And then there was one.
One game is all we have left in the 2015 college football season, and thankfully it happens to be the most important, the national championship game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers.
There was plenty of talk all year about teams, conferences, opponents, rankings and everything else under the sun when predicting how we could get the best two teams in the country to play for the title, and this year I think the system got it right — even though if you argued Ohio State was one of the four most talented teams in the country, I wouldn’t disagree.
Both Alabama and Clemson put on impressive performances in their semifinal games largely because of a team characteristic the two schools share: dominance in the trenches. I’ll be honest and say I did pick Oklahoma to win its game against Clemson, but after watching that game for the first 20 minutes, I knew I had made the wrong choice. The reason for that wasn’t due to the score at the time. It was because I could see the final writing on the wall thanks to Clemson’s defensive line imposing its will on the Sooners’ offensive line.
That leads us to ask, can Clemson’s defensive front generate the same type of pocket pressure against Alabama? To answer that, let’s dive into some of the tape from both teams and formulate of good prediction of what we might see and how effective it will be.
We saw Clemson play out of a lot of different formations during the Orange Bowl. In the screenshot above, we’re looking at a 3-2-6 formation (three defensive linemen, two linebackers, six defensive backs) with the strong safety playing up in the box. The reason I highlighted this play here is to get it out of the way and tell you this is not what you will be seeing in the national championship.
This kind of formation is built to counter speed plays designed to the sideline such as wide receiver screens or running back sweeps. Though Alabama does run those kinds of plays occasionally, Clemson can’t sell out with six defensive backs like it did here because of Derrick Henry’s threat to run up the middle.
This is more of what we’re going to see from Clemson. Four down linemen with their hands in the ground with press coverage on the outside, a single high safety and added pressure/spy from one of the linebackers.
Clemson uses its cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley as island corners meaning the single-high safety playing cover 1 is the only help they’re going to get. The rest of the defense is going to be focused on the box, thus where we begin our breakdown.
Our main focus of the piece is how Clemson’s front four and the linebackers behind them can work together to contain and pressure Alabama’s stout offensive line. To predict that, we go to a previous foe of the Crimson Tide’s from earlier this year, the Tennessee Volunteers.
Stunting is a habit
Being able to generate pressure with just four pass rushers is not easy against Alabama’s offensive line, but in the vine above, we saw a good example of how something like that can happen.
For one, it takes good snap reaction. Watch the play again and notice how Tennessee’s defensive tackle toward the top of the screen got off the ball and into both the left guard and the left tackle immediately. This left no time for an adjustment by the left guard or the center for the incoming stunt blitz from the defensive end, and Alabama quarterback Jacob Coker was forced to throw the ball away.
This is something we could see Clemson try to utilize with its star defensive end Shaq Lawson, if he’s physically able to play. Don’t expect Clemson to use it every time, but a key stunt blitz here and there has the chance to shut down drives because they usually go for bigger losses. If Clemson wants to get Lawson involved early (it does), look for the Tigers to generate a one-on-one with a stunt blitz in the first drive or two. Those have shown success versus Alabama when playing four bigger defensive linemen.
Traditionally we see stunt blitzes used from the defensive end position as seen in the first vine, but this second vine showed Tennessee’s focus again to force Alabama’s bigger, stronger offensive linemen to constantly slide their feet at incoming pressure.
It’s a play that overwhelmed Alabama in a few ways, but if the linebacker who made the play didn’t stunt his blitz, Coker most likely would’ve had the time to at least get rid of the ball. Lateral movement has given Alabama trouble in the past, and though the Crimson Tide’s line is more experienced against it now, good linebacker blitzing can lead to negative plays no matter who you play.
That leads us to our final, and most important point: How Clemson will handle Alabama’s run game when it sends lineman across the trenches?
Countering the Counter
Where Alabama has really hurt opposing defenses this season is when it moves its offensive linemen as lead blockers as shown above. Running power straight up the middle can have some success, but when the defense commits six or more players to the inside of the trench, bouncing linemen and even tight ends to the outside on counter runs has resulted in quite a few big plays, especially with a back like Henry.
They way you beat that is with good, instinctive linebacker play, something else Tennessee gave us an example of a few times.
Vols linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin is one of the more explosive tacklers in the conference, and he certainly showed it in the play above. The way you negate a counter play is by beating those moving blockers to their gap. When you do that, you have a chance to get Henry one-on-one before he’s ready.
Though Clemson doesn’t have an athlete like Revees-Maybin in its linebacker corps, the Tigers do have a player who has been getting better as the year has progressed, linebacker B.J. Goodson.
Just last game Goodson gave us an example of how a defense can counter moving linemen. Though I really don’t like the design of this blocking scheme at all, Goodson still provided his side of the example of how instant pressure can expose a weak spot.
When Alabama runs plays like this, Goodson has to have the pursuit speed to catch Henry from behind before he gets out of the backfield. If he can’t, we see plays like this one:
In this play, we saw Reeves-Maybin hesitate to the open gap, then get caught in no-man’s land as Henry and lineman Cam Robinson became wrecking balls to the outside. This play was early in the game. It was the first time Reeves-Maybin had seen the Tide move an offensive linemen on a play to the outside. Tigers’ linebacker Goodson cannot afford to play the “I didn’t know” card in the title game. He has to recognize these types of opportunities from the get-go.
Alabama is going to get creative with how it moves its offensive linemen. The Crimson Tide know Clemson’s front four is going to come after them in similar ways to how the Volunteers did, but Clemson is going to have to do its homework to find hints at when a counter play may be coming.
It’s a game of intelligence just as it is brawn, and they call it a chess match between coordinators for a reason. The only difference here is instead of pawns, coordinators are moving giant, 300-pound men up and down a 100-yard field.