Ohio State v. UCF: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on September 13, 2012 at 2:00p

Ohio State's otherwise solid defensive performance against Central Florida was marred by allowing multiple explosive plays (+20 yards) that permitted UCF to compile several scores. While much of the focus has been upon the Buckeye pass rush (or lack thereof), the biggest impediment to the OSU defense is blown coverages and poor tackling that are giving opposing offenses the opportunity to score points.  This, first and foremost, is what Ohio State must fix.

The Rush Part I: To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction

Let's get down to brass tacks and immediately address Ohio State's pass rush, both in terms of scheme and personnel.  A lot of sturm und drang—including from Urban Meyer—has focused upon the Buckeye pass rush. This concern is exacerbated by the belief that Ohio State's defensive line is the team's strength. So what is wrong with the OSU pass rush?

The first point that must be made is in regard to game theory. SmartFootball's Chris Brown had a great post where he discussed run/pass balance, making the counterintuitive point that a team may end up passing more when they have a great tailback for the simple reason that defenses are committing more defenders to stop the run. This of course works both ways. In its first week, Central Florida lined up under center and played power football. Against Ohio State, by contrast, UCF was entirely in shotgun, focusing a high percentage of their plays on the quick game while simultaneously using six and seven pass blockers. Why are they doing this?  Well, as George O'Leary stated:

“Ohio State's front seven is outstanding,” he said. “John Simon is as good as anyone in the country. You don't want to take your time passing against them. The quarterback can't take more than three- or four-step drops.”  

This was not simply coachspeak. UCF generally kept one to two potential receivers in to block. In particular, the Knights constantly chipped and double-teamed Simon with a RB or TE.

One would not expect an offense to react in this manner to a defensive line (and pass rush) they did not respect. Opposing coaches clearly respect the Buckeye pass rush enough to where they are limiting their options because of it, which means it is already an effective asset.

The Rush Part II:  Whither the Scheme

The Buckeyes employed two different defensive lines. In base 4-3 under situations, the Buckeyes operated with John Simon (Viper), Tommy Schutt (3-Tech), Garrett Goebel (NG), and Johnathan Hankins (5-Tech). Ohio State played their under to the field (rather than formation), prompting UCF to often put their strength into the boundary. From the nickel, OSU generally played with the following: Noah Spence (Viper), Adolphus Washington (3-Tech), Hankins (NG), and Simon (5-Tech). Steve Miller also played extensively at Viper in the second half. 

Ohio State responded primarily with nickel to UCF's 'spread' personnel.  OSU plays two fronts with their nickel.  They play the 4-2-5 over in medium situations. In must-pass situations, the Buckeyes play a 30-odd front head up on the center and tackles with the 'Viper' roaming.

The Buckeyes prefer to run zone blitzes from their odd front. It is also where they (infamously) rush three and drop eight. Two points on that. The first is for those that philosophically disagree with rushing three (and I am generally not a fan): they have to grapple with the fact that two of the Buckeyes' three interceptions Saturday were when OSU dropped eight. In these situations it worked exactly as designed—the QB had to try to force the ball into tight windows and was unable to do so.

The second is how often did OSU actually rush three. We all suffer from availability bias as we watch the game, wherein defining events will stick with us. This is why film review is so helpful. Dvo45 helpfully compiled the statistics of the Buckeye rush numbers against UCF. Here are the results:

  • 3 Man Rush: 6 Times
  • 4 Man Rush: 28 times
  • 5 Man Rush: 9 times
  • 6 Man Rush: 2 times

The most oft-combination from the 30 front, as seen in the first video, is to use some type of zone blitz combination with one or more of the stand-up defenders.

