Where to even start? In my Film Study article two weeks ago, I tried to remain positive about what I saw from the offense against Georgia. I made what I thought was a reasonable conclusion that much of the failing of the Clemson offense had to do with the standard poor execution you’re likely to see with teams in Week 1 of the season, especially against a defense as elite as UGA’s is talent wise. Surely the team would refocus after the loss and things would go smoother against an FCS opponent and a team that lost to a MAC school, right? Please say right?
Fast forward two weeks and the offense somehow looked worse than the Georgia game when you account for context. I hammered home the point of needing to execute better, as bad timing, miscommunication, or just flat-out missed/abandoned assignments sabotaged several otherwise good play calls, however, a fair amount of flaws that cost drives in the UGA game were very unlucky or flukey things (e.g., batted passes, erratic or fumbled snaps, etc.). What we saw this past Saturday can’t hide behind simple mistakes like these. There’s no way to sugarcoat this: nearly every aspect of the offense was poor. Execution was poor, play calling was poor, effort was poor, personnel decisions were poor. As this is “Film Study.” I’ll be sure to include relevant examples of what the tape shows us about the areas that need to be addressed. Honestly though, some of the subjects that need to be broached require a more philosophical response and so this might be a bit more wordy than this segment should ideally be. Now that you’ve been warned, let’s get into it.
I don’t really like the term “personnel management” to be honest, it’s kind of clunky but it’s 2 AM and I’ve been grinding the film for 4 hours so bear with me. What I mean by this is simply how the coaching staff approaches the roster in-game: who they decide to play and how they decide to utilize them. This game clearly showed us a handful of examples of issues that need to be fixed with regard to how the staff manages their roster.
First, let’s look at the RB carries for the 1st half. By my count, there were 18 carries by an RB in the first half (not counting pop passes, shovels, etc.). Here’s how they shook out:
Shipley = 8 carries, 5 yards/carry
Pace = 5 carries, 3 yards/carry
Dixon = 5 carries, 2.2 yards/carry
Now, to be clear, not only is this an extremely limited sample size but it also doesn’t account for some bad run blocking busts that stung Dixon/Pace harder than Shipley. Yet, anyone with a pair of eyeballs watching the past 3 games can see that Shipley is our best back, even as a freshman, and it’s not particularly close.
Will Shipley is exactly as advertised: the modern three-down back. He has the requisite bulk (listed at 205lbs) to power his way through initial contact from 2nd level defenders and gain extra yards that smaller backs can’t...
...while also having the explosiveness and shiftiness in space to make defenders whiff.
He’s also showing signs early that he’s not a liability as a blocker, which is usually about as much as you can hope for from a college back. But what truly makes him “modern” is the flashes we’ve seen from him as a pass catcher so far. As you can see from the rep above, this is already encouraging polish to see from a back in the passing game. Shipley gets to his spot quickly and the suddenness of his break from the hitch route keeps the corner, who’s in off-coverage, from reading his route early. Often with less talented/athletic backs, and even receivers, guys will drag out the break in their route which allows a defender in off-coverage more time to key in on the route before the receiver gets out of the break. Here, Shipley’s suddenness leaves the corner with no shot to jump his route before he’s out of it. The explosive start-stop Shipley possesses forces the missed tackle; the icing on top here, and a sign that we’ve got a real YAC monster in our midst.
Bringing this evaluation of Shipley back to the review of this particular game, it’s disappointing that our best three-down back got less than half of the carries in a game where the defense was basically daring us to run, often with 5-man boxes that were ripe for the picking. Part of this is a philosophical argument about how to approach the run game. In the Dabo era, we have become accustomed to relatively heavy rotation of backs from drive to drive, particularly if we don’t have an all-world talent like a Travis Etienne on our roster. This inarguably has it’s benefits for a variety of reasons: it’s helpful in recruiting to guarantee playing time and it allows Clemson to not wear down our feature back while also developing depth from younger and/or more peripheral backs. However, at a certain point you’ve got to know when to abandon a principle in a game as dynamic as football in order to come out ahead, and one of my primary gripes with coaching from this game was how long it took for them to simply feed Shipley. As Anton Chigurh wisely puts it: If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule? After the Shipley drive that netted us a touchdown in the 1st quarter, it should have become clear that we needed to stop getting cute with our RB rotation and abandon that rule in favor of the clearly more effective strategy of feeding Shipley. As is often said, the best offensive coordinators are able to adjust after each drive, or even after each set of downs, instead of waiting for an hour-long rain delay halftime period to get it together.
