Deshaun Watson made magic in the second half, no doubt. But the flow of that football game is nothing like the typical profile of an Alabama team.
- Clemson’s defense spotted Alabama a 14 point lead in the first half.
- Alabama won the turnover margin, by two. Both turnovers occurred in minus territory for Clemson.
- Alabama ran for over 200 yards and over 6.0 yards per carry, but lost the time of possession battle.
- Alabama surrendered 21 fourth quarter points, something they hadn’t done in any quarter of any game prior to the CFP Championship.
And for all of these anomalies, it took the most controversial play “involving” pass interference since the Miami – OSU national championship for Clemson to pull through.
When teams are evenly matched, these are the slim and volatile margins on which games are decided.
In the bigger picture, though, offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott were able to put Clemson in a position to win by having a specific plan of attack for Nick Saban and Jeremy Pruitt. It likely won’t rely on young QB Kelly Bryant throwing the ball 56 times as Watson had, but some of the core elements of what Clemson held over from the Chad Morris era have proven to work against ‘Bama and work for Bryant, and here are a few ways the Tigers can continue their big offensive performances against the Tide.
Designed QB Runs
An essential element to Alabama’s defense is the ability to maintain an even box at worst, no matter what personnel or formational alignment an offense throws at them. When modern offenses are faced with this, there are three options for an offense to neutralize defenders:
- Run/Pass Options
- Triple Option
- Designed QB run game
Alabama did a good job of game planning Clemson’s tendencies, and were willing to play man to man on the perimeter in order to gain an advantage near the point of attack in the run game.
Clemson uses a variation of the Power Read to try to find a crease in the Crimson Tide front. The Tigers struggled to find many running lanes all game, but having a QB strong enough and an OC creative enough to design these kinds of concepts can help turn key 1st & 10’s into 2nd & 4, and staying ahead of the chains is going to be important for Clemson QB Kelly Bryant.
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Punish Speed, With Screens
Clemson did return a large amount of playmaking talent on the offensive end, and keeping the defense honest with screens is one way to slow down the hard-charging Alabama front.
Clemson did so last year with slow-paced Tunnel Screens and RB Slip Screens, which allowed the better playmakers on the roster an opportunity to pick up run-after-catch yards.
Note the alignments in both clips. Running these plays from a 2×2 Stacked WR set and motioning in from empty both space the Alabama defense out enough to create the necessary lanes.
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Use Empty to Exploit Mismatches
Alabama came into the championship game with an auto-check (cancel any play called when the offense does X) against empty: Cover 2 Man, adding in a LB to get a 4 man rush.
Clemson was prepared to exploit this with a concept similar to the popular “HOSS Y-Juke” NFL teams run from empty. We’ll call this “Smash Y-Juke”, as Clemson TE Jordan Leggett loses Alabama LB Reuben Foster for a big gain up the middle. This forced Alabama to check to Cover 1 later in the game, loosening up the coverage along the sideline for the 50/50 passes Watson completed to WR Mike Williams in the 2nd half.
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Package Concepts for Easy Throws
Clemson’s offense was able to generate a rhythm in their passing game by using concepts that are staples in just about every passing game, “Tosser” (double slants), “Stick” (Double Out), and “Snag” (Delta concept). The success Clemson had was as much a byproduct of the play as the alignments and packaging used for those plays.
Clemson often came back to this specific look when targeting the double slant “Tosser” concept – in fact I can’t recall them throwing to the “Snag” progression once in the game, but it won’t hurt to detail the reads involved across the board.
When throwing “Tosser”:
- Read inside to out (Slot/TE to X or Z receiver)
- Throw opposite DB leverage (e.g. defender over the top of WR, throw low)
- If defender is underneath route, never throw
When Throwing “Snag”:
- Key the Safety/CB depth for a coverage tell
- If Cover 2/Cover 4, read high to low on Corner/Flat progression
- If Cover 1/3, Read inside to out on Slant/Flat progression
If I had to guess, because Alabama plays split field coverages and can change their look anytime, Clemson likely felt more comfortable throwing to the double-slant side. This route combo helped the Tigers pick up easy yards and stay on pace.
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Clemson also used this 3×1 “Stick” concept to keep the chains moving, which conflicts the Curl/Flat defenders in any coverage scheme because of the double outs.
The LB inside the #3 WR usually can’t widen fast enough to deny the stick route, making it an easy pass for the QB.
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Take Some Chances
One of the main reasons to lean so heavily on the packaged quick passing concepts diagrammed above, is that it allows a team take vertical shots off of them later in the game, just like the “Double Sluggo” that Clemson completed off their Play Action game.
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In spite of the awful spacing from an impatient Hunter Renfroe, Clemson is able to hold up the pass rush off the play fake enough to push the ball down the field.
Clemson has been able to thrive without needing to lean on the arm of Kelly Bryant all season, but the offensive staff has to be prepared to be knocked off schedule by the talent of the Alabama defense. Being able to find holes in that defensive backfield is going to require releasing all 5 eligible receivers on routes, and trusting Kelly Bryant to find the right matchup, as well as using Bryant as a hammer in their run game. If Bryant is up to that challenge, Clemson has the surrounding talent to come out on top of this year’s CFP rubber match.