The Anatomy of an upset: How Clemson knocked off Alabama
Where do you even begin to analyze a game like Monday nights?
It was about as well played, well coached, and entertaining game as you can ever hope to see. An instant classic.
Here’s some of my schematic takeaways from the season’s most fascinating chess match.
Taking away the quarterback run
One of the biggest challenges for both teams heading into the game was taking away each other’s quarterback-run scheme.
Alabama built its defense this year around quickness. Although they were dominant a year ago, they didn’t have overwhelming sideline-to-sideline speed. Clemson took advantage in last year’s national title game, with Deshaun Watson consistently breaking the pocket and making plays, as well as getting to perimeter on designed runs.
Saban and his staff built this defense differently, prioritizing speed (adding safety when linebacker Sean Dion Hamilton was injured) and trying to eliminate Clemson’s perimeter run game. Take away the perimeter run, which is the setup its play-action and vertical passing game, and the offense is forced to be less dynamic.
It was a similar challenge for Clemson. Alabama’s offense has been limited all season, and their key focus has been using option football to create 1-on-1 matchups and pull defenses out of position.
Both teams did an admirable job, defending different attacks, but using similar tactics.
Clemson’s scheme is more finesse based: kicking guys outside and getting blockers in space. I highlighted pre-game the diversity of Clemson’s QB-power game and the different wrinkles they use from the same looks. Well, Alabama was ready for it, showing off its overall team speed and recognition skills early in the game.
On a first quarter fourth down play, Clemson went to one of its stock short yardage plays — a toss-option — that puts the ball in Deshaun Watson’s hands and gives him the option to pitch it to a running back or follow a pulling lineman up the middle of the formation.
By formation and alignment Alabama sniffed it, despite Clemson shifting to the formation late.
At the snap, the Tide’s defense recognized the play, with safety Tony Brown squeezing down to takeaway the pitch and linebacker Rueben Foster shooting the voided gap inside, taking away Watson’s option to pull the ball. The quarterback was forced to pitch it and running back Wayne Gallman was dropped for a loss.
By contrast, Alabama’s quarterback run game is designed to be run inside, with more zone-blocking and fewer pulling linemen. Clemson used the usual tactics: overloading one side of the formation to take away option elements, checking and switching at the line to cause confusion, and slanting and angling to disrupt the zone-blocking scheme.
As was evident in the game — and if you watched the Tigers this season — they have a deep and athletic front. Their interior linemen — particularly Dexter Lawrence — have rare short area quickness. That allowed them to slant and angle throw gaps, getting across the faces of Alabama’s line, disrupting the rhythm of plays, and stifling some combination blocks.
One tactic both defenses shared was the use of “Bear” fronts. They’re always a staple of favorite of Brent Venables’ gameplan, but Alabama’s DC Jeremy Pruitt drew up plenty of his own. At their core, bear fronts cover all three interior offensive lineman, making it more difficult for those players to pull and move, and freeing up linebackers and safeties to shoot gaps and disrupt the backfield.
Clemson’s fronts were more traditional, with three down linemen kicking inside to cover each guard and center. Pruitt on the other hand opted for a variety of fronts. They weren’t always strict “bear” fronts, but they acted in the same way, covering all three interior linemen. At times, it was two linemen and a linebacker, other times it was more of a mug front, and then there was the traditional Okie fronts with linebackers walked down to cover the guards.
Either way, they found success. The only time either quarterback truly punished the opposing defense on the ground was in, or near, the red zone.
Indeed, Clemson’s first touchdown came on an excellently designed quarterback run that out-leveraged the Alabama defense. They ran a power sweep into the boundary, with Gallman as the lead blocker out of the backfield. First, they got the look they wanted pre-snap — isolating a receiver into the boundary and getting single coverage. Then they motioned that receiver across the formation, clearing out the left side of the field, and holding the backside defenders with a ghost motion.
At the snap, they faked a jetsweep, before Watson pulled it and followed Gallman into the open-field. The running back sealed the edge with a perfect block, getting his body around and allowing Watson to use the sideline rather than having to cut back inside.
Neither a safety or linebacker could recover to knock Watson out of bounds and he scored.
However, outside of that play, and off-script runs from each QB later in the contest, both sides did a good job of not letting the quarterback runs define the game.
Alabama’s second-half offense
Alabama’s early offense was defined by Bo Scarborough and the running back run game. A novel concept.
