Matt Connolly

Comparing Clemson’s passing game to 2016 and why the Tigers must improve

Clemson’s passing game got off to a fast start this season as the Tigers passed for more than 300 yards in two of their first three games.

But having success through the air has been a problem for Clemson since Week 4, when the Tigers managed only 140 passing yards against Boston College.

Clemson has passed for less than 200 yards three times this season and managed only 204 passing yards in a loss to Syracuse last Friday. The Tigers did not pass for less than 200 yards in any of their 15 games last season.

One of the biggest problems for Clemson has been a lack of explosive plays.

The Tigers are No. 86 nationally in passing plays of 20 or more yards with 19. Clemson is averaging 2.7 passing plays of 20 or more yards per game in 2017 after finishing third nationally and averaging nearly 5 a year ago.

“It’s a combination of finding the right spots … and they were in Cover-2,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said of having only one pass play of more than 15 yards against Syracuse. “Ever since, maybe, Wake Forest on the first drive where we hit Deon (Cain) on the man coverage, we haven’t really gotten a lot of man coverage in those last two games.”

Clemson can expect to see a lot more Cover-2 as opposing defenses look to take away big plays.

Clemson had a touchdown pass in every game in 2015 and 2016. The Tigers have not had a touchdown pass in three of their past six games.

Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said Clemson spent time during the bye week working on getting teams out of Cover-2.

“There’s a lot of things we can do better as coaches, and then we’ve got to take advantage of some of those easy opportunities that keep you on schedule and get them out of that stuff,” he said. “So yeah, there’s a lot of things that we can do better.”

All of the blame doesn’t fall on Kelly Bryant and the receivers, though. Some of the problems have been in pass protection.

Clemson has allowed 18 sacks through seven games after allowing 20 sacks all of last year. Swinney has said the Tigers are getting their quarterback hit too much, and it’s hard to take shots down field if your receivers do not have time to complete deep routes.

The offensive line is partly at fault, but the running backs are as well.

“We’ve got young backs that have got to get better at our blitz pick up, for sure. We’ve got missed assignments outside, where we’re not doing what we’re supposed to in the run game, so now our quarterback’s getting hit. It’s really just little things,” Swinney said. “Little things lead to big things, that’s something we pride ourselves on, so we’ve just got to get back to the basics and fixing some of that stuff, and reiterating why we do things a certain way.”

Clemson is still 6-1, and, if the Tigers win out, they will likely return to the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive year.

But if Clemson can’t clean up its passing game and find a way to make more explosive plays, the Tigers could suffer another loss sooner rather than later.