The Hokies take on Clemson for the ACC Title on Saturday, and if they want to pull it off, Virginia Tech has to do their job on defense. Clemson is one of the most talented and dangerous offenses in the country, and it all starts with DeShaun Watson. The future first-round QB has really elevated the Tigers over the last two seasons, throwing for 69 touchdowns and 7.730 yards in that timespan.
Virginia Tech’s inability to contain mobile quarterbacks has been well documented throughout the course of the season. Just look down the schedule. Joshua Dobbs ran for 106 yards. Daniel Jones ran for 99. And Syracuse QB Eric Dungey frustrated the Hokies with 106 on the ground as well.
However, despite the troubles defending the legs of QBs, the gobblers primary concern should be the receivers Watson has at his disposal. And on Saturday, the one player to watch out for is redshirt junior Mike Williams. Williams, who will likely join Watson as a first-round pick in April’s draft, is a physical specimen, standing at 6-3, 225. He’s posted 79/1114/10 in 2016, which are outstanding numbers.
The number one reason Williams could be the Hokies biggest problems is his physicality. It is no secret Bud Foster wants to apply as much pressure as possible, which usually means he plays man coverage with a single high safety behind his blitz schemes. Williams is an expert at beating press coverage. He gets out of his breaks so cleanly, and he and Watson have excellent chemistry. Like how Evans does with Isaiah Ford, sometimes Watson just throws it up there and lets his receiver make a play. On this play, Clemson isolates Williams to the field side, giving Watson plenty of space to drop this ball in a bucket.
One of the most common methods Williams is fed the ball is via the back shoulder throw. This is already an impossible concept to stop when you have a high-caliber connection, but Williams’ size makes this such a tough cover. Luckily for the Hokies, with Alexander and Facyson at the outside CB spots, they can counter Williams’ size (with Stroman listed as probable, there are going to be times when he has to take on the assignment). However, there is no answer for his fluidity and body control in the air. He adjusts and tracks the ball so well in the air.
Even in perfect coverarge, Clemson can still manufacture an explosive play. Like the previous clip, Williams is the flanker and is isolated at the top of the screen. Auburn’s Joshua Holsey, like Facyson and Alexander, is a physical cornerback, but stands no chance defending this type of throw.
If I’m Dabo, and I look outside and see a one-on-one matchup, I’m telling Watson to throw that back shoulder throw every time. Virginia Tech’s cornerbacks have struggled while playing the ball in the air, often just losing sight of their man as they look for the ball or committing a costly pass interference penalty. There will be more than enough opportunities for Watson to connect with Williams on these passes.
Problem is, once the cornerback prepares for the back shoulder, it opens up all the in-breaking routes Clemson uses. Because Williams is so smooth out of his breaks for a 6-3 player, he can create separation on slants, digs, and hitches easily. Watch him fight through the press coverage, and break inside on the slant route creating quick separation. He is not bothered by the fact that a DB is essentially holding him. This is a man’s slant route.
As you can see in the clip above, another problem Williams creates is the fact that he is so difficult to bring down. Often times, defensive backs are just too little to bring him down. Combining his size with his lateral quickness makes him such a dangerous threat with the ball in his hands. On this play, he performs a spin move a player his size should not be able to do, turning what should have been an eight yard gain into a 22-yard explosive play.
By the way, as a film guy, I feel obligated to point out how great of a route this is. Williams sells the fade route with a quick outside stem, but turns the cornerback around with a three-step slant. That change of direction and balance, to make that steep of a cut, is incredible. Williams also has very good lower body strength to break arm tackles, so screens are another viable way to get the ball to him and let his talent flourish.
So the obvious conundrum is: how do you match up with Williams to limit his effectiveness? Playing off coverage to protect against the deep ball is a weak strategy. Watson will feast on quick throws that gain 8-10 yards each play, which will result in elongated drives, tiring out the defense. Virginia Tech’s defense has to find a way to get off the field, so death by a million paper cuts is off the list. Williams, as I’ve covered, is at his strongest at the line of scrimmage, so press coverage is another dangerous path to go down. Watson and Williams are excellent on quick to intermediate timing throws as well which can dice up zone coverage.
There is a combination of three things that the Hokies need to happen in order to contain Williams.
The first thing the Hokies can do is to not let Watson throw the football bereft of disruption. Essentially, if Watson has a clean pocket, the secondary is toast. Bud Foster needs to call a great game in terms of his timing of pressure and scheme. Keep Watson guessing where players are coming from and when they are coming.
Despite Williams’ ability to win at the LOS, Virginia Tech still must challenge and be physical with him at the snap. If Alexander or Facyson can disrupt the timing of his route, especially on the back shoulder, the Hokies can have success stopping him. Make Watson move off Williams as his first read. Furthermore, press coverage is the only way to stay close enough to him where if he catches it, the defensive back can still make the tackle and limit YAC. With pressure, it’s possible the throw can be inaccurate and a defender will have a chance at a turnover.
On this play, the play-action fake moves the linebackers out of their zones, creating a clear throwing lane for Watson. However, a Louisville DL gets some pressure and although he is completely fooled by the fake, it probably speeds up Watson’s delivery. As a result, the throw is slightly behind Williams and Louisville comes up with the turnover.
It’s no secret Virginia Tech will need to win the turnover battle in order to have a chance in this one. This goes along with my first point about pressure. If pressured, Watson will make a mistake at some point in the game. The Hokies need to be looking for the takeaway when that happens.
The third factor is luck. If you believe in the Ron Swanson philosophy of luck, then you can skip this paragraph. However, there have been multiple instances this year where Williams has had an easy catch on a perfect throw by Watson only to have it dropped. One of the knocks on Williams by NFL scouts has been his issue with concentration drops and body catching this season.
In the end, Williams will most likely get his. But if the defense tackles well and keeps the ball in front of him, the Hokies’ offense should be in a position to win the chip.