They may have been unable to bust open some of the huge holes through play-design like earlier in the year, but Alabama’s offensive line took it to the Tigers front in the first quarter and routinely got Scarborough passed the line of scrimmage untouched.
As always, those runs were dominated by the left side of the Crimson Tide’s offensive line, behind which both of Scarborough’s touchdowns were scored.
On his first score, they ran a simple counter concept, with the left side of the line down blocking — pushing the Clemson edge defenders inside — and tight end OJ Howard cutting across the formation to seal the edge. Howard did his job perfectly, containing the unblocked edge defender and giving Scarborough a clear path to the second-level. Howard was unable to get across the defender and flip his hips, so instead he just buried the player into the ground.
From there, it was all on Bo. He showed his nimble footwork, vision, agility, and power all in one neat GIF, finishing the run in a way he failed to do consistently earlier in the year.
Scarborough’s second touchdown had equally impressive work from the guy’s up front. Again, Alabama ran right behind its All-American left tackle Cam Robinson and the left side of the line. However, this time, they caught Clemson in a run-blitz — sending their middle and strongside linebackers off the edge.
The blitz burned Clemson bad, and they had three defensive players eliminated from the play almost immediately, with each of them caught in the backfield too far away to make a play.
But that doesn’t discount from the blocking on the opposite side of the field. Robinson was able to kick-out the edge defender and open up a huge lane behind left guard Ross Pierschbacher, while Pierschbacher sealed the lane by playing with outside leverage (back to the boundary) and turning around defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence.
Robinson finished off the edge player, while Pierschbacer held the point, allowing center Bradley Bozeman to climb to the second-level and get a 1-on-1 block with a linebacker.
Boseman cleaned up the linebacker and Scarborough went untouched down to the Clemson 15-yard line, save for a stray arm.
And it was just the touchdown runs, or indeed solely the left side of the line. They gave Clemson’s talented front a lot to handle in the first half, averaging 7.1 yards per rush attempt and creating a good surge inside.
They stayed on the field by winning the battle on short yardage runs, with the inside of the line winning its combination blocks — though there were two instances of a Clemson d-lineman blowing up a double-team — and giving enough room for Scarborough to pick up the first down.
The second-half was a different story.
Steve Sarkisian’s play-calling was at times uninspired, and the whole offense lacked any kind of rhythm. Without many option elements, the run game was limited, and it became even more bogged down once Scarborough was finished midway through the third quarter due to a knee injury.
At times, it was painfully transparent that Sarkisian and Saban were trying to hide Jalen Hurts’ flaws. Namely, throwing over ten yards downfield. Without that threat, Clemson were able to clamp down on the run game, while watching any deep ball attempts sail well over the heads of receivers.
Alabama’s passing game has been limited all season. Prior to Monday’s game, 46 percent of Hurts’ pass attempts this year had been at, or behind, the line of scrimmage. And it appeared that against Clemson’s athleticism and depth, Saban and Sark were happy with draining the clock and shortening the game, rather than trying to establish any kind of a rhythm.
Losing Scarbough was certainly a blow, but it wasn’t the bigger factor. Joshua Jacobs and Damien Harris are talented backs, but Clemson’s front just began to whip Alabama’s line and sell-out on the run throughout the third and fourth quarters.
And not only that, but the play-calling became predictable. Clemson began to key in on individual play calls based on the down and distance, formations and alignments. Linebacker Ben Boulware was consistently signaling to his team mates prior to the snap calling out the play and blowing them up before they had a chance to develop.
So, this is the part where we get to one of the game’s biggest post-game questions: was making Sarkisian the offensive coordinator on Monday a mistake? I don’t believe so.
First of all, the team put up 31 points, and was within a second of winning the National Championship. But most importantly, although the offense did become predictable for long stretches of the game, plays were still there to be made had they executed. Hurts missed throws, OJ Howard picked off a screen pass that would have converted a third-and-long, and the offensive line failed to get the same kind of push up front that they had early in the first-half.
As Alabama’s offense fell flat, Clemson’s rose.
The Crimson Tide play constant man-coverage, and mostly press-man. To attack that, an offense has to run man-beater concepts and attack the coverage principles of the defense. Last week, I detailed how Washington, despite using a number of favorable alignments, failed to use concepts like switch releases, deep crossing routes, and, yes, pick plays to create separation against man-coverage.