The Rush Part III: The Upshot

The upshot is that while the Buckeye pass rush can certainly improve, it is not as dire as some believe. For starters, the fact that offenses are limiting themselves to dealing with the perceived threat is in itself an accomplishment because the Buckeyes have already taken away some of the opposing team's options. Personnel-wise, Ohio State is looking for a combination that can get pressure with four, particularly if Simon faces double-teams, as noted above. Hankins elevated his level in the second half—he began popping off the screen as beating his man—and that needs to continue. Miller, Washington, and Spence have all flashed at times but are young and just need to put it together consistently. OSU's coaching staff does face a balancing act, however, in that their best pass rushers are not their best defenders against the run. So if they go too far in only concerning themselves with a pass rush, it can dissipate the defense's best attribute, which is shutting down the run game. The return of Nathan Williams and Michael Bennett will help in this regard. Both are more well-rounded at this point then their younger counterparts, particularly Williams.

An additional problem OSU has faced is that when they have blitzed, the blitzers have had little success getting to the quarterback. Instead, they have allowed themselves to be blocked by blitz pick-up running backs. OSU is thus getting little marginal utility from additional rushers, which needs to improve.

Schematically, the upshot is that the rush, both schematically and personnel-wise, is not as passive as some feared. Indeed, I came into the review thinking that OSU needed to zone blitz more on third down, but they are doing so quite often. Nonetheless, some simple steps could assist in creating pressure without fundamentally changing the defenses' persona. The defensive line can stunt and twist. In pass situations where there is less concern for gap responsibility, this can help free defensive linemen and not allow the offensive line to get into a groove without changing the number of rushers. OSU also needs to be more strategic about whom they blitz. Finally, the OSU coaches must pick and choose their spots to use an 8-man zone. This zone's benefit is in medium situations where the offense has to force the ball into tight spots. It is unhelpful on third and long, where the offense needs to advance the ball vertically and having a fifth underneath defender does not change the deep arithmetic. 

Occam's Razor applied to the Ohio State Defense

The heightened focus upon Ohio State's pass rush is in some ways warranted but also misses the point.  Not to be too obviously reductive, but the purpose of defense is to prevent the offense from scoring points. One area that increases an offense's chance of scoring is plays of 20+ yards. Allowing nearly ten such plays through two games has been the single biggest contributing factor to points allowed. While the pass rush has not helped prevent such plays, it is not the primary cause. Instead that can be attributed to 1) poor pursuit angles and tackling and 2) blown coverages.

For instance, UCF's first scoring drive was aided by two such explosive plays. Both were permitted by the Buckeye defense's poor fundamentals. The first was a simple screen pass where C.J. Barnett misses a straightforward tackle.  

The second is a sweep where the running back is able to gain the edge due to poor angles by Ryan Shazier and Christian Bryant, who both get caught in the wash.

These are basic fundamentals that will hold any defense back from achieving their potential.

Similarly, OSU has simply had too many coverage breakdowns—particularly in the deep third—to not cause concern. For instance, here OSU is playing cover 4. But Bradley Roby bites on the inside post, which is clearly not his responsibility in this coverage.

On the goal line, neither Bryant nor Shazier maintain their responsibility for the releasing tight end, resulting in an easy touchdown.

Bringing it all Together...

Perhaps nowhere were all these issues more prevalent than on the 3rd and 21 play that UCF converted for a first down. UCF kept in seven blockers but Ohio State only rushed three and thus produced no pressure on the quarterback. But the most acute issue was that Ohio State utterly failed in running a cover-3 defense. Roby follows the post route, vacating his third and allowing the corner route to come open behind him while three underneath Buckeye defenders look on.

This play is axiomatic of the issues discussed above. The three-man pass rush does not create a play and the extra underneath defender is unnecessary. But the most immediate cause of the big play is a simple blown coverage that should not occur.

And Going Forward...

The hyper-focus on the pass rush thus may be overstated. The pass rush can and should be improved, both through getting the right personnel and scheme tweaks. Yet the pass rush is not the primary concern for the Buckeye defense. Instead, the defense has performed well absent giving up big plays, which have been caused by a breakdown of fundamentals. One helpful sign from UCF was the play of Ohrian Johnson at the 'star.' Meyer made clear he wanted Johnson on the field, and his faith was rewarded by stellar fundamental play in the underneath curl to flat zone.

