OSU v. Illinois: Defensive Review

By Ross Fulton on November 8, 2012 at 2:00p

The Ohio State defense put together another positive performance in its near shutdown of Illinois. The Buckeye defense is on an upward trajectory based upon the same contributing factors—the return to health of key contributors, different personnel grouping, and slight tweaks in schemes—that continue to build upon each other in a virtuous cycle. While the Buckeye defense will be more tested in coming weeks, there is reason to believe that the Buckeye defense has improved in the second half of the season. 

Stick to the Script

Illinois sought several 'wrinkles' to create some type of offense. Primarily, the Illini used an extensive amount of direct quarterback lead runs with Nathan Scheelhaase. The Illini were clearly looking for some way to create an arithmetic advantage against the OSU base nickel defense.

Illinois also frequently used rocket motion with their running back to the flat. The idea was to stretch OSU's zone defense to create opportunities inside those defenders, just as Indiana found some success with.

OSU did not get fancy in response. Instead, after continually tinkering this year, the Buckeye coaching staff has seemingly settled with what has become their basic framework—cover 4 on first down against 11 personnel, with ample amounts of cover 1 on second and third down, mixed with cover 2 and 3 in must-pass situations.

The Buckeyes also like to mix in zone blitzes in medium downs, with man blitzes on third and long. 

This also seemed to reflect Illinois' personnel groupings. The Buckeyes seemingly liked to use cover 4 against Illinois' shotgun spread '11' personnel, going to the other coverages more frequently versus Illini '10' packages (4 WR, 1 RB, 0 TE). By contrast, against Penn State, the Buckeyes used a lot of cover 1 versus its pro-style '21' groupings (2 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE).

Searching for Something

But the continued use of cover 4 belies an important point—the Buckeye coaching staff has made a critical change, namely to the defense's force player (H/T to my defensive coaching friend 'Dvo45' for pointing this out). Again, the basic building block of any defense is a determination as to how you will corral ball carriers to an area where most of your defenders are amassed. To do so, defenses use a 'force' player to maintain outside leverage to literally force the ball carrier inside, a leverage or alley player to fill outside in, and then backside pursuit scraping in to out. Every defense does this, though different positions can have these responsibilities, determined primarily by what coverage a defense is in. 

As previously discussed, cover 4 uses the two safeties as force support, where they must quickly come up on run action to force the running back inside. This was something the OSU safeties struggled with earlier this year. The Buckeye defensive coaching staff thus seems to have altered run support responsibilities within cover 4. To the field in nickel, OSU is now using its star as its force support, with the safety then coming inside to be the alley player. Note how Orhian Johnson maintains outside leverage, forcing the running back back inside and right to where CJ Barnett is filling the resulting alley.

To the boundary, the weakside end is fulfilling this responsibility, allowing Ryan Shazier to scrape down to make the tackle.

In other words, Buckeye coaching staff has altered its responsibilities so that the same position players are responsible for force contain as they were under Jim Heacock. This seems to fit the Buckeye personnel better and is something they are more comfortable with, while allowing OSU to still play more 'man' coverages.

It's All About the Jimmy and Joes

The biggest adaptation, however, is simply having key players return to health and/or step up within these rules. CJ Barnett is a perfect example. He was slowed early in the year with a sprained ankle. He now looks healthy, however, and is doing a far superior job attacking the run game downhill from the alley. His health also allows the Buckeyes to play cover 1. Barnett is able to cover the field slot receiver, with Christian Bryant at deep safety. Shazier is another defender whose improvement cannot be overstated. Whereas he once continually overran plays and took poor angles, Shazier is now playing under control inside-out, as demonstrated above. His tackling is also much improved. He and Zach Boren have thus revived a struggling linebacker corps through nothing more than at least taking fundamentally sound pursuit angles.

Another such example is Nate Williams. To me, Williams is the defense's MVP, a huge leap from a player who some thought would be unable to return from microfracture surgery. But one need only look to the Indiana game he missed to see his value. Williams' impact is primarily felt through his versatility—he plays like a strongside 3-4 linebacker. His ability to set the edge is but one example. Many teams' favorite play is inverted veer for the reasons previously discussed—it combines sound power and option principles at the point of attack. But the play is very difficult to run against Ohio State because both of the Buckeye defensive ends—Williams and John Simon—are athletic enough to extend out with the running back but then close down on the quarterback once he keeps.

Williams' versatility also allows OSU to go 'small' in passing downs. OSU can bring in Noah Spence or Adolphus Washington at the five technique, moving Simon inside to the 3 technique, with Williams able to either rush or drop in coverage. As noted, this has vastly increased the Buckeyes' pass rushing effectiveness. Simon was disruptive all day as a pass rusher from both positions. Though the stats may not reflect it, Scheelhaase was continually under pressure. This constant pressure was crucial both to preventing Illinois from stringing drives together and getting the ball downfield.

