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Might Miami Have the Best Defense in the ACC? WHO CARES!

Notre Dame v Clemson Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images

Is my title a hot take? To most around here, probably. We’ve grown so used to Clemson’s dominance that we may not consider anyone else could approach the Brent Venables stratosphere. Yet I’ve bought Miami stock since the D’Eriq King and Rhett Lashlee marriage announcement. Once the revised ACC schedule sent Miami here this weekend, I began to peek toward this matchup for Game of the Year rather than the long-awaited trip to Notre Dame next month.

Does this make me merely contrarian, or am I off my rocker? Bear with me: Miami has enjoyed the second-best defense in the conference pretty much since Manny Diaz arrived at coordinator when accounting for both overall talent and actual production, and now boasts the perfect QB to usher in a modern offense to complement it. If you ask me to compare position groups between Notre Dame and Miami, I’ll take Miami at more positions than the Irish, especially on offense.

Miami opened the year in a struggle (for a half) with UAB, and I thought I might’ve fallen for their fool’s good again. Then they outlasted a pesky Louisville offense and smothered FSU, and I backpedaled my previous first-half-against-UAB-induced backpedal:

So here we are with what currently seems the most likely preview for the ACC Championship game. A potential rematch in two months should do nothing to dampen the hype around this game though; Miami is perpetually “back” and finally gets a real chance to prove it, while Clemson may find a rival for a title race not consistently offered in half a decade.

Much to my surprise, the film on Miami’s defense after three games did not show nearly the unit I expected. Their effort against Louisville exposed weaknesses which suggest their overall defense may not be as good as in recent years, and we may find ourselves in a shootout. But I’m going to hedge against that right now. Miami’s offensive line should be overmatched against a Clemson front seven with Tyler Davis back in the lineup, and Clemson’s own offense must survive what remains the best pass rush and try to manipulate the most athletic downhill safety group in the conference.

Best defensive ends? But but but Alex, Clemson’s ‘crootin is the best, there are more 5 stars on the roster now than ever before! Bresee, Murphy, Henry, Thomas! So many 5 stars on the D Line!

Like Virginia showed us, experience often beats raw talent. Miami has both. I always want to spend more time talking scheme in this column than highlighting specific players, especially if COVID protocol puts a star or seven in quarantine after this publishes, but the defensive ends in particular are elite — and that’s WITHOUT projected top 10 pick Greg Rousseau in the lineup due to his opt out.

So I’ll briefly outline how the defensive ends allow Miami to play safer coverages without as many blitzes, yet the safeties can afford Diaz the confidence to call aggressive pressures if the corners are holding up. But thus far, Miami has chosen not to risk this in the least, which is alarming.

Sure, any game may be won or lost on the line of scrimmage, but the “cat and mouse” metaphor which personifies the chess match between offensive and defensive play callers will be won or lost in how Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne stress the Miami linebackers and safeties, or how the Miami pass rush prevents Lawrence from doing so.

It all starts with the defensive ends, Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche. These are undoubtedly the top ends in the conference right now and where Miami’s best hopes lay in slowing Clemson. Phillips, in particular, has become a force after the #1 overall recruit transferred from UCLA to Coral Gables.

Look fellas I know this is against the FSU o-line, but maybe we can find common ground here by ridiculing them?

As you should expect with elite defensive ends, Miami runs a 1-gap, penetration-based 4-3 with a hybrid Sam. Miami overwhelmingly employs zone calls, in part to protect thus far underwhelming cornerbacks, but also to keep eyes facing forward to help below-average linebackers handle the run. Most man coverage calls come in long passing situations with a 2-deep shell behind it, and blitzes are four to six bodied fire zones in front of cover 3.

With big, athletic safeties, there’s a load of cover 4 against expected run calls where the safeties help the linebackers in run fits. Cover 4 also provides the corners the luxury for safeties to double cover outside receivers in the event that inside receivers do not run upfield routes, which is where we find Miami’s weakness through the air.

