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2019 Clemson Football Season Preview: Defense Xs and Os

Clemson’s defense will flip its strength and weakness from a year ago, but the weakness is only relative

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Here in the year 11 A.D. (After Dabo) we find a Clemson program which could not be in better shape. Dabo Swinney built Clemson into the premier college football program in the country; not only has Clemson won 2 of 3 national championships, Clemson football boasts another top-5 APR score, the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class on the way in 2020, acclaimed and viral trends in facilities, and enjoys nearly universal support from the university and administration.

It’s Swinney’s ability to articulate, sell, and thus create his vision which are the foundation under every element of Clemson’s success, and this vision requires selling to the coaches he hires and retains as much as the administration he convinced to fully commit to a capable program. His vision became a realized dream from Sikes Hall, to the McFadden Building, all the way into the defensive meeting room in the Allen N. Reeves Football Complex.

Seven years ago we had reason to doubt, or at least not completely buy into every bit of Swinney’s grand vision. Eight years ago, Swinney — whose background is entirely in offense — had his breakthrough with Clemson’s first post-FSU ACC championship, only for his defense to fall apart and sour what was otherwise the best season in twenty years. His own coordinator hire — the first experienced reputable coach to come on board after Clemson removed Swinney’s interim label — was fired one game removed from a dominant conference title game performance.

And so, seven years ago the aggressive press man cover 1 robber-based approach was replaced by a coordinator previously relegated to co-coordinating duties in the defensively-challenged Big 12. What many perceived a misguided reach for Clemson back then (including the previous regime here at STS) was in fact more a reach for the now esteemed and revitalized Brent Venables.

From the Big 12, coordinating a defense which had to complement its own uptempo spread offense was not particularly concerning, and Venables brought an attacking philosophy predicated on havoc behind the the line of scrimmage to get said offense back on the field. The loss in aggression sans press man coverage outside was mitigated, if not downright upstaged, in aggressive zone blitzes and shooting gaps to obliterate the backfield. These philosophies are the subject in this preview column; you’ve seen the personnel previews of each position group in other articles, but here we examine the calls and tendencies one would expect from Venables with a sterling back 7, but rebuilding front 4, and the overarching outlook for the unit based on this season’s personnel and expected tendencies.

First, an overview on what determines strong side vs weak side designations in the base 4-3 Over defensive formation. The strong side is almost always the wide (field) side of the formation and the weak side usually the short (boundary) side. This means if the opposition snaps the ball from the near hash, the strong side is the far side of the field.

We will thus almost always see the corners, safeties, and linebackers rotate sides of the field depending on from which hash the ball is snapped. The field corner is always on the wide side, along with the strong safety and Sam linebacker/nickel defender, except in cases where the opponent’s formation strength is in the boundary.

The same in reverse for the boundary corner, free safety, and weak side linebacker. The exception to this swapping is found on the defensive line. The weak side end (best pass rusher) always aligns over the opponent’s left tackle (or tight end) in Clemson’s defense no matter which side is actually the weak side; the 1 tech lineman in the weak side A gap, 3 tech lineman in the strong side B gap, and strong side end outside the right tackle (or tight end).

The corner position mirrors Clemson’s own receiver philosophy in that the top player mans the boundary role. This season AJ Terrell moves from field to boundary since he is the clear CB1. The free safety is usually the deep safety, while the strong safety is more likely to creep toward the line to cover a slot or tight end in man or underneath coverage when in cover 3. This is reversed against 2x2 sets, where the FS and Sam/Nickel take the boundary and field slots, respectively, and the SS is then deep; some defenses will swap safeties to keep the FS deep, but Clemson chooses to rotate deep responsibility against balanced formations.

By now we’ve all seen the reports out of camp that 2019 shapes up be Swinney’s best ever secondary, and perhaps even his best back 7. I have come around and subscribed to this theory since the summer depth chart which initially left me concerned for another athletically deficient inside linebacker group. Aside from the fact the depth chart was blatantly wrong — Chad Smith is at Will linebacker, not Mike; James Skalski is at Mike, not Will —I have seen the group firsthand this month and did not leave the first fall scrimmage with the same concerns with which I entered it.

Skalski in particular is the most athletic inside linebacker since Stephone Anthony, and Smith fits the mold in Venables’ preferred gap-shooting Will, but with more size and quickness than we’re used to seeing. Oh, and Isaiah Simmons returns to man the hybrid Sam role, where he is the best at his position in the entire country. It’s this revelation in linebacking athleticism which should pair well with a Clemson offense which will score in droves, forcing opponents to throw the ball to keep up when “keep away from Trevor Lawrence” sputters. This talent and experience in the back will cover for a new-look defensive line and allow Venables to call a wider variety of coverages without recent seasons’ coverage deficiencies.

It’s this linebacker coverage upgrade which I believe will finally shore up the main deficiency in Clemson’s base call, cover 4. In cover 4, the DBs split deep quarters of the field, while the linebackers split the underneath coverage into thirds (literally the inverse of cover 3). The vulnerabilities here are in the underneath flat (which is why Clemson likes big and aggressive corners to fly in) but especially in the middle of the field between (and behind) linebackers.

