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Previewing Alabama vs. Clemson: The Tiger defense

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While Clemson's offense may be the more heralded of the two units, Brent Venables defense cannot be underestimated

The Clemson defense is stingy against the run...as Oklahoma found out.
The Clemson defense is stingy against the run...as Oklahoma found out.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In the era of defensive S&P+ rankings (2005-present), few defensive coaches can claim the kind of success that current Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has enjoyed. Between his previous stop in Norman with the Oklahoma Sooners, or his current post as DeCo of the championship-contending Clemson Tigers, Venables has fielded an S&P+ top-10 team in seven of those ten seasons. In the other three seasons, Venables-led defenses finished no worse than 34th.

While it is Clemson's offense, led by dual-threat Heisman finalist quarterback Deshaun Watson, that most football fans perceive as the strength of the Tiger team in 2015, it is the defense that has truly separated this year's edition of the Tigers from seasons past. Sure, Clemson can hang points on the scoreboard. But now, they have a defense capable of stopping most comers, as evidenced by a flawless record in 2015.

Though some would question the quality of opponent in the ACC, there's no mistaking the defensive prowess the Tigers wield. Both extremely talented and well-coached, this defense will be one of the toughest units the Tide offense has faced this season, regardless of home conference. Whether one looks at stats, records against high-performing units, or the simple eye-test, Clemson's defense can possibly take every punch the Tide can throw offensively.

There's nothing tremendously unique about the scheme Venables has installed this year. After losing five former defensive starters to the NFL in 2014, many figured 2015 as a rebuilding year for a defense that finished second in S&P+ last season. But with a few tweaks to his tried-and-true system and the emergence of top-flight talent, this year's Clemson defense may be the best one Venables has coached in his career.

While true the defense has a few weaknesses schematically and in regard to personnel, there is no question that Alabama's offense will be tested yet again. Alabama's offense has already bested some of the nation's top defensive teams in 2015 (Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida and Michigan State, to name a few), what Clemson brings to the table is a different animal altogether. With size, elite speed and a winning scheme, Lane Kiffin and the Alabama offense will need to be nearly flawless in playcalling and execution to gain (and hold) the upper hand against a salty Tiger D.

Can Kiffin and Company crack the code of the Clemson defense just as they've done against past opponents for most of 2015? Or will Alabama struggle early and fall into a pit from which they'll find it difficult to emerge? Can Alabama's offense do what it takes to keep pace with Clemson's high-flying offensive attack? Those questions will be answered Monday night.

Until then, let's take a closer look...

The Roster

Clemson is one of the few ACC teams (outside of Tallahassee) that recruits at the level of an SEC powerhouse. That said, the Tiger roster is loaded with a first string of talented, elite players in each unit, and Venables will once again likely have the unenviable task of replacing a passel of future NFL players at the conclusion of the 2015 season.

While the Clemson defense may not feature a ton of premiere names, one such superstar in the making is junior defensive end Shaq Lawson (6-3, 272 pounds). An elite end who fits perfectly into the defense as an edge-setter and run-forcer, Lawson has had a tremendous year in 2015, statistically speaking, with 56 tackles, a team-leading 23.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. Lawson is athletic and large, and he's proven himself adept at battling offensive tackles to a stalemate, at worst, or just plain bull-dozering them at best. (It's of note that Lawson was previously injured and will likely not be at 100 percent for the championship game, though most sources seem to agree that he will definitely start for the Tiger defense).

In a Clemson run defense that is built around playing the run outside-in, Lawson and fellow junior end Kevin Dodd (6-5, 268 pounds) excel at becoming insurmountable obstacles book-ending the line of scrimmage, forcing opposing running backs into the teeth of the Tiger defense. Dodd, though the lesser acclaimed of the two ends, has had a great 2015 as well, compiling 55 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks. (While the ends are excellent versus the run, it's also worth nothing those sack numbers, as both men are ferocious in the pass rush and know how to maximize leverage against opposing offensive tackles.)

