Troubling trend: Clemson offense allowing too many tackles for loss

Clemson guard Tyler Shatley on negative plays by Tigers' offense: “We take it very personally. That’s our baby.” (File Photo)

Not all of Clemson’s offensive statistics have been crowed about.

For the third straight year — also the third year of Tajh Boyd at quarterback, Chad Morris at offensive coordinator and Robbie Caldwell at offensive line coach — the Tigers allow defenses to infiltrate the backfield at a higher rate than desired.

During the 2011 ACC Championship run, the Tigers allowed 6.07 tackles for loss per game (75th nationally.) Last year’s No. 6 scoring offense improved slightly to 5.77 TFLs on average, also 75th in the country.

Through three games, Clemson’s taken 24 negative plays, eight per contest. That’s taken a tumble to 111th among FBS squads, or tied for 11th-worst.

“We’ve got to clean some things up, protection-wise, that has nothing to do with Tajh,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ve let a few guys slip through the wall and create some pressure that shouldn’t be there.”

It’s quietly become a troubling trend.

“We take it very personally. That’s our baby,” right guard Tyler Shatley said. “That’s what we’ve got to control, because we’ve at least got to get the ballcarrier to the line of scrimmage. After that, once he gets past us, we let them make the plays and make us look good.”

Even more disturbing is the current state of the line. The team said right tackle Gifford Timothy suffered a concussion in the first few plays last Thursday at North Carolina State, and he’s likely to sit out Saturday vs. Wake Forest.

Left guard David Beasley is questionable with an ankle injury, and reserve left tackle Isaiah Battle is suspended for throwing a punch against the Wolfpack.

Shatley insisted the Tigers don’t talk about stats, but they know they’ve got to improve, starting Saturday against the Demon Deacons’ No. 24-rated defense which doesn’t specialize in TFLs (4.5 per game.)

“We definitely talked about the tackles for loss, because that’s what we can control, and that’s what we take pride in,” Shatley said, “not having linebackers run through or defensive linemen cut loose and tackle our quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield.”

The three busiest defenders in terms of snap count so far, in order, are strong safety Travis Blanks, middle linebacker Stephone Anthony and free safety Robert Smith.

Blanks and Smith have been overly active, in Swinney’s eyes.

“As we go throughout the season, we’re going to have to have some help,” Swinney said. “Because Robert and Blanks can’t play 70 snaps. They can’t hold up.”

Swinney “really, really likes our two safeties, and they’re still growing,” but a prerogative Saturday is figuring out who might be able to spell them on some drives.

The prime suspects are all freshmen: Jayron Kearse, Ronald Geohaghan, Jadar Johnson and Korrin Wiggins.

“Some guys really want that moment, and other guys would rather not. They might say they do, but when push comes to shove, it’s very difficult to invest every single day emotionally and physically,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.

“A guy is not going to look like a blind dog in a meat market at practice every day, and then all of a sudden show up and be Superman on game days.”

Two other options are junior Taylor Watson, listed as Smith’s backup, and Bashaud Breeland, who’s currently starting at cornerback. Martin Jenkins is getting healthier, which could afford Clemson the option of moving Breeland into the back end with Blanks, neither of whom are natural safeties.

“Safety’s a lot more difficult to learn,” Venables said. “It’s linebacker with even higher stress because you’re the last line of defense.”

While ACL rehab buddy Chad Kelly was lauded for his quick return in week two, tight end Sam Cooper made a major impact with Clemson’s first touchdown in the N.C. State game, five months after suffering the most serious of knee injuries.

Cooper maintains he’s “definitely 100 percent” and ready to contribute in the passing game.

“One of the hardest things coming off an ACL is getting that confidence back,” Cooper said. “I haven’t struggled with it, but that’s definitely been a challenge. To go make that grab meant a lot.”

Much like Kelly, Cooper gave himself one night to feel sorry for himself after the spring game. He also tore his meniscus, and spent a month on crutches.

“I definitely believe in positive thinking. I’d never been hurt before. I’d never been on crutches,” Cooper said. “But with the support staff we have here, the doctors and my parents, it really wasn’t as bad as you’d think it’d be.”

Defensive end Vic Beasley was named the Bednarik National Defensive Player of the Week, handed the honor by the Maxwell Football Club one week after garnering three sacks at N.C. State.