The nation celebrated Florida State's 51 points against Clemson, pushing quarterback Jameis Winston toward the top of the Heisman discussion. However, the real big news were the 14 points, seven that mattered, scored by the Clemson Tigers offense. No one, not even the biggest Florida State homers, saw that shutdown coming in Death Valley against one of America's most potent offenses.
Across the nation, as teams battle spread attacks with multiple looks and various threats, the big takeaway from Florida State's dismantling should be physical play, a disciplined approach and tackling. Although the early turnovers set the tone, it was basic defensive principles that paved the way to victory for Florida State.
Physical play starts at the line of scrimmage, a battle that Florida State's massive defensive front, operating out of both 3-4 and 4-3 sets, won time and again against Clemson. Here, the Seminoles are lined up with three men on the line and two potential rushers to the offense's right side.
The 'Noles are able to occupy three blockers with two defensive linemen. The defensive end to the left side of the formation goes free as the read player, while the tackle pushes to the second level. Both rushers clear the line of scrimmage and what the defense has, is three bodies in position to make a tackle.
That's muscling up at the point of attack and something that plenty of defenses can take away from the Seminoles. Winning the little battles up front is how a successful defensive play starts. Too often defensive lines are being blown off the ball, controlled at the point of attack and allowing backs to get to the second and third levels without defenders getting a hand on them.
Defensive football, at its core, is about winning one-on-one battles. Florida State won those one-on-one battles and came out on top by forcing Clemson to dedicate two players to one Seminole on the line of scrimmage. Two-for-one exchanges that ended in stalemates as FSU's defenders held their point and allowed alley-fill players to get to the ball-carriers.
That is where discipline comes into play. Winning the line of scrimmage and getting penetration are great starting points, but poor gap integrity will quickly render those positives useless for defenses. Defenders doing their job is where success at the line of scrimmage meets second-level players filling the void to make plays.
As this play starts, the gaps come clear in play-side A and play-side B. The second-level defenders are sitting in both gaps, prepared to fill as the play develops. The back-side A-gap is swallowed by the defensive tackle who has occupied both the center and guard. To the play-side, the linebacker is squeezing the C-gap to contain the play and avoid the running back getting wide.
The play progresses, and the linebackers flow to fill. The extra fill player, No. 13 defensive back Jalen Ramsey, comes into the scene as the backer stones the lead blocker in the hole. Ramsey makes the tackle for a minimal gain. That is gap-sound football with players doing their job.
No defensive linemen attempting to create a play by knifing inside and losing gap integrity. No linebackers running around blocks to avoid the contact. No defensive backs taking poor angles or late to alley-fill. Everyone is doing his respective job, putting the pieces of a defensive puzzle together, the way it belongs.
Against college football's most popular play, currently, the zone-read, Florida State's approach is equally as disciplined. The hybrid linebacker Christian Jones is the unblocked read player and the linebacker, Telvin Smith, to his side is the scrape-and-fill player.
The play proceeds, and both Jones and Smith allow their keys to take them to the football. There is no read for quarterback Tajh Boyd. Smith is all over the running back, and Jones is ready to pounce on Boyd. The play is swallowed up because Florida State has defenders who are not guessing on who has the ball. Rather, they are playing rules football.
Sound assignment football will get you far, and to seal the deal, the final piece of the puzzle must come together, tackling. America is in the midst of a bad tackling epidemic, yet Florida State found a way to get Clemson's ball-carriers on the ground, in space, consistently. The Seminoles eliminated bad angles, they did not dive at legs or spend more time stripping the ball than getting the player on the turf.
To win defensive battles, teams have to be successful at the line of scrimmage, get players to the ball and then get ball-carriers on the ground. Failure in one or multiple elements results in the big plays that the nation watches on a weekly basis.
Stopping big-play offenses is on most defensive coaches' agendas this season. Not just Clemson, but teams like Oregon, Baylor and Texas A&M live on the explosion plays that turn simple runs and throws into touchdowns from all over the field.
Defense is about doing your job. Eliminate the missed assignments. Eliminate guessing at what the offense is doing and read keys. Get strong at the line of scrimmage.
And above all else, tackle the ball-carrier.
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