At South Carolina, first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, being the extraordinarily potent weapon that he is, very rarely faced a wall that he could not break through. Week after week, Clowney faced SEC teams packed with NFL talent, and week after week, he still proved to be a nigh unstoppable wrecking machine. Offensive coordinators that were normally content to leave their left tackles on an island with opposing pass rushers dared not give Clowney any one-on-one opportunities on third and long; as a result, he often found himself fighting through double or even triple teams in passing situations. At the end of the 2012 season, the South Carolina stud would face possibly the toughest test of his entire career to that point – Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan. If there was any blocker in college football that a coach could feel comfortable sending into the ring with Clowney for four quarters, Lewan would be it. The Outback Bowl itself was almost seen as an undercard to the Lewan-Clowney main event in the eyes of the media. Boy, what a fight it was.
Lewan, a 6’7" tower of muscle blessed with quick feet, strong hands, and a nasty disposition, may very well have been the first overall pick had he come out for the 2013 NFL Draft. Seen by many to be a better offensive tackle prospect than any of the "big three" tackles to come out that year, some could consider this bowl matchup between Clowney and Lewan to have been an epic clash between two first overall pick caliber talents. With Clowney becoming a Houston Texan and Lewan eventually getting selected by the Tennessee Titans just a few weeks ago, AFC South fans can look forward to sequels of this legendary bowl game brawl for years to come.
Before we get to future contests, however, how about we determine who actually won the inaugural fight? I took to the tape and decided not only to score the matchup blow by blow, but to break down every single snap in which Clowney directly faced Lewan throughout the entire game as a run stopper or pass rusher. Snaps in which Clowney and Lewan had no effect on the outcome of the play due to alignment as well as stunts, drops into coverage, and matchups with other players were not scored. The sample size may be relatively small compared to overall snap counts due to those restrictive criteria, but the fact that every single point scored comes from either Clowney or Lewan directly defeating each other ensures a sort of purity in the final results. Consider each of the four quarters in this game to be a round in the ring, and every article in this series to be an individual score card for one of those rounds. When we get to the end of round four, a winner will be declared, and the stage will be set for the long-awaited rematch this coming fall. If you’re anything like me, you already can’t wait. On to the tape.
1st - 13:07 (1st and 10)
This is the second snap of the game that Clowney lined up across from Lewan (the first being a drop into coverage). After the halfback motions from the "field side" to the "boundary side" (blue line), the inside linebacker calls for a shift (blue circle). Clowney shifts from the five-technique over the tackle out to the six-technique over the tight end, presumably to contain the edge "play side" against the zone read runs that Michigan loved to call (yellow arrow). What Michigan didn’t know, however, is that Clowney has no intention of simply holding the edge. This is his first opportunity to set the tone against Lewan, and his defensive coordinator is letting him off the leash immediately.
Notice that former Gamecock and current teammate (again) D.J. Swearinger is creeping down towards the box while the free safety rotates deep. This is a subtle tip-off that Swearinger, and not Clowney, is responsible for playing the "force" role on the play side edge in case of a run play, which then frees up Clowney to go into hunt mode regardless of the type of offensive play run. Swearinger must "key" off the tight end (blue circle) to read either run or pass and react accordingly. If it’s a run, he plays force on the edge while Clowney does whatever he wants inside to cause damage. If it’s a pass, he stays in coverage while Clowney gets after the quarterback. No matter what, Clowney can just worry about attacking Lewan in any way he sees fit.
Swearinger reads the tight end blocking on a play action pass and keeps creeping down while Clowney immediately beats Lewan inside with a nasty swim move. Lewan expected Clowney to attack the edge based on his alignment and "over-set" accordingly to the outside, but Clowney’s ridiculous first step allowed him to eat up that extra distance instantly and catch Lewan by surprise. One compact, powerful, textbook-perfect swim move later, and Clowney was already getting parallel with Lewan’s hips. Had Clowney not gotten tripped up while running into the left guard, he would have been able to at the very least put a good lick on the quarterback after his release. The fact that Clowney was able to beat Lewan so soundly on his first "rushing" snap of the game, however, sent a pretty strong message to the Michigan offense – the boogeyman is here.
Take a look at Clowney’s arm over in motion. QB hit or no QB hit, this move officially put Taylor Lewan on notice. CLOWNEY 1, LEWAN 0.
1st – 10:42 (1st and 10)
The second snap in which Clowney and Lewan really tested themselves against one another came on the next drive on first down. Clowney fires off the ball faster than anyone else on the line, which is a remarkably common occurrence, and immediately gets under Lewan’s pads.
Clowney’s first priority on this play is to stop the run, so he uses his length and hand placement inside Lewan’s chest to "stack" in preparation to "shed" towards the ball carrier. Pushing Lewan further into the backfield than any other offensive lineman certainly does not hurt either.
Once Clowney senses that Lewan is trying to anchor in pass protection rather than actively drive him out of a run lane, he tries to disengage with a swim move (or "arm over", as some like to call it) to get after the quarterback. If I have just one complaint about Clowney’s game, it would be that he does this exact same arm over to the outside way, way too much. Sometimes it seems like an arm over is Clowney’s only move' on plays like this one, he really could have benefited from trying to "rip" underneath Lewan’s grasp rather than swimming over it.
