Ohio State's 2012 Breakdown: Offensive Scheme

By Ross Fulton on December 13, 2012 at 2:00p

For Urban Meyer and Tom Herman, the Ohio State 2012 offense was a balancing act. The question they constantly had to ask themselves was the following: are we more successful sticking with our strength—the inside read game and designed QB runs with Braxton Miller—even though the defense is designed to stop it, or do we attempt to attack the resulting weaknesses of defenses, even if we are inconsistent doing so?

For much of the season, the answer was the former. The Buckeyes were simply too inconsistent of a downfield passing team to rely upon it to continually move the football. Yet as teams increasingly targeted on preventing Miller from getting outside, this became more difficult to execute. But OSU was able overcome this at season's end by working within the scheme's framework to attack holes left in the defense.

I Know What We Do Well...

The Buckeye coaching staff came into the season knowing they could rely on the inside read run game and, above all, on Miller's running ability. The Buckeye offense early was thus predicated upon two primary plays

  • Inside zone read

Though the Buckeye offense operated primarily from from '10' or '11' personnel, the offense was predicated upon this run game, namely jabbing with the inside zone read and then attempting to get Miller to the edge. In fact, it cannot be underscored how much OSU relied upon the inside zone read play. This was particularly the case early in the season. OSU would then try to use constraint plays off inside zone to spring Miller outside.

OSU's 'spread' formations, then, were primarily employed to position defenders to open the run game. In particular, OSU liked to use trips receivers to allow Miller to attack the edge away from the trips, with the theory being that the defense's backfield would be pulled away and unable to provide run support.

But We Know What You Do Well

Of course, it was not a secret to the Buckeyes' opponents where OSU's strengths lay. From the first game, then, defenses sought to regain an arithmetic advantage to stop the Buckeye run game. This attempt came in several forms but had common themes:

  • Applying slot 'alley' defenders to the box.

  • Bringing inside linebacker run blitzes to attack the zone 'bubbles.'

  • And using safeties in immediate run support.

In all cases the general goal was the same—apply backside secondary players to account for Miller and confuse his reads so the remaining defenders could focus upon the inside run game.

A Fork...

As mentioned, the Buckeye coaching staff faced one of two choices in responding to these run-focused defensive looks. They could go with what they do well and manufacture ways to attack these defenses, or they go away from their strength and rely on the dropback pass game to attack the defensive holes.

More often than not, they did well sticking to their strength and 'ham and egging' it. This started with the foundational plays: the aforementioned inside zone read (with speed option off they play) and designed QB plays (not only counter trey but lead outside zone), as well as an increasing use of inverted veer (aka jet read).  

This, in combination with Power (aka Dave) and Belly in short-yardage situations comprised the base OSU run offense. So long as they did not face a distinct numbers disadvantage, the Buckeye offensive line was generally able to establish success running between the tackles. In particular, Ohio State was a left-handed run team and could consistently run the football behind Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell. OSU preferred lining the halfback to the left-hand side and then having the runner hit the backside 'A' gap in inside zone or run power left.

But the Buckeyes were able to run to either side, as Reid Fragel successfully transitioned to right tackle. The Buckeye line was particularly effective working in duos with combo blocks and then getting to the second level, both with zone and angle blocking. Further, Carlos Hyde was much improved, getting comfortable using his vision while still quickly hitting the hole vertically. From there, OSU could spring Miller outside, offering a difficult to stop 1-2 punch, even in the face of defensive attention.  

But beyond the base offense, the Buckeyes were also able to run the football because Meyer & Co. excelled in constraining the defense within the run game, as well as formationing to leverage the defense. As to the latter, the use of trips above was one such example.

As to the former, the goal was to create edge confusion and take advantage of teams overplaying inside zone read. For instance, inverted veer and zone complement each other. They attack different defensive ends from the same pre-snap look, preventing a defense from considering one side the 'backside.' OSU also took advantage of defensive games such as scrape exchanges. For instance, the Buckeyes mixed QB outside zone with inside zone. This allowed OSU to prevent the defense a pre-snap inside zone look, but then hit the crease with Miller right past the crashing defensive end. Finally, OSU built subtle counters off their base run plays to feature Miller. In all instances the goal was to take advantage of a defense overplaying the base Buckeye offense.

The Road Less Traveled?

