OSU v. UAB: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on September 27, 2012 at 2:00p

Q. Coach, is it a compliment to say it's a bend but don't break defense, and if not, why is it not okay to give up 500 yards zero points?

COACH MEYER: I think that's a very good question, because at the end of the day your job is to go win a game. I'm not comfortable we have a plan to win around here. You see the field position chart. We make a big deal once we pin them in, get them in there, give us the ball back and let's go. That's not happening.

We have a lot of punts saved where we're getting the ball back on the 12-yard line. That's because we give up some yards, give up some runs but we're not giving up the home run yards.

So, I am not personally—that's not how I want Ohio State defense to be played for our careers. However, I do understand injury issues. I do understand when a team comes rolling in here with good athletes at receiver and they're not going to be systematically beat Ohio State. So there's a lot of reasons. But your question is I think that's a question of a lot of people. A lot of coaches have that same discussion.

And at the end of the day keep them out of the end zone. That's where we're at right now.

Urban Meyer's somewhat fatalistic answer belies the state of the Ohio State defense. The Buckeye defense has a sizeable hole in the middle at linebacker. Yet this is only part of the story. Schematically, the defensive coaching staff seemingly lacks a unifying theme as to what type of defense they want to be. The result is a muddle-through approach that is producing systematic breakdowns. The Buckeye staff needs to settle upon how they want to philosophically approach defense moving forward. Only then can the defense adjust at the application stage to limit personnel shortcomings.

Coverage Confusion

Nowhere is this conflicting approach more apparent than in the defensive backfield. UAB stumbled into exploiting Ohio State with wide receiver screens simply because OSU could not stop the football. By my count, UAB threw 14 WR or slip screens. The Blazers were particularly effective with flash screens, running the play six times for approximately eight yards per play. UAB was so effective mainly because of Ohio State's alignment below:

Christian Bryant is coming up into the underneath curl zone, but the corners are giving so much cushion that it is an easy pitch and catch.

The easy answer is to align the corners in press coverage. But the larger issue is that OSU seems schematically confused as to whom it wants to be. It is far easier to adjust when you are working from one basic premise. Everett Withers is known for running cover 4. Yet the past two weeks OSU has shown far more cover 3. This suggests some indecision amongst the coaches as to what this defense should be and what its players can do. OSU has run both coverages in past years, and numerous defenses cycle between coverages. But a team needs an overall framework to work from and build upon. OSU's problem is that they seem stuck cycling through ideas without having a 'theory of the case.' The result is a pale imitation of what these coverages should be. Take cover 4 for example. Cover 4 is a matchup zone that often results in man coverage based upon pattern distribution and allows the two safeties to become force players in the run game.

It is not difficult to see that cover 4 is weakest in the underneath flats. But cover 4 is adaptable. For instance, a 'Meg' call can be made that puts the corner in man coverage, allowing him to aggressively take away the flat. Cover 4 also needs to adapt to three receivers to one side, aka trips. The coverage does so with a 'banjo' call, where the outside linebacker takes the first outside route, and the inside linebacker takes the second inside route. Yet here is Ohio State in cover 4 against UAB. The cover 4 is exceedingly soft and OSU does not run banjo, leaving it exposed to No. 3 catching an easy bubble screen for a first down.

This adaptability is true of cover 3 and all other coverages. Cover 3 has been used for years to play 8-man coverage with the strong safety in aggressive run support and Nick Saban's defenses pattern matches from cover 3. Indeed, it is not difficult to roll your corners up and then having them drop to their deep third at the snap. The point is that any coverage is adaptable in this manner. As Meyer stated, extensive man coverage may not be ideal for this team because it leaves linebackers in man coverage.

The problem is when you stress corners means linebacker has to play man coverage on someone. That's what we did a couple times against Cal. And that was a problem. So make the corners play man but there's three other receivers somewhere you have to cover as well.

