OSU v. MSU: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on October 4, 2012 at 2:00p

Ohio State's defense looked like a different unit against Michigan State on Saturday. And it was not simply because of new schemes or new personnel. Rather, there was simply a soundness and crispness to everything the Buckeye defense did, from the mixing and matching of play calls to the fundamental way those schemes were executed. The Ohio State defense was the team's backbone against the Spartans and the primary reason that the Buckeyes were able to overcome three turnovers to win a hard-fought road game. The crucial difference appeared to be that the Buckeye defense finally implemented a philosophical identity that put everything else into place.

IdEntity Check (Bring on the Cover 4)

The Buckeye defensive coaching staff exhibited a heretofore unseen ability to mix and match coverage schemes to attack Michigan State by down and distance. This ability to offer change-up looks stemmed from the Buckeyes having a base defense rather than searching for answers. Specifically, the Buckeye coaches finally jumped feet first into playing the 4-3 under/4-2-5 over to the field, cover-4 defense that OSU long intended to play, particularly on first down.

This allowed the Buckeyes to adjust to anything Michigan State attempted to do. From the outset, the Spartans sought to exploit the Ohio State weakness this season of defending plays into the boundary. MSU traded their TE and H-Back into the boundary to re-establish strength. Yet against Michigan State, Ohio State's defense quickly adjusted. The linebackers in particular made a concerted effort to widen themselves back towards the shift.

From there, the Ohio State safeties played aggressive cover-4 run support. The result was that the Buckeye defense's force-lever-spill went from being nonexistent to exhibiting textbook crispness. For instance, here, Storm Klein takes on the lead blocker in the hole, forcing Le'Veon Bell to spill. The cover-4 force safety Ohrian Johnson then comes downhill when the No. 2 receiver to his side shows run action, providing the Buckeye defense the force contain it was previously lacking.

The Buckeyes also played quarter-quarter-half in run downs, particularly when Michigan State put their tight end into the boundary. The weakside cover-2 put Bradley Roby as the force player to the boundary, an advantageous situation for OSU because Roby is such a physical presence in the run game. Weakside force is a strength of this coverage and showed that the defensive coaching staff were well aware Michigan State would attempt to exploit Ohio State's previous boundary weakness. 

Cover-4 also allowed OSU to play more aggressive pattern matching pass defense. Given the MSU pass distribution, this often left the OSU cornerbacks in outside man coverage. Note against the play-action below how the OSU safeties initially come forward when the No. 2 receivers show run action, demonstrating that Ohio State was finally playing cover 4 as intended.

Once Ohio State adopted a defensive identity, everything flowed from there. The players had a system to execute and the coaches could use change-ups to this philosophy, such as single-high safety coverage. Where before OSU was searching for what to run, against the Spartans the Buckeyes finally seemed to know what they wanted to do. Everything comes together in the clip below—the Buckeyes easily adjust to the TE yo-yo motion, and OSU executes their cover-4 run support responsibilities.

Its Third Down and One of us is Fixin' to Score

With apologies to Bobby Bowden, the OSU defense will not be confused for a blitz happy unit. But the Buckeyes nonetheless displayed a different third down approach. In pass situations, the OSU defense generally operated from a single-high safety look. From there, the Buckeyes primarily played some form of cover-1 man coverage, often with a 5th or 6th rusher.  

The Buckeyes would also mix in zone blitzes with three deep coverage behind. Sporadically they would use a three-deep, five-under drop. But by operating from a one-high look, OSU kept Michigan State from determining pre-snap what coverage they would run and how much pressure they would bring. This allowed the OSU defensive coaching staff to liberally change up these looks to keep the Spartans off-balance. The OSU defense again operated from a framework which allowed them to strategically mix and match looks, rather than merely adopt a hodgepodge approach.

The Hankins Supremacy

Johnathan Hankins made the game plan look even better. Hankins' presence turned the Ohio State weakness of defending boundary run plays into a strength. As the 3-technique, Hankins is the crucial fulcrum for this scheme.  With OSU playing their fronts to the field, Hankins is to the boundary with the under front; 

and to the field with the nickel over.

As such, the 3-technique is perhaps the most crucial defensive lineman for Ohio State against the run. Against the under, when a team puts their formation and runs to the boundary then, the 3-technique must hold its position and re-direct the running back. As seen in the first video above, Hankins 're-sets' the line of scrimmage, forcing the running back to bounce (see also video 5). With OSU fixing its force and spill techniques to the boundary, Hankins was able to turn a weakness into a strength, preventing the Spartans from running away from the numbers' strength of the Ohio State front.

