OSU v. Purdue: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on October 25, 2012 at 2:00p

While by no means perfect, the defense's performance against Purdue was a noticeable upgrade, both in execution and outcome. It was the Buckeye defense that kept Ohio State in the game, in spite of special teams breakdowns and offensive turnovers. The OSU defense was able to improve its performance through a combination of key additions in leadership and talent, significant improvements in performance from stalwarts, and a slight change in scheme that allowed Ohio State to get off the field on third down. This permitted OSU to hang around long enough to stage its comeback.

Bad Juju

Of course any observer would be excused for failing to believe that would be the case after the game's first play. Purdue's 83-yard touchdown was a result of the same issues that have plagued OSU this year, namely uncertainty in executing the Buckeyes' cover-4 scheme. Purdue clearly implemented this play to take advantage of this confusion. Purdue lined up in the same twins to the field, tight end to the boundary formation that has troubled OSU's cover-4 all year. The Boilermakers ran two inside posts with a fullback wheel route and tailback flat. To that side, OSU had CB Travis Howard responsible for No. 1, S CJ Barnett responsible for No. 2, with nickel Orhian Johnson and Mike Storm Klein responsible for Nos. 3 and 4. 

But as it happened, Johnson and Klein both initially committed to the tailback's flat route. This allowed the fullback's wheel to come free, leading to an untouched score.

Admission is the first Step...

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the Buckeye defense rebounded, improving as the game moved forward. Part of this success relative to Indiana the week before was personnel. Nate Williams' return was one such improvement. Williams' versatility and leadership were well needed tonics. Williams' versatility also paid dividends in allowing OSU to get their 'best 11' on the field. With Josh Perry's injury, Williams began playing Sam linebacker in Ohio State's base defense. Though he got lost at times in pass coverage (including Purdue's 31 yard touchdown on a screen), his physical presence on the edge was a sizeable improvement, particularly against Purdue's inverted veer run game. Williams' ability to play Sam allowed the Buckeyes to play Noah Spence at Leo. Spence is quickly living up to his potential. In particular, he has quickly improved his ability to play against the run from earlier this season.

In nickel situations, then, OSU was able to use Williams and Spence on the edge, bumping John Simon down from 5-technique to inside. Suddenly, OSU had legitimate pass rushers on the field.

The OSU defense was also buoyed by Zach Boren's presence. One could tell that as Boren became more comfortable he began making plays. And the more minutes Boren played, the better the defense executed as whole. Boren was perhaps the first Buckeye linebacker to play downhill and attack the hole.

He also was the first OSU linebacker to correctly diagnose a play and shoot underneath a gap. He thus was able to take advantage of Simon's play at the point of attack to make a key third down tackle for loss.

By playing downhill, Boren then allows Ryan Shazier to take advantage of his athletic ability to move laterally behind him. Further, not only was Boren's play an upgrade at a position that has been a struggle all year, but he brings additional leadership to the back seven. Look for Boren to continue to fill this role going forward.

Self Scouting

Urban Meyer's infusion into defensive meetings last week led to one perhaps unexpected strategic change. On first and second down, OSU played its standard cover-4 defense. But on third down, OSU went from playing large amounts of cover-1 to quite often featuring a more conservative cover-2.  

In fact, OSU was in cover-2 on perhaps their two most important plays—the end zone interception to end Purdue's interminable first half drive,

and the defense's fourth down overtime stop.

The defensive staff ably mixed cover-2 and zone blitzes in overtime, evidencing a change in strategy and keeping Purdue off-balance. 

From there, to get both Spence and Williams on the field simultaneously in nickel, the Buckeye coaches largely abandoned the 30-odd front for a standard 4-2-5 over, as seen above. 

It is unclear whether this third-down philosophical shift was a reflection of the coaching staff examining their third down failings and trying to adjust to fit their personnel, or was simply a reaction to scouting Purdue. In either case, OSU was more sound. In multiple cases the Buckeye secondary was able to come up and make sound tackles short of the first down. The previously easy first downs for opponents were not readily available.

This change also seemed to put the Buckeye defensive backs in a comfort zone. The OSU cornerbacks adopted a more aggressive posture. This seemed to have a snowball effect, particularly with Travis Howard, who played perhaps his most physical game as a Buckeye. As the game continued, the corners became more aggressive in breaking up pass plays. CJ Barnett also looked far more comfortable and aggressive coming up to make tackles. The result was a more confident and assertive backfield. 