In the middle of the Clemson defensive line, Venables has a reliable pair of run-stuffers built for his outside-in philosophy. Senior tackle D.J. Reader is quite simply a mountain of run-stopping man at 6-2, 321 pounds, and though his stats don't necessarily reflect it (only nine tackles in 2015), he is the heavyweight pivot point in the center of the Tiger defense. Reader and fellow junior tackle Carlos Watkins (6-3, 296 pounds) create a nearly impenetrable wall in the interior of the first-level, locking down offensive linemen and taking on double-teams to free up gap-shooting linebackers and safeties. Watkins has emerged as an athletic force in 2015, posting 32 tackles, 6.5 tfls, 3.5 sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown (if you can imagine that.)

The Tiger linebacker corps is excellent, as was evidenced by their play versus the Oklahoma Sooners in the first round of the playoffs. The Clemson linebackers appeared to be all over the field, reading and reacting, flying to the football and showing solid tackling fundamentals. In the Venables defense v.2015, the linebackers and safeties are charged with flying downhill into interior gaps, and the starting trio of backers fits that bill by playing fast and flexing aggressiveness to meet running backs at the line of scrimmage.

The best of the group is arguably senior Mike linebacker B.J. Goodson (6-0, 245 pounds), who leads the team in tackles with 98 (along with 14 tfls, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery). Goodson is the heart of the Tiger defense, and though athletic, he is tailor-made physically for the role he is asked to play in the Clemson defense. With sizable bulk and a low center of gravity, Goodson is one of a few linebackers who can physically match-up with Alabama running back Derrick Henry in size and physicality, and his downhill, attacking style of play could make for explosive collisions with the Heisman Trophy winner.

Junior Will linebacker B.J. Boulware (79 tackles, eight tfls, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions) has materialized as one of the better defenders in the ACC as well, with great run-stopping physical measurables and the athletic ability to remain above-average in coverage. Boulware roams the field, head-hunting and looking for opportunities to make big plays. Along with Goodson, the Tigers have two second-level defenders who have the size and athleticism to match up with Henry, unlike many previous cases in which the large-framed Alabama back has physically dominated opposing linebackers.

At the Sam position, the Tigers use a hybrid linebacker-safety who brings more quickness and an aggressive pursuit element to the position and gives Venables a speed blitz option who can play sideline to sideline if necessary. Junior Travis Blanks (6-0, 211 pounds), a converted safety, has filled the role in 2015 at a high-level, accruing 32 tackles and giving the Tiger linebacking corps great versatility for confronting a variety of offensive styles.

The Tiger secondary is nothing short of phenomenal, thanks in no small part to the play of All-American sophomore corner MacKensie Alexander (5-10, 189 pounds). While Alexander isn't the biggest defensive back, he has a skill set that most larger corners would covet. Great speed, solid intuition, good hips, a physical style of play, technical mastery...these are all facets of good defensive back play which Alexander possesses. While Alexander has only picked up 21 tackles in 2015, that is largely a function of the fact that opposing offensives scheme around him, as he is often dedicated to locking down an offense's best receiver and rendering him useless. This will be discussed in more depth later, but Alexander is the kind of player who really frees the hands of a defensive coordinator in regard to blitzes and style of play in the front seven. He can be depended upon to be nearly flawless in man coverage, and he can help make an offense one-dimensional with his play alone.

While Alexander is a future NFL talent, his running mate, junior Cordrea Tankersley (6-1, 195 pounds) is certainly not chopped liver. With prototypical corner size and speed, Tankersley is the clean-up man who can be locked onto an opponent's second most effective receiving threat with confidence. Tankersley is a versatile defender who contributes to the success of the Tiger defense in a number of ways, whether through supporting the run (he has 44 tackles totaling 2015) or through big-play opportunism (he has five interceptions, including a pick-six, this season). While offenses will shy away from Alexander first and foremost, throwing against Tankersley has proven a risky endeavor for more than one opponent this season.

