Cluster detection plays a fundamental role in the analysis of data. In this paper, we focus on the use of s-defective clique models for network-based cluster detection and propose a nonlinear optimization approach that efficiently handles those models in practice. In particular, we introduce an equivalent continuous formulation for the problem under analysis, and we analyze some tailored variants of the Frank-Wolfe algorithm that enable us to quickly find maximal s-defective cliques. The good practical behavior of those algorithmic tools, which is closely connected to their support identification properties, makes them very appealing in practical applications. The reported numerical results clearly show the effectiveness of the proposed approach.