But the choice is not binary—soft zone or press man. Zone coverages are also adaptable. But the Ohio State coaches seemingly cannot determine how they want to deploy their defense or what they believe their back seven is capable of playing. This may be resulting because ultimately the Ohio State coaching staff does not know who they want to be as a defense. A team needs to answer this prima facie question before it can start implementing a game plan. The result is that the Buckeye defense is taking the lowest common denominator in keeping things as basic and conservative as possible, to the detriment of allowing yards.

A hole in the middle

The problem that may be causing the Ohio State's coaching staff this confusion is inconsistent linebacker play. The OSU linebackers often do not demonstrate an instinctual feel for the position. This leads to a slowness to react that puts them out of position. The linebackers do not attack downhill against run plays, and are slow to react laterally and then over pursue the football. For instance, in the clip below, OSU's linebackers are slow to react and then backpedal against clear inverted veer run action. While the play is supposed to constrain the defense as to whom is to carry the ball, it is not supposed to cause a defense's linebackers to think 'pass' as it does here. The result is that the Buckeye linebackers are not even taking on blocks until five yards downfield. 

As such, the Ohio State defensive line either makes a play at the line of scrimmage, or opposing offenses get yards in space. This weakness is thus somewhat concealing the phenomenal play of Johnathan Hankins, who is ranging sideline-to-sideline to record double digit tackles. He steps up his game with each half. By the end against UAB, he was literally tracking down running backs on outside plays. The defensive line is fulfilling its responsibilities, but cannot go beyond its role and the Buckeye second level is not cleaning up the remaining plays.  

Limiting the Holes

Ohio State cannot change its linebackers other than working with them to improve. And improvement can be expected. It is easy to forget that Ryan Shazier is starting his first full season. Like other young players for Ohio State, he has growing pains despite all the talent. Currently he is making plays on his great athleticism and will only continue to get technically better. Yet OSU, building on the earlier theme, can also take schematic steps to reduce its deficiency. One is increasing safety support. Christian Bryant is quickly becoming an impact defensive player and one of the defense's surer tacklers. The OSU coaches recognize this, increasingly bringing him into the box. OSU needs to put Bryant in a position with its coverages where he can provide support within ten yards and not be backpedaling at the snap. 

To take this one step further, OSU's 'linebacker' weakness is not limited to the linebackers, but also extends to the star position. OSU spends a majority of plays in nickel. The star, responsible for force in the field flat, is one of the most important positions. Yet OSU is not getting the stellar star play it is used to, which is particularly noticeable against screens. Ohio State depth is so limited defensively that it needs to get its best players on the field. It is not in a position to keep talent on the sideline.

To that end, a bright spot for the Buckeyes against UAB was Doran Grant's play in his first start. Grant is not only stellar in coverage but also proved himself to be a sure tackler—something this defense is lacking. Grant is simply too good to not play. Unconventionally, then, OSU should consider using Grant in its nickel coverage at safety, moving Bryant to star. This would put someone at star that can play the position with the requisite physicality, while also bringing in a third defensive back who can play man coverage while also provide tackling support. The OSU defense is at the point that it simply needs to get playmakers on the field and needs to mix things up to do so.

Michigan State and Beyond

As Meyer stated in the initial quote, this defense must crawl before it can walk. So the defense tightening and not allowing a touchdown was a positive step. The defense cannot be the dominant unit that Ohio State fans have become accustomed to until they get better linebacker play. But the Buckeyes do have some playmakers on defense, and will be helped by the return of Bradley Roby and C.J. Barnett. The Buckeye coaching staff can improve the situation by 1) settling on a unified philosophy and 2) making sure that those playmakers are put in a position to make plays by trusting its defensive backs and allowing its safeties to be active in the run game. This does not have to mean man coverage every play, but it does mean playing the zone coverages as they are intended to be played, not as soft imitations.

By thinking outside the box such as putting Grant in with nickel, suddenly OSU could have a solid back five. Michigan State has obviously seen these weaknesses and will attempt to exploit it with Le'Veon Bell. Ohio State must be prepared to first and foremost focus upon limiting Bell, or Michigan State will eat up chunks of clock, control time of possession, and be difficult to stop.  