Clemson's safeties are required to play bracket coverage at times with Tankersley, but they are also a heavy part of the Tiger run defense. Venables loves to load the box on obvious run downs, and with junior strong safety Jayron Kearse (6-4, 224 pounds) and free safety T.J. Green (6-3, 203 pounds), he has two players who are capable of doing both at a high level. Green is second on the team with 84 tackles to his credit, along with 5.5 tfls (evidence of the way Venables likes to attack opposing running games with the safeties and dial up blitz packages from the second level). Kearse is a physical presence in the box, a linebacker-sized athlete who has accrued 60 tackles, 6.5 tfls, an interception and a fumble recovery. The Clemson safeties are nasty, and outside of Ole Miss, Alabama has not played a pair of safeties who are as adept against both pass and run as the two Tigers they'll face Monday evening.

It's safe to say that if any team Bama has played can match the Tide's own defense in talent, it's the unit sported by Clemson. They have elite players, excellent coaching, a proven scheme, fantastic size and speed, and veteran leadership. Statistically, they are in the top-10 in most major categories, and their record against premiere offenses indicates Alabama will have quite a hill to climb to execute against this defense.

There is one caveat, for those of you looking for a ray of sunshine...If there's one roster weakness for the Tigers, it would be the lack of experienced, veteran depth. While there is plenty of seniority peppered into the starting line-up, among second-string defenders, there are six true or redshirt freshmen, and four true or redshirt sophomores. As the game wears on and the Clemson defense tires, the Alabama offense may find more and more creases to exploit.

The S&P+ numbers broke down by quarter bear out that truth, as when comparing Clemson's defensive rating to Alabama's offensive rating by quarter, Clemson goes from a +23 in the first quarter to a -40 in the fourth. In other words (for the non-mathematically inclined among you), while Clemson's defense is likely to start strong against the Tide offense, the fourth quarter could see Alabama make hay against a tiring Tiger unit. (Just tuck that in the back of your mind for Monday's game, mmm-kay?)

How the Clemson Defense Can Stop Alabama

As mentioned above, if Clemson is going to stymy the Alabama offense, they are likely going to do it early. This could be a recipe for a Tiger victory if it is combined with an explosive offensive effort from Clemson in the first half of the game. The Tide is not a team built to come back from large deficits per se, but rather to lead or stay close to opponents in the first half before pulling away with superior depth and conditioning in the second.

While the Venables defense in 2015 was described as one of the "most multiple" the Tide has seen in 2015 by none other than Nick Saban, the Tigers' underlying defensive philosophy is rather simple. First, stop the run on early downs, and force third and longs. Second, use elite defensive back talent (or a coverage scheme that accommodates for a lack thereof) to lock down an opponent's best wide receiver, freeing the remainder of the defense to concentrate on limiting short passing gains.

Venables likes to accomplish these goals by using a 4-3 front primarily, and whether that front involves a 4-3 Under with a down linebacker playing 9-technique (as he did at Oklahoma), or a 4-3 Over with an end in the 9-technique (as he has done at Clemson in 2015), in both cases his defenses play the run outside-in. Unlike the Michigan State defense the Tide faced in the previous round of the playoffs, a defense which clogged the middle of the field with bodies in hopes of bouncing running backs to the edges where pursuit was used to track down the ball, the Tiger defense sets a hard edge and forces running backs inside. There, defensive linemen are charged with occupying double-teams from offensive linemen so that linebackers and safeties in the box can flow and attack downhill in the middle of the field, popping running backs at the line of scrimmage.

This strategy, in its conception, is not unlike the run defense that Alabama saw during the regular season versus Arkansas. Another outside-in defense, Razorback second-level defenders could play instinctively, reading and attacking gaps at full speed while athletic defensive ends set the edge and forced the run into the thick of the Razorback defense. Conceptually, what the Tigers do is somewhat similar to what Alabama faced in the game against Arkansas, though Clemson admittedly has far more talent defensively.

This strategy makes it extremely difficult for offensive linemen to double-team Tiger defenders. In essence, linemen must walk a timing tight-rope that can have disastrous results if misplayed. If the linemen release their first-level blocks too early in order to get to the crashing linebackers and safeties, they risk tackles for loss from the released defensive linemen. Hold on to those first-level blocks for too long, and the linebackers and safeties come crashing through the front like Vandals at the gates of Rome. In many cases, one would expect Henry to power through those second-level run-stoppers with pure physicality. But against the Clemson linebackers, two of whom come in at 240+ pounds, that is not a certain win for the big Bama back. Sure, he'll win his share of collisions, but they'll take their toll on him as well.

