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Previewing Alabama vs. Clemson: The Tiger defense

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It all comes down to Alabama and Clemson once again, and this year, it may be the Tigers who hold the defensive edge.

Clemson v Florida State
Clemson’s front seven is as good as they come...the Bama offense will have its hands full.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

For the first several years of Dabo Swinney’s reign over the ACC at Clemson, it was the Tiger offense that proved explosive and dynamic, propelling the team in orange into the last three incarnations of the College Football Playoffs. That said, though the initial focus was on Deshaun Watson and the prolific offense, Clemson has evolved into a defensive powerhouse under defensive coordinator Brent Venables that rivals, and in some ways surpasses, the defensive standard bearer of college football over in Tuscaloosa.

With a solid back half and a front seven that will send many players to the NFL when all is said and done, the Clemson D is not unlike the defensive units that Bama has fielded under Nick Saban. They’re fast, they’re big, they’re relentless. They apply a great deal of pressure at the line of scrimmage, they are physical, and they have a secondary talented enough to allow Venables the latitude to call an aggressive game plan.

Through the 2018 season, it hasn’t always been pretty for the Clemson defense (they struggled mightily with Texas A&M and Syracuse earlier this year), but as the season progressed, they got better and better. The Tiger D put an exclamation point on the season by absolutely shutting down a solid Notre Dame offense in the first round of the playoffs on the way to a 30-3 rout, allowing a mere 250 yards and no touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl.

While Alabama remains one of the nation’s better defenses (ranked 12th in Defensive S&P+), Clemson’s defense is the cream of the college crop in 2018. Statistically, they are a legitimate top-5 unit, ranked second in total defense, first in scoring defense, and first in Defensive S&P+. They are talented, with agile big men up front, large-framed active linebackers, safeties who crash downhill in run support, and above-average talent on the corners. They will be a worthy adversary for Alabama’s electrifying offense, partially because this Clemson defense doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. There are some things they do better than others, of course, but if you asked most coaches in the country if they’d trade their defenses for Dabo Swinney’s, the answer would be a resounding “yes.”

What will Clemson do to accomplish what only Georgia has accomplished this season, namely, limiting the plethora of weapons the Crimson Tide has at its disposal? After all, if Clemson goes all in to stop the Bama running attack, they will leave the likes of Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, Irv Smith, and Henry Ruggs in Man coverage. Sure, the Clemson corners are good, but even the best corners can’t endure that type of gauntlet over four quarters unscathed, as Tua Tagovailoa can take advantage of open receivers on early downs. Do the Tigers aggressively rush the passer and risk falling victim to the Tide’s versatile attack and the chaos of a sniper-accurate quarterback who can extend plays with his legs? There are a lot of bullets in offensive coordinator Mike Locksley’s gun, and in his final game as Bama’s OC one can expect him to empty his magazine.

Clemson’s defense is statistically better than Alabama’s, with a better pass rush unit, better run defense, and a marginally more productive pass defense. They’ve done an excellent job of limiting opponents enough to give their young offense enough room to work comfortably.

Will the Tiger defense be able to force Alabama out of its comfort zone? Will Tua take advantage of Tiger safeties who routinely cheat up in run support by finding backs like Josh Jacobs or the tight ends to create some space and force Clemson to adjust? Can Alabama’s running game wear down the Tigers’ bulky, lumbering front seven and create seams for the short passing game? What new wrinkles has Locksley been keeping in store this season for this very occasion? Have we even seen the best of Alabama’s offense yet?

