on FSU simply to goad Tomahawk Nation into nuclear internet warfare. This is an explorative and hopefully informational piece which will generate informed discussion and predictions.

Bad Contingencies in the Secondary

I’d be remiss if I did not first point out the FSU defense has been handicapped by injuries to some of its best playmakers, particularly all-world safety Derwin James (out since mid-September) and defensive end Josh Sweat (playing through an unhealed knee injury which has robbed him of lateral agility).

Without James, FSU has rotated through lineups for a makeshift secondary which has only made busts more frequent; not to mention there is no comparable replacement for the talents of James himself. Without a healthy Sweat, FSU has been victimized by zone read on his side and has lost quickness off the edge in its pass rush, particularly against quarterbacks who can move in the pocket and prey on Sweat’s current inability to cut as he once could.

When I watched FSU on film, most of the issues in the historically bad defensive start derived from a confused secondary busting in zone coverage. FSU quickly employed more man coverage to minimize the busts, but unfortunately they ran into dual-threat QBs like Chad Kelly, Quinton Flowers, and an athlete named Lamar Jackson. This is a lose-lose for coordinator Charles Kelly, who isn’t to blame for a random bust or two; busts happen at all levels of football. But when busts are rampant, it’s an indictment on his ability to adequately prepare his players. These busts forced him to call more man which is disastrous against mobile quarterbacks. So while Kelly is certainly not blameless, he was forced to choose between busting in zone or risk making quarterbacks look superhuman against man.

The defense showed dramatic improvement in consecutive wins against Miami and Wake Forest thanks to sound man coverage against one-dimensional quarterbacks. This won’t translate to the Clemson game on Saturday, where they’ll find another mobile quarterback who is even more deadly to man coverage through the air than he is on the ground.

What Can Clemson Exploit?

First I want to highlight the glaring weaknesses I found throughout the first half of the season: tempo, coverage busts (in both zone and man), run fits, and slot coverage. Of particular note for Clemson is how Ole Miss exposed FSU to tempo on the first drive of the year, against whose tempo the Noles were consistently late to align and busted simple zone coverages:

Busts haven’t been simply due to tempo; multiple times we’ve seen communication issues in which corners and safeties play entirely different coverages. This is likely a coaching issue, whether it be from complicated signals from the sideline or simply unprepared players:

Safety Trey Marshall failed to switch and allowed the easiest drag touchdown you’ll ever see.
Again, busts aren’t limited to zone. Safety bit on the fake screen. Jordan Leggett, take notice.

Thus, FSU less frequently runs zone in favor of man coverage in order to reduce busts outside — which hasn’t completely eliminated them as you saw above — but left itself vulnerable in underneath coverage and against mobile QBs. From what I’ve seen, this is the primary culprit in FSU’s early struggles. After a few zone busts on the first drive against Louisville, FSU again had to employ more man coverage and then Jackson and his Cardinals were able to march up and down the field with underneath passes and inverted veer (much like they did in the second half against Clemson). FSU was powerless to stop it in primarily man cover 1 spy/robber.

Lewis (#24 nickel) expected help underneath from the Mike linebacker in spy/robber, but the play-action left him alone and out of position to cover a quick drag route.

FSU ran into an even bigger slot nightmare against UNC in receiver Ryan Switzer. FSU stayed in man cover 1 the large majority of the day, isolating Switzer on nickel corner (or Star in FSU terminology) Marcus Lewis. It did not go particularly well:

Clemson has even more weapons in the slot than UNC, and certainly hopes FSU keeps playing man under.
Rub routes against man defense are never a bad idea, particularly one which has shown it doesn’t switch well.

It’s not just the secondary busting assignments, though. Linebackers Matthew Thomas and Ro’Derrick Hoskins have each struggled to fill their gaps in run fits, particularly against the aforementioned mobile quarterbacks. Option runs and zone read — particularly the inverted veer variant — gashed FSU in September and it will be interesting to see if FSU has learned how to defend mobility at quarterback despite not facing a multi-dimensional quarterback in a month.

Run fits: 3 defenders took the running back and left Kelly a wide open lane. Clemson runs this play multiple times per game.
Hoskins (#18) ran himself right out of the play. Granted, Lamar Jackson on an inverted veer is unfair when he makes the right read (rare, but he did here).
This time 4 defenders take the running back motion and leave plenty of room for Flowers. Will linebacker Matthew Thomas ran himself right out of his gap.