But in sum, it is the back seven that must correct and improve upon these issues for the defense to reach the next level. 


Comments Show All Comments

German Buckeye's picture

Excellent and timely.  It's simplistic to just say blitz more.  Its a long season with time to work out the kinks - remember, the staff is new and trying to work things out, so they need time to gel as much as the kids on the field.  By season's end, I expect a national championship level, hungry for 2013 monster team - until then, I'll be happy with what the season brings week to week. 

Ross Fulton's picture

You have the issue that if you are having coverage breakdowns with 7 zone defenders, do you want to cut it down more?  Also have to judge the effectiveness of when you are blitzing. If you still aren't getting to the QB, then its a waste.

yrro's picture

Out of curiosity, Ross - what are "normal" percentages of 5-6 man rushes for a team that blitzes often or rarely?

Ross Fulton's picture

I don't know exactly, but I would say that it depends a) on the type of team you are playing and b) the down and distances you are facing. I think all defenses are more apt to blitz on third down. Teams that blitz more probably bring more 'run down' blitzes as well.

Milk Steak To Go's picture

Spot on Ross, as usual.  It's not the defenses being run, it's when they're being run.  Combine that with lack of execution and you get a recipe for big plays.
I'd also suggest better disguise of blitzes.  When they blitzed (outside of a delayed and zone  blitzes), it was obvious who was coming.  On the delayed and zone blitzes, the blitzer (or 4th rusher in zone) would run into a blocker, taking themselves out of the play.
The breakdowns on cover 3 are becoming inexcusable.  I don't know if the focus on interceptions is leading to the outside 1/3rd defender coming off his zone and biting on undeneath (Miami) or the inside post (UCF).

Ross Fulton's picture

Re: The interceptions--that is my thought as well. In both those clips I think Roby is getting greedy and wants to make picks, but I can't think of much more basic than playing the deep third in cover 3.

rdubs's picture

and if that becomes a tendancy people will exploit it

timdogdad's picture

the one play where storm johnson runs for 40 odd yards, bryant looks like the dog chasing the rabbit at the track.    hopefully we don't have any more plays where roby has to get on his horse and chase the guy down for  50 yards and tackle him on our 10 yard line 

grant87's picture

Nice write up...
It will be intersting on the adjustments tOSU makes.  Eliminating big plays is priority one.  I though that going into this year.  It still seems to be an issue. 
nice to see rush defense is improving.  I wonder if we go more base and have C. Grant on the field more.  Or if OJ's great showing has us in 4-2-5 more.

Maybe tomorrow, when today will be yesterday things will be clearer.


Ross Fulton's picture

I think this is dicated more by 1) what the opposing offense is doing and 2) by our LBers coverage skills more than anything else. I do not think our LBers are particularly effective against the pass, and our DLine can handle the run game, so I think you will see a lot of nickel.

whobdis's picture

I rewatched the second half and focused just on the dline..as mentioned Hankins played much better than I had thought while watching the game live. As also mentioned by MSTG it's not soley the number of times a 3 man rush is incorporated but it's timeing. I think we all see the issues our DB's are having at times..but I see those as correctable AND by the players. Some see other issues as mostly 'coaching' and will we see any change in that respect. So far we've seen a fairly passive 'bend/no break'
philosophy. Very nice piece though.

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes the upside is that these are all VERY correctable issues...

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Ross, as usual, outstanding analysis. This sentence cracked me up:

A lot of sturm und drang—including from Urban Meyer—has focused upon the Buckeye pass rush.

