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Football: Roof Inspection Report - Week 9

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The defense had a respectable showing in what was ultimately a lost cause

Georgia Tech v Clemson Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

For the second straight week, the defense played aggressively throughout the game. For the second straight week, they got burned early on for some big gains and then locked down after halftime. For the second straight week, they allowed 21 points in the first half and just three in the final 30 minutes, stringing together several second-half stops to get the ball back to the offense.

Unfortunately, this time the offense couldn’t match the defense’s second-half resurgence. The result was a 24-10 loss in a game that never really felt as close as the score indicated.

Week 9 vs. Clemson: Defense by the Numbers

Stat Total
Stat Total
Opp. Possessions 14
Points Allowed 24
Points per Possession 1.7
Points Off Turnovers Allowed 7
Total Yards Allowed 428
Rush Yards Allowed 221
Opp. Yards per Carry 4.9
Pass Yards Allowed 207
Opp. Yards per Attempt 6.3
Opp. Yards per Play 5.5
Third Down Conversions 7/17
Fourth Down Conversions 0/0
Three-and-Outs Forced 5
Turnovers Forced 1
Havoc Rate 9.0%

Quite simply, the defense had a rough time against the run. They registered five tackles for loss—a respectable total—but Clemson’s offensive line had its way with Tech’s defensive front, and that cleared the way for plenty of gains on the ground. Five different Clemson players averaged over five yards per carry, and each of them had at least seven carries.

The havoc rate was down, and the primary culprit was a lack of plays in pass coverage. Despite the fact that the defensive backs largely covered receivers right off the line of scrimmage, they had no interceptions and were credited with zero pass breakups. With a couple exceptions, Bryant’s incomplete passes were mainly the result of him simply missing his targets, because he did well to find an open man nearly every time he threw.

All that said, the defense found ways to get stops. They stopped Clemson on more than half of the Tigers’ third down plays and forced seven punts. It just wasn’t enough—they would have needed to nearly pitch a shutout for Tech to come away with the victory.

Defensive Line

There were a few bright spots for the front four. Tech's lone forced turnover came on a heads-up play by Antonio Simmons, who disengaged from a blocker and reached out to poke the ball free from Travis Etienne's hands. Fellow defensive end Anree Saint-Amour ripped the ball out while tackling Tavien Feaster on one of Clemson’s first plays of the third quarter; had Tech recovered, it might have been a chance to swing the momentum, but Clemson managed to fall on it and preserve the drive (which eventually led to a field goal).

Overall, though, they had a rough time against Mitch Hyatt and the Tigers’ offensive line. Clemson consistently got a good push on running plays en route to averaging nearly five yards per carry, and the line failed to generate much meaningful pressure in the pass rush, finishing with zero sacks and zero QB hurries. The pass rush struggles are an anomaly that can be explained by a good opponent, but the struggles against the run are nothing new... and with Georgia’s dangerous run game looming just a few weeks away, it’s becoming even more worrisome.

Status: Still leaking in run support

Linebackers

The big news for the linebacking corps was the return of Brant Mitchell in the middle, but ultimately the junior had a limited impact on the game, finishing with just two tackles. He might still need more time to get back to full speed after missing time with a lower-body injury. Fellow starter Victor Alexander tied for the team lead with 10 tackles, and true freshman Bruce Jordan-Swilling added four tackles and one of the team’s two QB hurries. The other came from another freshman linebacker, T.D. Roof, as his trend of blitzing frequently continued when he was on the field.

As Mitchell rounds into form, the linebackers should get a boost, particularly in run support. He doesn’t register many tackles for loss, but he does well at attacking the right gaps and helping to prevent long runs. Even with the junior back in the lineup, though, it’s likely that the freshmen will play an even bigger role in the rotation going forward—particularly Jordan-Swilling, who continued to show growth even in a losing effort on Saturday.

Status: Leaking, but repairs in progress

Secondary

It was a rough night for boundary corner Step Durham. The senior got burned repeatedly for significant gains, both through the air and on the ground. Clemson's first two touchdowns were passes in Durham's direction: he missed a tackle after giving Deon Cain a huge cushion on the first, and the second saw him fall behind tight end Milan Richard after Tech sold out to stop the run and left no safety help over the top. Eventually, he was pulled and replaced by redshirt freshman Ajani Kerr. To Durham's credit, though, he finished with eight tackles and had a few nice plays to disrupt passes in his direction, and he did make a heads-up play to recover the Etienne fumble and give the defense its only turnover of the evening.

The safeties combined for 18 tackles, often coming up to make plays as running backs got past the first level. In general, the secondary was there to make tackles after catches and the safeties contributed in run support, but they did little to disrupt plays in the passing game. Often the issue was simply that Clemson was too fast, with receivers getting a step or two on Tech’s defensive backs as soon as they cut on a slant or out route. There were issues present on Saturday, but none seem to be signs of a systemic problem.

Status: Some new leaks emerging

Coaching

Much like last week, Ted Roof trusted in his secondary to hold up in man coverage without much support over the top. Unlike last week, it didn't work out so well. That's not to say Roof called a bad game. He had a choice between keeping the secondary back and giving Kelly Bryant plenty of room to work underneath... or going on the attack and forcing Bryant, a first-year starter, to beat them. He chose the latter, and unfortunately for him and the defense, Bryant got the job done.

Some issues did emerge—most of which had to do with how Tech reacted to Clemson's no-huddle offense. The Tigers deployed some creative formations to take advantage of some of the quirks of Roof's scheme. For example, the corner positions are pretty much fixed: Durham and Lance Austin take the boundary and field-side receivers, respectively, and Lawrence Austin covers a slot receiver on the field side. When running three-wide sets, nearly every team puts the slot receiver on the field side, so this setup tends to work well.

But what happens if a team lines up with one field-side receiver and trips (in this case, bunched trips) on the boundary side? This, apparently:

It's a formation that throws Tech off: four receivers on the field, but the nickel corner isn't lined up on any of them. Alexander runs out to take one of the slot receivers, with Durham covering the outside man and Gray covering over the top. The resultant alignment leaves Tech with Lawrence Austin and Mitchell in the middle but spread apart, leaving room for a run up the middle. Fortunately for Tech, Freeman is unblocked and Mitchell diagnoses the play well, and they hold the runner to a four-yard gain.

On the flip side, Tech brought a few new looks of their own. Roof deployed this play to get a third-down stop late in the second quarter:

It’s a zone blitz from a 3-2-6 look with a couple twists. First, the lineman dropping back into zone is not one of the ends, but rather defensive tackle Desmond Branch. Second, it’s a creative look: the ends rush forward, pause to let the linebackers arrive, then step inside to overwhelm the interior. In this particular case, the pocket holds and Bryant simply overthrows it to Hunter Renfrow. It took a little bit of luck (in the form of the bad throw) to get this stop, but every other Clemson receiver was covered well, and it was a creative look from a formation that typically sees Roof send three and drop eight.

Status: Leaking, but trying some creative fixes

Overall

In many ways, the 2017 edition of Tech-Clemson was a carbon copy of the 2016 game. The defense had a few good moments in the first half, but mostly they got bludgeoned early on while struggling to keep pace with Clemson's combination of an up-tempo offense and fast skill position players. As the game went on, they strung together some stops and ultimately silenced the Tigers' offense for the final 25 minutes of the game. Unfortunately for them, the game was already all but decided, as the offense simply never got anything going.