Dysfunctional, Yet Talented

Despite all its head-scratching dysfunction (much like Clemson’s offense), this can still be a very good defense if it can get out of its own way. FSU still has a good (albeit inconsistent) boundary corner despite the loss of Jalen Ramsey in Tarvarus McFadden, who draws the unenviable task of matching Mike Williams 1v1. This is likely the best and certainly most talented corner Williams has faced and will be a great matchup to watch on the perimeter, where we will find a “good on good” battle in the boundary.

McFadden has been a relatively bright spot in the secondary. He takes advantage of an awful throw here, but then again Lamar Jackson isn’t a great quarterback.

FSU should find one of its biggest advantages on the line of scrimmage vs the Clemson offensive line. Clemson is one of the worst offenses in the country in short yardage and explosive runs, and even on standard run plays FSU will likely win more than it loses unless Deshaun Watson or Wayne Gallman create on their own. Either way, don’t expect Clemson to find much success with its basic inside zone; Clemson will have to open up its run playbook for once (as in run something, anything other than inside zone or power), or else pad FSU’s defensive stuff rate:

Look familiar, Clemson fans?

Bottom Line

FSU isn’t nearly as bad on defense as it seems, but they are indeed in quite a conundrum: they want to play zone against Clemson, thereby forcing Clemson to be efficient and mistake-free by masking coverage deficiencies and defending the QB run threat. Yet zone busts have forced them to play more man — leaving them vulnerable to said coverage deficiencies and mobile quarterbacks.

The recent improvement shows how good the unit can and should be, but can also be directly attributed to the one-dimensional quarterbacks of Miami and Wake Forest, against whom FSU could get away with man coverage with little fear of a dynamic run threat, if any. Now FSU again must face an attack similar to those which ate it alive to begin the year, and the jury will remain out on their improvement until midnight Saturday.

Despite Clemson’s struggles on offense, the Tigers have moved the ball efficiently against everyone; the trouble has been finishing drives as less-talented teams sat back in zone and waited for Clemson to make inevitable mistakes. If FSU can play zone without busting, Clemson very well may continue to struggle. If they can play man and still contain Watson as well as Auburn did in week 1, Clemson will certainly struggle. If we see more busted zones or sloppy man under, the Clemson offense could finally have its statement game.

FSU’s struggles play right into Clemson’s hands, plus Clemson has the added threat of wide receivers who can beat FSU’s corners against man coverage like North Carolina. We will certainly see more run calls for Watson, and if Gallman is indeed healthy he can create yards on his own. I want to see a heavy diet of zone read targeting Josh Sweat throughout; it will create a numbers advantage in the run game to help a struggling line, and FSU has shown a startling vulnerability to it.

On the other side, Clemson’s defensive line is the best unit a struggling FSU offensive line will face all year. This bodes well for Clemson’s chances to force FSU into uncharacteristic failure on passing downs (Deondre Francois has been phenomenal in passing situations despite numerous hits and sacks). Dalvin Cook’s long runs are inevitable, but if Clemson can limit those to a minimum while keeping the FSU offense off-schedule (through its typical havoc and run-stuffing ways), it’s far more likely Clemson can hold up against Francois’ magic through the air.

No matter how Clemson’s defense performs, the game will be won or lost by Clemson’s ability (or lack thereof) to finish drives on offense. Despite a mere handful of big plays and next to no run-blocking all season, Clemson has rarely actually struggled to move the ball. Given Watson’s efficiency underneath and the expectation that we will see more zone read and QB power, it is reasonable to expect Clemson to find success against a depleted and shaken defense; perhaps even finally hitting the deep ball on a busted coverage in zone or overmatched field corner or nickel in man.

Clemson already has known mismatches in the slot and at tight end where it can prey upon man under coverage or busted zones/spies due to tempo, stacked formations, and run/pass options. It is also reasonable to expect Clemson to find more success against McFadden in the boundary than most FSU opponents have found due to Mike Williams. In all, there is once again little on paper or film which points to FSU successfully containing Clemson. I feel like a broken record repeating this every week, but this simple truth remains: if Clemson can finally get out of its own way, Clemson should win every game comfortably. This is Clemson in Tallahassee though, so don’t count on anything to come easily. This will be a war.

Clemson 31, FSU 23