Clemson’s offense on the other hand is built to attack man coverage, from its high volume of bunch formations, pre-snap movement, isolated formations, short yardage concepts, and star players. The difference with facing Alabama is the sheer speed of its pass-rush, and the minimal time an offense has to get the ball out.
Clemson showed early on how they intended to attack that: using bunch formations to give receivers free releases and using quick hitting three receiver combinations. And it worked. On an early third down they got exactly the look they wanted, with Mike Williams getting a free release off the line of scrimmage and open just in front of the first down mark.
The design worked, but cornerback Antony Everett made an exceptional play and stopped Mike Williams from picking up the first down. But the offense didn’t deviate. They came back to the same concepts again and again in third-and-short situations, betting on the design to get players open, or individual receivers to win 1-on-1 battles.
After converting in short yardage situations, they began to attack further down the field with similar coverage-beaters.
On this touchdown, that brought the game to within a field goal, they called the perfect play to attack the coverage.
It was a drive concept, with a drag route from a receiver underneath and an intermediate in-breaking route from tight end Jordan Leggett that carries a ‘Bama linebacker vertically. Alabama was playing cover-1 (man-coverage with one deep safety) but masking it prior to the snap with two-deep safeties.
At the snap, one safety rotated down to drop into a zone, while the other played the middle of the field. The rotating safety was carried directly into cornerback Tony Brown who was fighting through the tight end to get to wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. That created a natural pick, voiding the space underneath for Renfrow.
Deshaun Watson found Renfrow over the middle of the field with a perfect throw, allowing him to run after the catch, and make a good individual play to score.
That was the least “controversial” of the Clemson touchdowns, but in theory, it was the same as the two most-discussed down by the goal line: attack man coverage by having receiver’s patterns crisscross and hope the defensive players bump into each other.
On the first red zone touchdown, it was less “hope they bump into each other” and more force them into each other. But all the same, rubs are right way to attack man-coverage. By doing so, they got Mike Williams a free release and clear route to the corner of the end zone for a simple pitch and catch score.
The game-winning touchdown, and another pick play, followed the same concept: switch releases and force the cornerbacks to sort through traffic.
This time it was Renfrow who got the free release and was able to cruise into the end zone. But it was the outside receiver who made the play. He not only cleared out the boundary corner, but their fighting forced Tony Brown playing in the slot to have to go over the top, and he couldn’t close the ground before Renfrow scored.
Jeremy Pruitt has diversified Alabama’s coverages more this season — in part to shield his cornerbacks — but in the biggest spots they remain a press-man defense. And while some will moan about the use of pick plays, credit should go the Clemson staff and Deshaun Watson for how they attacked those coverages with the perfect concepts from the midway through the second quarter to the end of the game.
Alabama’s defensive front tiring
As the game went on it was evident that Alabama’s defensive front was getting leggy. The 99 plays that Clemson ran on offense was the most a Nick Saban-Alabama defense has ever had to face.
Unlike last year, they don’t have the same kind of depth. Sure, they still have five-stars galore waiting on the benches, but it’s not the same kind of seasoned talent as a year ago.
It’s easy to argue that this year’s unit is the best Saban has ever had, topping only the unit that won the national title last year. Starters like Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson from this year’s team were sub-package players a year ago. It was rare depth, and it showed in the waning minutes of the championship game.
This time to the volume of plays caught up with them. And while they remained tenacious and violent, it was simply too many plays for some of the front-line starters to stay at their athletic best. Ryan Anderson was a menace throughout the game, and Reuben Foster was the best player on the field. But stars like Tim Williams and Jonathan Allen who were solid, if unspectacular in the first-half, were unable to make a big play down the stretch.
The Mike Williams show
With Alabama’s front tiring, a less than stellar secondary was even more exposed. And as the game wore on it turned into the Mike Williams show.
I’ve written in past columns that Williams is essentially an NFL Pro Bowl receiver just playing on the college level, and he showed all of that ability on Monday night.
Formation-wise, and athletically, Williams is a cheat code. Kirk Herbstreit did a good job on the broadcast of explaining how Clemson isolates him on 3×1 formations and sticks him to the short side of the field. By doing so, it forces teams to reveal their intentions before the snap. If they double-team Williams by giving safety help over the top, that gives the other receivers 1-on-1 matchups. If the defense decides to single-up Williams, Watson trusts his receiver to go win.