Conversely, Ohio State is taking a defender out of the box with the nickel defense. Therefore, Ohio State's field-run defense must be stout at the point of attack to the field to allow defenders to amass. Again, with Hankins at the 3-technique the Buckeyes were able to do so. Hankins has taken his game to another level, making the Buckeye defense very difficult to run against. 

These guys ain't half bad...

It also did not hurt that multiple Buckeyes had their best games of the season. Etienne Sabino deserves mention. I previously discussed how the Buckeye linebacking corps failed to play downhill. Sabino changed that against Michigan State. He continually pursued downhill away from run action, making numerous tackles in the hole. Sabino had his best game as a Buckeye, an encouraging sign for Ohio State.

Ryan Shazier also showed his continued development and was perhaps an unsung hero. On third downs, Ohio State often lined Shazier up over Dion Sims in its odd package, giving him the assignment to engage Sims in man coverage.

Shazier handled this assignment admirably, as Sims was largely a non-factor. The fact that Shazier has gotten to the point where he can handle such an assignment is a step forward for a player that has been an athlete playing linebacker. Nathan Williams also had his best game since his return from microfracture surgery. Williams was more fluid and active than he has been, and that presence made a sizeable difference for the Buckeyes.

The question becomes: was this a reflection of the offensive talent for Michigan State or a burgeoning trend? At first glance, the defensive performance appears to be the symbiotic execution of a systematic game plan with the Buckeye defenders being able to work within that framework for success. We will have to watch for whether Ohio State is able to carry that over against Nebraska, who has a speedy gamebreaker that Michigan State lacked.

Nebraska: Mixing and Matching the Run Game

Nebraska operates primarily from the shotgun-spread but will also run lead zone plays from under center. The Cornhusker goal is to grind yards with Rex Burkhead and then create big plays off reads with Taylor Martinez. To do so, Nebraska's favorite play is  inverted veer. It fits Martinez's strength, which is accelerating north and south. Nebraska can then use Ameer Abdullah on the sweep portion. 

If Ohio State is able to execute cover-4 as it did against the Spartans it should be well-positioned to play the Cornhusker run game. As demonstrated , the safeties can attack the edge upon run action. The Buckeyes will need this defensive back support because they had difficulty defending the inverted veer last year against both Nebraska and Michigan. The problem in both cases was linebacker pursuit. Needless to say, the Buckeye linebackers must continue the pursuit angle improvements they made Saturday.

Ohio State will also need to be chary with how much cover-1 they play on third down. Martinez is an obvious scramble threat and Nebraska likes running QB draws. In fact, Martinez had a long touchdown run on such a draw Saturday. The Buckeyes need to ensure the back seven has eyes in the backfield. But most importantly, Ohio State simply needs to build upon the game plan they used Saturday because the defensive looked cohesive top to bottom for perhaps the first time this season.


Comments Show All Comments

Maestro's picture

I wonder how much of the first 4 game struggles was, much like the offense, because the coaches were using those games to really establish what this team was best at.  I know that the offense was tinkering, and it makes sense that the defense was too.
That being said, I don't trust this defense against an athletic QB like Martinez or Robinson.  I expect Nebraska to put up at least 24 points on Saturday.

vacuuming sucks

Boxley's picture

I agree my good friend, Maestro. Nebraska's offense presents the most difficult task our defense will have to face this year.
Nebraska has again proven they are a very good second half team, which demonstrates their coaching staff's ability to make good adjustments to what they see in the first half. Nebraska is a very good team on both sides of the bail.
If we beat them, we should not lose any games the rest of this year.

"...the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic-the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done." President T. Roosevelt

stevebelliseeya's picture

Nice Ross....I only understood a third of it but loved the whole thing...as long as it means the defense is coming along

"We are eternal. All this pain is an illusion." - Tool

Menexenus's picture

I am also not understanding a lot.  Take for instance, Ross's image of a 4-3 defense up above.  To my eyes, it looks like there are 5 men on the line and 2 linebackers.  I would have called that a 5-2 when I was in high school.  So can Ross (or anyone) please explain what makes it a 4-3?  Thanks.
P.S.  I know it's a pretty basic question, but when you know as little as I do, you've gotta start somewhere.

Real fans stay for Carmen.