Comments Show All Comments

Enzo's picture

So if you see all this so clearly, why can't the men getting paid a lot of money figure it out?

Ross Fulton's picture

Chain of command issues perhaps.  Also not everyone walking to the beat of the same drummer...

causeicouldntgo43's picture

I thought the coaches were all supposed to be "in alignment" this year.....hum?

MediBuck's picture

And perhaps some internal strife? I find it difficult to believe we can mash defensive staff members from three different conferences, multiple different prior offensive philosophies, and relative inexperience (namely Mike Vrabel, who, despite his earth-shattering badassery is only in his second full season as a coach) and have a unified gameplan by game 4. Not to mention two members are incumbent Buckeyes, so there may be reluctance to adopt a new system as the OSU D of decades past has been so successful.
I'm in agreement that the staff is being noncomittal, but I think it's being done to "feel things out" and figure out what type of defense exactly this team will adopt.
By the way, Ross, do you think we'll continue to stay in 4-2-5 for the whole of the MSU game? Any chance the staff just chooses to go 4-3, bring in bigger bodies in the middle and simplify things for the LB corps to first and foremost stop Le'Veon Bell?

"There is a force that makes us all brothers, no one goes his way alone." --Woody Hayes

Ross Fulton's picture

No we'll be in a 4-3 with Klein against their 21 personnel but I don't really know how you 'simplify' things. They aren't doing anything 'complicated' to begin with--in fact the point I'm trying to make is that they are being too simple...

bassplayer7770's picture

This does not have to mean man coverage every play, but it does mean playing the zone coverages as they are intended to be played, not as soft imitations.

In that first clip, other than Bryant (as you mentioned), the DBs are 8-10 yards off their man, and it drives me even nuttier when I see them backpedal after the snap so they're even farther away from their man.  Hopefully, we will not see that this weekend.

OSUBias's picture

Excellent comment, I noticed the same thing. Seems to be a slowness to diagnose the play across the back 7. Linebackers are slow and unsure, corners and safeties are backpedaling and staring into the backfield (possibly by design, depending on the read I guess) and failing to notice that their WR had put his foot in the ground at the line of scrimmage and is now about to catch a screen pass.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

causeicouldntgo43's picture

Here's to hoping that Fick and Withers have been using the first 4 games to find the best approach, and that they have settled upon that best approach this week. Your suggestion about getting Grant in there and moving Bryant to Star makes a lot of sense - will be looking to see if this happens on Saturday.

Crimson's picture

I hope they have an idea of what they'll do on defense, but I still think that they'll let Sparty put up about 20 points.
I've been wanting to see Grant on the field all season, although I've been thinking about him replacing Howard when Howard blows a coverage.  Sticking in all three seems like a great idea, especially when we play a 4-2-5 and any two of Roby, Howard, Grant are better than the star (and probably the 2nd best safety).  I find it hard to see a downside when the offense is running with 3-5 WRs.
Anyway, this week is probably 4-3, so let's hope that Grant or Klein steps it up.  If they're ever going to step up, it'll probably be in a game like this where they face a great RB and a mediocre QB.

741's picture

Excellent article.

hodge's picture

Bryant as nickelback...I love it!

Buckeye in Illini country's picture

Not Nickelback!  Anything but Nickelback. 

Columbus to Pasadena: 35 hours.  "We're on a road trip through the desert looking for strippers and cocaine... and Rose Bowl wins!"

hodge's picture

^ Infinitely worse.

OSUBias's picture

Am I wrong or wasn't the star position what Bryant started out playing earlier in his career (possibly even last year? I forget what year he is).

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

Ross Fulton's picture

It was--in 2010 when we went nickel (after Moeller was hurt) Bryant played star and OJ came in at safety, so its not unprecedented...

partisan's picture

I'd just like to point out that I called for playing Grant in nickel about 2 weeks ago.  The fact that Ross mentioned the same thing means I get to pat myself on the back a little bit.
Great write up as always.

d5k's picture

The important part of that is playing Grant at FS rather than Star.  Star needs to be more of a hybrid where Grant is a pure coverage specialist. 

