By the numbers: Is Clemson playing too conservatively?

Swinney: Deshaun Watson is heart and soul of team

Dabo Swinney praises QB Deshaun Watson and says he is the key to Clemson's success going forward.

Clemson is riding high after a 24-22 win over Notre Dame last Saturday night in Death Valley, but that doesn’t mean every Tigers fan is feeling great about things at the moment. In fact, we’ve gotten a handful of questions like this one from fans concerned about an offense that, against FBS foes, ranks seventh in the ACC in yards per play (5.21), eighth in points per drive (1.73) and 12th in red-zone touchdown rate (42.9 percent).

These, of course, are the two big storylines surrounding Clemson’s offense. First, is co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, who take over for Chad Morris as the designers of the Tigers’ attack. The second is receiver Mike Williams, who is likely out for the season with a neck injury he suffered in the first quarter of Clemson’s opener against Wofford.

So, which is it?

A coach who has followed Clemson recently suggested the play calling had become more conservative this year, noting that sometimes that new coordinators will take that approach so as not to take too much heat early in their careers. It’s an interesting thought, but it’s also a bit tough to prove because play calling is so inherently contextual. Much of it depends on what defenses are giving, and even then, a quarterback like Deshaun Watson can change the play at the line of scrimmage, too.

But for the sake of argument, let’s do our best to come up with a few comparison points.

Looking simply at pass-run splits between 2014 and 2015, we do see some tendency toward a more run-heavy approach.

In 2014, Clemson threw the ball on 45.5 percent of its plays. In 2015, that number has fallen to 42.7 percent. But in the big picture, that really only amounts to trading two passes for runs per game. What’s more, Watson was only the starting quarterback in one-third of Clemson’s games last year. In the games in which he played the bulk of the reps, the Tigers’ passing rate was actually just 41.4 percent — less than it’s been this season.

What most fans think of as conservative play calling, however, is about taking shots downfield. With Watson as the primary quarterback last season (i.e. games vs. Florida State, North Carolina, NC State and South Carolina), Clemson threw passes of 20 yards or more 21 times in 123 attempts (17 percent). So far this season, the Tigers have gone deep on 17 of 120 passes (14.2 percent). Again, that marks a decline, but given the competition that included two good defenses in Louisville and Notre Dame — the latter during a driving rain — it’s not entirely surprising. And if we compare the 2014 Louisville game (five throws of 20 yards or more) to this year’s (also five), the differences are likely negligible.

The question then becomes about Williams, who was by far Clemson’s best deep threat last year — and arguably one of the best in the country. Despite playing most of his season with Cole Stoudt (one of the Power 5’s worst deep-ball throwers), Williams was targeted 27 times on throws of 20 yards or more (eighth-most in Power 5) and only three Power 5 receivers averaged more yards per reception than he did.

Ask Dabo Swinney, however, and there’s not much to the notion that Williams’ absence has been counterproductive to the Tigers’ attack.

“Mike Williams is a great player, so anytime you lose a great player, you certainly miss him,” Swinney said. “But we played in a hurricane this past Saturday. There weren't many big plays on either side in the passing game.”

Swinney also pointed to two long TD throws against Louisville that helped swing the game, along with a more effective ground attack this season as evidence. And that makes some sense.

In fact, if we look at Watson’s effectiveness on deep throws (20 yards or more), we don’t see much change from a year ago.

So far this season, Watson is actually attempting more such passes per game. His completion percentage and TD rates are up, and his yards-per-attempt is virtually unchanged.

But there are two numbers that stick out.

The first is that Watson has already thrown three interceptions on deep balls. Last year he threw just one. Watson isn’t one to complain — in fact, he insists his other receivers are capable of doing exactly what Williams did — but he sounded less than thrilled about Charone Peake’s indifference about fighting for a pass against Notre Dame that ended as an interception in the end zone.

“We had two dropped touchdowns,” Watson said. “One to Artavis [Scott] and Charone kind of faded away on the interception. We could’ve been up 35-3, and it wasn’t anything we really struggled on.”

The other stat is important, too. Of the 28 deep balls Watson threw last season, eight came against the blitz (29 percent). This year, just two of 16 have (12.5 percent). Overall, Watson has seen an extra defender rush about 40 percent less often this year than last. In other words, defenses have adjusted a bit and Watson simply hasn’t been afforded as many chances to beat the blitz and throw against man coverage.

Long story short, the play calling has likely been a bit more conservative — but that’s probably more about how defenses have played Clemson rather than a reluctance by the staff to take risks. And Williams has been missed, but Watson’s arm is certainly capable of taking advantage of his other weapons, too.

So let’s take a few more weeks and see the Tigers against a few other ACC teams before we come to any conclusions. And at the end of the day, if Clemson continues to run the ball effectively and showcase a stout defense, its chances of winning the ACC are pretty high regardless.