What Is Old Is new Again

The Buckeye defense was not simply aided by Williams' return and Spence and Boren's increased reps. Instead, as with Howard, perhaps the most crucial aspect was simply improved play from it stalwarts. While Meyer's discussion of improved leverage may have seemed cliched, it certainly appeared to impact Ryan Shazier and Christian Bryant. Shazier and Bryant are two Buckeye defenders who do have the talent to play have at a high level but have been inconsistent this year, mainly due to poor angles and tackling. But that was not present Saturday. Shazier in particular looked like a different player, repeatedly taking proper angles, maintaining leverage, and making sound tackles (also note how well Spence maintains his outside leverage and spills the running back).

While it is not a sexy issue, this proper leverage is the difference in stopping some of the big plays that have plagued the Buckeye defense.

But perhaps the most dominant performer was John Simon. Simon naturally excels more against the run. Therefore the more a team like Purdue tries to move on the ground, the more effective he becomes. He is especially difficult for a team to run read plays off of, because he is so fundamentally sound yet also athletic enough once the quarterback commits. Purdue's base run play is inverted veer. But as noted, with Williams and Simon on the edge it was extremely difficult for the Boilermakers to execute.

But Simon was also dynamic pass-rushing against the Boilermakers. With Spence and Williams on the edge the Buckeyes moved Simon inside on third downs and gave Simon a two-way go. He was repeatedly able to beat Purdue's guards inside, providing OSU a legitimate inside rush. The Buckeyes were also able to stunt and twist far more than they had previously done.

The result was that OSU was able to (finally) generate some pass rush with their front four. This was a crucial change in the Buckeyes' defense and was as important to the improved third down play as coverage changes. The pass rush forced quicker throws, which allowed the Buckeyes' cover-2 defenders to come up and make tackles.

The upshot is that the Ohio State defense played a far more fundamentally sound game. The Buckeyes still occasionally struggled with the wide receiver screens, which is mostly a reflection of their lack of a true star to play to the field against spread sets. But the OSU defense played downhill, maintained leverage, and tackled. While far from perfect, it was a definitive improvement in one week's time from prior outings.

Penn State: Boston on my mind

Penn State will present a slightly different challenge than the Buckeye defense has faced this year. The Nittany Lions are a pro-style team, but unlike Michigan State, they are not a run-first squad. Instead, they are a poor man's version of the New England Patriots. They attempt to move the football with short, ball control passing, such as snag and spacing routes, as well as a large amount of bootleg floods. 

Further, Bill O'Brien implemented his Patriot NFL roots (to the extent he can) with this Nittany Lion squad. That means taking the very NFL concept of moving around skill position players to create the oft-coveted 'matchups.' This is crucial to pro teams, where practice time is unlimited and talent differences are small. For New England, this means positioning their all-pro tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez anywhere on the field. O'Brien brings this same idea to bear at Penn State. For instance, beginning at the 2:15 mark below, Penn State runs one play were TE Kyle Carter is in the slot and the next where he is split wide.

O'Brien has also brought the Patriots' no-huddle to college football (the place where Belichick looked for no-huddle concepts).

The Buckeye defense should be prepared to face a no-huddle team, given that they faced one throughout the pre-season. O'Brien will assuredly try to move around Carter and Bill Belton to create plays in the flat, where the OSU defense has been susceptible. But Penn State has not run the ball well this year and OSU must render them one-dimensional. From there, OSU can focus upon continuing what they did on third down this week and creating a pass-rush with their front four. The Buckeyes can live with some short completions so long as they continue to come up and tackle.


Comments Show All Comments

Earle's picture

Good stuff as always, Ross.  I suspected we were playing less cover 4, mainly due to the relative lack of big plays (after the first), though its not always easy to tell when you're watching on TV and focusing on the ball.
I'm expecting a big game for Boren Saturday, as he has been getting better every week.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

Ross Fulton's picture

Agreed--on both counts. I think Boren will more naturally play better against downhill run teams because it is more natural to him.

Doc's picture

Ross, are you still sticking with your prediction from earlier in the week?  Bucks by a couple of tds?

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Menexenus's picture

Yeah, I was pretty worried about this game because of all our injuries.  But when someone as knowledgeable as Ross predicted a multi-TD win, that put my mind at ease.  Ross, please tell me that your prediction wasn't just BS meant only for the cameras.

