Clemson’s defense is elite, and that unit alone gives the Tigers a real chance to repeat as national champions.
Coming into the season, there were a few questions about the reigning national champions, namely about its quarterback situation. Deshaun Watson left for the NFL and in his place, junior Kelly Bryant took over. Bryant is a far cry from Watson, but he has looked competent through three weeks, particularly as a runner. We don’t yet know for sure whether or not Bryant can truly replace Watson on offense, but it may not matter.
Clemson’s defense is elite and it will devour your soul.
During their recent run of success the past few years, Dabo Swinney and the Tigers have had strong defenses. Clemson finished in the top 20 in points allowed per game and the top 10 in total defense each of the past three seasons. But it’s hard to remember a Clemson defense that looked this terrifying.
The Tigers have put on three dominant defensive displays already this season. In the opener against poor, vastly overmatched Kent State, Clemson allowed just three points, 120 total yards, and five first downs. Maybe that’s to be expected against a mediocre team from the MAC, but the Tigers have played two top-15 opponents the past two weeks and those offenses haven’t fared any better.
Auburn scored just six points, accumulated only 117 yards, and barely managed to convert 33 percent of its third-down attempts. Clemson followed that up by stifling the vaunted Louisville offense and reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. Last season, the Cardinals averaged 42.5 points and 533 yards per game. No defense had answers for them. But Week 3 against Clemson, Louisville managed only 21 points (14 of which came in the fourth quarter after the game was already a blow-out) and Jackson was constantly running for his life from the Tigers’ front seven.
The Tigers have allowed 10.0 points (tied for eighth nationally), 223.3 total yards (eighth), 132.2 passing yards (14th), and 91.0 rushing yards per game (16th) so far this season. They’ve also only allowed opponents to enter the red zone six times (six!).
The balance in stopping both the run and the pass is a key aspect of what makes this defense so good. There isn’t a glut of players overloading one position group. Each group is so independently effective that the cohesive unit becomes almost impossible to overcome.
First, let’s look at the defensive line. The entire Clemson front seven, but particularly the defensive line, is destructive. Just look what they did to poor Jarrett Stidham en route to an 11-sack game.
The Tigers’ 16 sacks are tied for the most by any team in the country, and the combination of starters Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant, and Clelin Ferrell has nine on their own.
These plays below against Louisville are prime examples of what this front is capable of. The offensive line is completely blown off the ball from the get-go time after time, and Jackson has less than two seconds before several Clemson defensive linemen are in his face.
But this group’s ability goes beyond just sacks. Their constant ability to eviscerate offensive lines disrupts running plays just as much as it does passes, and causes errant, rushed throws even when the sacks don’t land home.
Then there’s the deep, versatile group of linebackers. Clemson employs a six-man rotation at linebacker headed by redshirt senior Dorian O’Daniel, redshirt junior Kendall Joseph, and sophomore Tre Lamar. Each man in the rotation can stuff the run, rush the passer, and cover in space.
Watch as Tre Lamar and Clelin Ferrel combine on a blitz play to completely ruin Lamar Jackson’s day.
Twelve different Tigers have registered a sack so far this year, five of which are linebackers. These guys get after the passer and complement the defensive line in such a way that even the most elusive college quarterback we’ve seen since Johnny Manziel couldn’t evade them.
The linebackers have even helped put some points on the board. This unit dominates in every facet of the game. Combined with the defensive line, they make up a front seven that gives opposing offenses nightmares.
The secondary is not world-beating, but it has been extremely effective. Like the linebacking corps, the secondary utilizes a six-man rotation that helps keep everyone fresh. Corners Ryan Carter and Trayvon Mullen have locked down opposing receivers, and safeties Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace have kept the lid on.
Because the front seven is so strong, the secondary isn’t asked to do too much but it is certainly capable of restricting what an offense can do in its passing game. On the few occasions where Lamar Jackson and Jarrett Stidham weren’t running for their lives, the secondary provided the front with more time to reach the quarterback thanks to their coverage.
All of these units combined make up one of, if not the most fearsome defense in the country. Only Alabama has a chance to give Clemson a run for its money on defense this year, and even the Crimson Tide might fall to second when all is said and done.
Bryant and the offense seem like they are going to continue to improve as the season progresses and put points on the board for the Tigers. But so long as Clemson’s defense continues to disembowel opposing offenses, leaving nothing behind but a lifeless husk and causing the country’s best offenses to implode, the Tigers’ offense is secondary. Clemson is a legitimate national title contender thanks to its defense alone.
Edited by Brian Kang.
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