The bigger issues you identify:

. . .  blown coverages and poor tackling

Excellent point; however, Urbz mentioned that if the Buckeyes can generate more pressures - get opposing offenses on edge and QBs running for their lives - that such breakdowns will partly take care of themselves.
I'm sure that he agrees with you that the blown coverages and poor tackling must be fixed ASAP! Yet, no defense will ever be sharp in all phases simultaneously and I get the impression that Urbz would rather his defense approach perfection in the art of wreaking havoc than in the art of fundamental soundness. 
Along those lines, critics of JT complained that he was so intent on "playing the percentages" that his risk aversion became counter-productive at times, whereas Urbz is seen as more of a riverboat gambler. To be more precise, though, maybe both JT and Urbz approach the game like chess masters. It's just that JT played defensive chess; Urbz plays aggressive chess.
For JT, playing the percentages meant rock hard defensive soundess; special teams that perform Chinese water torture on the enemy; an offense that minimizes risks and gradually squeezes the life out of the opponent.
For Urbz, "playing the percentages" figuratively means we kill more of your guys and explode more of your shit than you do of ours. For example, he sends the Freak Show to block punts, knowing that sometimes they'll get called for roughing the punter, but if they get one, the game will be broke wide open. And his approach is not driven by emotion - i.e., that he just likes taking risks because he's a thrill seeker. He's run some of his own numbers, just like JT, and Urbz's numbers say that disciplined aggression, intimidation, and kicking ass pay off over the long haul.

JKH1232's picture

It's probably also worth noting that both Tress' "Modern Chess" football and Urban's "Hypermodern Chess" football will beat the kind of "Romantic Chess" so favored by fans and pundits most of the time.

Ross Fulton's picture

Well I think we (collectively) are all reading too much into Urban to think that he fundamentally disagrees with the defensive coaches he hired.  Urban is a smart guy and a control freak and knows exactly what the background and philosophy of each coach he hires is.  So he wouldn't hire these guys if he wanted something vastly different.

That being said, I think at the margins he is upset with the presure schematic.  I also think he likes using reverse psychology and challenging the guys that he thinks are good and will respond to it.  So the upside is I don't think its a 180 degree difference, more like a 30 degree tweak...

rdubs's picture

I don't see Vrabel backing down from Meyer's challenge

Run_Fido_Run's picture

I didn't mean to suggest that Urbz fundamentlly disagrees with the defensive coaches and I agree that JT's and Urbz's philosophies are more like 30 degrees apart than 180 degrees apart and that he likes to use reverse psychology, etc.
I just suspect that Urbz will be nudging the defensive coaches toward a little greater emphasis on controlled-aggression ("at the margins") because he plays the percentages a bit differently than JT did. Both great coaches, but as 11W writers have mentioned, Urbz approach might be more fun to watch. 

gravey's picture

THANK YOU.  This is the kind of smart football analysis that 11W brings in spades. 

NC_Buckeye's picture

Good job Ross. How would you rate LB play during the UCF game? That's been a concern of mine since spring practice.

Ross Fulton's picture

Well not to sound like Urban or anything, but I'd say pretty average.  I think its the weakest part of the defense.  Sabino has gotten better but I just don't think he has 'natural' instincts for the football, which renders him a step slow.  Shazier has a high motor but is still inexperienced and makes some mistakes at time, esp in pass coverage.  I can't really include Grant because he's played so little.

