OSU v. PSU: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on November 1, 2012 at 2:00p

In what was clearly a satisfying performance for Urban Meyer, the Ohio State defense played perhaps its best all-around game yet. Obscured by two late Penn State touchdowns is the fact that the Buckeye defense kept OSU in the game for two and a half quarters, in the face of offensive inefficiency and special teams breakdowns. It was the second consecutive week the Buckeye defense has done so. OSU accomplished this by mixing and matching looks more than at any time this year. The Buckeyes sprinkled in zone blitzes, zone coverages, and ample amounts of man. This disabled the Nittany Lion run game, rendering Penn State one-dimensional and allowing the Buckeyes to make stops. 

Let's Put a Smile on That Face

We blitzed more. We had more pressures . . . But we played more man coverage and blitzed more than he did all year. So that's telling us something that we need to do more of that.

Meyer's Monday press conference tells part of the OSU defensive story. The Buckeyes' goal was to attack Penn State in run downs, particularly against the Nittany Lions' '12' (1 RB, 2 TE) personnel. OSU did this in one of two ways. The first was to play cover-1 man and man-robber. As seen below, the OSU inside linebackers would delay blitz if Penn State's back(s) stayed in pass protection. Cover-1 also brought OSU's strong safety CJ Barnett down into the box, placing 8 defenders against the Penn State run game. Penn State could not run against the OSU front plus the aggressive second-level force play.

Alternatively, the Buckeyes would zone blitz, often bringing Ryan Shazier on a 'x-cross' with the defensive tackle.

And, at times against 21 personnel, OSU would bring man blitzes and play cover-0 behind.

Penn State tried to borrow a page from previous opponents and put their twins to the field and TE to the boundary. But the cover-1 largely short circuited this, trading out the strong safety for boundary corner in the box with help over the top. This allowed OSU to maintain the same arithmetic advantage and leverage against the run. Further, the free safety could help the man coverage to the inside, unlike in cover-4 where the safety was committed to the boundary side No. 2 receiver.

Penn State did exploit the Buckeye secondary's issues with double moves. But the Nittany Lions were either not able to convert, or the OSU defense was able to stiffen in response.

Mixin' and Matchin'

In pass situations the Buckeyes moved towards mixing and matching zone looks. This included zone blitzes, but primarily featured a mixing and matching of various zone looks. For instance, on Ryan Shazier's interception return, the Buckeyes used quarter-quarter-half coverage.

OSU continued featuring cover-2 in this situation as well. Up front, the Buckeyes continued their increased use not only of blitzes but also stunts. The goal was to find inexpensive ways to create pressure. The assorted looks kept Penn State off-balance and was a far cry from Indiana, when the Buckeyes largely sat in base cover-4 without movement up front.   

Fundamentals...and It Doesn't Hurt to Have the Jimmy and Joes

As Meyer also stated, the Buckeye defense continued to make small improvements in tackling and leverage. This was perhaps most evident against jailbreak screens thrown by Penn State. It is no secret that OSU has struggled with such plays this fall. Penn State tried to exploit this weakness but OSU did far better recognizing, leveraging and containing the play. The inside cutback lanes were eliminated, greatly limiting Penn State's gains.

Much of these improvements were simply the result of increased health allowing individuals to settle into roles. Zach Boren and Nate Williams continue to make a big impact in both playmaking and leadership. Boren's downhill play against the run brings an element this defense previously lacked. For instance, in the video above against the Penn State run game, Boren quickly filled the hole. By doing so, Boren also improves Shazier's effectiveness. Shazier does not have to worry about linemen coming across the backside to block in pursuit. He can maintain better angles, scraping to the ball-carrier and thus use his athleticism more effectively. Concurrently, Williams' brings a very effective force presence to the Sam linebacker position.

Perhaps ironically, the fact he is not a true linebacker has also forced OSU to play more base under fronts, putting additional defenders in the box. The result is that the linebacker position—which was a real weakness—has been upgraded with personnel adjustments.

The defense's presence was also boosted by a more full return to health of two oft-injured contributors—CJ Barnett and Michael Bennett. As Meyer stated, the Buckeyes' primary constraint in playing man coverage was not its corners, but being able to effectively man against the offense's other three eligible receivers. Barnett's full return has increased the Buckeyes' ability to do so. Bennett finally flashed the form that made Meyer so bullish on him pre-season. He is extremely quick and disruptive off the football. He also flashed his athleticism deflecting a wide receiver screen pass. The Buckeyes regularly placed him at the 3-technique with Johnathan Hankins inside, providing the Buckeyes with two disruptive tackles.

