Ohio State v. Miami (Ohio): Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on September 6, 2012 at 12:20p
30 Comments

As with the offense, the defense had their own first quarter struggles last Saturday. This was mainly a result of two blown coverages, which resulted in big pass plays that can quickly overwhelm a defense. Credit also has to go to Zac Dysert and a Miami game plan that kept an OSU pass rush at bay. However, also like the offense, the defense made several subtle adjustments and cleaned up the secondary mistakes, allowing the Buckeye defense to largely shut down the Miami offense for the final three quarters.

If you are gonna bend, you can't break

Ohio State's defensive philosophy Saturday should have looked very familiar to observers of Ohio State's defenses over the last decade.  Against Miami's "throw all the time" approach, Ohio State was almost exclusively in its 4-2-5 over nickel defense.  

 

As seen above, this is an 'over' defense in that the defensive line shifts one gap towards the formation strength. For Ohio State, that means that their 3-technique and 'Viper' (Rush End) play to the strength, while the 1 and 5 technique play to the weakside (the opposite of OSU's base 4-3 under). The secondary, meanwhile, plays to the field, with the nickel back ('star') generally over the field-side slot.  

OSU coverages were one of two varieties. The Buckeyes featured an extensive amount of cover 4, which is the biggest change from the Jim Heacock era. 

Alternatively, OSU dropped the Viper (normally Nathan Williams) into coverage, rushed 3, and played a 3-deep, 5 under.  

Meanwhile, Miami's coaching staff knew that their offensive line was overmatched versus Ohio State's defensive front so they did one of two things: They either employed a quick passing game, or half-rolled Dysert to get him away from the rush.

Miami's strategy was aided by Dysert's ability to move in the pocket to avoid pressure without disrupting his reads, an extremely underrated ability that defines a good quarterback. The upshot was that the Buckeyes began the game generating little pass rush against Dysert despite the Buckeye line being the defense's strength.

But this does not undermine the Buckeyes' defensive strategy, which is to force teams utilizing the quick game to string together short completions and move the football down the field. Ohio State did give up short completions. Particularly with cover-4, OSU's 3 underneath defenders (generally the linebackers) were unable to cover the underneath zones against the Miami wide receivers, allowing short completions. But as Urban Meyer stated, this is not debilitating:

The big ones no. The short ones, absolutely you have to rally up and make the receiver pay a price, and have to make the quarterback pay a price.

That's how you defend passes. What we did that as we developed a little bit. But, no, there's no excuse for a play, one was a blown coverage, the long one down the far sideline, Miami's sideline, and there was one that went right through the middle of our defense.

So there's no excuse for that whatsoever. However, you're going to give up yards, if they decide to throw every down, he'll throw for a lot of yards and be an NFL player, that quarterback.

The problem for Ohio State, as Meyer alludes to above, was that they had several coverage breakdowns that allowed big completions. For instance, here is the first long completion. OSU plays an 8-man coverage—3 deep, 5 under. Yet this added zone defender takes away from a pass rush but adds little when the defensive backs are not on the same page. Here, Travis Howard did not play the deep third of his zone, allowing the receiver to get behind him.

This is the worst of both worlds—focusing first and foremost upon coverage yet failing to execute.

Add a splash of pressure and a pinch of coverage

Ohio State was able to flip this script, however, through a combination of strategic adjustments and better execution. OSU upped the pressure to attempt to throw off Dysert's timing. OSU adjusted personnel, bringing Williams or Noah Spence in at LEO with Johnny Simon moving down to the 5 technique. Fellow freshman Aldolphus Washington also rotated in at 3-technique. These two freshmen displayed their immense potential and showed why Ohio State's defensive line is the deepest and most versatile unit on the team. Both will be crucial contributors to OSU this season, particularly in pass situations. Williams' return was also a welcome addition, bringing needed athleticism and versatility to the edge and as a great comeback from serious knee surgery. 

OSU also moved from playing cover-4 to more cover-2. The goal was to put more defenders in the underneath zones to force Dysert to fit throws into tighter windows, taking away easy completions.

Finally, the Buckeye coaching staff mixed in a blitzing linebacker as a fifth rusher, looking to create an unblocked defender who could immediately bring inside pressure to Dysert and prevent him from side-stepping the rush.

The most crucial difference, however, was simply better execution in the secondary. Other than a nice use of formation by Miami where they formationed OSU's nickelback Corey Brown into single coverage against a four verticals route, the Buckeye secondary clamped down against such explosive (20+ yards) plays. As long as the secondary can do so, OSU's defensive philosophy can continue to function.