penult's picture

Thank you for the informative post.  I have been looking forward to your breakdown on this subject, Ross.
I think you're right about that 3rd and 21 blown coverage play being a microcosm of the larger defensive issues.  The blown coverage part is the acute issue, and fixing that could go a long way to having this defense really shut down opponents (and maybe even make the d-line pressure look more effective).  However, while an acute issue needs to be dealt with immediately and usually appears to be the most damaging, oftentimes it is that subtle chronic issue that nags and festers and is the downfall in the end.  On the play prior to that 3rd and 21 the d-line brought good pressure from Washington and Spence and drew a penalty (clip, block below the waist, I can't remember).  I think Meyer declined possibly because he smelled blood.  On the other hand, Fickell took the 3rd and 21 situation and went all Tressel-ball on defense, as you say dropping that meaningless defender that doesn't help coverage on 3rd and long.  I think that is the bigger issue.  The schematics and the situational awareness of the DC.  I believe this also goes along with an observation of the Miami game.  Meyer wasn't happy with the upfront pressure at halftime, but he also wasn't happy with the rotation of the d-line either (at least it seemed that way to me).  In the second half there was more rotation and better pressure.  At the end of the UCF game it also looked like Meyer wasn't happy with Vrabel and possibly Fickell. 
Maybe that 3rd and 21 call was a result of preparation by the coaches during the week, and you certainly can't pin all these problems on the DC.  But I am concerned about the play calling on D and the schematics you mention about who blitzes and how/where they blitz.
EDIT: I should also add that I think better use of blitzes and rushing schematics could either prevent teams from chipping or doubling someone like Simon or take advantage of them having do that.  Though, I shouldn't understimate the positive of teams having to plan around Simon and the d-line, as you pointed out.  BTW in that first video it looks like everything is in slow motion except for Simon when he's coming off the ball.

d5k's picture

It seems like overload blitzes to Simon's side are in order. We seem to typically blitz linebackers with few db blitzes.
As far as dropping 8 on 3rd and 21, its not really flawed given that you are trying to force a checkdown or risky throw. In that spot the idea was you either force a punt or at worst a long fg. Getting an Int isn't much better field position than the punt. Also we should expect to at least hurry the qb a bit from a 3 man rush given the confusion with Simon dropping and the guys on his side left blocking no one rather than double teaming inside.

Also this treatment of Simon reminds me of Cam Heyward's senior year where his numbers were down but he wasnt playing worse. Teams just always adjusted based on where he lined up.

cal3713's picture

Great work Ross.  And thanks for taking the time to edit the video clips this year... looking forward to the weekly read & education.

Ross Fulton's picture

There are lots of well-thought through comments on here everyone. Really enjoying the commentary-this is great stuff!

Crimson's picture

Look forward to reading these, and they never disappoint.
I thought the TV coverage of the UCF game (ESPN) was much worse than the Miami game (BTN).  From what I saw, Roby was a beast in the Miami game, but I could hardly tell what anyone was doing on defense against UCF, or if anyone blew their coverage.  Maybe I wasn't paying as much attention.
Also, are you a closet Economist (not a bad thing, btw)?  I saw a few terms in the article.

Milk Steak To Go's picture

Agree on the TV. The sideline camera seemed to be directed to the deepest offensive back and the nearest safety, then zoomed in to the action (on runs) or followed the action on pass.  It didn't give you enough of the field to determine the covereage easily.

Ross Fulton's picture

IMO, this was the most poorly produced game I have ever seen.  Not only were the camera angles too tight, but they repeatedly cut off at least a half a dozen plays and did not even seem to care...


Haha, no not an economist but I did stay at a Holiday Inn!  In all seroiusness, exposed to a lot of econ & behavioral econ....

ShawneeBuck74's picture

Ross, your article confirmed what I suspected and posted on earlier in the week. I think rushing less is designed to force interceptions, big plays, momentum changes. I'd take an INT all day long over forcing the opposition to punt (in most situations anyway). 
I posed the question in the forum today - Where's the accountability for Roby? He's blown coverage 2x on cover three in this one game. I believe he blew a coverage in game one too, but I'd have to go back and look. Kid is super talented but Urban has said he "gets bored."  
How is "boredom" acceptable?  I think Roby needs to get benched for a series or two to get the message that talent alone does not let you coast at OSU. We've already got Doran Grant as the "third starter." He might not be as good as Roby in talent, but maybe he knows how not to get beat deep on a simple cover three.  
Roby could be amazing - but he's got to get his head in the game.  

You win with people. 

9 Units Strong. 


Ross Fulton's picture

I have also been surprised by the muted reaction from Meyer et al to those big breakdowns....


I've kinda settled on the explanation that Meyer likes to play master psychologist.  In particular, he uses reverse psychology.  Some guys he rides (more than they deserve), some he builds up beyond their performance.  He generally has (for lack of a better phrase) blown smoke at Roby from the get-go.  


