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Clemson’s Defensive Line in Coverage

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A football like substance is back

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve come to our senses following the Sweet Sixteen run and remembered Clemson is in fact a football school. Mostly. Maybe I got distracted by the NBA too. Regardless, we’re back this week with football content. Clemson returns what should be the best defensive line in the nation in 2018. With four returning starters bolstered by four and five star underclassmen, as well as experienced backups, the defensive line should be able to generate pressure against any team in the country.

With that said, an important part of what makes Clemson’s defense so good is the skill linemen display when dropping back in coverage. Offensive lineman focused on not being beaten by the likes of Austin Bryant or Clelin Ferrell are poorly prepared to deal with pressure from elsewhere when the defensive ends dropped into coverage.

Let’s start with a standard cover three fire zone sometimes known as “NCAA,” because everyone runs it:

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The defensive line slants away from the blitz, with Albert Huggins (#67) working his way across the offensive tackle to keep contain. The running back picks up Dorian O’Daniel but no one’s left to handle Tre Lamar, who gets an easy strip sack. Despite sending five man pressure against six man protection, Venables is able to get a free rusher. This is the defensive mastery which gives us the maniacal, gleeful sideline Venables.

A key part of this pressure is Ferrell’s ability to drop into coverage and take away short passes. Despite starting over the tackle Ferrell is almost instantly in position to disrupt a route to the slot receiver.

The defensive ends do the vast majority of dropping into coverage, however Clemson happens to have a defensive tackle with significant experience playing end in Christian Wilkins.

Wilkins drops back into coverage here and Clemson is able to send a four man pressure while playing zone behind it, effectively base defense, despite giving the offense a different look. J.D. Davis takes over as edge rusher, the defensive end slants inside, the tackle to the end side works across the center, and Wilkins replaces Davis in coverage. The result is pressure in the quarterbacks face and an errant throw.

Venables has a tendency to blitz a linebacker away from trips while dropping the defensive end into coverage to the trips side:

Alex went into much more detail about the man/zone blended coverage Venables is using here. Read it.

Venables can use his defensive ends ability in coverage conservatively as well.

Clemson drops eight defenders into coverage on first and fifteen, with Ferrell smothering the running back after the catch. Looks like this allow the defense to stunt into what are effectively three down lineman fronts.

Clemson has added some three down lineman fronts to its standard down defense after years of success with the DOD on passing downs. Clemson’s 3 down package typically looks like a 3-3 nickel front, with one of the defensive ends and one of the linebackers, often Tre Lamar (4 sacks), serving as the outside linebackers.

The outside linebackers handle the C gaps, two three techniques (the usual three technique and the other defensive end) control the B gaps, with the nose and MLB handling any A gap runs. Often Dexter Lawrence was able to command a double team and leave the linebacker behind him unblocked. It’s much harder to pull lineman or double team with defensive linemen attacking both B gaps.

When Clemson is running this front (effectively a 3-3-5) Dorian O’Daniel is split wide against the slot receiver, serving as the nickel DB. Bryant picks up the running back out of the backfield on the boundary side. Lamar nearly winds up with the sack.

Clemson can also run this front as a 3-4 with the same personnel. The 3-3 outside linebacker shifts to a 3-4 inside linebacker (Skalski has replaced Lamar) while O’Daniel takes over as the outside linebacker. Doing this allows O’Daniel (5 sacks) to use his athleticism as a pass rusher and makes the front harder to run against.

Between O’Daniel, Lamar and one of the defensive ends this formation relies on three hybrid outside linebackers. All three can rush the passer or drop into coverage. O’Daniel took it a step further by being able to play inside linebacker, outside linebacker or nickel. O’Daniel’s versatility was key to this front being able to adjust to motion and change of formation fluidly, and it’s why Isaiah Simmons’ offseason development at the position is so crucial to replicating 2017’s success.

By taking advantage of the athleticism of its ends and pass rushing ability of linebackers Clemson is able to add another front without having to teach much new technique. Venables is able to use this front as a change of pace while still running a one gap defense playing the same coverages Clemson runs out of their base four man fronts.