Earlier this week we highlighted a few defensive similarities between the Clemson Tigers and Tennessee Volunteers, noting how Tennessee gave Alabama a bit of trouble when those two faced off in conference play.
Now we’re going to switch sides of the ball to examine a different key matchup for the national championship. The question at hand: How will Alabama defend Clemson’s top red-zone target, tight end Jordan Leggett?
This season, Leggett has recorded 35 catches for 447 yards and seven touchdowns, many of which have come from within the opponent’s 20-yard line. At 6-foot-5, Leggett presents a difficult matchup, not just in a physical sense, but in an athletic sense as he scores touchdowns lining up at the line of scrimmage, in the backfield and out wide in the slot.
We’ll break down a few of Leggett’s different uses throughout the year, and as we breakdown each play, we’ll try to predict how Alabama will cover him using different assignments and personnel.
Leggett’s biggest threat as a pass-catcher occurs when he’s off the line of scrimmage (meaning not in that traditional tight end spot). In the play above, we saw him lined up in what the defense assumes is going to be a lead blocking role. Instead he takes off and finds an opening thanks to the play action.
Clemson’s read-option attack only boosts Leggett’s potential usage in the red zone. The Tigers don’t do much substituting on offense due to their no-huddle strategy which means Leggett’s role cannot be purely receiving. Since he’s also used as a blocker, moving up into traffic like in the play above confused the defense and allowed him to find open space as the defense fell for quarterback Deshaun Watson’s fake.
I don’t expect Alabama to have these kind of miscues simply because the Tide’s defense does not require its players to all focus in on run or pass; they are good enough to split the defense knowing the front six or seven can handle the run and the secondary can handle the pass with little initial help from the other group. This avoids defensive players lining up in mismatches, a key part of why receiving tight ends are often thought of as X-factors.
When you have a defensive back assigned to a tight end, it mostly means they’re vulnerable to strength and height. When you have a linebacker on a tight end, it means they’re vulnerable to speed.
In the example above, we saw Leggett take advantage of being matched up one-on-one with a linebacker. With no safety help in the red zone, the fade route worked to perfection when combined with the inside slant from the outside receiver. Even if there was no contact between the receiver and linebacker, there wasn’t much chance of stopping Leggett.
But Boston College doomed itself on this play before it even began due to how the Eagles lined up. Despite not much else to write home about, Oklahoma actually gave Alabama a pretty good blueprint as to how it can prevent Leggett from scoring like that in the red zone using situational awareness and correct play-calling.
From inside the 15-yard line, this is how you defend Leggett: Cover 7. Cover 7 is when all five defensive backs and both linebackers are dropped back into tiered zone coverage. The front zone contains everything before the first down, or goal line. Due to the capped space along the back of the end zone, the two deep safeties can play just behind those zones leaving little room for soft spots (areas of no coverage). That’s one effective way of preventing Leggett from finding a soft spot or a mismatch. Here’s a view that shows Leggett’s full route.
At no point was he open during this route, and yet Watson tried to force him the ball. On plays that are designed to give Leggett the football, there isn’t really a safe second read anywhere nearby because of the nature of making him the main option. Normally, Clemson is trying to get Leggett as much space as possible. The more space he has, the more room there is for him to use his height and length to his advantage. That leaves plays like the one above … touchdown-or-bust, in a sense.
Here’s another example from the end of the half:
There was absolutely no reason for Watson to throw this ball here, but it hints at the kind of confidence he has in Leggett, and how he doesn’t have a problem giving his guy a 50-50 chance on those touchdown-or-bust plays — I’m sure head coach Dabo Swinney had a problem with it after this throw.
The play above wasn’t in the red zone, but it did show Alabama in Cover 7. I chose to highlight the Arkansas game because Razorbacks’ tight end Hunter Henry’s usage will be similar to how Clemson uses Jordan Leggett (the Tide held Henry to one catch for 18 yards that game).
It’s tough to make out the numbers, but that’s defensive back Cyrus Jones matched up with Henry. The all zone coverage has a few advantages. First, it allows Jones to start about seven yards off the line of scrimmage, which prevents him from getting overpowered by the bigger Henry if he had lined up in press coverage. Second, it let’s Jones keep his eyes toward the ball (quarterback) and anticipate a throw rather than guess at it with his back turned in man coverage. Combine those elements with Alabama’s quick pass rush and you get a forced throw that Jones already had a great break on. I expect Alabama to attack Clemson with the same philosophy using Cover 7 as its go-to for red-zone plays.
When it comes to tight end coverage, avoiding mismatches is the end goal. I think Alabama sets itself up well to counter Leggett better than any team Clemson has faced thus far. That’s not to say Leggett may not break away for a big catch or two, but I don’t see the Tide letting this X-factor decide the game.