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Clemson Sees Familiar Face Against Auburn

Who knew recency bias could last 5 years?

NCAA Football: Clemson at Auburn Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

It is the year 5 AV (After Venables) yet here I am mired in an article about Kevin Steele. If you’ve ever suffered a very public and horrifically embarrassing breakup from which you walked away certain of your ex’s imminent futility in life, only to find out years later said ex turned the eventual rebound into a rather steady and surprisingly healthy relationship, this is how it feels.

Writing this article is when curiosity gets the better of you — even when you’re in a wonderful place with an undeniable knockout on your arm — and you find yourself going years back into her Instagram, failing to piece together how on earth she got her life together after she sabotaged yours. It’s all good now, you definitely came out ahead in every possible way: your new boo has you on top of the world; you’re head over heels for each other; you’re talking family and kids!

Yet here you are, diving headfirst beyond Instagram into the dark days at the beginning of the decade when we only had Facebook tags and pokes with which to creep: SURELY she will regress into a wreck upon our necessitated collocation, right? WHY does her rebound resemble me so closely, minus my lakefront property? HOW, after our highly visible New Year’s meltdown in Miami and subsequent breakup, did she actually pull herself together?

How indeed.

Believe it or not, but Kevin Steele is a good defensive coordinator. Most of his detractions manifest from actual in-game play-calling and his maniacal nerves, but there’s no denying the job he did with Auburn’s defense a year ago; look no further than their effort against Clemson. In year 1, Steele took Auburn’s defense from S&P+ 29th in 2015 under Will Muschamp to 9th in 2016. Say what you will about SEC West offenses, but he knows what he’s doing. In a sense, Auburn’s defense last year mirrored Steele’s best unit while at Clemson, the 2010 squad which had a dominant defensive line and play-makers in the secondary; both of which Clemson lacked in 2011 when the wheels fell off.

The prevailing opinion and lasting impression regarding Steele in and around Clemson is his NFL-style defense mentally overloads his players, particularly his linebackers, into confusion, hesitation, and horrifically-missed assignments; essentially, it is not strategically viable against good quarterbacks in modern spread systems.

This led to wild conjecture here, before our first reunion with Steele a year ago, that Deshaun Watson and company would absolutely demolish Auburn’s hapless defenders much the same way Clemson’s under Steele were in 2011. We salivated at the prospect of returning the favor for the Orange Bowl derision, with interest. In fact, I couldn’t even let myself write about Steele’s defense a year ago; lacking trust in myself to maintain any sense of objectivity, I spurned my preference for defensive analysis and chose instead to scout Auburn’s offense.

Yet Clemson escaped with only a 19-13 victory, in which the bae Brent Venables saved us from utter embarrassment by showing that only he was superior; that we were incapable of dragging the ex and that only our fortuitous upgrade kept us from choking on a mouthful of crow.

Did Steele take the often-prescribed time to work on oneself? Or perhaps *gasp* a magnificently fermented recency bias is the real culprit for our long-misplaced bitterness, and Steele was actually a good defensive coordinator?

Steele has long been fond of aggressive defenses, but of a different variety from what Venables employs at Clemson. Steele is aggressive in the sense the he employs press corners and robber coverages, whereas Venables is known for his havoc-based 4-3 Over front and aggressive cover 3 and cover 4. At his core, Steele is more of a 4-3 Under front adherent; remember, he spent time with Nick Saban who blends a 3-4 and 4-3 under front with versatile personnel.

Yet it was in the back end where Steele met his undoing at Clemson, where his linebackers and safeties were prone to paralysis by analysis, scrambling through checks up until the snap and almost always out of position in those situations. Steele didn’t simplify or condense his calls to let his players play.

And even when in a 40 (4 man) front with nickel personnel, which Steele will almost exclusively employ against Clemson Saturday, Steele painted himself into a corner through his preference for robber coverage. With cover 1 robber, the robber (single underneath zone defender) is present to pick off crossing routes, and becomes a de facto spy against spread quarterbacks. Great in theory!

On one hand, cover 1 robber is a versatile launching pad for a variety of blitzes, and dissuades the slants frequently thrown against man coverage. On the other, any blitz from cover 1 robber leaves the running back unmarked, who can then occupy the robber/spy (usually the Mike or SS) with a route out of the backfield. Once the running back clears the robber out, there’s nobody to cover a running quarterback; everyone has his back turned in man coverage. This was the ultimate consternation in our issues with Steele, and why we believed Watson would pick Auburn apart through the air and on the ground.

So what did Steele do?