SaintTressel's picture

A basic reply to this would be that 4-3, 3-4, 5-2 etc. refer to the personnel on the field, and not the locations the personnel are lined up in. So in that shot there are 4 Defensive linemen on the field and 3 linebackers, but one of the linebackers is just walked up on the line.

Ross Fulton's picture

Sorry--I have linked to articles explaining in the past, but I assume too much sometimes.


You thinking it looks like a 5-2 is not too far off.  The 4-3 under is a hybrid.  It looks like a 5-2 but the guy over the TE is the SAM (for strong) linebacker.  Also everyone plays one gap not two.  The under simply means that all the lineman are moving one gap away from the TE and the linebackers shift strong accordingly.  Check this out

OSUBias's picture

Great article, as always.
Maestro, I have the same concern. Based on Urban's comments last week "I think we were built to defend this type of offense, not go sideline to sideline against dink and dunk", I think he's got a few concerns himself.
I am encouraged to see that the defense was playing sound assignment football for the first time this season, though. Even if we have problems tackling in open space (I think we're not out of the woods on that particular issue, yet), it will really help if everyone is in the right spot. That way we at least have more than one guy converging on the ball, so if one guy misses it's not an automatic 50 yard gain.
Tough test again. I'm looking forward to seeing if this team can continue to meet the challenge.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

Ross Fulton's picture

The crazy part about this is that the defense went quickly went from a team in '09 and '10 that defended Oregon better than they did Wisconsin.  I think the comment simply reflects that a) our defensive line is strongest up the middle and b) our LBer play is very inconsistent.  I do not think we lack the athletes to do it. 

German Buckeye's picture

Jumping off point for the rest of the season - momentum building all the way to an undefeated 2013 and a BIG and National Championship.

Milk Steak To Go's picture

I was happy to see OSU finally had success defending the outside runs.  Against UCF and Cal, the DE would line up shaded inside or heads-up with the tackle, creating easy angles for blocks.  Against MSU, the DE was heads up, but then attacked the outside should of the blocker, allowing the DE to maintain contain and defeating the OT/TE's angle.  Great inside-out fill from the LBs, too (which wasn't there against UCF and Cal because they were usually caught in the DE getting blocked).
I think Nebraska will be more of a challenge as the D will now have to be disciplined.  Last year, the D tended to freelance against IV and zone reads.

Grayskullsession's picture

I think this breakdown somewhat proves what we have been wondering about. The first 4 games of the season were used primarily to find our identity on offense and defense without giving too much tape for our later opponents. Now we see the Cover 4 and 4-3 under are being used correctly and our coverage assignments were much better against MSU. Hopefully Fickell and Withers can throw some new wrinkles vs Nebrasks to really catch them off guard.

"if irony were made of strawberries, we' d all be drinking a lot of smoothies right now."

Ross Fulton's picture

I do agree whether OSU can establish the edge against Nebraska remains a cause for concern. However, at least they now have a chance. In previous games, they literally had no force support. So it made it easy pickings. If they establish force support and still get beat to the edge, that's a definitely problem entirely.

CoachGrasso's picture

Always been a defensive guy (switched from QB to FS in HS and currently coaching HS DBs) who subscribes to the 'offense puts butts in seats, defense wins games' philosophy.
With that said, I was growing very weary of watching the Ohio State D looking more metallic-shade-on-an-86-carolla than Silver Bullet for a large portion of last season and large portions of the first 4 games of this season. And not just in terms of the poor tackling, angles and blown assignments from the young/inexperienced/Sabino players; it was the lack of aggressive and timely blitz packages utilized during the Heacock era that was getting to me.
In other words I have been inwardly questioning Fick's ability to call a defense on his own (I know Withers is the Co but Fick calls the games). But the agressiveness I saw last Saturday in the approach turning me into more of a believer (ie bringing more guys in 3rd and medium/long situations and locking up on the outside). I'm assuming Fick is gaining confidence in these guys as they grow in to their roles and will unleash more as they continue to improve.
Of course this weekend's challenge is an entirely different animal with Martinez and crew. It'll be interesting to see how agressive the calls are this weekend with a mobile QB and a team that can attack laterally and vertically. This game can go along way in showing the Silver Bullets are back in full effect. I expect them to score some, but I also think with an agressive game plan like last week rather than a reactionary one we should be able to cause some havoc for old T-Magic and Braski-pants.