My Way

Meyer was clearly excited about the defensive scheme. As he stated,

Q. You mentioned a more aggressive defense. Was that an edict from you that you need more pressure?

COACH MEYER: It's not an edict. It's something I've been pushing. I've been pushing a little bit, and we'll continue to push. I think it's having confidence.

Meyer thus left little doubt that this is the style of defense he would prefer to see moving forward. Putting scheme aside, the key for the OSU defense was stopping the Penn State run game. OSU's front four is its strength, and this is one aspect that the Buckeye defense has excelled in throughout the year. This bodes well for its remaining games against offenses predicated upon the run game.

A Word on Punt

The Buckeyes continue to win despite continued punt protection problems. OSU has allowed three blocks this year and teams will continue to attack the OSU punt protection. Seemingly every week OSU slightly varies its look—with continued breakdowns. For instance, even before the blocked punt, Penn State had a rusher come free.

Meyer partly attributed this to ever-changing punt personnel due to injuries. But three punt blocks cannot be entirely attributed to this. The easy answer would be to go to an NFL spread punt formation. This ensures people are blocked inside and have to come from a further angle. But according to Meyer it is not so simple. Instead, he indicates he faces sub-optimal choices between protecting the punter and getting adequate punt coverage.

 I think if you sit there like a sitting duck nowadays, we don't have the greatest hang time. We're struggling a little bit with hang time. So you want to free release people. And any time you free release, you're opening up the flood gates for some protection issues. So that's where we've got to spend a lot of time on that right now. Like last night and today, a lot of time just getting this thing cleaned up on who is going to be on it, making sure they're healthy enough to do it, and making sure our roles are intact.

Right now just flat punting the ball is not very good, and he's actually very pretty good at doing our quarter role like we did and making sure we're in sound protection. So we're in a little dilemma right now. . . .

Ideally we've had years where I think one year we had 13 total return yards. Because our belief is you have 6.5 seconds. If you're hitting the ball 4.5 seconds hang time, and 2 seconds get off, that's 6.5 seconds to cover 40 yards. You put really fast people out there and force catches. We're not doing that right now. But at the end of the day you would say what is the best punt? Fair catch. 13 total or some ridiculous small return yards in getting the ball off, we're not there because we don't have the hang time or the distance. I'm just worried about the returners. So we're jury rigging a system, and I won't say it's working very well.

The wide splits thus encourage a free release for coverage but also allow for easy block opportunities should an inside blocker miss an assignment. The Buckeyes must find a way to simply the blocking assignments to prevent such systemic breakdowns. 


Comments Show All Comments

Grayskullsession's picture

This is the defensive play we have been waiting for all season and it seems to be finally showing up. Im glad that Meyer has no qualms about replacing players when they play poorly (cough Storm Klein cough).

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

yrro's picture

So I'm noticing you say "cover 1" a lot more and "cover 4" a lot less. Does the defense for the last two games more resemble what OSU has done for the last few years schematically (as in, they are giving up on implementing Withers' pattern-reading cover 4 until they've got another spring to work on it), or is it something different and new altogether? Do you think this says anything about a change in how the defensive coaching team is working together?

JasonBuck's picture

Ross, great write up, I would love a "in summary section" at the end of the article and maybe something you expect to see versus the next team.  Just a suggestion, all in all, love your write ups!

DonkeyPunchAnnArbor's picture

Great insight as always Ross.  Your breakdowns have become my favorite part of 11W, without question. 
Not sure if you covered the punt due to my question or not, but thank you either way.  That is the exact info I was looking for, figured there might be more to the story then just missed assignments.

"Michigan and "huge mistake" are synonymous"
-Mark Titus

cincinnatibuckeye's picture

I thank the PSU offense for apparently not watching Bucks prior game films, and not exploiting the lack of lateral defensive speed (i.e. where was the bubble screen?).

Cincinnati Buckeye @cincybuckeye (Twitter)

Ross Fulton's picture

I put the one clip of the jailbreak screen-they threw I would say a handful more. OSU did a nice job defending. As I said, Bennett had a really nice deflection against one.

NEWBrutus's picture

Definately.  Howard does a great job of forcing the receiver back inside to where the pursuit is.  Didn't hurt that Johnson (19) was running across the formation with his man right into the area where the tackle happened.  The rest of the guys did a good job pursuing inside out.  If Howard doesn't stand his man up on the edge and force the guy back in....Who knows what happens.

NEWBrutus's picture

Zach Boren has been a tremendous and suprising upgrade to that MLB spot.  Even though he has been "a little lost" at times, he at least seems like he is making his mistakes at 100MPH.  There is a lot of-as Chris Spielman likes to say on TV-"see ball, get ball" in him. 
Nate's move to Sam has been interesting to say the least.  It makes me wonder what happens when Sabino returns (assuming he is full go against Wisconsin) and how that impacts things. 
I like our matchup @Wiscy.  (not to jump ahead or anything) It is the type of Offense we seem to be best suited for stopping.  There is no reason to think we won't be 11-0 headed into The Game.
Ross, thanks for your wonderful insight and knowledge.  I have been watching games differently, with greater appreciation of what is going on.