Sounds pretty hopeless, huh? Not so fast. While a tough run defense to handle, it does have its inherent weaknesses. Because of the downhill attacking nature of the second-level defenders, and offensive line that can open quick holes, along with a decisive running back who can hit the holes and get to the second level quickly, can have success running the ball against Clemson in quick, gashing fashion. The other way to exploit the Clemson defense is to use formations, shifts and counters to create misdirection among second-level defenders. In other words, let the defense read and begin to attack, then change the grain of the play's action to use their aggressiveness against them. Easier said than done, of course, as Clemson has elite athletic talent. But not impossible for a Bama offense with elite talent of its own.

Also, the kind of fast-breaking defensive attack employed by Clemson is susceptible to the big play in the running game. Because the second-level players attempt to attack at the line of scrimmage and get upfield quickly, if a running back manages to break through the first-level cluster, he often finds only defensive backs in his way en route to the end zone. Fortunately for Alabama, Henry has shown the ability to make defenses pay for vertical over-pursuit, missed tackles and second-level size mismatches all season long, as evidenced in his bushel of 20+ yard touchdown runs this season. As the Clemson defense tires in the second half, such big play breaks could become more likely, as Henry seems to get stronger as opposing defenses tire.

So say that Clemson is successful in stopping the run...what next? Against Michigan State, Alabama anticipated the tough running between the tackles and game-planned around the Spartan strength, spreading passes to the edges, taking shots downfield and otherwise stretching a defense that is far more comfortable playing in a phone booth. The results were devastating for the Spartans: while Henry was held under 100 yards for one of the few times this season, quarterback Jake Coker and receiver Calvin Ridley exposed the MSU secondary with a precise edge passing game and a legitimate deep threat.

While such a strategy was successful against the Spartan secondary, in all fairness, Clemson's secondary is a league above the one fielded by Sparty this season. The primary difference is that MSU had no Alexander, a player who can effectively shut down half of the field in the passing game while robbing an offense of its most explosive playmaker. Make no mistake about it, Venables and his staff have watched no shortage of footage on Ridley, and he will likely have Alexander in his back-pocket all evening long. Alexander is one of the few defensive backs Alabama has faced this season who can effectively combat what Ridley does best and minimize his impact on the game. Sure, Ridley is a transcendent offensive player who has shown the ability to make plays regardless of competition. But Alexander is that same kind of defensive player, and the battle between the two skill players could well spell the tale of this game when Bama has the ball.

Let's assume that Alexander limits Ridley in catches and yardage...who becomes the Tide's primary receiving target? Likely ArDarius Stewart, Richard Mullaney, O.J. Howard, or some combination of the three. This would not be a bad thing against the Tiger defense. While Venables lets Alexander play man against the main receiving threat, the remainder of the Tiger secondary goes into pattern-matching coverage in an effort to seal off the deep threat while allowing short passes underneath that are well-defended. Unlike a lot of Cover 3 defenses which will instinctively put a linebacker on a running back in coverage, the Clemson defense will take sure tackling over the possibility of tight coverage. To that end, passes are completed into loose coverage underneath, but there are no broken tackles that lead to YAC because linebackers are focused on what they do best - tackling - rather than coverage.  In other words, Clemson will give up the short throws, but will keep plenty of defenders in the area to wrap up and make tackles, thus limiting gains and yards after catch. It's frustratingly simple, and a strategy made possible by Alexander's stellar corner play.

If the Tigers stop the run, and lock down Ridley (neither of which will be easy), the Tide could conceivably be forced to keep the offense alive on short passes to the edge and over the middle on quick-developing routes. Unlike the MSU defense, which could be effectively stretched to the point of uncomfortability, Clemson is content to spread out a little and allow short stuff while sealing off all hope of a big play in the passing game.

