CLEMSON — An extra step or two here. A missed opportunity there. A second tight end blocking.
No matter how you quantify the factors, the results aren’t pretty.
Clemson’s pass rush is missing in action.
One of the steadier areas of an uneven 2011 defense has fallen off significantly so far this fall.
Through three games, the Tigers have only three sacks – one per game – which is tied for 99th nationally.
They have 16 tackles for loss, which is 74th nationally.
This would be a concern any week, but the circumstances of Saturday night’s 8 p.m. visit to Florida State only magnify it. Florida State senior quarterback E.J. Manuel is an outstanding dual-threat passer. Getting him on the ground will be crucial for No.10 Clemson having any hopes of pulling the upset.
“We have to keep him in the pocket,” said sophomore defensive tackle Josh Watson. “If he uses his legs he’s going to shred us.”
With defensive end Andre Branch and his 10.5 sacks departed to the NFL as a second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, pass rush was a concern entering the season. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said senior end Malliciah Goodman – the only upperclassman on the line – needed to follow a progression like those that Branch and Da’Quan Bowers followed by their final seasons on campus.
Branch arrived as an unheralded two-star prospect, but left as a second-team All-American. Bowers was considered the nation’s top overall prospect when he signed with the Tigers, but was inconsistent in his first two seasons before a breakout junior year that saw him capture consensus All-American honors and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given to the nation’s top defensive player. He is now with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
So far, however, Goodman has failed to generate significant havoc on opposing offenses. He has no sacks and 2.5 tackles. Sophomore Corey Crawford has no sacks and one-half of one tackle for loss, while sophomores Vic Beasley and DeShawn Williams also have a sack each.
When asked about the lack of pass rush following Saturday’s 41-7 win over Furman, Swinney bristled a bit, applying the same analogy – this time to the line’s overall youth, without mentioning Goodman.
“They’re all sophomores and freshmen,” he said. “Do they have talent? Yes. Are they dominant? No. Can they be? Yes. That’s why you play the game. Ask me that question again two years from now, when all those boys are full-grown men. They’re guys playing hard, trying and learning, mostly playing significant snaps for the first time – Corey Crawford (who had 252 snaps) was the only guy who played pretty significantly last year (Williams also had 138 snaps). I think they’ve got good talent. They’re not dominant by any stretch but they have a chance to be very special.”
Goodman said the line’s play has been “solid.”
“We could play better,” he said. “Getting back there, getting more pressure, taking up the gaps, letting the linebackers fill and creating more tackles for loss and stops at the line of scrimmage.”
Some of the line’s issues have been beyond their control, thanks to quick passing and max-protect schemes, Swinney said.
“We’ve gotten quite a bit of pressure. We haven’t been able to get many sacks, that’s been a concern,” he said. “Part of it is the way teams have played. It’s not like they’re back there holding the ball. It’s been coming out quick. We have to be able to pressure the ball. We’ve got to get better and improve with four-man pressure.”
“Just keep coming,” he said. “The past few weeks, everything’s been quick passes or cut blocks. Right now you just have to keep coming, play sound football. Pick the best blitz for that play, that formation.”
Containing Manuel will be a major concern. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior is the ACC’s most efficient passer. Through three games against overmatched competition, he has six touchdowns against one interception, and also averages 6.6 yards per rush, with a rushing score while averaging 28.7 rushing yards per game.
“He’s a big guy who can see over the offensive line,” Watson said. “He’s a good passer who can run. You have to account for the things he can do – keep him in the pocket and put pressure on him.”
Clemson’s linemen know making their presence known early will be crucial.
“For this game, when we get the opportunity for one-on-ones, we have to win the one-on-ones and get back there to Manuel and disrupt his vision,” Watson said. “Get our hands up in his face.”
And if you get past a good Seminole offensive line? Finish the job.
“What we have to do is hit them in the mouth from start to finish,” Watson said. “It’s going to be a physical game.”