Continuing the Clean-Up Effort

Lapses in coverage amongst the Buckeye back seven also caused the OSU defense difficulties last fall. This unit must continue to improve to move Ohio State to the level of previous Ohio State defenses. The Buckeye defense figures to be stout against the run, as its defensive line will be difficult for any offense to contain. The defensive line's pass rush was also helped by a more liberal rotation of fresh bodies in the second half, which should be bolstered by the return of Michael Bennett. Spence and Washington's emergence and Williams' return in this regard are crucial, as they bring a high level of athleticism to their respective positions. Central Florida will provide the first opportunity for OSU to function from their base 4-3 under defense, and they will also provide a crucial test of Curtis Grant's play at Mike linebacker.

30 Comments

Comments

vitaminB's picture

Great work as always, Ross.  Any explination for the other big gainer that Meyer talked about, other than just getting beat?

Ross Fulton's picture

Thanks!  The second big play was a blown coverage and then a missed tackle by C.J. Barnett.

bassplayer7770's picture

Just yesterday I said I thought we played largely Nickel D against Miami and looked forward to really seeing Curtis Grant in action, so it's good to see you've confirmed that.  You see, I am learning something!  Nice work, Ross!

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

Noah Spence is going to be one great player!!!  Watching him rip through the line like a hot knife on butter was awesome! 
 
Ross - I am an avid follower of football for many many years, however, I do not delve into the fine grained details that you are discussing during your articles.  I would find it highly beneficial if you could publish an article that would serve as a sort of legend for the jargon you use.  For example, I don't have a clue what 3 technique, Leo, etc mean.  Help an old man out!!!

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

Ross Fulton's picture

Sure, I will make sure to explain a bit more next week.  But the short answer is that simply refers to the gap they are playing.  O technique is head up on the center.  Then every even number is head up on the guard, tackle, etc.  Odd techniques simply mean they line up in the gap.  So OSU's NG plays a 1 technique. The 3 technique is between the guard and tackle.  Check out that last article I linked to.  It has a diagram of each techique.  Thanks!

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

Muchas gracias amigo!!!

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

hcazualcc's picture

your work's good...almost, too good

cinserious's picture

Thanks to Ross, we're now the "Best Damn Educated Fans In The Land" of our team's plays and schemes.

Life's daily struggle is choosing between saying F--ck-it, or soldiering on with your responsibilities.  

Maestro's picture

As much as I love John Simon, he is not a pass rushing DE.
A shame that Sabino's big hit on the first play didn't set the tone because of the 15 yard penalty.  If he looks up instead of dropping his head he still makes the play and we might see a different level of intensity at the beginning of the game.

vacuuming sucks

Buckeyejason's picture

Simon seems to be the only guy to pressure the QB consistently..so I guess we're screwed! He seems pretty good to me. 

BUCKEYES BABY!

Maestro's picture

Not a knock on Simon at all.  He just isn't a prototypical pass rushing DE.  He was a defensive tackle in high school and that is how he started his career at OSU.  He has been put on the outside because of necessity and because he is such a good player.  Hankins even played DE last season because getting pressure on the QB from the outside of the DL has been a problem since Gholston left.

vacuuming sucks

Maestro's picture

Howard is a ball hawk.  Probably why he had 2 picks in the game.  Also why he blew the coverage early in the game.  Don't know if he can change his stripes at this point in his career.

vacuuming sucks

Shaun OSU's picture

I would have to disagree that Howard blew the coverage because he's a "ball hawk." You can be aggressive and go after big plays, but there was no play to be made there. He simply was playing the wrong coverage. He thought the safety was responsible for the vertical route (maybe he thought they were in cover 2?), but the safety was playing deep middle 3rd (cover 3) and he should have been responsible for that vertical route. 
I'm sure there will be times he will (or has) make an overagressive mistake, but on film that just looks like a miscommunication of responsibilities. 

Milk Steak To Go's picture

Cover 3 corners cannot let a man run vertical past him.

SaintTressel's picture

Agreed--On the play he got beat it looks like his eyes were buried on #1 just waiting for that throw. Unfortunately it never came.

Milk Steak To Go's picture

Ross- Did my eyes fool me or did I see some Tampa 2 mixed in as well?  I saw Sabino sprinting back to cover the middle a couple times.
It also looked like most of the big gainers were against cover 3.  Looked like about 65% Cover 4 25% Cover 3, and 10% Cover 2/other.  Bucks seem to like man with their backs against the goalline.

Ross Fulton's picture

Good catch.  That was my sense as well.  I was wondering if with all the work on cover 4 they did not rep cover 3 enough...

Buckeyejason's picture

It's amazing how much more talented Roby is compared to Howard.

BUCKEYES BABY!

BrewstersMillions's picture

He made two incredible plays back to back look really easy. The deep pass break up, where he ripped a caught pass out and the over the shoulder non INT looked like he wasn't even trying. He had a great day, probably the best of all of the bullets, but he looked effortless in doing so. That's a really good sign.

