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Miami’s Defense Will Look To Force Clemson Into Turnovers

Virginia v Miami Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

I’ve hoped all year Miami would earn the Coastal Division title and we’d find a Clemson vs Miami match-up in Charlotte. No, I don’t particularly care if Miami being back is good for the ACC; I’m eager for THE COMMENTS, since Clemson and Miami fans are both known to be so, umm...wonderful online and the last time we met led to plenty of colorful discourse here.

When I started watching Miami, I was quickly interested in the turnaround brought forth by Manny Diaz far more than head coach Mark Richt. I remain just as underwhelmed by Richt the quarterback coach/offensive mind/head coach as I did when he was at UGA. Malik Rosier has similarly underwhelmed, and I see an offense which has to run in order to throw and has thus been bailed out by its defense and random explosiveness far more than the 10-1 record would indicate.

Diaz brought in a defense eerily similar to our own here at Clemson, and as someone who’s written at length on Brent Venables’ fronts and coverages, this piece will merely gloss over the alignments and coverage tendencies, tightening its focus on personnel highlights. It’s Diaz and his unit’s turnover chain which are the story in Miami’s resurgence, and where the Canes’ best hope in victory lay.

But turnovers aren’t Miami’s only hope. There are headliners at each level of the defense: DE Chad Thomas, MLB Shaquille Quarterman, and safety Jaquan Johnson. The defensive line is one of the best in the nation; Thomas is particularly worrisome, likely too quick for Sean Pollard or too strong for Tremayne Anchrum at right tackle.

You may have guessed this by my allusion to Venables, but Diaz employs a 4-3 with varied front alignments and almost always pattern match zones behind it; usually cover 4/quarters:

Miami’s base cover 4 look. Notice Sam linebacker Zach McCloud is not aligned over the slot, meaning he’s a true Sam in zone rather than a nickel/Sam hybrid. It will be interesting to see how frequently Diaz employs a nickel corner against Hunter Renfrow’s quickness.

Man under coverage is not employed frequently from the base 4-3 and is usually accompanied by a blitz, most often on 3rd downs. The linebackers do a great job at not getting sucked in on play action and are adept at tipping balls in underneath zone, leading to many of Miami’s interceptions on the season.

Aggressive cover 4 sends bodies flying at the ball, but corner play is suspect and safeties can be manipulated with their aggression, leading to openings deep. In short, it’s easy to see many of the same pattern match strategies being used behind a dominant front which have made the Clemson defense fearsome, though Clemson enjoys far better cornerback play and can thus afford to send more exotic blitzes than Diaz is wont to do (look no further than this year’s contest against NC State to see what how the strategy changed without healthy corners).

A disadvantage in cover 4 minus good corner play:

The tight end’s seam kept the safety from helping the corner outside, who clearly thought he had help.

And an advantage in cover 4, safeties flying the alley in run support:

It will be difficult for Clemson to establish the ground game with such aggressive safeties filling for an already stout front 7. Clemson will need to attack the flats against linebackers who prefer to stay in the box and then hit double moves (like a fake screen/wheel) to beat the corners and safeties flying toward the underneath action. Play-action off power run concepts (like the power rollout) and the typical RPOs should be particularly effective at testing the back 7’s eye discipline.

Miami’s defense is the strength of the team, and not merely because of the boatload of turnovers they enjoy; this is a very good defensive line and an aggressive secondary which will challenge the Clemson offense. As Clemson fans all know from our own turnover woes in 2015 and 2016, turnovers themselves are often the result of bad luck or over-aggression at quarterback. Sure, opportune defenders can force them, but more often than not they capitalize on an offense’s mistakes. Clemson in 2017 does not make these mistakes because it takes fewer risks and has a far more conservative quarterback.

I see a lot of parallels between Miami and Clemson. Both teams are led by aggressive and talented defenses, particularly up front. Both teams struggle with quarterback accuracy and will each try to make the other one-dimensional. The difference can be found in efficiency; Clemson is phenomenally efficient, whereas Miami is not.

Turnovers and a bit of luck kept Miami’s undefeated season alive until they peaked in early November, but it was never going to be sustainable. Compound that with a poor match-up offensively, and Miami will need its luck to return to beat Clemson. I simply don’t see Clemson being careless with the football this year, certainly not enough to give them that chance. If Clemson protects the ball and doesn’t give Miami a short field, the Clemson defense will keep Miami at bay enough to pull away as they grow frustrated.

Clemson 28, Miami 14