What's wrong with Clemson's offense?
One of the surprises of the early season is the Clemson offense, which has struggled to consistently move the ball and score points. Armed with Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson and numerous playmakers – including the return of All-American wide receiver Mike Williams – the offense was supposed to carry the team as the defense has lost a plethora of talent over the last two seasons. Instead, the offense has trudged through the first two games, unable to find a rhythm to distribute the ball to their talented wide receivers. So what has changed since last season?
Less efficient in the passing game
When evaluating every throw Watson made last season, it was apparent that Clemson’s screen game creativity is difficult for opposing defenses. They use a variety of screen looks – bubble, tunnel, jet – all of which create for easy completions and more manageable down and distance situations. It’s not the most ideal offense to watch a quarterback for evaluation purposes but they clearly kept defenses off-balance. This season, the screen game has taken a back seat in the passing game and it’s been replaced by low percentage downfield throwing.
Last season, wide receiver screens and jet screens consisted of 24 percent of Clemson’s passing attempts, down to 15 percent this season. They’ve been almost directly replaced by “go” routes, including their back shoulder variation, as the route has made up 24 percent of Watson’s attempts this season, up from 16 percent last year. While the effectiveness of the screen game has been nearly identical (5.9 yards per attempt in 2016 compared to 5.8 yards per attempt in 2015), replacing those high-percentage plays with the boom or bust nature of the downfield passing game has led to less efficient offense from Clemson. While the completion percentage remains similar, Clemson’s yards per attempt has dropped from 11.7 on go routes to just 7.2 this season. Watson’s adjusted completion percentage tells the same story as it has dropped from 77.1 percent in 2015 to 65.1 percent this season.
Forcing the ball to Mike Williams
After watching Williams’ Week 1 performance against Auburn, it’s hard to argue with Clemson’s decision to feed him the ball. In part, it was Auburn’s scheme that dictated the strategy as they played a lot of man coverage that left Williams 1-on-1 and he made them pay to the tune of 174 yards on nine catches. While Clemson will certainly take those numbers, there were times in that game that Watson felt overly-reliant on Williams’ presence.
Rather than tap into the schematic creativity that made Clemson’s passing game difficult to defend last season, it became a backyard game of pitch and catch with Watson and Williams as they looked to connect on the vertical passing tree of go routes and back shoulders off of them. Again, there is nothing wrong with this in principle, and Williams brings a dynamic downfield element to the passing game, but forcing downfield throws may have sapped some of Clemson’s creativity and it now shows in the numbers as Williams has caught only 52.4 percent of his targets through two games.
Clemson has a healthy mix of playmakers on offense, from WR Artavis Scott’s dynamic ability after the catch and surprising downfield body control, to WR Deon Cain’s deep play ability, to WR Ray-Ray McCloud’s running back-like skills that he brings to the perimeter of the offense in more of a wide receiver role. And let’s not forget WR Hunter Renfrow who made a fantastic touchdown catch against Troy last weekend and TE Jordan Leggett who can create mismatches from a variety of places. Distributing the ball to a deep roster of playmakers is difficult for any offensive coordinator, and I’m all in favor of feeding the best players on the team, but it may be better for Clemson to tap into all of their assets rather than forcing the ball to Williams on the outside.
Less Watson in the designed run game
There are few answers for a good running quarterback in college football, as a mobile signal caller creates an offensive numbers advantage over the defense. Clemson’s offense exemplified this last season as Watson was a key cog in their running game. Many fans see a high rushing total and assume that the offensive line has dominated up front, but that wasn’t necessarily the case for Clemson as the offensive line’s run blocking was average at best last season and this year has been more of the same. That’s where the quarterback’s role comes in as the line doesn’t need to be good to create yardage. With Watson and explosive running back Wayne Gallman in the backfield, the option game was both efficient and dynamic as both players combined for 2,322 yards in the designed running game alone (154.8 yards per game). This season, that number sits at only 209 yards (104.5 yards per game) as Gallman hasn’t been quite as good, but more importantly, Watson’s role has diminished in the run game.
On one hand, it makes sense to protect your assets and exposing Watson to 10-15 potential hits per game may be the better long-term move for Clemson. But it has still neutralized a big part of Clemson’s attack as Watson is averaging half as many yards on designed runs as last season (53.3 yards per game in 2015, 26.0 yards per game in 2016). This has put more pressure on the offensive line and tight ends who ranked 11th in the ACC in cumulative run blocking grade in 2015 and still rank near the bottom of the conference through two games. Last season it was Watson’s presence in the run game that offset any blocking issues and this year the lack of a threat from Watson has led to a diminished running attack.
The sky is now falling in Death Valley. A loaded offense has gotten off to a two-game slow start and there’s far too much talent for it to continue. It’s difficult to suggest that Clemson should rely on a potential first-round pick less than they have, but perhaps spreading the ball around rather than forcing the ball to Williams will be a good start. Williams still needs his targets – particularly down the field where he can turn average throws into touchdowns – but scheming up more plays for other receivers should also help to open up some of those plays for Williams. That will keep Watson more comfortable and create a more efficient offense that is less reliant on the boom-or-bust deep ball. Another way to sustain offense is to use Watson in the designed running game more often, and this feels more like a trump card Clemson is holding on to rather than something they want to trot out every week. They want to limit the number of hits he takes, but it’s also good to have in in their pocket once they hit the meat of the ACC schedule. With talented pass catchers, runners, and a Heisman-level quarterback, the Clemson offense will be just fine – they just have to regain their creativity.