Yet, the frustration wasn’t just that Shipley only featured as the back for 1 of the 4 drives in the first half. I understand that Tech did a good job of burning clock in the 2nd quarter, and didn’t give the coaches a ton of drives to insert Shipley. It’s that Lyn-J Dixon started the final two drives of the first half, even after Elliott saw how effective Shipley was on the 2nd drive. Now, this is not me constructing a teardown of Dixon in light of his recent decision to enter the transfer portal. Though his Clemson career may end on a sour note, he was a reliable rotational piece for Clemson over recent seasons and I fully support him, or any other player, deciding to do what he thinks is best for his future. That being said, it’s absolutely inexcusable that he started the majority of the drives in the first half given the context.
Dixon is more of a receiving back in my opinion, but his primary strength as a pure running back on early downs is his patience to feel out a play, wait for lanes to develop, and then using his vision to gash a defense’s front 7, primarily by bouncing it outside. Yet patience, contrary to popular belief, isn’t always a virtue, and with Clemson’s currently dysfunctional run blocking it in fact turns into a negative. You can’t wait for lanes to open up when linemen are missing their assignments and failing to get to the 2nd level. You just have to pick your spot and GO!
In the play above, Dixon does his part of snowballing a bad down into a terrible one. The call is an inside zone run, and generally speaking, the back’s read is a “bang, bend, bounce” read as follows:
The primary read is to “bang” the run into either the playside A or B gap
If the Bang isn’t there, as it often isn’t in life, then the RB either “Bends” it back into the backside A gap (pretend the graphic is showing the arrow going into a backside gap for the sake of my explanation)...
...or he “Bounces” it into one of the outer B/C/D gaps.
As we see here, Bockhorst immediately gets pushed playside, which keys Dixon to “bend” the run backside. However, in the image above we can already see Putnam whiffing on the 2nd level block, which allows a backer into the backside gap that Dixon is trying to enter.
Dixon makes the correct read to avoid the filling inside backer by bouncing outside, but unfortunately takes a tick to long to commit to it. In the image above he pulls up flat-footed behind Bockhorst, taking a half-second to gauge whether a defender is spilling into an outside gap, only to realize he’s in a lose-lose situation before bouncing outside. Due to his smaller size, he’s unable to break the tackle and gets slung further back, creating 3rd and long for the offense. To be clear, it would be extremely unfair for him to shoulder the entire blame for this failed play. Putnam has played woefully so far as a run blocker in his Clemson career and he’s the one that starts the avalanche here, but it’s probably better to have Pace or Shipley out there on early downs if we’re going to be a team that can’t run block consistently. I have no clue whether or not those two would have ultimately paused to bounce it outside like Dixon did, but I know that both of their frames would have stood a better chance of either gaining ground on the initial bend read against the backer that Putnam whiffs on OR wouldn’t have been as easy to push backward for a 5-yard loss after bouncing it.
My ideal RB structure going forward would be to feature Shipley as our lead back on the majority of drives, with Pace rotating in to give him a breather occasionally, and Rencher/Mafah/Dukes providing depth. It would be nice to have Dixon going forward to come in on passing downs as a threat out of the backfield, but I think Shipley is a decent enough blocker and route runner to provide three-down functionality, or to come in on 3rd down during drives that feature Pace.
I’ll spend less time on this because it got adjusted quicker than the RB situation, but it’s clear to me that Davis Allen should be getting the majority of snaps at TE/H-Back out of Clemson’s 11-personnel base. And apparently it’s clear to Dabo too, so that’s good!