Matt's picture

Agree re: star -- OJ has never been dependable playmaker, although he did have a good game against UCF, and Pitt Brown never makes any plays.  Playing Grant and Bryant in the nickel seems like a good strategy and if nothing else will give them good reps for the title run in 2013.

d5k's picture

How many of those screen plays by UAB might've been snuffed out if OJ was @Star rather than Brown, though?

JLP36's picture

Defensive Breakdown.  Could have stopped right there.  I don't care how many points the offense scores, I want to see some defense that makes the mothers of opposing players cry in the stands.  I am from Ohio.  That is my birthright.


Culp's Freaking Hill's picture

I am with you.  I want a defense that is playing with their hair on fire as they carry crowbars in their hands.  Meanwhile, the offense moves like the Shanghai high-speed rail.

Twitter: @conquestnorman

humble0ne's picture

Great article!  How much of the issue do you think revolves around having co-defensive coordinators.  At times it seems like communication between the groups is lacking.  That would also have a role in not being able to "nail down" an identity.

"It is foolish to expect a young man to follow your advice and ignore your example." --Don Meyer Hall of Fame NAIA Basketball Coach

Ross Fulton's picture

To me it has to start with Meyer. He is the HC, yet he is sending conflicting signals on what he wants. Then he hires guys with different backgrounds. He was very concerned about that on the offensive side. He doesn't need to run the defense, but he at least needs to set the 'alignment' as to what the defense wants to be...

bwh's picture

You're assuming he doesn't.
People can't go around assuming that UFM is this badass of all time, a genius, a man with dedication/vision/leadership, and then assume that he isn't telling his coaches what he wants and makes it happen.
It's like saying a CEO isn't responsible for failures that his employees make.
UFM has pushed a lot of players to turn their shit around and man up... but yet we believe that it's the other coaches that are screwing up? That's like saying UFM is jekell and hyde. Pretty sure it's a uniform code of justice and the other coachs don't get off scot free.

JLP36's picture

Neither the safties nor the LBs have covered well.  Getting Grant on the field to cover and putting Bryant in a spot where he can just go hit someone would be an upgrade.  There are 3 good corners on the team.  If we are going to give up all of these 3rd and very longs, I would rather it happened in the face of extremely aggressive blitz schemes against man coverage than sitting back and letting average qbs pick the D apart.  Paging Fred Pagac....


Doc's picture

Coombs is the secondary coach and didn't he say in some thing they were going to play an "off man" type defense.  It seems to me they are playing too far off.  Secondly it seems to me that having co-DC's is having to many cooks in the kitchen.  Fickell is linebackers coach, and has been for some time.  What is going on.  The defense should be the same as the last 10-11 years, why are they looking like it is brand new to them.  I'm sorry to say this, but I think Luke gets canned at the end of this year.

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

tennbuckeye19's picture

FWIW: Withers and Coombs are both secondary coaches: Coombs with Corners and Withers with Safeties. 

German Buckeye's picture

Seems to me too many hands in the pot - Coombs is (to me at least) only good at yelling, jumping up and down, and generally getting air time for his antics on the side lines. 

BoFuquel's picture

The D gave up 9 points. It's bend but don't break. that's EW's style.He's the man upstairs calling the shots.He made that very clear, if you listen to him.It's the O that went 2 quarters without putting any points on the board.They are only using a small portion of the playbook, and half the players in the skilled positions don't know what to do on any given play.UM has told us as much.GO BUCKS!