We’ll see on Monday night. Until then, let’s take a closer look at the Tiger defense…

The Roster

  • DE: Clelin Ferrell, Junior (6-4, 265 pounds) – 49 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, 4 passes broken up, 13 quarterback hurries; Justin Foster, Freshman (6-2, 260 pounds) – 17 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 quarterback hurries, 1 fumble recovery

  • DT: Christian Wilkins, Senior (6-4, 315 pounds) – 53 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 passes broken up, 11 quarterback hurries, 2 fumble recoveries; Jordan Williams, Freshman (6-4, 310 pounds) – 13 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 quarterback hurry; Xavier Kelly, Sophomore (6-4, 270 pounds) – 9 tackles, 1 sack

  • DT: Albert Huggins, Senior (6-3, 315 pounds) – 25 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hurries; Nyles Pinckney, Sophomore (6-1, 300 pounds) – 24 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 4 quarterback hurries, 1 fumble recovery

  • DE: Austin Bryant, Senior (6-6, 280 pounds) – 41 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 8 sacks, 11 quarterback hurries; Xavier Thomas, Freshman (6-2, 260 pounds) – 40 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 passes broken up, 5 quarterback hurries

  • SLB: Isaiah Simmons, Sophomore (6-2, 230 pounds) – 88 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 7 passes broken up, 2 quarterback hurries, 1 interception; Jalen Williams, Senior (5-9, 225 pounds) – 19 tackles, 1 pass broken up, 1 interception

  • MLB Tre Lamar, Junior (6-4, 255 pounds) – 79 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 1 pass broken up, 8 quarterback hurries, 1 interception; Judah Davis, Senior (6-1, 240 pounds) – 11 tackles

  • WLB: Kendall Joseph, Senior (6-0, 235 pounds) – 81 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 2 passes broken up, 9 quarterback hurries; J.D. Davis, Senior (6-1, 230 pounds) – 42 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hurry, 1 interception

  • CB: A.J. Terrell, Sophomore (6-2, 190 pounds) – 45 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 7 passes broken up, 2 interceptions; Mark Fields, Senior (5-10, 180 pounds) – 9 tackles, 4 passes broken up

  • FS: Tanner Muse, Junior (6-1, 230 pounds) – 73 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 4 passes broken up, 3 quarterback hurries, 2 interceptions; Denzel Johnson, Junior (6-0, 205 pounds) – 40 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 3 passes broken up

  • SS: K’Von Wallace, Junior (5-11, 210 pounds) – 50 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 7 passes broken up, 1 quarterback hurry, 1 interception; Nolan Turner, Sophomore (6-1, 205 pounds) – 40 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 3 passes broken up, 1 interception

  • CB: Trayvon Mullen, Junior (6-1, 195 pounds) – 31 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 4 passes broken up, 2 quarterback hurries; Kyler McMichael, Freshman (6-0, 200 pounds) – 2 tackles

How the Clemson Defense Can Stop Alabama

Clemson is one of a handful of teams that has consistently recruited at a high level in the last half- decade, and in that regard, they are well-equipped to deal with the onslaught of talent that Alabama will put on display Monday night. Though many members of that salty 2017 defense are now on NFL rosters, the Tigers field an elite defense that has few weaknesses in personnel. Nowhere is that more obvious than along the defensive front, where Clemson has the perfect combination of strength, size, speed, and athleticism.

The base defense used by Clemson is the 4-3, though it may sometimes resemble a 3-4 due to defensive coordinator Venables’ penchant for lining up three down linemen across front with an upright defensive end. As Saban has said in the past, the scheme that Venables runs is as multiple as the Tide has seen this year, with a variety of looks, personnel groupings, and formations to which Tagovailoa and the line must adjust.

If Clemson is going to have any chance of matching pace with the Tide’s prolific offense, they’re going to have to win the third-down battle. Alabama is second nationally in third-down conversions, earning a first down 53.95 percent of the time. The Clemson third-down defense is equally as salty, however, as they rank fifth in third-down conversion defense, allowing a conversion on 28 percent of attempts. Clemson will try to attack the Tide’s third-down success rate with their most powerful weapon, the defensive line. The Tigers will try to push the Bama line around and disrupt Tagovailoa on early downs to ratchet up the pressure, then bring the heat on third-and-long tries. 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 Tigers will want to prevent Alabama from doing what it did to Oklahoma in the first round, when the Tide was up 28-0 by the end of the first quarter.

