What does the Clemson defense need? … Some magic

NORTHWESTERN COMMAND – Clemson’s defense requires a disguise.

On New Year’s Eve, Clemson must hide/shield/help its greatest vulnerability: its secondary.

The biggest pre-bowl news for Clemson is starting corner Bashaud Breeland will not be ready for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Dabo Swinney was optimistic he’d be back after missing the South Carolina game, but a groin injury will keep him out of the game. That means both of Clemson’s starting corners, Breeland and Darius Robinson (broken leg), will miss the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Even before the season, defensive coordinator Brent Venables lamented how thin his defense was, particularly at cornerback.  We saw what happened when Clemson was without both of its starting corners against South Carolina: Dylan Thompson became Dan Marino.

LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger has been just OK this season, but even Mettenberger expects to have a big game vs. Clemson, telling reporters earlier this month he’s seen the Clemson secondary allow big play after big play. He expects to be able to vertically attack Clemson.

Clemson is not going to be able to make any personnel improvements in time for the bowl game. What can Venables do? Find a proper disguise.

I’d recommend this holiday reading for Venables: studying up on British stage magician Jasper Maskelyne.

Maskelyne worked with the British Military in WWII and is credited with hiding the port of Alexandria in WWII from the Luftwaffe’s night air raids by blacking out the city and placing search lights and anti aircraft guns at a nearby, and vacant, harbor.

The creative solution worked.

If Jasper’s magic act worked for the British in WWII maybe Dick Lebeau’s magic act – the 3-4 zone blitz – can work for the Clemson defense.

Magicians are able to fool us because the human brain isn’t designed to multitask very well. Consciously, we are really only able to focus well on one task or one object. It’s why we are terrible eye witnesses. It’s why pick-pocketing is effective. It’s why car accidents increase substantially when we are talking on our cell phones. It’s why we think David Copperfield can defy physical laws. (I was educated on all this during a 30-minute History Channel program).

To me, college football’s greatest illusion is the 3-4 zone blitz.

Odd-front blitz packages create the illusion of pressure. During his pre-snap read, a quarterback becomes focused on where he perceives pressure to be coming from. His attention might be focused on an outside linebacker who is showing blitz and then surprised when he drops into coverage and instead the middle linebacker attacks a gap in the line. This is extra information to process, extra time added to the release time of a pass, more time to get to a quarterback and help a secondary.

Venables has employed odd-man pressure packages this season, most often on third down. They have had some success.

If I’m Venables I expand these packages vs. LSU. I need Mettenberger focused on misinformation during his pre-snap read. I need to create confusion. I can’t simply bring pressure with a front four and hope my secondary holds up. I need to lessen Mettenberger’s time to throw – and increase the information he has to process – to help a suspect secondary.

In Clemson’s base hybrid defense has a traditional front four. But the problem is Clemson doesn’t have elite defensive ends which a 4-3 or 4-2-5 requires to set the edge and rush the passer.

Of course pass rushing and expanding odd-front blitz packages is not going to matter if Clemson can’t slow LSU’s powerful offensive line and talented running backs.

But perhaps playing some 3-4 base defense might be the best way to get Clemson’s best 11 defenders on the field.

Clemson has been unable to get Tony Steward on the field much. This is a former five-star talent. Ditto for Stephone Anthony, who has been benched but still is one of the 11 most talented players on the team. Clemson lacks elite defensive ends, like a Da’Quan Bowers, but it does have some DE/OLB tweener types in Lateek Townsend and Vic Beasley who are Clemson’s best pass rushers and might be best served as outside linebacker pass rush specialists in an odd-pacakge – who can also drop into coverage on occasion.

It’s hard to keep extra linebackers on the field against spread teams which the 3-4 requires to operate effectively, but LSU runs more of a conventional, pro-style offense.

Now perhaps it is unwise to alter schemes this deep into the season.

Maybe it would be better to experiment with the 3-4 like Kevin Steele did in the summer of 2011.

But there are no easy fixes for Venables, who has vulnerabilities to mask, and who must create some magic, some illusions, on New Year’s Eve.

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