I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.

southbymidwest's picture

Ross, I really enjoy reading your articles. Love the clips as illustrations. Not/never was a football player. I have been going to football games (along with other sports) since I was four. Had girl babies, so no football playing kids made it unimportant to sort out the bodies in close space pushing each other around on the line. Am far more fluent in other sports where there are fewer players/more space (lacrosse, field hockey, ice hockey...). I now feel like I know a bit more about the x's and o's after reading your articles, and can even tell you where a guard lines up versus a tackle! The different linebackers! And what they are supposed to do! (Hey, like I said, a bunch of bodies in close space). I also like the way you choose to discuss problem areas- no demeaning WTF are the coaches thinking, that player sucks stuff, rather, analysis-what, why, what is working, possible fixes, without shredding a coach or 19 year old. Thank you!

yrro's picture

I have to say, that has always been one of my favorite aspects of Ross' analysis. I always feel it's a bit inappropriate to call out the ability coaches (especially coaches who have been winning at the highest level of the game for years) for flaws you see in an armchair tape review. Noting what problems need to be fixed and guessing at possible causes/solutions is much more respectable, both to the fans of the team and to the coaches and players who are working to actually implement someone's version of those fixes.

Ross Fulton's picture

I am very glad you think so because that is always my goal. That is not to say that the coaches or players always do things correctly, as I point out this week. But you always have to look at what is the ultimate cause of any problems and can it be fixed. Nothing frustrates me more than hearing someone moan about something without a) pointing out specifics and b) not providing any solutions. It's easy to complain.

sir rickithda3rd's picture

i think part of the co-dc's is the fact both of them are excellent recruiters.... not saying right, wrong, or indifferent

mark may wins douchebag of the year... again

tennbuckeye19's picture

I agree, they both seem to be good recruiters. But, the Co-Defensive Coordinator thing is not new to OSU this year. Heacock and Fickell were co-DC's for several years under Tressel.

yrro's picture

Yeah, but Fick and Heacock had worked together for years. Who knows what the working relationship is like between him and Withers.

Ross Fulton's picture

The titles are irrelevant. With Heacock there was no doubt who was calling plays or running the show...


Now, Fickell is running the show. However, I have yet to fully determine whether Fickell or Withers is calling the coverages. Regardless they seem to repeatedly be zigging when they need to zag and vice versa.

buckeyepastor's picture

I think the coaches see this, but the LB play really hampers them.  I think one of the reasons for the CBs playing so far off the line is that they are better able to take angles and be freed up for run support.   It makes sense that so much of what's happening in the secondary is about making concessions for vulnerability in the middle of the field.   Bringing the corners up tight to the line is much easier to do if we've got a STAR and LBs in the middle that are adequately dominating that part of the field.  As we don't have that, bringing the corners up to challenge the receivers also takes them very much out of position to make run support plays at the second level.  Roby has been huge in run support because, well, because we've needed him to be, unfortunately.    When the light comes on for Grant, Shazier, Perkins and others, it's going to be a delight to watch.  Until then, I think we will continue to see these frustrating gaps and openings in the defense.  
It is a tentative and conservative approach, which has to drive UFM absolutely nuts.   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

Ross Fulton's picture

This is a great post.

GrayDay's picture

Is it a matter of the light coming on for the current LB's, or a reflection of limited available talent/ability?  I don't know, wondered what you all thought.  Suppose these guys are fast and tought enough and if they can just figure out how and when to react they might be fine?

Ross Fulton's picture

For the sophs there is plenty of time. As I said, ppl forget Shazier has only started a handful of games now. Grant has barely played (and should have redshirted last year-that was a waste). 

I think Sabino was unfortunately always forced to play out of position. He played better this week but he just doesn't have a great deal of instincts. Nothing you can really do about it at this point...

SaintTressel's picture

There's a legitimate chance that Bryant is the best linebacker on the team, right?
I really hate making up hypothetical defenses but maybe move Bryant to star and use nickle as the base defense, with some combo of Grant, Howard, and OJ filling the void at safety. Shazier and Nathan Williams at linebacker? Bennet, hankins, Goebel, and Simon on the line? Is that our best (most reliable) 11 on the field?