Tip O' the Cap To Ya

No one will confuse Illinois with a good offense. Nonetheless, the film clearly demonstrates a defense that has improved as the season progresses. The coaching staff deserves credit for this. As noted, while many focused on a new offensive staff and scheme, many of the defensive staff had not coached together prior to this season. They also had different expectations from Urban Meyer. While Meyer was not active with the defense, it was clear he wanted a more 'aggressive' style than what was played to begin the season. It has taken continual tinkering to figure out how to do so with the available personnel. Yet gradually they have done so. It has come in fits and starts, yet small things, such as pushing Simon inside to changing force support in cover 4, have come together to lead to improved performance. And they have been aided by the improved play of players such as Barnett and Shazier. The defense now has the ability to mix and match zone and man coverage and types of blitzes. The Buckeyes will face better offensive personnel in the coming weeks, which will give a better read on the defense's program. But the Buckeye coaching staff nonetheless deserves credit for its flexibility, and the players for continuing to work to improve.         



bwh's picture

Long live Fickell/Whithers/Vrabel/Coombs. It just keeps getting better and better.

buckeyeEddie27's picture

I do hope the defensive coaching unit is given a couple/few years to mesh completely.  In my opinion it would be too hasty to let anyone go after year one.  Let that side of the ball get stocked back up with more talent across the board while the D coaches get in a solid rhythm with each other. 
Ross your work on these breakdowns is superb. Thank you kind sir.

I know there's a game Saturday, and my ass will be there.

Maestro's picture

Agreed.  I hope Withers hangs around.  A stable coaching staff that knows the personnel inside and out will go a long way toward avoiding the early season growing pains in 2013.  That cannot be emphasized enough IMHO.

vacuuming sucks

OSUBias's picture

His name has to come up with all of the coaching seats opening up, doesn't it? He's got a year as an interim under his belt and is now a part of the UFM coaching tree. He can point to the dramatic improvement our defense has made in spite of huge injury problems and zero depth?
He has to at least get a couple of looks if he is interested, doesn't he?

Shitter's full

Maestro's picture

I would think so.  There will be plenty of options available as always and his resume is pretty impressive.

vacuuming sucks

45OH4IO's picture

I agree with you, but I feel there may be a "too many cooks in the kitchen" issue with Withers and Fickell. It has to be a little uncomfortable at the very least.
Whenever you have success as a program, the assistants are picked to go to different schools as HC's. I wouldn't be surprised to see one of those two leave on their own under good terms instead of being forced out. Probably not after this year but after next (assuming continued success).

German Buckeye's picture

I always feel smarter after reading Ross' articles. 

NEWBrutus's picture

As Always, Great stuff.  Couple of questions...
How much have you seen of Wisconsin this season? What problems do you believe they present for our D?
This was one of the games a year ago where the matchup was very favorable for our D (at least for three quarters), and I think it is favorable for us again this year. 
I am curious to see how much things change with the return of Sabino.  Curious as to your thoughts about what might happen in obvious passing downs.  Which of the three LB's come out?  Does Spence go in much like the last few weeks?  How do you feel we will utilize Williams when we are in base and then in Nickel?
Thanks for your efforts and responses.

Ross Fulton's picture

I'm going to use the bye week to do a preview of both Wisky and Mich--so watch for that then.  


Meyer seemed to indicate this week that Sabino will play Sam in the base front. I would assume Williams will play weak end in that situation. Spence was aparently dinged up this weekend so he played very sparingly. But I would guess he's the odd man out. I would assume that Sabino stays on the field in nickel, since he is more comfortable than Boren in pass coverage. But that is just a guess.

Earle's picture

The defense is definitely getting better.  I'm still concerned that we're susceptible to big plays, especially against the pass in Cover 4 (a la opening play against Purdue).  It seems like we're running that scheme mostly on likely running downs now, and my concern is that the big-play bug is going to bite us if teams decide break tendency/throw the ball in obvious running situations when we're more likely to be in Cover 4, or just audible to a pass play when they see us that coverage.
I'm hoping that the fact that we played less of it against PSU, and had an overwhelming talent advantage against Illinois isn't masking a problem that still hasn't been completely solved (and probably won't this year). Not as concerned against Wisconsin, but Michigan scares me.

Your Noble Savage is a Straw Yeti.

Maestro's picture

Great points.
I agree that the scUM game has scared me all season.  Undoubtedly Robinson is going to put up some yardage against the defense, but keeping them out of the end zone will be huge.

vacuuming sucks

Earle's picture

Yeah, I don't think they're a great team, but will be a tough matchup for our D.

Your Noble Savage is a Straw Yeti.

45OH4IO's picture

I honestly would be more confident with Denard in there than if they had Gardner. I feel like DG has a better arm (definitely) and quicker brain (probably) to take advantage of OSU's cover issues. Does that matter to you?
Also, this is Hoke's first journey into the Shoe as the scum coach. I have to think his players are going to be prone to mistakes and jitters since they had the party at their house last year.