Really, not much unexpected. Simply put, Auburn’s defensive line was disruptive throughout the night and Watson didn’t play a good game. He was affected by Auburn’s pressure off the edge (a Steele staple) and Auburn’s back 7 held up well in press coverage. Fortunately, Clemson was able to take advantage of press man’s drawback: back shoulder throws.

Cover 1 with double LB bullets forces an early throw to Artavis Scott instead of the desired slant to Mike Williams, which was cleared out. With man coverage against 1 high safety, Watson knew he had to hit the back shoulder throw along the sideline.

Steele attacked a spread like we rarely saw in his tenure here, but Clemson did little to attack the robber coverages — whether in straight man or in blitzes — which would’ve opened the ground game for Watson and victimized Steele like he experienced while here. Nonetheless, Steele’s aggression paid dividends and his efforts were not the reason Auburn lost, far from it; his defense deserved a victory over Clemson a year ago.

Clemson’s trips bunch man-beater does its job and Auburn blows man coverage against Deon Cain. But the Mike feigned a blitz and dropped into robber, effectively spying and ultimately dropping a pick 6. This is good defensive coordinating and play-calling.

Why is this relevant this weekend? Clemson’s offensive line wasn’t great and Watson didn’t bail them out; Williams did. Intuitively, this doesn’t bode well for a Clemson offense minus most of last year’s heroes, facing an Auburn defense which should be strong in the back 7, lacking a known capability to hit those back shoulders. Yet Steele will likely show far more cover 1 and cover 3 looks against Kelly Bryant than he did against a known aerial threat in Watson, against whom he played more cover 4 than usual. Bryant will have the openings to hit go routes and manipulate robber coverage with RPOs. Without Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams on the Auburn DL, plus a better Clemson OL, this match actually favors Clemson’s offense more than it did a year ago.

A peek at what Clemson will likely see Saturday. Even from 2 high safety looks , Auburn will more likely than not play robber to mitigate the run threat unless Cain is burning them. Notice though the H back flare pulls the free safety into the alley and out of the play. If Clemson can block a draw play better than Georgia Southern here, I like Bryant’s chances for good yardage.
Simple man under cover 2 with shallow safeties because of no aerial threat. The Auburn DL can eat when they’re fresh. This coverage essentially invites a quarterback run, but there has to be a legit pass threat.

There’s still plenty to worry Clemson in Auburn’s defensive personnel, namely along the back 7. Mike linebacker Deshaun Davis is a force despite his shorter frame (5’11’ 246). Gone is nickel defender Ruby Ford, but the secondary is strong; corner Carlton Davis and free safety Tray Matthews are two of the better defensive backs in the SEC, plus there’s depth and versatility at every position in the back.

Up front, the defensive line boasts Marlon Davidson, Byron Cowart, and Jeff Holland, but there are depth concerns along the front line; draining it should be Clemson’s primary focus in its ground-based tempo attack. In contrast to Steele’s last defense at Clemson, he boasts the personnel to make his aggression pay off; last year is plenty of evidence.

Given Deondre Francois’ injury, confirmation that Louisville is a one-man team, and NC State’s perpetual inability to overcome the fact that they’re NC State, I can now confidently say Auburn is the best team on Clemson’s schedule. Virginia Tech is a worrisome trap game and Clemson will be challenged by plenty of over-matched opponents’ best efforts, but only Auburn and FSU have the talent to contend with Clemson at home. Much depends on what Jarrett Stidham can do against Clemson’s defense (I believe he is their missing piece), but this an unfavorable match for Auburn’s defense despite my newfound appreciation for Steele’s competency. I firmly believe Auburn is a legitimate top 10 team. If Stidham and his receivers can acclimate quickly, the offense could be unstoppable; if the defensive line stays healthy and fresh, Steele’s aggression can pay off.

Clemson, meanwhile, has all the ingredients needed to comprise an absolutely lethal spread option attack thanks not merely to its strength on the ground, but its weapons at boundary receiver when you consider teams won’t devote two safeties to Clemson’s deep ball until it’s burning everyone. With the talent around him, Bryant could not ask for a better situation for success; nor a more favorable defensive philosophy to face in his first real test under the lights. The key for Clemson will be wearing down the Auburn DL to find easy running lanes against Steele’s man coverage and hitting the play-action go routes when attacking it outside; Bryant is well-equipped to do so if he doesn’t let the moment get too big for him. I’ve been back and forth on the outcome all offseason, and truly have a bad feeling about this game; there are too many variables which could go either way. But I’ve been on the Bryant bandwagon all summer and won’t hop off now. Like us, Saturday night is the sort of moment of which he’s dreamed. It’s going to be fun.

Clemson 30, Auburn 24