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FSU is Finally Growing Into Cover 4

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Louisville at Florida State Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a bye week filled with angst and much consternation with the offensive staff, Clemson returns to the friendly confines to find the exact cure Dr STS prescribed: A STILL NOT-GOOD FLORIDA STATE TEAM. Yet in recent weeks we’ve learned hope springs eternal in Tallahassee thanks to...Jim Leavitt and Alex Hornibrook?

Clemson’s perpetually overblown early struggles (yes I realize I am one who critiques and thus contributes to the overblown narrative) combined with the aforementioned “defensive analyst” and transfer QB lead many in the FSU camp to expect a strong Seminole showing. It is Leavitt’s impact on the FSU defense which will, as ever, remain the focus in this column, and it’s time to dive in and see if the changes are genuine cause for optimism, or if recent improvements coincidentally manifested against the worst teams in the Atlantic division.

First a refresher on defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett, who we met last year following a successful stint under Mark Dantonio at Michigan State. Barnett was a Dantonio apprentice as Dantonio was Nick Saban’s, so naturally the base defense is an aggressive cover 4. Dantonio and Barnett deviated from Saban’s pattern match in favor of a more pure but shallow cover 4, intent on taking away the run with crashing safeties, and tight downfield coverage outside, but it’s more boom/bust than Saban’s adaptive and numerically superior approach to cover 4.

The standard, obligatory cover 4 chart. This is more applicable to the FSU defense, though, since the true shallow cover 4 Barnett professes and practices is aptly illustrated.

Growing pains in 2018 were to be expected, so the defense didn’t meet the standard Barnett enjoyed at Michigan State, and here in 2019 the loss of 1st round edge rusher Brian Burns led Barnett to tinker with his front to help the pass rush. It’s this tinkering with fronts which hints at the underlying factor in FSU’s defensive improvement after two very poor games to begin the year.

On the surface, multiple fronts are a good thing. Clemson has seen firsthand the benefits blended fronts create and the nightmares offensive linemen and QBs face when they must guess from where pressure will come. But Barnett is a true cover 4 disciple, meaning he is far more reliant upon running his base to perfection than he is mixing up terror fronts and schemes like Brent Venables. Shallow, aggressive cover 4 works best with 4, 1-gap linemen; shifting your front shifts run fits.

Mixing up fronts affected the run defense, and domino’d across the entire defense to affect even the coverage.

No one should ever have 2 different receivers wide open 20+ yards downfield, Tampa 2 or cover 4

That Barnett made a move so antithetical to his ideology shows just how little faith he had in his pass rush. Yet undoing the foundation of his own defense may prove to be his own undoing; with merely 14 rather uninspiring games to his name, Leavitt entered under the guise “quality control analyst” but is effectively Barnett’s forthcoming replacement. That the FSU defense has improved since Leavitt’s onboarding perhaps bodes all the worse for Barnett; Willie Taggart’s first choice for DC when he was first hired is now on staff, waiting in the wings.

Since Leavitt’s arrival, FSU showed improvement in a close loss to UVA, and extremely encouraging performances against Louisville and NC State. Most auspiciously, it seems Leavitt reminded Barnett to stick with what he knows:

The 4 down, shallow cover 4 shell returns!

The return to a 4 down look is actually more likely due to a surprisingly better than expected pass rush; if there’s a silver lining, it’s that the pass rush has exceeded expectations even pre-Leavitt. Janarius Robinson, in particular, has been a bright spot for the FSU defense (though he’s suspended for the first half Saturday thanks to a targeting penalty).

The most noticeable vulnerability in the FSU defense to my eyes though has been their refusal, or inability, to disguise coverages. They’ve been unafraid to show pressure looks which confuse quarterbacks in general, but when in man (3rd downs), Tampa 2 (changeup) or cover 4 (base), there is no disguise and even backup QBs have known where to go at the snap.

From the standard shallow cover 4 shell, the Mike LB is cheating into Tampa 2 depth. All the QB has to do is read the corner to know if he’s sitting in the flat or dropping into a deep quarter. He sat, and the corner route was open.
Obvious cover 4, no attempt to disguise. The known weaknesses: in routes and swings into the flat.

A mercurial defense with known and easily identifiable tendencies — lacking its best pass rusher for a half to boot — should indeed be just what Dr STS ordered. Whether Leavitt and Barnett underwent the same sort of intensive self-scouting we can only hope Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott did will be the difference in a comfortable afternoon and another frustrating (yet presumably undramatic) victory.

Hornibrook will find some playing time and presents a higher floor than starting QB James Blackman, but any hopes of an upset hinge on Blackman surviving the Venables defense and slinging the ball downfield. The offensive line is still bad, though Cam Akers is a threat if he finds room. The bottom line, which will remain a broken record until the postseason: Clemson is still too good at every position unless the opponent plays above themselves (see: UNC) or Clemson remains sloppy (see also: UNC).

FSU under Taggart is still a work in progress on both sides of the ball; Clemson merely needs a tuneup. If precedent holds, the bye week was the tuneup.

Clemson 45, FSU 13