Perhaps no current college football defensive coordinator has had more sustained success than Clemson’s Brent Venables. Although Venables came to the Tigers known as a four down, cover 4, match quarters coach, he has long since moved to mixing a variety of single high and split safety—primarily zone—schemes from both odd and even fronts.
For instance, Venables listed the top five coverages Clemson played in 2016 as follows:
Brown is Venables’ cover 1, ‘3’ is cover 3, and ‘3 robber’ is cover 3 buzz—all single high coverages—while ‘Buffalo’ is a cover 4-concept and ‘Lock’ quarter/quarter/half. But, as the high-pressure number above indicates, what Venables is perhaps best known for is his blitz schemes.
In particular, Venables frequently utilizes zone simulated pressures [link: https://blogs.usafootball.com/blog/7377/fire-3-simulated-pressure#:~:text=A%20simulated%20pressure%20is%20a,not%20require%20any%20additional%20rushers] (bringing a linebacker or defensive back as one of the four rushers with a defensive linemen dropping into coverage) or 5-6 man zone blitzes with cover 2 or cover 3 behind the pressure. While those cover 2 and cover 3 zone blitzes will have the standard two or three deep defenders, Clemson will only have 2-3 underneath zone defenders instead of the usual 4-5. For instance, one staple Venables blitz is a double A-gap linebacker pressure, with a 3 deep, 2 under behind. The end will then peel to his side if the running back releases.
Venables’ calculation is that the deep zone can prevent big plays, while the pressure will either get home before the underneath zones are exploited—or force the quarterback to quickly get rid of the football, allowing the deep zone defenders to make a tackle short of the first down. For instance, as Coach Cody Alexander outlined [link: https://matchquarters.com/2020/05/18/mq-pressure-tape-clemson-vs-ohio-st/#more-78381], in Ohio State and Clemson’s Fiesta Bowl matchup last year, Venables used a “Smash” concept, with the Sam linebacker off the edge, the Mike in the A gap, and the Will as a delayed blitzer if the running back stayed in to block. The underneath two defenders use “eyes” coverage, staying in the seams watching the quarterback.
Against the Buckeyes early on, Venables primarily played a 4-3 under cover 3 on early downs, mixed with zone blitzes, bringing down the safety opposite the running back to add a run game defender (this is also the same general plan he used against Notre Dame). But after Ohio State jumped to a 16-0 lead, Venables showed the depth of his playbook by frequently mixing in a ‘3-3-3 broken stack’ alignment.
As Coach Alexander describes [link https://matchquarters.com/2018/03/02/running-dime-as-your-base/], in the broken stack, the defense aligns in an odd front with 3 defensive linemen—including a 0 technique nose guard (head up on the center)—3 linebackers, and 3 safeties.
This alignment increases Venables’ ability to hide zone blitzes. The two outside safeties can drop into cover 2 with the middle safety coming down to play the run. Or the middle safety can drop with the corners into cover 3, with the two outside safeties coming down as alley run defenders.
Venables’ early down use of this alignment caused run blocking confusion for Ohio State; particularly in how to combination block the slanting 0-technique nose guard to get to the inside linebackers on zone blocking schemes (it also did not help Ohio State that Venables’ change to the odd front coincided with J.K. Dobbins’ injury). The Buckeyes either needed center Josh Myers to come off the nose after the backside guard engaged to get to the second level, or the guards to release immediately for the linebacker.
The post-snap change in coverage also caused some confusion in Justin Fields’ decision-making.
But Ohio State eventually adjusted to successfully move the football its last three drives against Clemson. Ironically, the Buckeyes success against Clemson’s odd front came using many of the same concepts that worked earlier against the Tigers’ four down schemes.
For instance, upon Dobbins’ return, Ohio State was able to return to cutting mid-zone runs back behind the nose guard.
This is similar to how Dobbins cut mid-zone behind Clemson’s backside defensive tackle against the Tigers’ under front for the Buckeyes’ first touchdown.
Trey Sermon’s recent success bending back mid and wide zone in the Big Ten Championship game [link: https://buckeyescoop.com/fulton-analysis-running-to-win/], will thus be critical to the Ohio State run game. The Buckeyes’ increased use of the pistol formation this year should also assist Ohio State’s ability to run at the B-gap bubbles in the Tigers’ odd front. For instance, last year, the Buckeyes’ successfully ran Duo [link: https://www.schwartznfl.com/how-to-identify-if-a-run-play-is-inside-zone-or-duo/#:~:text=Duo%20is%20a%20gap%20scheme,many%20double%20teams%20as%20possible.&text=Duo%20is%20run%20exclusively%20to,your%20double%20teams%20with%20him] (the front side of the offensive line blocks down with the running back reading the inside linebacker to cut inside or bounce the play outside) to down block the nose guard against this alignment.
Notre Dame had similar luck with Duo early against Clemson in the ACC Championship game.
The Buckeyes also had sustained success last year in the passing game targeting the undercovered underneath zones against both the Tigers’ four down and odd fronts. Ohio State repeatedly stayed on-schedule throughout by hitting outside out and comeback routes in front of the Clemson cover 3 corners.
The Buckeyes also repeatedly used snag, which combines a shallow curl with a flag and swing route, overloading the undermanned underneath zones.
For instance, below, Ohio State combines snag to one side with a shallow cross ‘drive’ [link: http://smartfootball.com/passing/bobby-petrinos-shallow-cross-concept-concepts-routes-and-protection#sthash.1S1vAY7F.dpbs] opposite.
Fields likewise repeatedly hit Dobbins on the snag swing route, as Clemson’s propensity to zone blitz or line both linebackers up in the A-gap repeatedly left the cover 3 flats undefended.
Notre Dame similarly had success early in the ACC championship game targeting the cover 3 curl/flat zone, below hitting a sail route[ link: http://smartfootball.com/passing/carving-up-the-sooners-y-sail-with-an-angle-tag#sthash.UkQmCVUj.dpbs].
The Buckeyes will need to successfully mix such mid-range throws on early downs to stay ahead of schedule; avoiding the third and longs where Venables’ zone blitz schemes are most dangerous. Finally, Ohio State must do a better job in the red zone than last season’s Fiesta Bowl. This is where a healthy Fields must be maximized on designed quarterback runs. Similarly, the Buckeyes would be well served by sporadically mixing in a quarterback draw on third and long against Venables’ blitz schemes.