Clemson still working to limit teams' explosiveness through the air

Clemson still working to limit teams' explosiveness through the air

Football

Clemson still working to limit teams' explosiveness through the air

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Asked what he liked about Clemson’s defensive performance against Louisiana Tech last week, Mickey Conn started with a positive in the Tigers’ pass coverage.

“I’d say covering screens. That’d be the first thing,” said Conn, Clemson’s co-defensive coordinator. “We did terrible on screens against Georgia Tech and Furman, but we’ve improved on that.”

Yet there’s still plenty of work for Clemson to do when it comes to slowing offenses down through the air.

While Furman threw for 259 yards by primarily utilizing quick passes and the screen game, Tech’s Air Raid offense mixed in plenty of passes that stretched Clemson’s defense vertically. Though he completed just 53% of his passes, Parker McNeil needed just 23 completions to accumulate 311 yards passing for the Bulldogs, who’ve thrown for more yards than any team against Clemson so far.

That was with the Tigers playing primarily in a nickel package (five defensive backs) in an attempt to better match up with the personnel of a pass-happy Tech offense that attempted 43 passes, also the most the Tigers have seen from an offense this season. Clemson still allowed eight pass plays of at least 19 yards.

Conn, who also coaches Clemson’s safeties, said many of the issues in coverage come down to flawed technique and execution on the back end. He used Tech’s longest play of the night – a 46-yard catch and run by tight end Griffin Hebert over the middle late in the third quarter – as an example.

“We had a little zone blitz right there, and the Mike linebacker, he’s got to get out under (the receiver), and he didn’t get out under him,” Conn said. “And then our middle-of-the-field safety missed a tackle. Then that thing goes for a while.”

While Conn said Clemson has implemented different zone coverages for much of the season, other big gainers for Tech came with the Tigers’ safeties and corners in man coverage. Conn said the key to keeping offenses at bay in those situations isn’t much of a secret.

“We’ve got to do better and win our one-on-one matchups,” he said. “We’re in phase. We’ve just got to make the play on the ball.”

Of course, what’s happening in coverage and what’s happening along the defensive line go hand in hand, too. More pressure up front usually means less time that the secondary has to cover before the quarterback needs to get rid of the ball, but Clemson has just five sacks through three games, which is tied for the fewest in the ACC.

The Tigers have generated 21 quarterback pressures, but finishing the job has been difficult in part because of opposing offenses’ game plans of quickly getting the ball out of the quarterbacks’ hands against Clemson’s formidable defensive front. Even with some of the throws Tech was incorporating, defensive end K.J. Henry said the Bulldogs’ passing concepts were developing quickly.

“They were getting the ball out in like 1.8 seconds,” Henry said. “Aaron Donald is good, but I don’t know if he’s getting there in 1.8 seconds, you know?

“Relentless is the name of the game, and we’re going to keep coming as fast we can for as long as we need to. But they’re getting the ball out quick. We need to hone in on that just as far as how people want to attack us early in the year.”

A more likely contribution to the struggles on the back end early on, at least from Conn’s perspective, is the relative newness the Tigers are playing with at the second and third levels.

Jeremiah Trotter and Barrett Carter are going through their first season as starters at linebacker with James Skalski and Baylon Spector no longer around. All-conference corners Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich are now in the NFL, and sixth-year safety Nolan Turner exhausted his eligibility after last season. Every starter in the secondary other than Andrew Mukuba is also going through his first season doing it on a full-time basis.

Mukuba (elbow) was held out of last week’s game with an injury, forcing R.J. Mickens and Tyler Venables to play more snaps at safety. And without Nate Wiggins (hip flexor) and Sheridan Jones, who left the game in the first half with an injury and didn’t return, true freshmen Jeadyn Lukus and Toriano Pride were pressed into their most extended action of the season at corner.

“We’re playing a lot of young guys, a lot of young corners and safeties and inexperienced safeties at that. And they’ve just got to get in the fire and learn,” Conn said. “Hopefully they’ll continue to improve and get better at that.”

Conn said he expects as much over the course of the season, though the task won’t get any easier this week with Clemson set to get its stiffest test so far with a trip to No. 21 Wake Forest looming Saturday. The Demon Deacons, with quarterback Sam Hartman back in the fold, are throwing for more than 306 yards per game, good for 22nd nationally.

“We’re excited for the challenge,” Conn said.

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