The Ohio State defensive breakdowns at Indiana were the latest iteration of the issues that have plagued the Buckeyes all year. What is at times a solid performance is overwhelmed by allowing 20+ yard plays, third down conversions, and poor team pursuit angles. The Buckeye defense continues to suffer from personnel shortcomings up the middle.
One possible explanation is that Ohio State is having difficulties implementing the defensive scheme that OSU wants to run. Some growing pains were expected on the offensive side of the football. But those issues have been minimized by Braxton Miller's talents as a runner. The growing pains are instead being witnessed on defense. At this point, it is difficult to see the systematic problems as isolated incidents. Ohio State has committed to the style they want to play and must stick with it to get their players comfortable executing it. In the meantime, the Buckeyes must build on the positive segments of play they are having, and rely upon their defensive line to control the action.
I believe there are three interrelated issues that are compounding defensive difficulties. They all relate to the cover-4 scheme that Ohio State has implemented this year.
- The play calling is not adjusting to how offenses want to attack cover 4.
- The players are not comfortable within the scheme.
- Certain players do not have the skill set to play within the scheme.
I address each of those issues in turn below.
The Definition of Insanity...
Indiana presented Ohio State with the same basic spread framework teams have used against Ohio State throughout the year: trips to the field.
This takes Ohio State's best corner, Bradley Roby, out of the mix, and instead forces OSU's Orhian Johnson and linebackers into coverage. Indiana then repeatedly ran a simple cover-4 beater: double slants with a swing route.
Ohio State never stopped the play the entire game. Then you add poor angles and the result is Indiana's last-minute fireworks.
This is a nice pass combination against cover 4. The safety must take the No. 2 receiver on the first slant. The play side linebacker is responsible for No. 3, so he must race to cover the running back in the flat. That leaves the corner stuck covering No. 1, breaking inside when his pre-alignment responsibility is to maintain outside leverage. That being said, this is not the first time this play has been run against cover 4. But Ohio State never adjusted. Instead they continued to run the same scheme and somehow expected a different result. A coaching staff can do one of two things. You can make an adjustment call within cover 4, such as a 'Meg' call. Or you can simply mix and match coverages to keep opposing coaches and quarterbacks off-balance. Neither was done.
Paralysis by Analysis
The schematic breakdowns are compounded by players who are playing with hesitancy and repeat lapses in filling assignments. Whether it is because of players switching to a new scheme or inexperienced back seven personnel, Buckeye defenders are not playing 'fast.' Below, the Buckeyes run a corner blitz. Behind it, OSU plays a form of pattern matching coverage. Indiana crosses No. 2 and 3. Storm Klein hesitates, however, and begins to follow 2. By that point, Shane Wynn is well past him. This has to be a fluid transition. Add that to Ryan Shazier being in no-man's land and unable to provide support, and Wynn is off to the races.
OSU's cover-4 application hiccups are also felt in the run game. All year we have discussed Ohio State's poor force support. I believe part of this issue is caused by the shift from a cover-3/single high-based scheme to cover 4. With cover 3, the wide field force player (in nickel) was the star, and the weak side force player is the boundary corner. Now, the safeties to each side must provide force support. The safeties read the No. 2 receiver. If he stays in to block they must come up in force and spill support.
Whether this is causation or merely correlation, the Buckeye defense continues to use poor leverage technique to the edge. Here, Indiana uses the same principle that has worked well against the Buckeye run game—multiple receivers to the field, with their run strength to the boundary. OSU shades their safety to the trips, leaving no deep safety help in the box (although the deep safety may be out of position). Indiana runs a simple power play to the boundary. The first problem is that Michael Bennett gets single handedly turned and put on roller skates. Ryan Shazier comes up and correctly fills the hole. But then Ohio State's other back end defenders take odd routes. Bradley Roby's is perhaps excused because he is playing force to that side. But with no safety, Klein absolutely has to come across and fill the hole to spill the play. Yet he for some reason steps up away from the play, rendering him unable to come across the formation and clean up.
Repeatedly, Ohio State defenders are wrong-footed or taking false steps. Regardless of athletic ability, defenders are not going to be effective when they are playing slow, not taking proper angles and failing to fill pursuit responsibilities.