OSU's passing game, by contrast, was less consistent. Though the Buckeye passing offense had its moments, OSU would often stall when over-reliant, leading to quick three and outs. Specifically, when OSU would attempt to dropback and throw on first down they were not consistent enough in execution, putting the Buckeyes behind the chains and outside their comfort zone. To take a step back, the Buckeye passing game was based around the same principle plays Meyer has long used:

  • snag
  • levels

The related shallow cross plays:

  • drive
  • follow

  • smash
  • H-T option, particularly on third down
  • and four verticals to attack downfield.

The inconsistency in the OSU passing game was two-fold. The OSU wide receiver position remained somewhat limited. Corey Brown developed into a very dangerous slot receiver and Ohio State's go-to third down receiver. Devin Smith was the outside deep threat. Beyond that, however, the Buckeyes simply could not present multiple options that defenses had to account for.

Further, Miller himself was inconsistent. When his footwork was clean and he was confident in his decision-making, he was an accurate passer. But he also had times where his mechanics become sloppy and he became tentative, particularly in the face of blitz pressure. Teams thus had an advantage against OSU when they would get the Buckeyes into must-pass situations. The result was that Ohio State was statistically poor in sacks allowed, but much of that was the quarterback, and not the offensive line's, responsibility. As Meyer stated in postseason press conference, Miller is not a good scrambler. Instead, he would sit in the pocket too long, leading to unnecessary sacks. 

Miller also was more comfortable as a passer when he got in the flow and was successful running. The Buckeyes thus had to get Miller going running the football before he succeeded in other facets. When the Buckeyes tried to rely on their passing game before doing so or otherwise did not run Miller early, Miller often played tentative

Unfortunately, the coaching staff would at times revert to an over-reliance upon the downfield pass game. While one can understand the natural inclination to do so in the face of aggressive defensive run schemes, the execution was simply not there and often led to some of the most inconsistent offensive performances of the season.

Behind Door Number 3

Yet the Buckeyes did not only have these options. Instead, the OSU offense was most efficient when it combined its run game with play-action and sprint-out passing game.

This had two mutual benefits. One, it constrained and forced defenses to defend the base run game. This further expanded the holes made available, particularly in the underneath flat. Two, it put Miller in an advantageous run/pass position, placing him on the edge where he is most dangerous with only half the field to read. The movement seemed to make him more comfortable, both in his mechanics and in his willingness to tuck and run.

OSU exploited this run/pass threat with snag routes from sprint-out, giving the defense a hi-lo between defending Brown's follow-pivot route or Miller running. 

Given the Buckeyes' run-first offense, the use of play-action and movement passing made the offense a tightly packaged, coherent whole. It also worked well with Meyer's penchant for designing counters off his base plays.

Lest We Forget

Unfortunately, the OSU coaching staff at times drifted away from the underneath movement passing game. As noted, the coaching staff would get stuck in a cycle where they believed they needed to deploy a pass-first dropback game because defenses were daring them to do so, but the offense was inconsistent in executing. This was also the case with failing to run Miller early. In both instances, the predictable result was an inconsistent, sputtering offense. 

As opposing coaches garnered more film of Ohio State, they refined their looks to stop OSU's most dangerous threat—Miller running. No longer were they merely concerned with placing additional defenders in the box; above all else the primary focus was to use additional defenders to prevent Miller from getting outside contain. 

The most obvious example was against Wisconsin, where they built off the difficulties caused by Purdue and Penn State and used their cover-4 safeties to mirror Miller and prevent him from getting outside.

This approach rendered Miller tentative in both his running and his reads. This led to a vicious cycle. Rather than adjust, Meyer & Co. continued to rely on Miller to make a play, failing to exploit with both the run and pass the bubbles inside and in underneath flats left open by the Badger game plan. Most tangentially, this included a recurring theme of failing to use flash screens to constrain defenses cheating off wide receivers to play the run—despite the fact that the Buckeye coaching staff had years of experience running spread offenses against defenses using this tactic. This strategic shortcoming was exacerbated by poor play from Miller, who repeatedly kept the football on read plays, particularly inverted veer, playing right into Wisconsin's hands. 

Quick Learners

But, in a positive sign, the Buckeye coaching staff quickly adjusted the following week, rightly anticipating that Michigan would employ the same script. OSU came out to exploit these vulnerabilities, attacking the wideside flat and and backside A-gap. OSU did so by mixing the inside run game and movement passing game that they had melded together so well throughout the season.