Clowney has to compromise his balance, speed, and power to swing his arm over Lewan. As a result, he cannot get Lewan’s "low hand" (hand furthest from the center) out of his chest. Failing to disengage Lewan’s hands from his body slowed him down just enough around the corner that he failed to impact the play, so I suppose you could give this win to Lewan simply for his ability to "hang on", even if it means getting away with dragging Clowney down by his hair.
Take a look at a second angle of the play. Lewan’s "high hand" (hand closest to the center) is all the way up around Clowney's head, which makes it that much more difficult to actually get his arm over Lewan’s grip. Had Clowney simply cleared Lewan’s low hand off his chest and then ripped under Lewan's high hand, he probably could have gotten around the corner with fewer issues (and less hair pulling).
I expect, or at least hope, that Clowney will diversify his repertoire as he develops in the NFL, which will likely help him take advantage of snaps like this one in the future. For now, however, Lewan was still able to delay him long enough to keep a zero in the stat sheet. I’ll consider that a win against a talent like Clowney any day of the week. CLOWNEY 1, LEWAN 1.
1st – 8:28 (1st and 10)
Snap number three that pits Clowney against Lewan is your standard "Iso" run up the gut. Lewan has one job, and that job is to blow Jadeveon Clowney off the ball.
Lewan gets under Clowney’s pads off the snap, which for someone as powerful as Lewan typically means he is about to bury someone.
Remarkably, Clowney somehow resists Lewan despite having a horrible leverage disadvantage. The fact that Clowney is not on his way to the ground in this image is a testament to his phenomenal core strength and natural athleticism.
After absorbing the shock of Lewan’s impact, Clowney slips off the block with a nice arm over. This is one of those moments when Clowney’s natural power is simply too much to handle, even if his actual football technique leaves a lot to be desired. Some things you just cannot teach, and this is one of them.
After discarding Lewan, Clowney chases the ball carrier from behind and gets in on tackle for a short gain.
Take a look at the play in full speed below. CLOWNEY 2, LEWAN 1.
1st – 7:48 (2nd and 13)
Clowney is not the only physical specimen on the field, however. Take a look at Lewan’s impressive footwork and athleticism in the pairing’s fourth direct matchup of the first quarter.
After the snap, Clowney sets up his trademark "jab-swim" move by taking a quick step inside to get Lewan to flash his hands before trying to neutralize his punch and swim back outside. Considering that two blockers are assigned to keep Clowney at bay inside, attacking the edge is really his only option. Lewan, seeing Clowney’s inside move first hand earlier in the game, takes the bait and lunges prematurely.
However, what sets Lewan apart from most other tackle prospects is his ability to recover from mistakes with exceptional grace and fluidity. Despite biting on Clowney’s inside jab and lunging at the first sign of trouble, Lewan unhinges his hips and lets his excellent kick-slide go to work.
It is one thing to have good enough feet to mirror your standard SEC pass rusher, but having good enough feet to mirror someone with Jadeveon Clowney’s speed after recovering from a mistake is just downright rare.
The following angle illustrates why swimming outside and away from the quarterback can sometimes be much less effective than swimming inside and towards the quarterback. Watch the freeze when Clowney goes for the arm over off his jab step. Lewan easily counter-counters Clowney’s counter by shooting his hand into Clowney’s exposed ribs and punching him back outside. Clowney’s balance is instantly compromised, and unlike swimming inside where a punch to the ribs just sends the pass rusher careening closer to the quarterback in the middle of the pocket, getting beaten back when swimming outside only sends Clowney further away from his target.
My general rule of thumb is to stick to "dip n’ rips" on the outside to keep your body pointed towards the center of the pocket at all times while using the arm over as an inside counter off of that edge rush, yet some pass rushers are able to make the outside arm over work on a consistent basis. Luckily for Jadeveon Clowney, J.J. Watt is one of those pass rushers. CLOWNEY 2, LEWAN 2.
1st – 7:39 (3rd and 13)
The following snap was not scored because it was so rudely interrupted by a double-teaming left guard halfway through, so the "winner" could not really be established. However, I felt it should be showed anyway just to give an example of Clowney’s incredible power. Had Clowney been allowed another two or three steps to put Lewan on ice before getting shoved off balance from the side, this could have turned into a disaster for the Michigan offense.
1st – 0:11 (3rd and 6)
In the fifth and final direct matchup between Clowney and Lewan in the first quarter, Clowney again went for an inside jab-outside swim combination, and yet again Lewan’s impressive footwork, strength, and fluidity shut it down. Take notice of Lewan’s swivel-like hips as he reacts to Clowney’s jab with his post foot (foot closest to the center), and then again as he mirrors Clowney’s counter back outside.
Lewan has this move figured out by now. As soon as Clowney tries to swing his arm over the top, Lewan gives him another rib shot to disrupt his balance.
I know that I have expressed this dozens of times already, but Jadeveon Clowney really needs to learn a rip move. If I could just ask for one thing from the football gods this year, it is that J.J. Watt teaches this young man how to diversify his pass rush moves. CLOWNEY 2, LEWAN 3.
Through the first round of this heavyweight fight, Taylor Lewan has a very narrow one point lead on the scorecard. Can he hold it going into the halfway mark after round two, or will the ball of unlimited potential that is Jadeveon Clowney come roaring back? Make sure to check in next week to find out.