Real fans stay for Carmen.

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes. I think the Buckeyes are more talented, PSU will not have the ability to push the top of the OSU D, so they will be left trying to dink and dunk. 

BuckGuy003's picture

Never heard "dink and dunk" used as proper football lingo but I can dig it haha

danavh4's picture

Great Stuff Ross!  I don't think this one will be that close truthfully.  We have to force them into the run game and based on last week watch Penn State try to exploit us with the screen game.  They have nothing to lose...but then again...neither do we and I hope we get after it and pull out all the stops as we get into the heart of B1G play!

Michigan Fan: "We lose a long snapper and the whole team goes to shit!"

Ahh Saturday's picture

So, I guess the $64,000 question from that wheel route that scored is whose coverage was it?  Klein or OJ, and will they have it figured out for this week?

Maestro's picture

According to what I read I assume Klein who had the FB run directly past him.  I am guessing though.

vacuuming sucks

Ross Fulton's picture

Judging by Urban's answer today, I think it was actually OJ, which was my first thought as well. He hasn't been playing star so I guess its not a huge surprise he would have a breakdown.

Maestro's picture

Thanks for the clarification. 
When watching the play it sure seems like it would be easier for the wider defender (Johnson) to cover the flat than Klein who had the fullback run right across his face, but obviously I am no defensive coach.
Either way they need to figure things out, and perhaps we will be seeing more Cover 2 in the future.

vacuuming sucks

Boxley's picture

Thanks again Ross for overfilling my head with so many facts. Very good job as always.
That is the big challenge, stop the run. As you stated making PSU one dimensional should eventually end up in a turnover for us. I think we are one of the best defenses PSU has faced so far (let that sink in) before laughing.
We certainly will be the most physical defense they will have faced, and hopefully it will disrupt them offensively. 
We do need to get off on a better offensive front than we have lately. It is much easier to pressure PSU's offense if they are selling out and playing catch up.

"...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

NEWBrutus's picture

Thanks for the good stuff, Ross.  Other than the first play, it seemed like Purdue never really took a shot down field until maybe the final play in overtime.  From your viewing of the game, would you say this was because Purdue was having trouble protecting long enough to allow those routes to devlop?  It just seemed as if their entire attack was predicated on screens and short passing plays. 
Three drives is all Purdue really put together against our D.  Two ended in TD's and one in an INT.  This was a much better showing by our defense.  They allowed 13 points and gave us a chance to win it.
After hearing Klein has been playing injured, you wonder how effective his contributions on defense can.  He is giving everything he has, but he didn't get the practice reps in fall camp, looks to be "thinking" instead of just playing, and probably wasn't the fastest guy to begin with.  Unfortunately the lack of depty has left little choice for the coaches.
Interesting to see the combination of Hank, Simon, Williams, and Spence all getting after the qb.  Really like what I've been able to see from Spence lately. 
Thanks for all of your good work!

chitown buckeye's picture

Was hoping to see a breakdown of the trip/bunch formation that Purdue ran 6 strauight times with a score from that formation. All in all did think the Defense played better. Shazier looked like a whole new man out there last week. Boren looks as if he is getting more and more comfortable as well. Crazy to think I feel a sense of comfort when I see our starting FB, turned middle LB, in the game!

"I'm having a heart attack!"

Ross Fulton's picture

As I alluded to, some of it was poor alignment as a result of Williams playing a new position. Then, as I said, OSU used to have guys (Hines/Moeller) that just feasted on those plays. The lack of that type of player is probably the biggest difference between this unit and recent OSU Ds, even more so then a lack of a MLB.

Vabuck213's picture

I was hoping Bryant could become that type of player from the Star. Maybe with improved leverage he still could be but with him as a safety he won't have the opportunity to play close enough to the line to break up those screens

humble0ne's picture

Really appreciate the great breakdowns.  I read in one of the posts that Klein is battling a bulging disk in the back, which couldn't have helped on that first play.  It was very encouraging to see a more aggressive mindset with the linebackers.  There were several times where both Shazier and Boren looked like they were on a search and destroy mission.  I would much rather see an aggressive mistake than a passive one.
Thank you again for a great breakdown!

