Wire: How Clemson's defense can halt the 'Famous Jameis' legend
Florida State first-year signal caller Jameis Winston has been one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football this season. His package of physical tools and intangible traits set him apart from a deep field of impressive quarterbacks, and he has justifiably earned his position in the middle of the Heisman race.
This week, Winston and No. 5 FSU travel to Death Valley with a fleet of speedy receivers to face No. 3 Clemson and try to do what no other Florida State team has since 2001: beat the Tigers in Memorial Stadium.
It wonât be easy, as Clemsonâs defense has been hunting offenses like a pride of lions on the prairie. The Tigers rank 10th in the nation in scoring defense and 20th in yards allowed per game. They were in a slug-fest last week with Boston College and its battering ram Andre Williams, so weâll see if that has any subsequent effect on Clemsonâs defense against Famous Jameis and the Seminoles, who should be well-rested coming off a bye.
The winner of this game takes a significant step forward in its pursuit of a national championship, while the loser is likely eliminated from that discussion. Will Winston get Florida State, which is favored in this game, out of Death Valley with its BCS title hopes still intact?
Heâs dynamic enough to do so, but I think Clemsonâs defense is more than capable of stunting Winstonâs rapid growth â at least for one weekend â and beating Florida State. Here's how the Tigers can do that.
Clemsonâs defense must disguise
After studying tape of Winston, I was blown away by his apparent knowledge of the game. Itâs easy to see he has a genius football IQ. Usually it takes time for young quarterbacks to learn their own offensive playbooks and then even more time to learn the strengths and weaknesses of different coverages theyâll see from opposing defenses. Winston is way ahead of the game. He seems to have a firm understanding of his own offensive scheme and where he should throw the ball depending on the coverage.
If there he has one Achilles heel, it would be his ability to read through disguises. Boston College defensive coordinator Bill McGovern had a good formula for Winston in Week 5. The Eagles sacked Winston four times and hurried him several additional times. McGovern didnât simply dial up a lot of pressures; he used a lot of pre-snap movement and disguises that ultimately confused Winston.
Watch this clip for an example:
BC put seven defenders on the line of scrimmage, and all of them appeared to be preparing to rush Winston. When two of those defenders dropped back into coverage after the snap, it caught Winston off guard. When his first receiving option was suddenly taken away from him, he panicked just long enough for the pass rushers to hit home.
McGovern saw on film that if defenses stood still like statues prior to the snap, Winston picked them apart. If Clemson DC Brent Venables learned anything from watching FSUâs game against Boston College, itâs the secret to getting pressure on Winston is to disguise and show a lot of pre-snap movement to confuse him.
The Tigers must âplasterâ when Winston scrambles
Clemson safeties Robert Smith and Travis Blanks and cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson will have their biggest challenge of the year. Not only will they have to cover the most explosive, athletic wide receivers theyâve faced thus far, theyâll have to cover them longer than they usually have to cover receivers.
One of their biggest challenges will be to âplasterâ when Winston starts to scramble. âPlasterâ is a term used in the NFL to describe how defensive backs must stick to their receiver when the quarterback starts to run around and extend the play. When a QB scrambles, the receivers scramble too. Chaos ensues. The original route is discarded and it becomes playground football.
Watch the following clip of Winston against Maryland where he appears to be sacked but then pulls his best David Copperfield imitation and gets out of the Terpsâ grasps, finding Nick OâLeary wide open in the end zone after the defender failed to plaster to him while the play was extended.
This is how Winston utilizes his mobility to hurt defenses. Heâs not a dual-threat quarterback in the same way as Oregonâs Marcus Mariota, who operates in a system that has designed run plays for the QB. Winston is, however, athletic and elusive enough to buy extra time when the pocket breaks down. He has great âescape-ability.â Iâd compare him to Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger or Tony Romo in that regard.
Most of the time dual-threat quarterbacks will take off running when they are forced out of the pocket. That isnât the case with Winston -- heâs still looking to throw the rock. Winston has made 15 pass attempts this season outside the pocket and completed 11 of them for 252 yards (16.80 per attempt) and four touchdowns. Itâs only 15 throws, but the completion percentage is almost identical to Winstonâs percentage inside the pocket and the yards per attempt increases by almost six yards on those out-of-pocket throws.
Thereâs nothing more frustrating for a defense than having an elusive QB in your grasp for what appears to be a big sack FOR your team only to have the play miraculously turned into a big gain AGAINST your team. Winstonâs Hail Mary TD at the end of the first half against BC is another example of how, even under pressure, he doesnât concede the big play. He basically Doug-Flutied (yes, thatâs a verb) Doug Flutieâs old team.
If Clemsonâs DBs plaster the FSU receivers, theyâll limit the likelihood of Winston breaking off one of these spontaneous plays.
Clemsonâs secondary must prevent the deep ball
While studying film of the Seminolesâ offense, I was blown away by the accuracy of Winstonâs deep passes. The young prodigy doesnât settle for jabs. He throws haymakers. Most offensive coordinators dealing with a young quarterback are handcuffed in their play calling and are forced to call mostly short routes under 10 yards. Youâll see a lot of slants, hitches, curls, out-routes and even wide receiver screens.
This isnât the case with Winston. Fifty-two percent of his pass attempts and 49 percent of his completions this season are longer than 10 yards. Itâs more than Winstonâs incredible talent that allows FSU to connect downfield. There are two other primary reasons:
1. Good protection
FSUâs O-line protects Winston long enough to allow deeper routes to develop, which in return makes Winston dangerous. Clemson does a good job getting after the quarterback, ranking second in the nation with 24 sacks. Defensive end Vic Beasley, who has nine sacks on his own, and his boys up front will play a big role in the secondaryâs success against the âNoles. If the FSU O-line keeps Winston clean, heâll likely have success on the deep ball.
2. Talented receivers in an unusual scheme
As talented as Winston is, his wide receivers are equally underappreciated and overlooked. These guys can fly, run great routes and have uncanny body control. In Kenny Shaw, Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin, FSU has three receivers averaging more than 17 yards per catch. Theyâre nearly impossible to shut down one-on-one, especially when all three are on the field at the same time, because few teams have three DBs capable of lining up toe-to-toe across the board. We still havenât accounted for OâLeary, the tight end whoâs an underrated route-runner and a sneaky red zone threat.
All of these weapons at Winstonâs disposal have outstanding speed, agility and explosiveness, but theyâre made more dangerous by FSUâs unconventional offensive scheme. Seminoles receivers often feature double moves, which are among the toughest to defend for corners and safeties. Theyâll align tight to the formation -- near the offensive tackle -- in either a three-receiver âbunchâ set on one side or two receivers will line up on each side of the formation mere feet from the OTs. Offenses typically run out of these formations or throw shallow crossing patterns or curl routes. Not FSU.
The Seminoles give defensive backs problems because they have a tendency to throw deep out of these formations. Check out this video of an FSU âbunchâ set with three WRs to one side before motioning to a tight, two-by-two formation. Green ran a wicked triple-move â a post-corner-post â that spun the safety around like a whirling dervish before he caught the strike from Winston for six.
To stop FSU from dropping bombs, Clemsonâs safeties must be good with their eyes.
If defensive backs get caught peeking at Winston after they see a Seminole receiver break off a route, theyâre going to get burned.
This will be a great test for Venablesâ defense. I think Clemson will have success against Winston and win in Death Valley, but only if the defense disguises, plasters the FSU receivers and is disciplined in coverage to prevent the deep ball.
If the Tigers fail to do that, the âFamous Jameisâ legend will grow a little more.