A corner route is a cover 4 beater against corners who see an exposed flat and thus play more like a cover 2 call to try and mitigate that threat. We know this is cover 4, not cover 2, even though both corners try not to bail into deep quarter coverage, because the Mike doesn’t drop deep and the safeties stay in middle quarter zones instead of middle half zones. This isn’t an obvious or egregious bust, but the corner didn’t play cover 4 as called. Galloway and Rodgers have to take advantage.

Miami defended Louisville and FSU most often with these cover 4 calls. Like against Louisville, I expect Miami to attack Clemson with a good bit of it. It’s the best hope to defend Etienne on the ground, though it will expose them to flare screens and swing passes, where he’s done most of his damage this season.

Even the corners will often find themselves in conflict since Etienne is a known receiving commodity, while also likely to find themselves overmatched against Ladson and Ngata (or even Rodgers) on the downfield routes. This has a ripple effect on the entire defense, from the safeties all the way down to the pressure Diaz can send.

When blitzing, Miami most often does so in front of a cover 3 shell. This provides stronger underneath coverage in addition to the extra body thrown at the line, but will expose the corners against those downfield routes in what effectively becomes soft man coverage. Clemson’s offensive philosophy is based almost entirely on putting defenders in conflict no matter how a play unfolds, and even considering how carefully conservative Miami’s been with its secondary, Clemson should be equipped do so.

The good news for Miami is that their pass rush renders blitzes more a luxury than a necessity. If Miami does blitz, it’s because they smell blood in the water — whether it’s Clemson’s blood in a critical passing down, or their own blood and have to up their attack to try and force a Clemson mistake.

In run defense, the Canes haven’t exactly been overpowering — unimpressive linebackers are primarily why — and Louisville’s staple stretch and outside zone handoffs even found success running right at the ends. Clemson’s running game is inside zone-based, but the way Clemson throws to Etienne on flare screens is an even deadlier outside extension to the running game. Given its recent success, Miami will be aware and compensate for it, which will open up a lot more inside against tackles.

Clemson and Miami have more similarities than I expected, especially on offense. Defensively though we find the units nearly inverse each other despite similar base defenses. I expected to see a unit which would challenge Clemson for conference superiority, especially with a dangerous offense to at last pull some of its own weight. Yet the calls each employ underline a key difference: Venables puts his young secondary through a mental trial by fire, while Miami seeks to protect theirs.

Miami has a stronger defensive line, Clemson has infinitely stronger linebackers. Miami has better safety play, Clemson has far superior corners. Miami has stayed extremely vanilla on defense, while Venables has put just about everything on film — for better or worse.

Many of the positional battles will match strength against strength and relative weakness against relative weakness. Clemson counts themselves lucky they are strong in pass protection, and have Jackson Carman and Jordan McFadden to counter those Miami ends. Meanwhile, Clemson’s defensive line is in a rebirth and was just exposed by UVA. Yet the Miami offensive line is the weakest positional unit between the two teams by a good margin. King and his good running backs can make up for some of the line play of course, but is the Miami OL vs. the Clemson DL still a relative pillow fight with Tyler Davis and XT back in the fold? I say no way. Clemson has the usual advantage there this week.

Travis Etienne should comprise the bulk of the Clemson game plan, both on the ground and on underneath throws. Those throws will put the linebackers and corners in conflict, while the safeties have to worry about the usual RPO constraints Clemson throws into every single play. Clemson can score in droves against a defense as vanilla as Miami has been thus far, even against the Canes’ talent level.

The question is: Can King keep up? A mobile quarterback with a dominant tight end or two is a the very last sort of offense Clemson wants to face, but Clemson should at least win the line of scrimmage when on defense. In that sense, last week’s stern lesson couldn’t have come at a better time, and we should see Clemson begin to put it together more now that we’re already a full week into October.

It’s BIG GAME WEEK. Perhaps another Hurricane Game in more ways than one. Dabo is rollin’ the bus down Williamson Road like Stone Cold with the beer truck, ready to give the Rock a beer bath on his way down the Hill — like in the beginning of this golden era when our biggest games happened here. It won’t feel the same this time with only 20,000 in Death Valley. But the result should be.

Clemson 41, Miami 30