Through the first seven games of the season, Clemson has allowed 18 sacks, which ranks 10th in the ACC and 108th nationally. It is only natural to speculate there must be something wrong with the offensive line. However, that’s not the case with Clemson.
After going back and examining each sack to see exactly where the breakdowns are at, the Clemson coaches have discovered that just four and a half of those were due to breakdowns on the offensive line. The other 13 and half were charged to either the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends or the quarterback himself.
Last week, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney made it a point, when talking to his coaches, that they must find a way to protect the quarterback better. In order to do that, they had to figure out where the breakdowns were coming from.
“We wanted to put ownership where the ownership lied,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said on Monday. “A lot of times when you see eighteen sacks, it is all on the offensive line, but really the offensive line was responsible four and a half of those. My running backs were involved in three and a half of those.”
One of those three and a half sacks charged to the running backs came at Syracuse when Travis Etienne missed read the blitz and went after the wrong guy.
“It was a missed assignment by me,” he said. “I was lined up on the left side and I was thinking I had the left backer, and I was tracking him and the center grabbed him, then the backer from the right side came flying by me. I saw him, but it was too late. He was already at full speed.”
Etienne’s misread led to a sack and an 8-yard loss pushing the ball from the Syracuse 19 to the 27. Two plays later, on fourth down, Alex Spence missed on a 39-yard field goal attempt.
With quarterback Kelly Bryant getting banged up the last couple of weeks, the coaches emphasized during last week’s practices that the quarterbacks have to be protected. They have to stop allowing the quarterback to be hit so often.
“It is important,” center Justin Falcinelli said. “A lot of time it is not our fault and a lot of times is, so as an entire team, it is something we need to improve on. It something we have been working really hard on. Most of it is just communication. It’s knowing the assignments and getting that communicate to everybody.”
An example of that breakdown in communication again came in the Syracuse loss, a game in which the Tigers allowed four sacks, the third time this season they have done such. Cooper got sacked when he was looking to throw an outlet screen and wide receiver Deon Cain did not run the route. Cooper had no choice but to take the sack.
“It was not quite as bad once we broke it down and saw where the ownership was,” Elliott said. “I have to do a better job sometimes of putting them in better situations as a player caller, too. I can slow down and get a tip and maybe not get a particular call in that situation so there is some ownership on my part to do better.”
Elliott said they also saw some technique issues, which can be fixed.
“It wasn’t like we flat out missed targets, we just had some breakdowns,” he said. “I think about one where (Taylor) Hearn was out there at left tackle and he does not kick wide enough and the guy runs by him and gets a sack.
“We’re really focusing in on the details of our technique in pass protection. I have to do a better job of situationally helping those guys. My backs have to do a better job of stepping up and being physical in pass protection, so it is all across the board.”