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A Checkup for the Defense

Clemson’s defense was expected to be one of its best ever. Injuries have hurt the unit, but it’s still dominant.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Clemson Lauren Petracca-USA TODAY Sports

We made the decision here that there is little point in scouting The Citadel in anticipation of this weekend’s contest; it would be an uninteresting, somewhat patronizing piece at best and reignite the option team chop block debate at worst. So this week I want to look back at the 2017 Clemson defense thus far and compare my impressions to those I laid out in the preseason, both when I favorably compared it to the 2014 defense after the spring and reiterated my assertion that this should be Venables’ best ever defense just before fall camp began, when I projected how Venables would scheme differently compared to 2016.

While just as dominant (if not more) at its peak level, my subjective “eye test” impression is that the 2017 defense hasn’t been quite on 2014’s level thus far. I believe this is due mainly to inconsistency borne from mounting injuries in the back 4 and a large drop-off in quality substitutes along the front 7. These injuries to starters and reserves alike have hurt the unit and somewhat tainted the data (currently the #5 defense according to S&P+) when comparing it to the amazingly deep 2014 defense, which never suffered the amount of injuries inflicted upon this year’s much thinner defense in the first place.

Clemson’s secondary is by far the deepest position group on the defense but even it has suffered, lacking at least one of its primary contributors in every game since week 1. Yet despite the injuries in the defensive backfield and the still-present frustration from the Syracuse and NC State performances, Clemson is still ranked #1 in pass defense by S&P+. Returning bodies in the secondary should lead to more aggressive calls, lifting the entire unit with it. This is why the in-state FCS opponent couldn’t possibly come at a better time.

There are two glaring differences in Clemson’s defense from last year, the first being the prevalence of the 4-3 versus the 4-2-5 nickel used primarily in recent years. Thanks to Dorian O’Daniel, Clemson is almost always in 4-3 except in long passing situations. O’Daniel is the ideal Sam linebacker; he is split wide on slot receivers, in the box, and on the line like a 4-3 Under Sam as needed. He’s built for the modernizing NFL, and I’m eager to see where he will land in the draft despite being a bit undersized for an early round linebacker.

His abilities and how Venables utilizes them were never more apparent than in the week 2 contest against Auburn, when Venables employed a 4-2-5 nickel and used O’Daniel at Mike and Will linebacker rather than take his Sam off the field. My jaw dropped when I saw the personnel and alignment on the opening snap; the simple brilliance in removing Tre Lamar when in nickel rather than O’Daniel (remember, usually the 3rd corner replaces the Sam linebacker when in nickel) gave Clemson 6 defenders who could cover without sacrificing the run defense. It’s little surprise the Auburn performance was so dominant.

O’Daniel on the weak side in a nickel formation against Auburn.
And on the very next snap he’s at middle linebacker against a bunch formation.

Given the current lack of bodies at corner, O’Daniel’s versatility is more important than ever. Remember when Ryan Carter slid inside to nickel on NC State’s opening drive and Amir Trapp was put at field corner in place of the injured Mark Fields or Marcus Edmond? And then Ray-Ray McCloud on the final drive? If you read film review you know Trapp gave up a TD on the opening drive and then he and McCloud both were targeted extensively on State’s final drive. It’s why nickel personnel has been so few and far between this season, and why O’Daniel very well may be the MVP of the entire defense; which is saying a lot given the outstanding linemen playing in front of him.

The next glaring difference is what seems to be fewer linebacker blitzes, particularly from the Will linebacker. My first thought was that this is because Ben Boulware graduated (Kendall Joseph and his backups do not get home on blitzes often like Boulware did, which is crucial for a Will linebacker in a Venables scheme). But when I look at the sack production from the defensive line, it’s easy to see Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant are picking up the slack, getting home more often than the defensive ends were last year when Bryant was injured and Ferrell was a freshman.

This, and the mounting injuries in the secondary, have led to fewer 5 and 6 man rushes; the most common blitz we’ve seen from Venables is a 4 and sometimes 5 man rush, in which the the DE on the side of the DL stunt drops into coverage and a linebacker or two linebacker blitzes from the opposite edge, leaving linemen confused and a speed demon unblocked:

Other than these two developments, I haven’t seen much unexpected and that is a good thing. I’ve paid more attention to the defensive line this year than my usual focus on the safeties and their coverages, and Christian Wilkins is splitting every zone block unless he’s double teamed; with a hobbled Dexter Lawrence, we’ve naturally seen Wilkins doubled far more often. This defensive line has met or exceeded all my expectations despite its relative lack of depth, particularly Ferrell and Bryant.

Linebackers outside of O’Daniel still struggle in their drops but that is to be expected from Joseph, JD Davis, and Chad Smith; less so from Lamar. The front 7 is still very stout against the run and busted run fits have been few and far between. Any success on the ground has come when the defense is gassed or when teams run at a doubled Wilkins (even then yardage hasn’t a sure thing). My greatest concern is of course the health of the secondary, but we have good news on that front with another week to get closer to 100%.

Looking ahead, it’s hard to not like Clemson’s chances in its known remaining games from a defensive perspective. The defense should be at or near full health and provide flexibility for Venables to play more aggressively than he’s been able to for most of the past two months.

I’ll detail this more next week of course, but many will miss the scouting report with the holiday: look for South Carolina to try and replicate NC State’s game plan with short passes in an effort to keep Jake Bentley in the game this year. We knew from the first drive of last year’s game how it would proceed when they tried deep fades on their first three snaps; they knew they needed pass interference flags or jump-ball wins to move the ball at all. I don’t think they even attempted a run until their 5th or 6th snap.

Their offense is not improved this year and may be worse without Deebo Samuel; the running game and OL are still bad and Bentley has regressed here in November (they’re winning against admittedly horrible bad teams thanks to a very improved defense). Without the run threat or creativity State presented, I’d expect plenty of cover 4 blitzes with various linemen dropping into throwing lanes to confuse and harass Bentley. If Clemson executes properly on offense it’s another blowout, so of course right now I expect perhaps a 14 point win.

I still have research to do on Miami but at this point I like Clemson to win by at least a score if they don’t provide Miami the sort of turnover luck which made them 9-0 instead of 6-3 at this point. The state and ACC championship trophies should remain in Clemson for another offseason; anything beyond that is merely icing.