4-6 seconds from point A to point B and when you get to point B, be pissed off

Buckeyejason's picture

Yeah he just has that "it" factor as they say. I think Hankins, Shazier and Simon have it as well ( no pun intended). 
Roby looks to have that swagger and confidence that lockdown-playmaking corners have..unlike Howard last year though Roby can back it up. That 5 lbs of added muscle shows as well.

BUCKEYES BABY!

SaintTressel's picture

Ross, did you get an overall feel for how Sabino would have graded out in coverage? Its a small sample size, but I really like what he shows in those clips. On both the first cover 4 clip and the OSU pressure clip he looks to be doing a great job of opening to the most threatening receiver, reading their routes, and then turning weakside and identifying crossers. It's good to see from someone I seem to recall struggling a bit in coverage in the past.
Also, any feeling on Shazier in terms of coverage?

Ross Fulton's picture

IMO, the linebackers are still not as fluid in coverage as I have seen previous OSU linebacking units.  Sabino has definitely improved, but they were generally a step slow Sat.  Again, not the end of the world, but its not the ideal.

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

Ross - I get the impression that if you don't get a good break on the ball, the cover-4 becomes very easy to complete short passes against. This seems to work against what would seem to be a perceived OSU advantage against lesser teams - superior speed at the corner compared to the opposition's receivers. When the defense went to cover-2, there weren't many plays that went by the DBs execept for the one against Pittsburgh Brown that you mentioned. Why not dictate the windows available to complete passes to lesser teams from the outset?

Ross Fulton's picture

Cover-4's weakness is certainly the underneath flat, but how many offenses can make a living completing 4 yard flat passes?  Cover 4 essentially allows you to play matchup zone with man principles but also get your safeties involved in the run game.  Of course Miami had no interest in running.

Cover-2 has its own weaknesses, as does any coverage.  Corey Brown was beat in cover-1 man coverage.  The benefit of cover 4 vis a vie cover 1 is that your DBs aren't turned away from the LOS against the run.  The big breakdowns, though, came when we were in cover 3, which is odd because that has been a base coverage OSU has been playing for years. 

I'm not sure if this answers your question but I guess the upshot is that all coverages have their plusses and minuses, simply depends upon your philosophy...

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

Thank you. You definitely helped my understanding of these coverages. I guess my bigger question...maybe frustration...is the sense that OSU let Miami dictate what was happening at the beginning of the game. This is a trend I've felt since the latter part of the Tressel era. When OSU was more proactive, it was striking. The Rose Bowl game against Oregon is an example I can think of. I'm wondering why the defense doesn't go for more of knockout against a team it can knockout rather than adjust later. The adjustments certainly worked, but OSU was a little lucky not to be down 14-0. OTOH, maybe I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. lol

Doc's picture

It did seem that Pagac and even Dantonio blitzed(read attack) more than Heacock/Fickell.  I wonder why we don't go after the QB more often? 

"Say my name."

Ross Fulton's picture

Part of it simply reflects a change in the game.  Virginia Tech's defense is a good example because of the continuity.  In the 90's Ds got very aggressive, playing with single-high safeties, bringing pressure, etc.  Offenses responded by spreading the field and using the QB as a run threat.  It simply is not possible to do the same things, anymore than it is to run Buddy Ryan's 46 defense.  Schemes evolve. 

It also is not particularly helpful to play man coverage against an athletic QB or a good run team.  The secondary has to turn their backs, so they have no idea what is going on in the backfield and cannot get involved in the run game.

The result is that coaches such as Saban and teams that use cover 4 have tried to get the best of both worlds.  Playing a 'zone' to overcome these limitations of man, but pattern matching within those zones so that, practically speaking, you have man coverage depending upon the pattern distribution of the receivers.  It allows the safeties to play man coverage but also be involved against the run, all based upon their keys.  That is what OSU is moving towards.  

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

I get it now. I understood that the spread was the offenses reaction to the aggressive defenses of the 1990s and early 2000s, but I didn't see OSU implementing anything to counteract that. I suppose the evolution of the cover-4 at OSU is a work in progress. I just hate to see the defense get nibbled to death. Miami didn't have the players to sustain it, but others will. And this is nothing new. I saw Dave Wilson and Illinois do this to OSU in 1980. He threw for over 600 yards, most of them underneath a soft coverage (probably 3-deep). Only a monster day by Art Schlichter turned the would-be upset into a 49-42 win.

timdogdad's picture

i would think the coverage assigments for the back seven would be drilled into each player so well that they dont have any mistakes in a game that gives up a huge play.  remember learning multiplication tables in school?  you keep learning it til you have it down. same concept. 

cinserious's picture

Who's your favorite Buckeye fullback over the last 20 yrs? (not incl. Zach Boren)

Life's daily struggle is choosing between saying F--ck-it, or soldiering on with your responsibilities.