The Personnel and the Personal
The inability to flexibly apply their cover-4 scheme is providing opportunities for opposing offenses. But those are generally of the five- to ten-yard variety. Every explosive play above—whether initially opened by scheme or not—is aided like gasoline on a fire by simply poor defensive fundamentals. For instance, in the first video clip above showing an IU touchdown, Ryan Shazier and Christian Bryant both overrun the football and then use poor tackling technique. On the gap run, as noted, Bennett loses his gap and Klein misreads his keys. The result is any schematic deficiency is exacerbated by poor execution.
The question is what is the cause. Some is the result of talent deficiencies at certain positions. In particular, Ohio State has an unsettled Mike and Star position, crucial aspects of the defense. Some of this is individuals who do not fit the system well, individuals who were brought in with a different framework and who were drilled in that philosophy. OSU's middle five (safeties, nickels, linebackers) in particular now have far different responsibilities. Notably, they must play far more 'man' coverage. Cover 4 asks a lot of the safeties—they must be prepared to come up in force support or defend No. 2 down the seam in man coverage—depending on their keys. This takes some different talents than playing a one-high defense.
But this also cannot be the only explanation, because for the players that do have the athletic skills for this scheme they are repeatedly finding themselves out of position and/or overrunning plays, such as Shazier and Bryant above. Shazier in particular still gets lost in space and overruns plays. Nor does Ohio State's defensive line seem matched well with the back seven scheme. It is indisputable that the Buckeye's back seven would be assisted by a stronger pass rush. OSU's front four is stout against the run but does not have a natural pass rusher. The problem, however, is that if OSU brings in the freshman and sophomore defensive linemen to try to create a pass rush they leave themselves incredibly vulnerable against the run. That IU touchdown run does not happen if Johnathan Hankins is in the game at 3-technique.
The injury issue cannot be understated. A defense that was so thin in the back seven has been decimated by injuries. Not only in losing players such as Etienne Sabino and CJ Barnett, but also amongst those who can play. Shazier and Bryant were noticeably limping against Indiana. The upshot is that all these issues are colluding together to create serious defensive lapses.
Cover 4 pattern matching is perhaps the most popular trend in coverage schemes for a reason—it provides a nice mix of in-the-box run support, defense against four verticals, and aggressive man coverage without forcing your safeties to turn their backs to the quarterback. It is particularly effective against spread offenses. So perhaps these growing pains are a necessary evil. But the more insidious issue is that no coverage is perfect. Every team has 'coverage beaters' against every coverage, including cover 4. Coaching staffs must adjust when teams are exploiting your scheme. Luke Fickell is as new to a cover-4 based scheme as the players. Similar to asking an I formation coach to play call from the spread, perhaps Fickell is undergoing his own growing pains in learning how to adjust. Or perhaps the coaching staff is trying to keep things as simple as possible for struggling players. The upshot, though, is that the Buckeye defense is having breakdowns at all levels—theory, implementation, and execution.
The result is that it is unrealistic to expect these issues to be resolved in a game. The Ohio State coaching staff has determined the defensive style it wants to play. It must continue to work to steep its players within the cover-4 scheme until they can play 'fast' doing so. But it is going to continue to lead to growing pains—and those growing pains come in the form of giving up big plays.
Given the gloom and doom above, it is easy to forget that the OSU defense plays sustained periods of solid football. OSU forced six three and outs and forced Indiana to punt four consecutive series in the second quarter. The Buckeye defense is particularly effective when teams try to attack their experienced defensive line. So long as the OSU defensive line can control the game, the defense plays fairly well. But large scale breakdowns overwhelm these moments.
Ultimately this defense does not have the luxury of the Ohio State offense—when the chips are down, someone needs to step up and make a play. OSU dropped multiple interceptions that would have put the game away. Urban Meyer intimated this week that Noah Spence and Nathan Williams are too good to not play at the same time. This is a strategy I have advocated for a while. When you are this thin on defense, you have to find the way to get your best 11 playmakers on the field, regardless of position. Though Meyer discussed running a '3-4', this is semantics. OSU's 4-3 under looks like a 3-4 to begin with. Look for Williams to play at Sam linebacker at times with Spence at Leo. Ohio State has been most effective this year when their strength—the defensive front—controls the action. OSU must therefore get defenders out there who can do just that.