While the Venables defense was described as one of the “most multiple” the Tide has seen in 2018 by 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 in his time at Oklahoma), a 4-3 Over with an end in the 9-technique (as he did at Clemson in 2015), or a 4-3 with three down and one up (as he’s done the last three seasons), in all three cases his defenses typically play the run outside-in. Unlike the Auburn defense the Tide faced to end the regular season, a defense which clogged the middle of the field with bodies in hopes of bouncing running backs to the edges where linebacker and defensive back pursuit was used to track down the ball, the Clemson 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 allows second-level defenders to 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 defense. Conceptually, what the Tigers do is similar to what Alabama faced in their regular season game against Mississippi State, 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 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 physical backs like Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, and Najee Harris to power through those second-level run-stoppers with pure physicality (especially if Bama runs Power with a pulling guard and tight end leading through the gap). It’s worked in the past quite well against the Tigers, as Alabama had reasonable success on the ground in previous games against Clemson. Against the Clemson starting linebackers, all three of whom come in at 230+ pounds, that is not a certain win for the punishing Bama backs. Sure, the Tide backs will win their share of collisions, but those hits take their toll on the men in crimson as well. Just because those Clemson ‘backers are wearing orange doesn’t mean they’ll resemble those traffic-cone OU LBs the Tide backs abused in the first round of the playoffs.

Sounds pretty hopeless, huh? There’s good reason to believe that because of Clemson’s ability to defend the run, the Tide will take a decidedly aerial tack this season against the Tiger defense. Alabama has the nation’s best passer in Tagovailoa, and the best receiving corps in the country. And, Clemson’s run defense isn’t to be trifled with. In terms of raw data, the Tigers have the second-ranked rush defense, as they cede only 92.6 yards per game on the ground. That’s a marked improvement over last season, when the Tigers gave up 112+ yards per game. Advanced metrics are even more telling of the Tigers’ run defense, as the Tigers are ranked first in run defense S&P+.

All hope on the ground is not lost, however. Because of the downhill attacking nature of the second-level defenders, an offensive line that can open quick holes. Alabama has a corps of decisive running backs who can hit the holes and get to the second level quickly, which means they 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. For example, Clemson’s safeties typically play in the box, and at the snap they pause, flat-footed, for a moment to make a quick read before flowing towards the action. They attack aggressively. But that aggression can be repurposed by offenses who can mask their true intentions with misdirection or quarterback reads, thus letting the safeties and/ or linebackers run themselves out of the plays.

In other words, Alabama’s offense can let the Clemson 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 it’s not impossible for a Bama offense with elite talent of its own and an RPO-based game plan built to exploit aggressive defenses.

One intriguing possibility for Bama would be the use of the short passing game to serve as a proxy running attack. There are two benefits to that strategy, as it could help neutralize the ferocious Clemson pass rush while attacking what is a liability for the Tiger D in isolating linebackers in underneath coverage.

Because the Clemson linebackers tend to be larger-framed, lumbering LB’s better suited for stopping pro-style offenses, teams such as Syracuse were able to run (and pass) at the edges on them with relative consistency. In fact, the Orange worked the boundaries enough to spread the middle later in the game, opening lanes for RPOs, read option successes, and shovel passes. Alabama under Locksley this year has moved away from many of the zone-read concepts embraced by Lane Kiffin previously in Tuscaloosa, preferring a more straight-forward pro-spread attack that vertically exploits the space created by spread formations and forces defenders to account for every square inch of the field. While one can expect to see Bama’s rugged backs hammer between the tackles a little to keep Clemson honest and draw the safeties into the box, there may also room for Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs to slip the screens and pick up solid first- and second-down gains.