NH-IO's picture

I have to say that I find it hard to believe that the coaches all of a sudden found the ability to "establish an identity".  I agree with Maestro in that I believe the schemes that were run in the first four games were run on purpose.  Either to stay basic and not reveal too much of the defensive game plan, or to simply practice various schemes against inferior competition.  The latter allows the team to have game experience utilize the alignments that they may or may not employ during the rest of the season.  They may stick with the schemes they used against MSU, but I would not be surprised to see them switch these up based on the matchup.  This will be interesting to watch as the year goes on.  Always love reading these breakdown pieces.  Thanks Ross.

Ross Fulton's picture

It's impossible to know the answer to this--the only thing we can do is break down the film and make educated guesses.  To me, they looked in the first four games like they were trying to figure out what their players could do.  They were also trying to meld Withers' cover-4 with what Fickell has been exposed to his whole career, which was a defense based out of cover 3.

This, as opposed to the offense, who clearly knew what they were doing and simply were not using the constraint plays we all know they have. 

WiliestBuckeye's picture

Whatever you want to label as the cause for the poor defenisve play during the first 4 games, what matters most is that we continue to improve with each game. We have done this through the first 5 games and are still undefeated. If we have our best game of the season  vs. Nebraska, I think we will win.

"Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment."

BeijingBucks's picture

so much of what we were disappointed by in those first games though was poor tackling more than just poor schemes.
Well that and the super soft zones that have 6 backs in the secondary holding hands in a circle humming kumbaya while the lonely receiver stands there for an uncontested 3rd down conversion.
And Ross perhaps you can settle the argument about whether the dink and dunk offense with our DBs giving a 5-10yd cushion was the reason the D Line wasn't getting to the QB... or were the DBs giving cushion cause the DLine wasnt getting to the QB?  is it me or does that sound kinda chickkin and eggish?

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

cplunk's picture

I think the CBs were giving cushion because we don't have good enough safeties to rely on them if the CBs get beat at the line, plus our safeties needed to cheat up to assist our weak LBs. 
My thoughts- not sure, just what it seemed to me. I actually think our CBs are the strongest group on the defense after the defensive line. Their apparent weakness has been  symptom of scheme.
Would be interested to hear if Ross agrees with that.

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes, I think you are right.  They were trying to protect the safeties and even more than that the LBers. The LBers had not been good in coverage. They were better against MSU. Again, I think it was because they were put in position to be successful by a sounder scheme.

Ross Fulton's picture

I think they are actually independent issues. You aren't going to get the QB if they are in shotgun throwing 1 step screens. But our D does lack an elite pass rusher-really the only weakness of this D line. Though perhaps it is because both Williams and Simon have been banged up.

The CBs were playing that cushion because of scheme. It was unnecessary even within the same zone coverages, as we saw against MSU...

baddogmaine's picture

Ross, I'm not knowledgeable enough to look at defensive schemes the way you do (I wish I were!). I just see results. In the MSU game we obviously did a fabulous job of stopping the run, but we allowed a QB who was worst in pass efficiency in the B1G and among the worst in the FBS to have a pretty good throwing day. Had open receivers not dropped many passes on their hands the outcome might have been different. Did OSU defensive coaches feel that we could not stop everything and gamble that passes would be dropped? Or were we trying to cover and that was a part of defensive performance that has not worked in 5 games and we got lucky?
MSU is not a team that passes well and had a pretty good day against us. NE is a team that doesn't mind passing, and when it does Martinez is the most eficient QB in the B1G. Is our pass defense taking steps forward each game and by tomorrw will be ready for whatever the Cornhuskers throw at us? Or do we still have a defense that is likelyto struggle against a team that both runs and passes pretty well?

Ross Fulton's picture

The goal is to take away what the other team wants to do and does well. For MSU, that is running Bell.  Yes MSU receivers dropped passes, but that is precisely why you force them to throw the football!  Plus several of those 'drops' were as a result of our safeties coming over the top and delivering a hit.

I disagree that the pass D was poor. Sure they threw for yards, but how many of those led to big plays? In modern football you aren't going to hold a quality opponent to negative yards and 0 points. Other than the horrible tackling on the one bootleg, MSU's passsing game was kept in check.

If Nebraska wants or has to try and throw 40+ times Saturday then I will be very very happy. Their biggest threat is Martinez running. That is what a defense has to try and take away.

njc2o's picture

Hankins is a grown ass man. Without him, this defense goes nowhere fast.