OldColumbusTown's picture

BTW, I completely agree with this assessment on Ross's pieces here on 11W.
I love to look at and analyze the game, and being much more of a novice compared to a lot of others, I can't get enough of these breakdowns.  I find myself watching the game more from a chess-piece perspective, and trying to decipher the coverage schemes as the play unfolds.
Thanks Ross for all your insight!!

OldColumbusTown's picture

I said it after the Indiana game, and still partially believe it to be true - OSU's defense was and is going to look a lot better against the likes of Purdue, Penn State, Illinois, Wisconsin, and hopefully Michigan, as compared to offenses like Nebraska and Indiana. 
Based on the types of offenses they are now facing, along with just bad personnel in some scenarios (Purdue, Illinois), the defense is not getting challenged and "pulled apart" quite like they did against Nebraska/Indiana.
These results aren't all Fool's Gold though, in my opinion, and Ross has done an excellent job pointing out some of the alterations made by the defensive staff.  Adding in Bennett on the D-line, Nate Williams and Boren at LB, and Barnett at safety has definitely helped as well.
However, it would be interesting to see if OSU would feel as comfortable running this type of defense against an Indiana or Nebraska.  Those had big play potential, and showed it off several times.  Going with the cover 1 or 0 would put a ton of pressure on OSU's pass rush.  Right now they are getting to the QB much more often and quicker, while also limiting all running lanes. 
I think we'll continue to be pleasantly surprised against Illinois (because they're just bad) and Wisconsin (because of their type of offense), and then hope that Denard doesn't decide to have a career passing game again like he did last year.

RBuck's picture

I wonder what happens if Sabino returns (hopefully). Does Boren stay at Mike? Does Sabino move to Sam or Leo? And how hard would it be for Sabino to switch? I'd really would like Boren to stay at Mike for Wisconsin.

Long live the southend.

penult's picture

Dare I say Ohio State will have depth at linebacker? How glorious.

Maestro's picture

That first play was the one I wrote about earlier in the week.  I love Simon's effort on that play.  Just pure football instincts on display.

vacuuming sucks

Doc's picture

Ross thanks for the breakdown.  I had a conversation today with a patient that played at BG(not for Urban) about football and actually understood most of what he was talking about, thanks to you.

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

SuperBuckFan08's picture

I'm just happy to see a set of coaches recognize their shortcomings and actually make adjustments. 

Because I couldn't go for three.   -Woody-

Ross Fulton's picture

Yea, you can't say they are not constantly tinkering to try to find something that works...

timdogdad's picture

after shazier got the pick 6   that made the score osu d scoring 7 and allowing 3.   if we don't get the punt blocked it would have been 28-3. that's a long week in a tent to see your team down 28-10 and lucky  it wasn't 28-3.   so instead of -44 vs indiana, the d was +4  at one point.  giving up 3 and scoring 7.   nice turnaround guys.    after seeing the predictions on bsd,  28-3 would have been awesome.

The_Lurker's picture

It was 14-7 after the pick six. PSU got a FG on its next drive after the INT.

Maestro's picture

So happy to see so explosion in Bennett's game.  He really looks to be back to full speed finally.  A huge boost to the DLine.

vacuuming sucks

German Buckeye's picture

Saw Simon getting up slow alot, is he still injured?  Is it affecting his play? 

BuckeyeInOrlando's picture

The title of this article is misleading. I don't remember any defensive breakdowns against PSU. In fact, I felt the defense played quite well.
On an unrelated related note, will Shazier be wearing #48 the remainder of the season, or was it a one game tribute?

bassplayer7770's picture

I thought I heard he was going back to wearing #10, but I can't confirm.  Walk-on LB Joe Burger normally wears #48.

southernstatesbuckeye's picture

Why does my android browser just send me other video lists when I try to play these vids? Obvious everyone else can see them...I can't. What gives?

I like cookies.

osubuckeye4life's picture

Thanks for the D breakdown Ross. 
I'm definitely seeing improvements on the defense as a whole. Scheme was definitely an improvement. However, the players are definitely starting to improve their play. I hope this is a sign of things to come. Tressel's teams were known for their legendary record in November. I hope this continues with Meyer (which I believe it will). 
I would also welcome a preview of how you think tOSU defense will defend the opposing offense in the D articles. A preview of how tOSU offense will attack the opposing defense in the O articles..