One area of regression for the Clemson defense since the Tide last saw them comes in their ability to squelch big plays. While last year they were ranked second in Iso PPP+ (up from 16th the year before), this year they slid back in that metric of explosive plays allowed to rank ninth. Despite the potency of the pass rush, a regression in the play of the secondary has allowed more long passing plays to develop.

That’s a bad match-up for Clemson, as the Tide’s offensive IsoPPP+ is ranked third. Alabama can strike from anywhere on the field, and with Tua’s arm and a legitimate four-headed homerun receiving threat on every down, it’ll be difficult for Clemson to handle the Tide passing game without employing nickel coverages. When Venables elects to go nickel, it’s usually a safety who shifts as the fifth defensive back. As good as the Clemson safeties are, that is a bad match-up for the Tigers if they get isolated on Jeudy, Ruggs, Jalen Waddle, or the Smiths in Man coverage.

There could also be a chance for the Tide to break some explosive plays on the ground if they can get past the bear-trap of the first level. 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, Jacobs, Harris, and Harris have shown the ability to make defenses pay for vertical over-pursuit, missed tackles and second-level size mismatches as of late, as evidenced in the bushel of 20+ yard runs mounted early in games by those backs this season. As the Clemson defense tires in the second half (especially if Bama can stretch them vertically early on), such big play breaks could become more likely.

Even if the Tide struggles to generate much of a running game early on, Locksley can get Tua and the offense going by giving him plenty of opportunities on first-and second-downs to move the chains with short zippy passes to the flats, into the slot, or anywhere that the spread formations create a little seam. Alabama has elite athletes at receiver, and there’s always a chance that Jeudy, Smith, Waddle, or Ruggs can take a short seven-yard pass for a much bigger gain. Even if they can’t stretch the play, a seven-yard gain on first or second down puts Alabama in a much better position to convert third-downs and keep the chains moving. A short passing game with dedicated running attempts to set up play-action would neutralize the Clemson pass rush and allow Alabama to extend drives. It would also open lanes for the running game as Clemson is forced to dedicate personnel to the underneath receivers, thus turning the Tiger strengths into liabilities.

All that said, there will be plays to be made in the vertical passing game against Clemson’s defensive backs. This year’s unit has taken a step back, though they are still an elite pass defense (ranked 16th in raw data and 4th in Passing S&P+). Though long pass plays aren’t likely, even if the Tide’s longer passing game manifests itself in just a few intermediate passes to take advantage of Clemson’s Man or Quarters coverage, one would think those few chances would give the Tiger safeties pause about pinching the box so forcefully.

Typically, Venables lets his best corner (in this case, Mullen) play Man against the main receiving threat while the remainder of the Tiger secondary goes into pattern-matching coverage 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. The Tigers have no problem giving up short passes, so long as they remain short gains. 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 it’s a strategy made possible by Venables’ trust in Mullen’s solid corner play.

That said, the short passing game is exactly what the Tide needs on first- and second-downs to keep the chains moving. Whether it comes through the air or on the ground, a six- or seven-yard gain sets up success on later downs, and almost as importantly, it prevents negative plays in the form of sacks from Clemson’s dynamic front seven. Tagovailoa will do well to get the ball out quickly on short drops, and let the receivers get what they can get. The Tide can even use such a strategy with an RPO playbook to give the offense a chance to leverage the success of short passes into explosive running plays once Clemson attempts to adjust.

Clemson’s safeties are required to play bracket coverage at times, but they are also a heavy part of the Tiger run defense. Venables loves to load the box on obvious run downs, and with Wallace and behemoth 230-pound safety Tanner Muse, he has two players who are capable of both at a high level. Muse is fourth on the team with 73 tackles to his credit, along with 2.5 tfls (evidence of the way Venables likes to attack opposing running games with the safeties and dial up blitz packages from the second level). Wallace and Muse are both physical presences in the box who are constantly moving downhill at the first sign of a run. The Clemson safeties are nasty, and outside of LSU and Mississippi State, 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 Clemson will be one of the three best defenses the Tide has played this season. They have elite players, excellent coaching, a proven scheme, fantastic size and speed, and veteran leadership. Statistically, they are in the top-5 in most major categories, and their record against premiere offenses indicates Alabama will have quite a hill to climb to execute against this defense.