The Result

Quite simply, Alabama will face its tallest task of the season in conquering a ferocious Clemson defense. Everyone knows about Alabama's defensive might. But the Tigers aren't far behind, ranked sixth nationally in total defense, second in third-down defense, ninth in pass defense and 18th in run defense. They are good, and unlike the team the Tide faced in the first round of the playoffs, their roster is loaded with elite talent.

Expect the aforementioned S&P+ forecast to hold true to a degree. Alabama will likely have a hard time running the ball against a defense that is built to attack pro-style running games like the Tide's. That's not to say that Henry won't be able to build momentum as the game wears on. However, as was the case against Michigan State, Lane Kiffin and the Alabama offense would be better served to find safe, high-percentage passing targets for Coker to keep the ball (and more importantly, the chains) moving. One has to suppose that Kiffin has poked and prodded his way through tons of Clemson film looking for tendencies and weaknesses. If his game plan against MSU is any indication, one can only assume that the Tide's offense in the early going will attack Clemson where it is weakest, while gathering intelligence on their defensive response.

Expect Alabama to test the edges with the passing game, particularly away from Alexander. The short area between (and beyond) the tackles may also be fertile ground for short gains, as Mullaney and Howard pose size mismatches (particularly in terms of height) versus the men responsible for defending them. In the early going, this may be enough to keep the chains moving while providing the Bama defense with the time needed to adapt (and potentially recover from) the explosive Clemson offensive attack.

One other weapon may help the Tide wage war in the running game against the Clemson defense. While the Tiger ends are fantastic, Lawson is dinged up. If Alabama makes it a point to attack the edges with a little outside zone and break through the Tiger attempts to set the edge, the Tiger run defense could come apart at the stitches. The whole Clemson run defense philosophy is predicated on defensive ends setting and holding the edge to force the run inside. If Cam Robinson and Ross Pierschbacher can attack the left side (or conversely, Dominick Jackson and Alfonse Taylor on the right) and pin the end inside (or even seal him outside), Henry could have a field day running through and around linebackers and safeties.

Finally, expect run-pass options to figure heavily in the Alabama game plan. As the season has worn on, Coker has become more comfortable with making RPO decisions (and the coaching staff has become more comfortable with the same). Unlike the MSU defense which relied on simple pre-snap keys to determine defender responsibility, Clemson employs the more widely used "reads." A defender makes his read to predict the offensive play and determine responsibility, then he executes by a pre-determined plan in synchronicity with his fellow defenders.

RPOs disrupt that by allowing the offense to effectively run two plays at once, such as a blocking a running play while at the same time running a pass play route tree. Only the quarterback knows which is the real play, and he may even make that decision after the snap. This makes it incredibly difficult for a defense to read and play fast. The defense can either continue to read and react, and risk the big play or blown assignment. Or, it can slow down the attack to get a more accurate read, thus limiting the effectiveness of an aggressive downhill defense like the one used by Clemson. Either outcome would benefit Alabama, so expect the invisible hand of RPOs to heavily color the offensive game plan for the Tide. You, the observer, may not even see it happening, but what Coker does between his ears could be more important than what he does with his arm against the Tiger defense.

The Tide offense versus the Tiger defense is not the best of match-ups for Alabama stylistically speaking, but the problems posed by Clemson are not so great that they cannot be overcome. The primary goal for the Tide early on will be holding onto the ball and stretching drives. Scoring is of the utmost importance, to be sure, but any long drive that gives Alabama a field-position and time-of-possession advantage is a win for the Tide. Alabama can likely plant its flag on the fourth quarter, so as long as the Tide defense has done its job and the offense has held onto the ball, the prospects for victory are definitely good for Alabama.

If, however, Bama cannot get positive yardage on first downs, cannot convert third downs, or turns the ball over...well, that will result in a different ball game altogether. The Tide defense will want to make Clemson's offense work for their gains, and their job becomes harder if the Bama offense is locked in an infinite loop of three-and-outs. Even the best defenses tire, and the Tigers have an offense potent enough to do considerable damage.

For Alabama, victory will rise from the following ingredients: ball-control offense, winning the time-of-possession, winning the turnover battle and doing enough offensively to keep the game close early. Can the Tice offense bake that cake? Time will tell.