OSU v. Neb: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on October 11, 2012 at 2:00p

Nebraska's 38 points obscures that not all was wrong with the Ohio State defense Saturday. In contrast to the offense, the defense was put in some poor positions by the Ohio State special teams. An otherwise solid performance on most snaps was marred by allowing explosive plays. But as it has been all season, allowing big plays is the problem. While OSU is more schematically sound, an inconsistent back seven is permitting opposing offenses to create yardage chunks. While improvement amongst many of Ohio State's young players is evident, injuries have thinned an already inexperienced unit, meaning that the Buckeyes may simply have to battle through such breakdowns all year. 

Ohio State: Screwin' Down

Ohio State responded to Nebraska's multiple, run-first offense with perhaps its most 'aggressive' game plan to date. Following the slow bleed against UAB, the Buckeye defensive coaching staff clearly decided to stick to this philosophy—even if it leads to large plays by opposing offenses. The blueprint mirrored Michigan State. The Buckeyes primarily played a 4-3 under, cover-4 defense. From cover-4, OSU often brought their strong safety into the box, creating a single high safety look.

When Nebraska put the formation to the boundary, the Buckeyes would stack their linebackers (rather than play their Sam linebacker outside the box). OSU would attempt to keep the Cornhuskers off-balance by showing cover-4 pre-snap, then moving to a single high safety coverage. 

The Buckeyes also picked up where they left off last weekend and played an extensive amount of cover-1 robber on third down. Both of Bradley Roby's interceptions came from such coverage.

In hindsight, it is clear that this coverage system is what Everett Withers was brought in to implement, but that the Buckeye staff became gun-shy in using early in the season. From here on out, the OSU defense is going to sink or swim with playing the pattern-matching defense that Urban Meyer wants played, even if the Buckeyes have some personnel limitations in running this system.

Hot and Cold

This defensive game plan had the results one may expect. The Buckeyes had numerous plays where they held Nebraska to little or no gain. In this regard, the Buckeye defensive line enhances the scheme. The OSU defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage against the Nebraska run game, providing little running room at the point of attack. The Buckeye linebackers are also doing better playing 'downhill.'

The OSU defensive front was buoyed by a healthier John Simon. Simon was more explosive and made multiple plays behind the line of scrimmage.

But Ohio State's aggressiveness also yielded big Cornhusker plays. Just as the defensive line enhances the Ohio State scheme at the point of attack, the Buckeye back seven makes OSU more susceptible to explosive plays. For instance, here OSU plays cover-0 behind a corner blitz. The OSU blitz does not hit and Ohrian Johnson gets beat.

Nebraska also schemed to take advantage of OSU interior defenders in cover-4 man coverage. The Cornhuskers put twins or trips to the field. This left Roby on the tight end while leaving Johnson in coverage on No. 2.

Against the run, the Buckeye defense continues to struggle setting the edge. The defensive front forces running backs to bounce, but defenders are not in place to clean up. 

This particularly falls on the cover-4 safeties to come down hard upon run action. But the Buckeye star and/or linebackers also need to scrape down the line of scrimmage. The upshot is a bit of an all or nothing approach. The Ohio State defensive line stops many plays at the point of attack. But if opposing offenses are able to get the corner or advantageous match-ups against OSU's 4th and 5th man defenders, the Buckeyes can yield big plays.

Taking Away Taylor

The Buckeyes providing Nebraska running backs running room was also partially by design. It is clear that the Buckeye game plan was to prevent Nebraska's biggest gamebreaker, Taylor Martinez, from getting running lanes. OSU wanted to force Martinez to give on read plays. This was particularly apparent on Nebraska's favorite play, inverted veer. OSU had their defensive ends Simon and Nate Williams 'sit' on Martinez and left their linebackers responsible for the outside run, in the form of constant scrape exchange.

As noted, this left OSU vulnerable outside, but prevented Martinez from attacking north-south. The result was no Martinez runs of note, meaning that the Buckeye defense accomplished its primary goal. 