The bottom line is you can't have it both ways.  If you are going to play a defense predicated on forcing the offense to continually move the chains then you can't also have guys acting like they are playing for Rex Ryan and freelancing for interceptions.  Everyone has to be swimming in the same direction.  

bassplayer7770's picture

To me, it's sorta telling that only two Defensive players graded out as champions against UCF, and they were both D Linemen.  You can bet Coach Coombs will be on Roby's behind this week especially knowing he has to go up against Keenan Allen this week.  Also, there was a Buckshot including video of Coach Coombs, and he did discuss the coverage breakdowns, so it isn't like they aren't aware of these issues.

Buckeyeholicwompa's picture

Rush Roby, drop back Simon and let Roby sack the daylights out of a QB. Can't get bored with that!

chitown buckeye's picture

I believe it is important to blitz. It not only confuses qb's but it puts pressure on there offensive line to make quick decisions to pick up the blitz. This forces more one on ones to our great d-lineman and it would actually give them a chance to beat someone. Only rushing 3or 4 numbers alone means 2-3 can be doubled. I don't care who you are, very rarely are you going to get pressure. I would much rather bring heat and test the qb's and o-lineman's ability to make the right read and take my chances on the big play rather than give a qb time to pick you apart. I can live with a big play here and there as long as we r bringing pressure. More times than not a college qb or a college lineman are going to make a mistake. 
It is hard to screw up an assignment when you are locked on in man coverage! Lol

"I'm having a heart attack!"

Poe McKnoe's picture

The quickest path between point A and point B is a straight line...unless there is a 300lb lineman in the way, then go around.  Something our line and linebackers need to practice.

SpoonerBuck33's picture

Ross great write up as per usual you always add perspectives that most people dont see when watching live. I know i missed a bunch of this when watching the game. I would like to get your thoughts on mixing up the db coverage. Do you think it would help to mix up coverages between man and zone or man on one side zone on the other depending on the look of the offense? Also, would it be wiser to bring the db's closer to the LOS bc i noticed through 2 games they are playing way off inviting more 3 and 4 step drops, which isnt helping the dline get more time.

penult's picture

Here's some insight into the number of rushers utilized by this defense (via Lori Schmidt):
The Buckeye defense has so far pressured with either 3 or 5 players. A four-man rush with four underneath defenders is too easy to read and pick apart according to Meyer.

Ross Fulton's picture

I heard his statement and I think what he was saying has been lost in translation through the media filter.  He wasn't saying that they never rush 4--he was just saying they like to mix it up with 3 and 5 man pressures to keep the offense off balance.

penult's picture

Understood.  That's essentially how I took it, it helped explained why there were 3 man rushes mixed in to their plan. Makes sense, if you rush 4 and drop 4 underneath every time it makes it too easy for a QB to read.
Ross, do you have the breakdown of the scoring play after the 3rd and 21 broken coverage?  It may be my availability bias, but it looked like Spence was dropped in coverage on the 3rd and 21 and on the subsequent UCF TD which was a pass, possibly, to the flat that Spence was supposed to cover.  Or maybe he just read the play and bailed to try to cover the UCF TE or back?

Jdadams01's picture

First step for me: never drop Hankins into coverage again.

causeicouldntgo43's picture

Love the Occams Razor reference - yes, the best solutuion to a given problem is usually the most straightforward one, not the most complex or elaborate one, i.e. get from A to B the quickest. From everything I digested from this coaching staff, they understand that concept very well and Meyer preaches it daily. Ross, your analysis was dead solid perfect. Coombs will coach those guys up and we will see better execution. Having said that, I'm still a bit concerned about the 'backers. 

buck-I.8's picture

First time philosophy classes have ever been practical haha

Ross Fulton's picture

I guess we all have our pet peeves, and mine is when players have mental breakdowns and fail to execute the play that was called....


That is why I found the running back performance so confounding.