This isn’t a vintage Nick Saban secondary. One thing it really lacked is size, both in terms of length and physicality in press-coverage. Williams is the master at beating press, using his own physicality to create initial separation and doing an outstanding job of locating the ball, and using his body control to adjust to throws.
Saban and Pruitt weren’t taking any chances with the mismatch, doubling Williams for most of the night and leaving the other receivers 1-on-1. But despite getting knocked out in the first quarter, and seeing a constant stream of safety help, Williams came back to big play after big play.
Here, in the the third quarter, he makes an outstanding individual play to help save Clemson’s touchdown drive down 17–7. With safety help over the top, cornerback Marlon Humphrey pressed Williams at the line of scrimmage, but Williams was able to create instant separation, opening up a quick timing throw from Watson as the quarterback hit the top of his drop. It wasn’t a perfect throw, and Williams was able to haul it in, putting the Tigers into third-and-short rather than third-and-long.
Whenever he was left 1-on-1 it was a simple pre-snap key for Watson. The quarterback immediately went to his best weapon, who roasted whichever poor soul was left to handle Williams on their own.
No matter what a team does schematically, great players can always find a way to impact the game. Williams ended up being simply too big and too physical for the ‘Bama secondary. This outrageous fourth quarter grab was the exclamation point on a huge night.
Deshaun Watson taking over
Of course, like Vince Young vs. USC, this game will be forever remembered as the Deshaun Watson game.
But it didn’t look that way midway through the second quarter. Watson and the Clemson offense didn’t look comfortable. He had been hit a lot and hit hard early in the first quarter, and it clearly disrupted him. However, the bigger issue was on third downs, where he couldn’t figure out what Jeremy Pruitt and the Alabama defense was running.
The main switch of Alabama’s defense in recent years has been the move to more two-high safety sets. Traditionally, Saban has been a single-high safety guy, utilizing late safety rotations to get an extra defender into the box and to help re-route seam patterns. But that’s changed in the last two years, with more two-deep looks.
The sheer volume of coverages — from single-high and two-high looks — paired with different traps, bluffs, and disguises, makes it tough for a quarterback to diagnose exactly what he’s seeing. And often what is shown pre-snap, morphs after the snap. That’s compounded by the overwhelming pass-rush, which doesn’t give the quarterback any time to figure it out.
Throughout the first quarter, and most of the first-half, Pruitt had Watson and the Clemson staff confused. Watson couldn’t tell who was blitzing, where they were coming from, and what the coverage was on the back end. Pruitt mixed up his pressure packages to great effect, Watson hesitated, and he was hit over and over again by ‘Bama’s pass-rushers.
But that changed midway through the second-quarter. Watson did a much better job of processing what was being run and Pruitt eased of the pedal, utilizing less five-man pressures and at times opting for a spy.
On Clemson’s first touchdown drive Watson began to find his rhythm. Alabama played two-man the majority of the drive — two deep safeties and man-to-man coverage across the board. That opened up the middle of the field and Watson began to sling it into the voided area between the split-safeties.
As Watson grew in confidence, Pruitt went back to ramping up the pressure, bringing extra blitzers throughout the second-half and trying to move the Clemson quarterback off his spot. Watson responded well, taking what the defense presented — a lot of individual matchups — and going to his most trusted targets: Mike Williams, Hunter Renfrow, and Jordan Leggett.
With the game winding down, Pruitt mixed everything up, sending how the house on one play, then forcing Watson to win from within the pocket the next. Although by then, Watson was processing well, and it was the Tide’s defense who were beginning to make mental errors.
Here, they bluffed a blitz, dropping out linebacker Rashaan Evans to spy Watson on third down. On the back end, they blew the coverage, with one defender trying to hand off a receiver on a switch release (there’s those man-beating concepts again) and the other defender sticking with his man. Watson read it and fired to Jordan Leggett, who had stopped on his route and didn’t run it all the way through at full speed.
But when it mattered most, on the final drive of the season, the Watson-Leggett connection was there. Watson carved through the vaunted Alabama defense in just over two minutes, marching down the field unfazed by the coverages, and unafraid to put his body on the line to make a play. It was the stuff of legends; one of the most impressive individual displays, against one of the greatest defenses, college football will see.