Well, it certainly is an exciting time to be a Notre Dame fan. After an undefeated season, the Irish have earned the right to play in the national semi-final. In the build-up to the game, much has been made of the matchup between Notre Dame’s offense and Clemson’s defense. Clemson will be the best defense Notre Dame has faced to this point. That begs the question, how will the Notre Dame coaching staff game plan so they can move the ball against the Tigers? I have a few thoughts on the topic. Let’s take a look at the film and I’ll show you what I mean.
The first thing that stands out when you watch the Clemson defense is their lineman. They literally have an NFL defensive line. Although potentially losing star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence hurts, this is still a formidable group. No matter how well Notre Dame plays and/or game plans, the Tiger defensive line is going to be a significant problem.
Not to fear though Notre Dame fans, there are some exploitable weaknesses in the Tiger defense. In particular, their linebackers and safeties tend to be over aggressive and can be undisciplined. This results in gaps opening up about 10 – 12 yards deep in the middle of the defense.
To take advantage of this flaw, I believe Notre Dame has to attack the off-tackle and perimeter areas first (noted in the yellow text). This will allow Notre Dame to minimize the impact of the Tiger defensive line (essentially by avoiding them) and encourage the linebackers and safeties to move aggressively towards the line of scrimmage. This movement will open up space between the linebackers and safeties (black text) which is the biggest weakness in the Clemson defense. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of this weakness.
Clemson vs. Texas A&M. The Aggies will run play action (red line and arrow in the backfield) and look to hit the post pattern (red arrow) if the safety comes up (orange arrow). Even though it’s first down, note how tight the linebackers are to the line of scrimmage (orange circle). These guys love to creep up to play the run.
Sure enough, the safety took the bait (orange arrow) and is coming up aggressively to play run. The linebackers also play the run (orange circle). The receiver is going to run to the spot vacated by the over-aggressive safety (red arrow).
The ball is just about to be caught (red circle). The middle of the field is wide open because the safety and linebackers sold out to stop the run (orange circle).
Clemson vs. South Carolina. Clemson dials up a bit of an exotic look where they rush 3 linemen, 1 linebacker and drop a defensive end into coverage (orange lines). The dropping linebacker (orange circle) is the key player here.
A fraction of a second after the snap. The linebacker has dropped into coverage and is in very good position (orange circle). All he has to do is get a little more depth, move to the inside and follow the QB’s eyes to the intended receiver (red circle).
For some reason, the linebacker (orange circle) doesn’t follow the QB’s eyes and completely ignores the receiver (red arrow). Instead, he becomes mesmerized by the running back on the swing pattern to the outside (red star). He overpursues and ends up right beside another defender (orange circle, orange arrow). This leaves the middle of the field wide open. The ball is on the way (red circle) and will be caught for a first down.
Although I’ve only provided two examples here, this was a trend I saw repeatedly. Over-aggressive, undisciplined play from the linebackers and safeties led to exploitable seams in the middle of the defense. I’ve heard a number of times that Clemson’s safeties are a potential weakness. I would argue it’s a little more nuanced than that. I believe the way that the safeties and linebackers integrate their pass coverage is Clemson’s biggest weakness on defense. Often, the linebackers are way too aggressive and end up attacking the line of scrimmage on passes, which leaves a large gap about 10 -12 yards deep in the middle of the defense.
From a game plan perspective, one of the things I think Notre Dame will try to do is run off-tackle. This avoids the interior of the Tiger defensive line and also allows Notre Dame to get additional blockers in the off-tackle area through the formation. I think getting extra blockers at the edge of the formation is going to be critical; the Clemson defensive ends are no joke. They will need to be double-teamed if Notre Dame wants to get to the edge.
This screenshot is an example of the type of alignment I think Notre Dame will use to run off tackle. Motion a tight end across the formation (blue arrow) and have a number of blockers in the off-tackle area (yellow circle). From there, let your stud running back. Dexter Williams (#2) run downhill (green arrow).
This type of formation is going to make Clemson’s linebackers and safeties salivate like Pavlov’s dog. Without thinking, they will attack the line of scrimmage and on occasion will be able to stuff the run. However, they will be falling into a trap. Much like the kids mocking Elisha in 2 Kings 2:23-24, there will be a reckoning for aggressive behaviour. (As an aside, if you are a long time reader of this blog, I suggest you look that passage up, you will find it to be a marvelous biblical tip of the cap to the strange narratives formed on this blog over many years. I would love to take credit for finding this wonderful passage, however, I must confess it was our very own Firstdownmoses that made me aware of this little gem. Enjoy).
If Notre Dame can entice the Clemson linebackers and safeties to overreact to the off-tackle run, the play action pass will be wide open. I’m just guessing on the pattern combination highlighted in this screenshot, but this would be the sort of complimentary play a team could use against aggressive safeties and linebackers. Fake the off-tackle run (green arrow), first read would be one of the inside patterns (yellow and red arrows), the second read would be to the outside (blue or orange arrows).
If Clemson can stop the run by relying almost exclusively on the defensive line, the linebackers and safeties won’t need to be so aggressive and this play isn’t as effective. If Notre Dame can have a bit of success running off-tackle, the linebackers and safeties will start to come up and if they do that, they can be exploited.
Another way Notre Dame will attack the off-tackle and perimeter is through their version of the triple option as noted in the screenshot above. I suspect we will have to emphasize option 2 and 3 initially as it will be tough sledding running between the tackles (although, for the record, I don’t think we should abandon running between the tackles entirely). Again, if the Irish can have success with this type of play, it will force the Tiger linebackers and safeties to come up towards the line of scrimmage, which leaves them vulnerable to passes in the middle of the field 10-12 yards deep.
I anticipate Notre Dame will use a variety of looks beyond the R.P.O. (run, pass option) and the off-tackle play I’ve detailed here to get to the edge. I suspect we’ll see jet sweeps, screens, swing passes and maybe even some old school toss plays or a bit of speed option.
While watching film I’ve noticed that when Clemson is struggling with the perimeter, they will adjust their defensive alignment. This adjustment opens some other opportunities for the Irish offense to run between the tackles. See below for a specific example.
1st down against Texas A&M. Clemson is in its standard 4 man front (3 down lineman and one stand up end). However, they are going to make a pre-snap adjustment and use the stand-up end (orange circle) to help on the outside.
The Tigers move their defensive end (orange circle) to the perimeter. This leaves only 3 Clemson defensive linemen (orange lines) between the tackles. Clemson is playing with fire with this type of alignment. No doubt, their D-line is good, but all Dexter Williams needs is a crease to break a long run and there is certainly the potential for creating a crease against this alignment.
Clemson’s defense is really good, especially their defensive line. If the Tiger defensive line dominates and the linebackers and safeties are allowed to be patient and play from depth, Notre Dame will be in a lot of trouble. However, if Notre Dame can entice the linebackers and safeties to come towards the line of scrimmage and play aggressive the Clemson defense can be exploited. Notre Dame has enough in the playbook to take advantage of Clemson’s weaknesses. The question is: can we execute the plays in the playbook at a high enough level to win? I’m looking forward to finding out. Go Irish!