The news keeps coming from Dabo Swinney's call-in show. Sounds like Davis Allen has earned the right to start this week.— Grace Raynor (@gmraynor) September 21, 2021
I consider Braden Galloway similarly to how I thought of Milan Richards in past seasons: decent enough of a player to rotate in and have as depth, but just not nearly consistent enough as an overall tight end to get starter reps. I’ll spare you the dropped 4th down against UGA and the dropped pass this week, I think by now we all get it. Though Galloway, might be marginally better as a blocker due mostly to size, I think Davis holds his own in this area. Though he often gets stood up when blocking in-line, he consistently is able to put in good blocks when he gets a running start, like he does when he’s a puller for a power concept or motioning to the backside in split zone. Watch #84 come across for the block below:
Let’s be clear: Clemson’s offense has a lot of issues right now. But let’s also be clear in acknowledging that by far the biggest is blocking, or lack thereof. Not good: pic.twitter.com/eiUp1iVYvL— Larry Williams (@LarryWilliamsTI) September 21, 2021
This QB Counter comes to mind when describing what I mean. When given a running start, Allen does a good job of moving a bigger linebacker, and his quickness allows him to get to the backer before he gets any real step toward DJ. I’m not going to include any of his receiving reps in this article, in the interest of not making this article any more of a novel, but he’s also clearly a better receiving threat than Galloway, with surer hands and better speed/explosiveness.
Let me start out by saying that I am typically much less critical than most fans are about playcalling. Unless it’s a gratingly obvious flawed theme of a playcaller (think Spence’s spamming of bubble screens or Mike McCarthy’s religious adherence to the curl-flat concept) then I usually give a guy the benefit of the doubt. The guy who coaches the other side of the ball is paid a lot to do his job too, and I assume that they’re making it difficult and adjusting with most, if not every, move the offense makes. I am making an exception to that for what I saw against Georgia Tech, and it mostly comes down to the befuddling explanations we were provided with after the game.
Both Elliott and Dabo spent a lot of time in post-game media appearances claiming that Georgia Tech were running a “surprise defensive structure” that completely caught them off guard and were totally unprepared for. Now, because I don’t have access to the All-22 angle, the camera angle that shows all 22 players (hence the name), of this game, I have to rely on the broadcast angle just like everyone else to analyze each it. The biggest detriment of using the broadcast angle is that you pretty much never get to see the full picture of what a defense is doing in coverage, and this isn’t helped by ESPN being particularly bad about never showing replays that include a shot of the whole field during a play. So, for now, I have to take Dabo and Elliot’s word that it was an unusual defensive scheme.
However, the issue is that it’s unclear what exactly about this new funky coverage made it so hard to attack.
Elliott today says that Iowa State has had plenty of success with 3-safety defense. He expects teams to defend Clemson similarly, like Georgia Tech did, and to see if Clemson can run the ball. "Going forward, we'll have a plan for it each week."— Anna Hickey (@AnnaH247) September 20, 2021
Here, Elliott is saying that they lined up in Cover 2 Invert. One of the issues you’ll find with football schematic concepts is that many football terms are defined very differently depending on the coach. My understanding of Cover 2 Invert is that the main distinguishing factor between it and other coverages is that you usually employ 3 safety types, with the middle safety of the 3 being more of a safety/linebacker hybrid. It’s not too dissimilar from Tampa 2 in a sense, but while the Mike linebacker usually disguises his assignment by starting shallower before dropping deep in Tampa 2, it’s usually more clear pre-snap with true Invert defenses (think Iowa State) that they’re using 3 safety types dropped.