This 'Close'

The Ohio State defense is not as far away as the Nebraska stat sheet indicates. Of the 38 points surrendered, two scores came where Nebraska started within the OSU 30 and two came off of 50-yard plus plays. Only two Nebraska touchdowns were a result of Nebraska drives, and one of those when the game was not in doubt. Crucially, the Buckeye defense forced four three and outs to go along with four turnovers. Ohio State is doing a far better job getting off the field.

One can see improvement. The (belated) adoption of a unifying philosophy is giving the Buckeye players a system to work within that they can get repetitions performing. The scheme is sound and does not exhibit the structural issues seen against Cal. Though the problems discussed above still exist, the Buckeye defenders are doing a better job of filling their task, pursuing downhill and scraping to make tackles. Individual OSU defenders are also improving. Ryan Shazier and Christian Bryant in particular are two that stand out. They are taking better pursuit angles and becoming surer tacklers (see third video above). 

Their athleticism is thus becoming a strength and not also the hindrance of overrunning plays one saw earlier in the year. Josh Perry also flashed in his first extended action. Filling in for Etienne Sabino, Perry handled his own at the SAM position. For instance, in the first video, Perry perfectly locks up the tight end and sets the edge.

But Ohio State cannot function at a high level so long as they allow 'explosive plays.' From cover-4, the Buckeye linebackers, star, and safeties need to set the edge and fill their responsibilities. OSU also will have to continue to improve in man coverage from these same positions. To that end, the Buckeyes unfortunately have to play without an injured Sabino. It's a shame when a senior is injured and has to miss games, and Ohio State will miss his improving play. The return of CJ Barnett at safety will be a boost, however, in the Buckeyes' safety-dependent cover-4.  


Comments Show All Comments

beserkr29's picture

With Ross mentioning personnel limitations and the pattern-matching Cover 4 that Urban would like to play on D, the recruiting side of things kind of comes into focus more.  A poster on 11W in another topic (I forget whom and in what topic) mentioned Ohio State having a great number of offers out to safeties, especially for 2014.  With Cover 4, as Ross mentions, being such a safety dependent scheme, the light bulb just flashed for me.  Maybe everybody else figured it out, but I just thought it was a cool connection that only now came apparent.  With Withers' addition of the Cover 4, DBs are going to become even more important.  And, with much the same players that we had last year, the turnovers caused by a new scheme have to be attractive to recruits in the defensive backfield.  INTs earn players serious $$ once draft day comes around.  Anyway, another great article, Ross!  I always look forward to these breakdowns! 

d5k's picture

I think I've read a few places that Cam Burrows could end up as a safety.  He and Woodard were key gets as well as the guys we got in the 2012 class (Reeves, Murray, Powell).

njc2o's picture

roby in run support is ferocious

NEWBrutus's picture

Only because I'm a numbers nerd....
First down success rate of opponents offenses (1st down plays gaining 4+ yds) in the first 4 games:  54.9%
First down success rate of opponents offenses in the last two games(Nebraska and MSU):  41.9%. 
There are probably numerous reasons for this, but the primary ones which come to mind are:
1.  Offensive schemes of Nebraska and MSU are geared more as a power run first, everything else second, which fits the strength of our defense, and the first four opponents were more content to throw it all over the place.
2.  A better job of our staff coming up with a more consistent scheme for the last two games vs a more scattered approach.
3.  General improvement of the players due to actual game experience/getting healthy/etc.
Of course the third down success has changed as well....
UCF, Cal and UAB converted 40.8% of their third down chances vs. just 23% for MSU and Nebraska. 
Great write up and analysis as always.  A highlight to my Thursday.

Ross Fulton's picture

I agree there are schematic differences but I also do think it comes down to being a more efficient defense. They have also eliminated some of the dinking and dunking that left them in third and short.