I would be remiss if I did not include at least a passing mention to Clemson’s preferred semi-base defense in passing situations, the DIME OF DOOM. The dime takes the nickel (a 5th defensive back in the formation) a step further with a 6th DB. Clemson removes a DT and employs a 3-2-6 or blended 4-1-6 with a third defensive end bumped inside to tackle.

Sam linebacker Isaiah Simmons is the dime back as it stands today. Mike Jones Jr. or another freshman safety may find playing time here as the season progresses, but with the game on the line in dime, it will be Simmons moving to dime with Wallace sliding over to nickel. With capable back up safeties in Denzel Johnson and Nolan Turner, Venables can safely bring Wallace closer to the line without sacrificing deep coverage integrity. From these spots Simmons and Wallace can cover and pressure with equal effectiveness. Venables may also elect to drop Muse down to dime, with the better pass-defending Turner at deep safety like he did a year ago.

“Everything begins up front” is a cliche which is almost always true with a Venables defense, but it’s the back end play which affords Venables the comfort (or lack thereof) to mercilessly hound an opponent’s backfield. With the Power Ranger front, Venables didn’t have to use pressure with such a dominant line, but did anyway because it’s his philosophy; this year he’ll use even more fire zones, not simply because the losses up front lead to an expected drop in pass rush quality, but added faith in his defensive backfield. Cover 4 may be Venables’ base, but it’s the cover 3 fire zone (seriously click this link) which make a Venables defense so disruptive.

Fire zones center on disguising pressure to confuse protection, shooting a linebacker or DB from one side while dropping an end or tackle from the other. Ideally the blitz is unblocked while an offensive lineman away from the blitz stands around with no one to block — meaning a 4 man rush can overwhelm one side of the offensive line like a jailbreak blitz — all from a relatively safe 6 or 7-man coverage, cover 3 shell.

See the strong side overload? It’s still just a 4 man rush!

A change of pace coverage Venables used last year was Tampa 2, which splits the safeties into deep halves and asks the Mike linebacker to cover the deep middle. Tre Lamar nor any other inside linebackers were up to the task and were the primary culprits in many of the calamitous busts in Texas A&M’s near comeback (not as much the safeties!).

Even if Lamar hadn’t busted, he was overmatched backpedaling downfield.

Against NC State’s quick passing game, Venables opted for backup Sam linebacker Jalen Williams at Mike. This afforded Venables greater coverage multiplicity without surrendering as much in run defense as a heavy dime would. Williams played perhaps his best game in his time at Clemson:

With such an outstanding front, Venables still knew he could force pressure with perhaps this the most conservative defensive call in the book, and Williams rewarded his faith with excellent coverage and a frankly jaw-dropping interception given his lack of size. There’s a significant upgrade in athleticism in the 2019 linebackers, and Venables has the back 7 to ball-hawk in conservative calls like cover 2. Having a freak like Luke Kuechly at Mike is why the Carolina Panthers run Tampa 2 so effectively, and Skalski is an upgrade over Lamar as far as this coverage is concerned.

The drawback Venables avoided with last year’s front is Tampa 2 risks next to no pressure without a good pass-rushing line, and we all know what Clemson lost up front this year. Bet on cover 2 still showing up as a change of pace or in expected passing situations with the extra defensive ends package.

All of this is to illustrate Venables can vary his coverages far more this year, and this variety is why I’m still relatively high on the 2019 Clemson defense. Clemson can competently throw a bevy of coverages at opposing quarterbacks in addition to the pressures they’ll face from the havoc looks the front will show.

The defensive line will have a drop-off; how could they not? There’s depth aplenty at DE, and the initial concerns with depth at DT have been mitigated by Tyler Davis and Xavier Kelly. The biggest unknown today is no proven depth behind the starting linebackers. There’s an obvious parallel here to the 2015 defense — which you’ll recall racked up insane snap counts for Ben Boulware and BJ Goodson — but I think 2019 should surpass the sterling unit 2015 was before this lack of depth and versatility undid it late in the season. The linebacker depth is young, but will have plenty of chances to gain experience against a rather forgiving schedule, especially after week 3.

2019 brings back more collective talent than ever before, minus the starting defensive line. Clemson has the most experience and depth at safety Swinney or Venables have ever known. Throw in the upgraded linebacker athleticism and Clemson can even run man under coverage against more than simply overmatched competition or in the blowouts where we usually see it. This unit won’t have the superstars garnering all the headlines like it did the past few years, but it should be outstanding in the back 7 to make up for the losses up front and protect Clemson from falling into many shootouts.

The coverages will vary without many of the previous drawbacks, yet Clemson will likely have to pressure frequently — and there’s no doubt they will — in order to come anywhere near the previous TFL and sack figures. Pressure is Venables’ modus operandi no matter his personnel, and this secondary affords him plenty of comfort to pressure. 2019 will be a step back up front, but a leap forward in the back.