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

Maestro's picture

So glad that Simon is being moved into his best position.  Spence's progression and William's health hopefully continue this week to allow Simon to tee off from his more natural inside spot.

vacuuming sucks

NYC Buckeye's picture

IMO, the tackling was the best it has been all season, a noticeable improvement...  I feel like this was first game I didnt see Bryant's helmet and shoulder come flying at 200 mph 2 feet inside of an offensive player headed in the other direction...  
I hope we keep it up, cause a good coach like O'Brien will put his players in position to exploiit it this weekend...  Even if they shut down the Penn St running game, I feel like their offense will be productive, as we shut down Purdue's running game and they were able to put together a drive late in the game revolving around WR screen plays...  and McGloin and O'Brien are more formidable than Hope and Terbush...

BeijingBucks's picture

I was deeply annoyed during that drive when even the annoying ESPN talking heads (she who I wish would remain voiceless) said somehing along the lines of 'I bet this is another screen pass... yup!'
Why can't our D destroy a play once its been run at them 5 times straight?

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

CALPOPPY's picture

My guess would be that as soon as we start to edge toward "knowing" the play they change it up and burn us for a score with something new from the same set?

I'm a hurtin' buckaroo.

NYC Buckeye's picture

hah.. I'm not a big fan of that lady either...
I think we have struggled with the screen play specifically this season due to poor tackling...  a lot of WR screen plays end up putting a defender in one on one situation and we are simply failing to make the intial tackle...  
I'm not sure why we can't seem to get help over there after the catch, Ross may be better to explain that...

Tom57's picture

Ross great as usual.
Interesting how such subtle plays have such a BIG impact. Spence taking on the lead blocker and shoving him into the backfield was the first time I've seen anyone do that all yr from that position. They are often just caved in.
That small play forces the RB to take a wider route to the LoS and doesn't get squared up before Shazier can get a beat on him and make an easy tackle.
If Spence doesn't make the play the RB is square and in a position to make Ryan miss. I'm sure it's plays like these that weren't getting made that were driving the staff nuts.
As for a poor man's NE Pats..... I guess you mean homeless.
I see more 70's Bengals in talent and scheme with the late 80's no huddle. The attrition really hurt on the offensive side of the ball for PSU.
Hard to think anything Pats without putting Tom Brady front and center, and McGloin is more Virgil Carter than Tom B IMO

Ross Fulton's picture

How about VERY poor man's...


I was simply trying to say he is trying to adapt some philosophies that were successful with the Pats. You have to give him some credit for REALLY ham and egging it.

CowCat's picture

Hi Ross.   Thanks for another great read.
It seems like McGloin had all day to throw.    Is Penn State blocking great up front, or is Iowa really bad on the front 4?

"We get paid to score touchdowns, not kick field goals"
-- Urban Meyer

grant87's picture

PSU's longest drive was 6:27 ..that was for 97 yard drive.  IA played a terrible game defensively.  IA's offense did the defense no favors.  IA had one drive over 3 and a half minutes.  PSU ran 100 plays..IA 59 (26 of them lost yardage).  ouch

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


BuckeyeBoyer85's picture

These posts are great for us junkies who might not have the knowledge, time and resources to get such an in-depth look into the schematics of Buckeye football. Thanks to you, Ross.

Wayne Woodrow Hayes

osubuckeye4life's picture

Great write up Ross! 
Spence keeps getting better and better. Simon in his correct position. Williams staying healthy. Howard making tackles. Shazier playing like Ryan DAMN Shazier. Boren learning more and more.
I hope this is a sign of things to come in these last four games. 
Roby is due for a pick six this week I'm thinking.

zenshade's picture

Roby had a pick six sitting right there real pretty for him against Indiana, but unfortunately Bryant (I think, maybe Barnett) also made a play on the ball and neither got it.
Pick 6's against PSU have now become a storied tradition, and Roby's the guy to keep that alive. :)

grant87's picture

Thanks Ross.  Do you think tOSU will load the box and force PSU to go long?  Would you expect more man than zone?
I hope to see Roby on Robinson.  Shazier on whichever RB.  Send Simon and Williams after McLovin.  I hope they knock the moxie out of him!
I hope tOSU offense puts up points and eats up minutes to help the defense.

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


cplunk's picture

This is encouraging. It seems like the coaches improved their scheme by diversifying a bit and this in turn allowed the players to improve some of their faults, both through being placed in more familiar positions and through increased confidence.

Dougger's picture

after reading this article and the comments i just got really jacked up for tomorrow.. not that i wasnt already, but im at work. return of the silver bullets!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I like football