Georgia vs. Clemson: What Tigers Must Do to Shut Down Bulldogs' Offense
There are other, smaller treats on the docket, but all Week 1 games pale in comparison to Georgia at Clemson—a rare top-10 showdown on the season's first Saturday.
Both teams finished 2012 (though, really, 2013) on the right notes: Clemson by beating LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and Georgia by beating Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. They're expected, as they did last year, to have two of the best offenses in America, and Saturday's game has been pegged as a potential shootout.
Even with Memorial Stadium at its back, Clemson is a small betting underdog. Georgia is favored, in large part, because of the perception that Clemson can't stop its high-powered offense; because defensive coordinator Brent Venables, in some eyes, isn't capable of stopping Mike Bobo's attack.
But even if that's true—even if Clemson can't actually "stop" Georgia's offense—it does stand a chance at slowing it down.
Drop Numbers Into Coverage
The first step in stopping the Bulldogs is an admission: Clemson's defensive backs cannot keep up with their receivers.
From Michael Bennett to Malcolm Mitchell to Arthur Lynch, UGA has too many weapons for the Tigers to stop. Their young (and shaky) secondary has practiced against Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins—so it's not like talent will shock them—but it still isn't up for the challenge.
Venables can't just concede passing yards, though. He can't just say "welp," admit defeat in the deep third and let the Bulldogs run wild. He needs to find a way to compensate on the back end.
His best option will be dropping numbers into coverage. He can't rely on just four DBs to shut down Georgia's passing game. He needs to give his burnable corners all the help he can, especially given the nagging injuries they've endured.
What is that going to do? It's going to make Georgia play slower than it would like. The 'Dawgs personnel allows it play at any tempo, but its mindset always says, "Go." Aaron Murray led the nation with 10.1 yards per attempt last year. He wants to get the ball downfield.
By locking up the deep third—and hopefully frustrating Georgia's receivers—Clemson will shrink Georgia's margin of error. UGA will have to run extra plays to get the ball downfield, and the more plays it runs, the more likely it is to screw up.
Georgia does everything well, but the thing it does best is vertical passing. And a defense should always take away what its opponent does best.
Mitigate the Trenches
Snowballing off point No. 1, if Clemson (wisely) drops numbers into coverage, its defensive line will have to be the unit that carries it. It will need to battle hard in the trenches and, if not win, at least play to a near-draw.
That will be easier said than done. Georgia's offensive line returns five starters and should be one of the nation's best units. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall form a scary good one-two punch in the backfield and should always be fresh with the ball.
But Clemson would still be picking the lesser of two evils—twice. Not only is it choosing Georgia's running game over its passing game (elaborated above), but it's also choosing to trust its defensive line over its secondary. The former at least stands a chance.
Clemson returns three starters on the defensive line: Grady Jarrett, Corey Crawford and Josh Watson. Vic Beasley enters as the fourth starter but led the team in sacks last year. The front four is the strongest part of Clemson's defense, and it will need to play like it Saturday.
If that unit can mitigate Georgia's advantage in the trenches, it would allow Venables to keep dropping players in coverage. If Clemson's front four gets tossed around—as some fear it will—Venables will be put in a lose-lose scenario.
This is the way it has to be. Clemson's fate is in its linemen's hands.
This seems like a simple tenant, and in some ways it states the obvious. Every defense knows that forcing turnovers is a good thing—they don't need to be reminded.
But in a game like this, Clemson actually does need to be reminded. It needs to be more than reminded; the concept of turnovers needs to be shoved down its throat. Takeaways could be its only saving grace if the gameplan doesn't work.
Even after dropping numbers in coverage, and if the line plays even in the trenches, Georgia's offense will find a way to move the ball. It's regarded as one of the nation's best for a reason; it can beat you in so many different ways. It will almost certainly string together some good gains.
Clemson, in an effort to negate those plays, should be hyper-aggressive—especially if it struggles in the trenches. If Georgia's offense looks like an unstoppable physical force, brute resistance won't get in its way. But a turnover could send it back to the sidelines and render it ineffective.
Clemson's corners shouldn't always play things safe. They shouldn't keep the ball in front of them at all costs. Murray has had a three-interception game every year he's been at Georgia. Why can't Clemson be that team in 2013?
If a potential turnover appears, they need to pounce at it, even if it puts them at risk of a big play. Under the assumption that UGA's offense might march down and score anyway, the Tigers need to take every chance at stealing the ball.
The corners should be up on the line, playing with instinct, ready to jump any and all routes. They should be foaming at the mouth like Bateman from The Replacements, hellbent on getting the ball back.
Without two or three takeaways, the Tigers' defense might be doomed.
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