BeijingBucks's picture

I do agree DG has a better arm (meaning he has AN arm) than the Jumpballer. And yes he has more game reps than the deer in the headlights freshman but... come on, a) this was against Minny b) I bet Minn spent their entire week of prep time figuring out how to stop Denard running and ignored the pass c) they had absolutely no pass rush. none. zilch. nada. pfft.  That prayer heave into the endzone...  took like 3 minutes to develop.  Me buying? Not so much.
In fact I'm nonplussed regardless of who lines up under center.  This is not a UM team set up to score a lot of points.  This is, however, a Bucks team that is.  Last year they barely nipped the Bucks in Ann Arbor... anyone think we are fielding the same two teams from last year? Not so much.
as for Wisky?  seriously??  We've already faced a great  RB in Bell and our then porous D held him to a season low.  Why would we not expect an offense that plays to our defensive strengths to have difficulty?  Again our Offensive capacity is high and built to score... Bucky?  Not so much.
I'll grant that the game is in Wisconsin and cold as an *insert humorous anecdote about spurned spouses, outhouses, maple syrup and january* which always leaves it somewhat of an unknown. But based on ross speak... meaning by the numbers, using (the) force and seeing the schemes develop to the personnel... leaving me optimistic?  yup, muchy much.



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

OSUBias's picture

Definitely a great post.
I've developed the opinion that our playing cover 4 is sort of high risk high reward type of gamble. We seemed to force a decent amount of TO's playing a lot of it at the beginning of the year, while simultaneously giving up huge plays. Seems like the staff has taken a step back, and we now have a different scheme. It actually may seem on the surface like a more aggressive approach now(more man, more pressure from blitzes). But in reality it is less aggressive because it takes away the decision making/pattern matching that we were too slow at and let's the guys play faster since they know their role presnap, rather than having to read routes/linemen to determine where they should be going.

Shitter's full

NEWBrutus's picture

Perhaps the biggest improvement since the Indiana game is the reduced number of big plays.  Yes Purdue hit a couple including the first play from scrimmage and one screen pass, but they were otherwise shut down.  Penn State had minimal big plays and McGloin was probably the best passing qb we have faced thus far (don't think O'Brien and know that Robinson is not as dangerous of a passing threat as McGloin was). 
I really think the matchup with wisconsin plays to the strength of our defnese.  We have to attack down hill, and limit cutback opportunities for their stud tailback.  If they had someone like Russel Wilson throwing the football I would be more concerned, but they don't. 
The game vs. Michigan is troublesome only because shoelaces can burn you on any given play with his legs. 

Ross Fulton's picture

Completely agree.  The defense never consistently performed 'poorly.'  Rather, they had significant breakdowns that led to big plays. That has been completely cut down. It is far harder for an offense to sustain drives then it is to pop one.

Earle's picture

Good observations, OSUBIAS.  I think the main difference is that the other coverages take a lot of the guesswork out of the equation and lets the guys just make football plays.  I think we have the athletes to play any scheme, when healthy, just need the time to get used to the scheme and play it more instinctively.

Your Noble Savage is a Straw Yeti.

Ross Fulton's picture

Michigan really hurt OSU last year running inverted veer. The linebackers (what was left of them) simply could not fill the hole. As I indicated, I think we are much better against that play this year.

Oyster's picture

I always revert back to how well the D might have been if they had not been on the field so much during the season?  Not to bash Bollman (which I tend to do), but had they been able to actually get some coaching during the games and not get beat up so much due to the offense being on the field for such a short amount of the time, I always say: What if.  OSU was in that game and I hate that tsun got away with a close win.  How sweet that would have been to pull that out at the end.

3M hoards the KoolAid like Elaine hoards sponges.

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

Matt's picture

Interesting that you think Williams is the defense MVP.  I've been leaning more towards Shazier as of late because he speed/athleticism makes him as valuable as 2 LBs (or at least 1.5), but I think you could also make a case for Hankins or Simon, in addition to Williams.  Ross, in what round do you think Williams will be drafted?  Have to imagine the microfracture stuff will hurt him to the tune of dropping down at least 2 extra rounds.

Ross Fulton's picture

Tough question to answer until he goes through the medical tests and runs the 40 and 10 yd shuttle.  I do think he would make a very solid strongside 3-4 LBer though.

grant87's picture

Great read Ross.
I think Simon is MVP for the leadership and show of toughness he brought the team.  Hankins, Williams, Shazier and Roby could make a case as well.
Boren is amazing.  Hard to believe he has just a few games under his belt.  He is a football player.  Kudos to him.
Hard to tell how good Buckeyes were.  IL proving how bad they are every week.  Offensively they are just terrible. Offensive to watch.

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