Smart Notes – Clemson’s Offensive Playbook, Lamar Jackson’s Passing, Belichick, Match Quarters

Clemson’s offensive playbook. I’ve now had a few different sources send me Clemson’s offensive playbook from 2013 under then-offensive coordinator (and current SMU head coach) Chad Morris. From 2012 to 2013, the Tigers — led by quarterback Tajh Boyd and featuring weapons like DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Tajh Boyd and Martavis Bryant — averaged over 41 points per game while compiling a 23-4 record, which included bowl wins over LSU and Ohio State. More relevant to now, Clemson’s current co-offensive coordinators, Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, were both on Clemson’s staff going back to 2011 and they have largely kept the offense the same, with the primary wrinkles being additional window dressing as well as a few additional passing concepts to play to quarterback Deshaun Watson’s strengths. As a result, the offense found in the the 2013 playbook is essentially the same one Ohio State will see on New Year’s Eve as they face off in the College Football Playoff.

Let’s not get fancy

You can download the part one of the playbook here and part two here.

The first things that should jump out to you about this playbook are:

  1. All of the terminology is built around being run from the no-huddle, so playcalls are limited and primarily use word concepts for play names, as Clemson will often use related words such as NFL team names, cities and mascots to all refer to the same concept;
  2. If you are familiar with Gus Malzahn’s offense it’s exceptionally similar to what Gus Malzahn has run — and not just the play concepts, but in how the offense itself is constructed, called and designed, right down to referring to receivers as numbers (“2”, “5” and “9” being the names for receivers, rather than X, Y and Z) — which should be no surprise given the long history between Morris and Malzahn; and
  3. It’s extremely simple to the point where there’s really just not that much there, as the whole philosophy is to keep it simple so it can all be run extremely fast.

I will admit to my biases in that, while I am always a proponent of simplicity, the sophistication of the passing game in this playbook — or, frankly, from much of Clemson’s film — leaves me a bit cold. Now, as I mentioned, Clemson’s staff has done a nice job adding more to the passing game to better feature Deshaun Watson’s skills, and there’s no reason for Clemson to drop in 500 of Bill Walsh’s favorite pass plays into the middle of a very streamlined, tightly organized offense, but it’s clear that the goal of Clemson’s offense is to make you defend Clemson’s tempo, formations, runs, “shot play” play-action passes behind your secondary and individual one-on-one matchups in the passing game, and only then do you worry about specific pass game concepts.

That said, there is some cool stuff in there in terms of the running game itself as well as packaged plays/run-pass options, such as the below play which combines inside zone with a simplified form of the “Levels” pass play that Peyton Manning made famous:

But in terms of the passing game the most sophisticated things I notice — again, both from watching Clemson and from the playbook — involve staple concepts like Snag where the QB can either read the three playside receivers or make a pre-snap decision to work the backside receiver one-on-one, as shown in the below diagram from the playbook.

There are also a limited number of “coverage reads” in Clemson’s offense, such as the below which combines a slant/flat concept (good against single safety coverages like Cover 1 man and Cover 3 zone) and double slants (good against 2 deep coverages like Cover 2 and Cover 2 man).

If I sound overly critical I don’t mean to be; if anything it’s a testament to the job Dabo Swinney has done building a program over a playbook, and ultimately wins and losses being about players over plays. That said, when you play against the best teams, players and coaches you need to bring your best stuff — and have the right answers when your opponent brings theirs.

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Lamar Jackson’s passing. Louisville quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson is electric, tough, and just plain exciting, but no one is going to confuse him just yet for Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. But he’s also not Tim Tebow, as he has a tremendous amount of raw passing talent and fabulous arm strength (seriously, watch this throw), and he’s been growing and improving by leaps in bounds not only in his accuracy but also his footwork and reads. Jackson has at least one more year at Louisville to learn and develop in Bobby Petrino’s offense — as well as a matchup against LSU’s excellent defense to show his stuff — and I’m looking forward to seeing how another offseason and fall camp benefits him in terms of continuing to improve how he reads defenses, identifies blitzes and coverages and finds secondary and tertiary receivers. I put together a short clip on the Smart Football Instagram page earlier this season showing the early signs of his development; hopefully these trends continue.

The psychology of trick plays. Washington head coach Chris Petersen is — somewhat rightly, somewhat unfairly — branded as a “trick play coach,” largely because of his Boise State team’s amazing last second heroics against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The New York Times (with a slight assist from some blogger) delves into the psychology of trick plays, when to use them and how they really benefit a team. Also, Lindsay Schnell at SI did a great piece on the history of that Boise State/Oklahoma game, and it’s also never a bad time to revisit those three crazy plays that led to a Boise win.

So you want to work for Bill Belichick? Here is a great article on the rigors — and long-term benefits — of being a junior grunt working for Bill Belichick. The subtext of this is that football knowledge isn’t necessarily esoteric or even difficult, but learning its intricacies is a grind, and there is really no substitute for that grind.

Belichick on Navy. Speaking of Belichick, here is a great video of Belichick drawing up a play from Navy’s 1959 offense, when Belichick’s father was on the staff. The best part is when Lesley Visser asks, “How well would this play work today?” “Football is football.”

Match Quarters. One of my favorite discoveries of this football season is the Match Quarters site, run by a current high school coach and former Baylor graduate assistant under Phil Bennett detailing a methodical, philosophical approach to 4-3/4-2-5 Quarters coverage in the age of the spread offense. This page is a great place to start.

Offensive line intricacies. Former NFL offensive linemen Geoff Schwartz has been moonlighting for SBNation, and he has a couple of great pieces out. The first is about how defensive linemen frequently get away with holding, and the second is about how teams use their runningbacks and tight-ends to help their tackles in pass protection.

Chop runningback screen. One of the keys to any good runningback screen is for the runningback to sell that he is blocking, which both helps the concept of the screen play — as it effectively makes two players responsible for the runningback, the rushing defender and a dropping defender — and it ensures the runningback can actually get out there for the screen. The below is a nifty wrinkle I hadn’t seen before, where a fullback executes a backside cut block obefore releasing for a screen.

Zen of the day. Keep your head on a swivel when coming across the middle.

  • bubqr

    Chris: I love your blog posts, but I nearly would prefer for you to make them more frequent but with less content: there’s always so much content to get through that I’m like “alright, do I have an hour ahead of me now?”. This areticle could have been split in 3 smaller ones easily!

    Anyways, thanks for your work, always a pleasure to read.

  • Michael Schuttke

    Re: Lamar Jackson instagram video (first throw)–Even a drop by a receiver off of a good read by the QB is still majestic when NFL Films music provides the accompanying score.

  • IrishBarrister

    Reviewing the Clemson playbook, I was struck by how sparse the volume was on pass protection. I am generally not one for dropping large volumes of protection concepts on a no-huddle system, but I found the lack of options in protecting the quarterback concerning. It seems too predictable for opposing defensive coordinators not to attack. But Clemson has done relatively well in keep Watson protected, so I wonder if that information was intentionally left out of the playbook, and was been left for the offensive line coach to work out on a game-by-game basis.

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