"I can tell Tajh Boyd is scared back there. He ain’t no sitting duck, but you can see in his eyes that he’s scared of our D-linemen … He’s scared every time we play them. I know he’s probably listening to this right now, but I’m just telling the truth, man."
Most rational human beings would be at least a little bit nervous about playing a contact sport with Jadeveon Clowney. Most rational quarterbacks should probably be a little bit nervous about playing football at the highest levels where enormous men studded with hard plastic and filled with vicious intentions are coming at varying angles and directions to put you as deep into the ground as they can manage without a shovel.
Tajh Boyd says he's not afraid of Jadeveon Clowney or anyone else on the gridiron; objective observers can state with some confidence that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. If Boyd isn't at least a little bit aware of where destructive pass-rushers are on the field, then he isn't doing the Clemson offense any favors.
Ever since the adoption of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense, the game has trended towards greater and greater emphasis on the forward pass for what it offers in regards to feats of athleticism, exciting and high-scoring games, and heroic QB play.
However, since the days when Lawrence Taylor terrorized QBs up to today when players like Clowney present existential threats to a QB-heavy offensive design, offenses have had to have means and ways to keep their franchise QB's upright and healthy.
With advances in the read-option and hurry-up tempo, the pendulum has swung back to the offense. However, to utilize these tools in keeping something like a Jadeveon Clowney at bay, the QB has to have a certain skill set.
Round 1 of the Boyd vs. Clowney matchup went in favor of the genetic freak:
However there was a lot in the Clemson attack plan that was effective in neutralizing the aggressive SC DL for brief stretches.
Protecting the run game
Perhaps the greatest advantage to offenses in expansion of option football to include passing plays, spread sets, and tempo is the ability to eliminate troublesome defenders without actually confronting their athleticism. Consider the Clemson running game and its effect on Clowney and the SC defense:
Most practitioners of EA Sport's NCAA football are aware that the triple option is a classic goal-line play that frequently over-stresses goal line fronts to the breaking point. Tajh Boyd ran for 10 TDs in 2012, and his ability to make the quick dive cut against the grain of pursuit demonstrated here is difficult for a defense to prepare for.
While Clowney is out of this play, one DE is ignored on the backside while the other is blocked down.
The heart of the Clemson run game is Inside Zone from the Pistol, run here with a read-element attached:
Nothing beats indecision as a tool for neutralizing a freakish athlete. Ideally, a defensive end will contain the QB run while positioning himself to potentially make the tackle on the back as well, forcing the QB to take an extra moment to make the read. In this instance, Clowney comes inside to take the back before shifting back outside at last moment, evidently "afraid" that Boyd might win the edge against him.
Then Clemson runs Inside Zone "Slice" with the halfback cutting back across the grain of the OLs blocks to lay a hit on the unblocked Clowney.
Clowney does a good job of meeting the block early and inside to string the play outside to pursuit, but the linebackers have overreacted to the fullback's motion and left the play side undefended where the OL are directing their combo blocks.
Later in the game, Clemson left Clowney unblocked with yet another take on Inside Zone.
It's a standard looking zone blocking to the boundary, but instead of crashing into Clowney the halfback "arcs" around him and cuts down a pursuing linebacker. Boyd pitches to the running back heading against the flow of the OL blocks and trusts that Clowney is not fast enough to run down the back from his angle.
This proves to be true, just barely. In each instance, save for the triple option, the OL is running inside zone blocking but they present different false keys to keep the SC defensive backfield from pursuing the plays at max speed. They also treat Clowney with different tactics that will keep him guessing about whether he needs to contain the QB, take on a lead block, or chase down a play from behind. None of them require an OL to have to block Clowney.
These tactics are now dominating the NFL and they present offenses with options unlike ever before for handling DE/LB edge players who can otherwise ruin a game plan. The key to these running plays is that Boyd be a decisive and competent runner. Not a featured runner, as in Urban Meyer's Ohio State offense, but simply able to be part of the diverse plan of attack.
An essential, though perhaps less emphasized, development in the spread offense that has allowed it to take hold has been the vertical passing game. However, even for offenses with three- and five-wide receiver sets in the playbook, the best way to get vertical is still the old school play-action passing game.
The necessary footwork, accuracy, and touch to land that ball past the defeated corner and deep safety coverage is more the mark of a pro-style pocket passer than a college dual-threat QB. Even with numerous incomplete passes over the latter half of this game Tajh Boyd managed a mark of seven yards per pass attempt thanks to the vertical nature of the Clemson passing game that landed a few big punches on the Gamecock secondary.
Boyd was recruited as a slightly undersized (only 6-1) pro-style QB out of high school, and I'll be shocked if he beats 4.7 when he runs at the NFL Combine, but his basic skill set involves quick feet and the ability to make people miss in the backfield or on the loose.
Basing primarily out of the Pistol allows Clemson to run downhill and mix in play-action as well, but Boyd's quick feet allows for an additional element as well:
If you begin the play by running away from Clowney, the chances of him sacking you are surely decreased, right?
The ability to roll out of the pocket and deliver a strike downfield is a skill that translates in any kind of offensive scheme, but it tends to correspond with quarterbacks who have the ability to have an impact in the run game.
Besides play-action from pistol or classic under center sets, the next trick for going vertical in a spread offense is the standard "four verticals" play. However, sending four or five receivers deep doesn't leave many options for handling blitzes or effective pass-rushing lines. Even a spread offense that doesn't feature their QB in the run game benefits tremendously from having a QB who can buy time or handle pressure in the pocket:
Attacking the defense
Beyond buying time to execute the passing game or offering enough threat in the run game to free up the tailback, Clemson uses Boyd's quick feet to attack the defense as well.
A common short-yardage option for Clemson is the classic Power-O play with the QB as the featured back, a play that helped put Kansas State's Collin Klein in the end zone 50 times in two years and made Oklahoma's "Belldozer" package one of the most dominant short-yardage packages in football.
Featuring the quarterback as a runner allows the offense to outnumber the defense with another receiver or another effective blocker. They are very difficult plays to stop if no one in the defensive front can decisively beat their blocker. If the quarterback is quick and tough enough to have this number called frequently than it presents another difficult option for the defense to prepare for.
Then there are plays that rely on the QB's footwork in the backfield to buy time or move the pocket around:
Having a QB who's comfortable moving around and throwing on the run greatly increases the misdirection available to the offense. With this screen pass, the threat of Boyd as a scrambler and throwing on the run draws the defense one direction while the blocks and back head to the other end of the field and totally out leverage the defensive front.
Then there's the scrambling itself:
Which is always listed as a concern by defensive coordinators for the way it requires defensive ends to be disciplined with their pass-rush lanes, requires defensive backs to cover receivers for a few extra moments, and limits how much the defense can employ man coverage that shows the QB a defender's back.
While players like Johnny Manziel get a lot of ink, players like Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III have had success in the NFL, not with dominant scrambling or running but with subtle additions to the offense afforded by combining NFL-level passing acumen with quick feet.
An athletic QB can distract defenses, move the pocket, and threaten enough in the run game to loosen up creases for the running back. The new prototype QB is not the 6'3+ statue with a cannon arm, but a tough and quick-witted athlete who can use his legs to diffuse defensive tactics that haven't quite caught up.