These are really good numbers, thanks for providing.

bigbill992001's picture

WOW!    I didnt realize that the 3rd down rate was that good the last 2 games.    I guess the 1st 4 games are stuck in my memory.

yrro's picture

Ross, in what ways is the aggressive cover-4 scheme more or less dependent on different personnell than the base defense Heacock used to run? Are we any more or less dependent on certain players to make plays, and/or more or less vulnerable to large plays when those players fail?
I'm just curious just how much of a transition this is for the defense, and how much recruiting emphasis will need to change because of it.
The vague impression I am getting is that the cover-4 pattern matching has a higher ceiling and represents the cutting edge in current college defenses, but that it may expose personnell weaknesses more? Or are our safeties and linebackers just playing at that much worse of a level than what we were used to for the last few years, regardless of scheme?

d5k's picture

Since we had similar issues last year with inconsistency and giving up chunks on defense, I'm going to guess personnel and time in the scheme has more to do with it than the scheme exposing weaknesses.  It's good to see the improvement in Bryant and Shazier though and they will both be extremely important the next 1.5 years (maybe 2.5 for Shazier).  Some young guns will have to step up to fill the Star/Sam/Mike next year (hopefully one of those is Curtis Grant but we will see).
In some ways the injury to Sabino could be a blessing in disguise in terms of long term development.  Of course, I would much rather he be healthy.

Ross Fulton's picture

I think both are somewhat true. In particular, it puts a lot of pressure on the safety position.  Need to be able to play man coverage one play and come up in run support the next. You also need your nickel back to be equally versatile. OSU has had guys that could do these things, but just have some drop-off at a few positions.

Doc's picture

Ross, I have some questions for you.  Was it Urban that set the defensive philosophy before the MSU game with the pattern matching?  If so, who was supposed to be making the defensive philosophy before?  Why was there none, or a combination before?  It seems to me Meyer forced his will onto the defensive staff and now we have an all for one mentality.  If he did, do you think there may be some descention in the ranks of coaches?

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Ross Fulton's picture

This is my speculation.  Meyer brought in Withers. Withers has always run this type of coverage scheme. But in the early games they played it safe because they didn't think the personnel could do it and they were trying to protect against getting gashed. But after the UAB game, Meyer gave the word to go to what they were planning on doing from the get-go, even if it meant giving up big plays. 

The_Lurker's picture

Ross, as usual I live for your football porn. Thanks for all you do and I am truly bummed that somehow I missed meeting you at Eat Too/Drink Too Brutus.

InfinityX's picture

Long time reader, first time commenter.
Ross, for Nebraska's first two touchdowns, they ran that quick inside toss play that (I think) LSU likes to run. But interestingly, aside from the unusual motion on the play, Nebraska also used the "quarterback" Burkhead to lead block on the playside linebacker, and use the fullback to kick out the end man. Seeing this live I thought it was very novel, and I ask, have you ever seen this kind of scheme before? Because usually the quarterback on this play is tasked with getting in the way (not even really blocking) the backside pursuit.

dvo45's picture

Double Wing Offense...Super Power...nothing new or exciting...

Ross Fulton's picture


Yea its actually a really old play--teams used to have the QB lead on toss plays often.

yrro's picture

Still, effective when a team isn't used to preparing for it.

Ross Fulton's picture

This does not apply to the play itself, but rather tr use of Burkhead at QB...


IMO, any coach should ask themselves what is the benefit to this 'trick play?'  Because you need to take time practicing, which takes time away from practicing other stuff. What did Nebraska really gain by doing that?  They could have ran the same play with Martinez there. Burkhead almost fumbled one snap. So I really just don't see what they gained by doing that. 

yrro's picture

True, it's a balance of the
a) Expectation that Burkhead is going to run himself on any snap he takes.
b) Ability of Burkhead vs Martinez as a blocker (and I would expect Burkhead to be significantly better.)
c) Increased risk of a fumble from Burkhead not being used to taking snaps.

Boxley's picture

So, we have had a different defensive scheme in place for a while awaiting  the B1G schedule. Another conspiracy theory confirmed to be factual.
Will we use this newer scheme against all opponents in the future, or is it just for B1G games?

"...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

Ross Fulton's picture

I wouldn't say 'different.'  I would say we just played a very different type of coverage behind it. The basic schemes were the same, the emphasis was different.