OSUBias's picture

As bad as they have been, our current crop of LB's are our best LB's. Nathan Williams is an edge pass rusher and that is all. He has gotten juked out of his shoes and/or badly misplayed a couple of misdirection plays so far this year.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

nickma71's picture

Maybe they worked on wrapping the upper thigh and bringing them down, since 9 of 11 are not strong enough to bring down a defender.

SEC BUCKEYE's picture

Ross great work as usual and I think you are the best at breaking down offense and defense for us every week. However, it is so depressing at how horrible our D has looked- getting gashed on huge plays every game it seems. I love that we are 4-0 but there was no excuse on how poorly we looked against uab. Great job Ross. I cant wait until next week when you wrie about how much the osu offense and defense improved to lay a smackdown ob sparty.

All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Northbrook's picture

I said the LBers were questionable and the weakest link going into the season and tragicallly I was riight for once. Upgrade the LBers and we can do much more.

taoduh's picture

I would think the responsibilities of S are a lot different from CB.  Would Grant be able to make that switch mid-season?

Jdadams01's picture

From my understanding, Meyer made it clear that Fickell will be making the calls. So to me, it appears that Fickell is trying to run the same basic defensive ideas as the last ten years. Heacock loved to force teams string 15 good plays together in a row just to score once. He was able to accomplish it because he had linebackers who controlled the middle, dominated the run, and didn't make many mistakes. He also had physical safeties and corners who were willing to play the receiver and running back physically. We are obviously missing the LB skill from the last ten years so Fickell needs to adapt. You cannot plug average LBs into that scheme and be successful. And since Fickell is the one who Urban pegged to make the calls, it's on him. He's showing that he cannot adapt, just like last year. 
Another reason I'm confident Withers isn't making the calls is that this D doesn't match the ones he's previously fielded for the most part. If things keep going this way, though, Urban will probably hand the keys to Withers. And you'd have to imagine Fickell will be LB coach only. 

AC1972's picture

So....Fickell is being- fickle?

ek68's picture

OK, Got to say first, I really enjoy this site & reading everyone's opinion. Here's mine!!! Luke call all the defensive schemes. He comes up with the game plan by reviewing all film & with all defensive coaches & Meyer"s input. The problem with this defensive squad is the lack of dominating the defensive line, no linebacker pursuit or play & the "D" backs on the same page. Once the "D" line controls the line of scrimmage, then we can make comments on the LB's & "D" backs. I believe everyone is missing this point. Everyone suggests that our "D" line is so good with NFL caliber players, yet they have yet to show this on a consistent basis. I believe once the "D" line shows their true colors, we will continue to struggle.




Ross Fulton's picture

You have your three tech with double digit tackles. Hard to ask for much else...

NH-IO's picture

Ross, you indicate that 

the Buckeye defense is taking the lowest common denominator in keeping things as basic and conservative as possible,

I am interested in why you think that this is due to 

the Ohio State coaches seemingly cannot determine how they want to deploy their defense

as opposed to your offensive breakdown where you attribute the basic offense to deliberate strategy.  Is it possible that the team is running these basic defenses on purpose so as not to expose their full defensive schemes this early in the season.  Particularly when, arguably, their most difficult conference game will be this first one?

Ross Fulton's picture

I guess I see a diff btwn scheme and personnel. Not running Braxton is a conscious choice to protect his health. What they are doing on D doesn't really 'hide' anything. Now if they come out and play great aggressive cover 4 then I would have to agree with you. 

NH-IO's picture

Very excited to see if this is the case or not.  I wasn't taking a position, just asking a question.  Thanks for the response.

headina's picture

Was it really only 14 screens?


Ahh Saturday's picture

So Ross, I guess the million dollar question is do you think this D can improve, and if so how soon?

QBYBuckeye's picture

I want to see the piles moving the right direction this week.  All the talk about our strength coach and our dominant D-line?  I want to eat some pudding on Saturday ("the proof of the pudding is in the eating")

New York Buckeye

Maestro's picture

Man this defense needs Barnett badly.  Pitty Brown looks tentative, lost, slow, inept and just downright not worthy of being on the field to put it mildly.

vacuuming sucks