If the Tigers stop the run, and lock down deep threats to Jeudy, Waddle, and Ruggs (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, say, the LSU 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 offensive might. But the Tigers are their equal on the defensive side of the ball. They are good, and their roster is loaded with legitimately elite talent.

Alabama will likely have a hard time running the ball early against a defense that is built to shut down inside running games. That’s not to say that the Tide running game won’t be able to build momentum and create seams inside as the game wears on. However, as was the case against Auburn, Locksley and the Alabama offense would be better served to find short- and mid-range passing targets out of the RPO playbook (with enough running attempts to keep the Tigers honest) to keep the ball (and more importantly, the chains) moving.

Expect Alabama to test the edges with both the passing and running games. The short area between (and beyond) the tackles may also be fertile ground for short gains, as the Tide’s receivers and backs pose speed mismatches versus the men responsible for defending them in that area. If Tagovailoa can replicate the accuracy of his passing attack against Oklahoma (when he threw more touchdown passes than incompletions), it may be just what Alabama needs to give the Tiger defenders pause.

And running to the edges should pay dividends, as previous Clemson opponents showed the Tigers can be exploited on the ground on the perimeter. Success on the edges will breed future success for the backs later on in the middle, as success outside will force the Tigers to adapt and flex their slower personnel towards the sidelines to offset Bama’s explosiveness. In the early going, this may be enough to keep the chains moving while providing the Bama defense with the time needed to adapt to (and potentially recover from) the explosive Clemson offensive attack.

If Alabama makes it a point to attack the edges, and can break through the Tiger attempts to set the edge, the Tiger run defense could be pressed outside of its comfort zone. The whole Clemson run defense philosophy is predicated on defensive ends setting and holding the edge to force the run inside so that the big men in the middle can hold set and conserve energy. Once Alabama stretches the front out and wears it down, the Tide’s power and zone looks could become Bama’s running game hammer. If Jonah Williams, Lester Cotton, and Ross Pierschbacher can attack the left side (or conversely, Jedrick Wills and Alex Leatherwood on the right) and pin the end inside (or even seal him outside), the speedy but physical Bama backs can have success running through safeties and around linebackers.

Finally, expect run-pass options to figure more heavily in the Alabama game plan than they have for most of the season. Alabama was RPO heavy under Kiffin, but recoiled from the practice during former coordinator Brian Daboll’s tenure. This year, with Tua as the trigger man, the RPOs are back, and they provide Alabama with a dynamic tool for adjusting in real time and letting the QB create an advantage on every down. The importance of the RPOs against Clemson is that it will allow Alabama to wield some of the Tigers’ aggressiveness against them. Unlike some defenses which rely 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 concurrently blocking a running play while at the same time running a pass play route tree. Only the quarterback knows which of the two (or three) packaged plays is the real play, and he makes that decision after the snap depending on what he sees from the defense.

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. When combined with the play-action obfuscation of Tagovailoa’s game, the uncertainty created by RPOs can further enhance the Tide’s offensive mystery. Simply put, anything that breeds hesitation and slows Clemson’s D down will work to Bama’s advantage.

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, picking up solid gains on first- and second-downs, stretching drives, and working the clock and field position. As Saban has said in the past, a successful drive is one that ends in a kick.

Alabama’s offense not only has the task of keeping pace with Clemson on the scoreboard, but they can also help the defense by keeping the potent Tiger offense off the field. 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. 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: potent, methodical offense, capitalizing on big plays when they present themselves, stretching Clemson’s front from sideline to sideline with both run and pass, winning the turnover battle, and stretching the field vertically with explosive plays.