Now that that’s out of the way, what’s confusing about this quote from Elliott is that, like the great article I hyperlinked above confirms, Brent Venables is known to employ Invert looks in his defense in the past, so it stands to reason that the staff would likely be familiar with how to attack it to some degree from running plays against it with the scout team. What makes it even more confusing as to how coaching was so stumped by the Invert look is that Notre Dame integrated it into their defensive gameplan in BOTH games against us last season, largely due to the all-world talent and flexibility of their safety Kyle Hamilton. Here, let Trevor Lawrence himself tell you how Clemson’s staff planned to attack it last season:
Really awesome to see Lawrence breaking down film. Mentions how when Notre Dame brings Kyle Hamilton into the box, they either send him on a blitz with the linebacker or they did an invert cover 2. Clemson used a bang-8, seam and dig route to beat it. pic.twitter.com/EHPhWiMtzU— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) April 17, 2021
As Quacking Tiger rightly mentioned in his excellent article on Monday, the coaching staff had an extra-long halftime because of the lightning delay and still barely did any better to attack it in the 2nd half.
One adjustment they did make at the half was to involve DJ more in the run game. Yet, with both Dabo and Elliott saying that Tech was dropping 8 into coverage consistently, one has to wonder why this change wasn’t made sooner? Here’s Elliott’s explanation for the hesitance:
Elliott asked if Clemson could have gone to QB run earlier: "Probably could have gotten to QB run maybe a little bit earlier, but we wanted to see if they were going to stick with that structure before we change everything."— Anna Hickey (@AnnaH247) September 19, 2021
This is frustrating for me, because, like many Clemson fans, I’m not aligned with Elliot’s insistence on playing to what the defense is giving us, as opposed to imposing our will on the defense from the outset. Ideally, in my view, a team with the superior talent advantage in nearly every game shouldn’t immediately modulate to what the defense is doing, but rather play to their strengths, only adjusting if the defense proves it can stop them. What’s so frustrating here is that Elliott isn’t even adhering to his own philosophy. The moment it became clear that they’d be lining up in a 3-down look with 8 men in coverage, one would think QB Run, that massive feature of our offense that has been a signature element since Chad Morris initially installed this playbook, would have been one of the immediate adjustments that the staff leaned on. The most significant advantage of running the QB is of course that you gain an extra blocker in the run game, and with an OL performance that was as poor as ours was, it proved that this extra blocker was crucial in the 2nd half when we finally started to lean on it some. Thus, to respond “we wanted to wait and see if their defense would change their look” as Elliott did makes no sense coming from a coach who has as reactive of an outlook as he has about offense.
Execution, execution, execution
At the end of the day, this is what’s going to keep this Clemson offense from becoming something dangerous and prevent it from robbing an elite Clemson defense from tasting glory. We’re still shooting ourselves in the foot on WAY too many plays.
Nearly every run rep I saw featured at least one OL not doing his job. Even more worrying than that, the few reps where everyone was doing their job didn’t always amount to much because our OL couldn’t get any push. A fan naturally hopes that guys start to miss less assignments once they get more reps as the season progresses, but getting pushed around or stood up is not necessarily something that gets fixed by drilling it to death. That tenacity and power is something linemen develop in the offseason, particularly through strength & conditioning.
We are shown a 5-man box that was pretty standard fare for what we saw on early downs all day, yet because we’re so poor at getting push, we let 5 guys clog up the running lanes on this inside zone call, forcing Pace to just fall forward and pray for the best. Meanwhile, let’s check in how an elite line zone blocks:
Carnage. pic.twitter.com/b3YiTmtK72— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) September 8, 2021
Clemson’s execution problems don’t begin and end with the line. I can’t get a good feel for any issues with route running using the broadcast angle, but it’s clear even from the TV copy that the receiving corps needs to step up and do much better at short area blocking and, again, just hitting their assignments.
Here, Clemson lines up in Trips to the field. To me, the playcall seems to be a tunnel screen to either Ngata or Ladson, but instead all 3 receivers end up blocking. Regardless of who it was called to, we can’t have have this.
Moment of Zen
I would like to take the opportunity to end on a positive note, as this article is more acidic than I was hoping the Georgia Tech Film Study article would need to be when looking forward from the vantage of the preseason. I present you with a badass Venables blitz as a palate cleanser:
Hopefully with the Dixon transfer, the Davis Allen promotion, and a week of practice, we get a significantly better effort from the offense this weekend at Carter-Finley stadium. If we don’t, then these cool blitzes from Venables are all we really have to look forward to.
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