In so doing, they were willing to use Miller more as a decoy until they the second half once they had shown Michigan they different looks. And to Miller's credit, he played very efficiently before establishing him as a runner, perhaps reflecting a growing maturity. Other than the inability to finish drives, the game was thus a positive building block for 2013.

And Beyond

With nearly every starter returning, the upward trajectory of this offense is clear. The most obvious goal is to more consistently and effectively exploit defenses whose primary concern is preventing Miller from running the football. With four offensive lineman and Hyde returning, OSU will be able to run the football versus nearly any opposing defense. The obvious area for improvement is the passing game. OSU needs to be able to consistently exploit the areas left vacant by defenses concerned with Miller running, and develop receivers who opposing defenses cannot ignore.

But while I fully expect Miller and the dropback pass game to make significant strides this offseason, OSU should not lose sight of how effective they were mixing the run with play-action and sprint out. It puts the defense in a bind horizontally, where defenders simply cannot both play the run game and defend simple plays like flash screens and quick outs. Then, if OSU can improve the dropback game to where they are more efficient throwing on first down, they will be a very difficult offense to defend.     


Comments Show All Comments

SuperBuckFan08's picture

These make me happy

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

yrro's picture

Excellent analysis, Ross.
I think it's interetsing to see how even a top-notch coaching staff can miss things that can be obvious in retrospect. It must be so hard to *not* call some of those pass plays. They're so obviously schematically, and if you execute just once you've broken the game open. Balancing your star player's ability as a player versus his ability as a decoy can't be easy, either.
I'm just glad we had the offensive line and the grinding running back to pound it out when we needed it.

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes, you're right, it is a constant balancing act between riding your best player when defenses are gearing to stop it, and relying on less consistent areas that defenses are asking you to use.

Firedup's picture

wow what an analysis Ross.  Its never as simple as it appears from the stands

"Making the Great State of Ohio Proud!" UFM

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Great job all season, Ross. I learn a lot from reading your breakdowns.
Hopefully, next year the Buckeyes offense will be such a pyrotechnical explosion that you won't be able to keep track of all the many things that are working simultaneously, but even then, I'll still eagerly await your breakdowns.

Tengauge's picture

Fantastic breakdown as usual Ross. Going to be a interesting season next year. Like you I agree we should keep the balance of play action and sprint outs. I see Braxton as only becoming stronger with working on his mechanics making him more dangerous and harder to defend.

Milk Steak To Go's picture

Rather than adjust, Meyer & Co. continued to rely on Miller to make a play, failing to exploit with both the run and pass the bubbles inside and in underneath flats left open by the Badger game plan.

While the season was obviously a success, this is where I think the improvement needs to come next year.  Coaches can't just rely on Braxton to "make a play" as they did this year.  I'd argue that establishing Hyde north-south and getting Miller established in the east-west passing game would open things up for OSU as much as Miller's running. 

OSUAndy07's picture

Awesome job with these breakdowns all season, Ross. I always looked forward to them.

"But I'm tryin' Ringo. I'm tryin', real hard, to be the shepherd"

baddogmaine's picture

While Troy Smith wasn't born in a day he also wasn't born in but one summer. What Meyer learned this year is that if the coaches do their job the team can win without Miller needing to generate a whole lot through the air. And as we saw and Ross documents Miller is not Smith and the team struggles when he was asked to throw like Smith. My prediction is that OSU might have a monster season in 2013 but Miller is not going to be a serious candidate for the Heisman next year either, because he will not have made enough progress in his passing abilities, the Buckeyes might still not have guys who can consistently make him look good, the the coaches are going to focus even more on what we can do best. He may be dazzling on the ground but if we are balanced enough (Hyde getting 1200, maybe another back getting 500, maybe a receiver or two getting 500 each) that might only be good enough for third, as it was for Colin Klein this year. His Heisman, if he is to get it, will be in 2014, after he fully absorbs that his passing needs to get better (I think that like Pryor he is not yet really understanding how far from an accomplished passer he is still) and he has another full year to work at it. Miller has a ton of potential and he may be the QB we need just as he is but to get the big personal prizes he is going to have to take some big steps forward (and no, I don't consider best QB in a QB-lousy B1G a big prize).

otrain2416's picture

That play OSU 4 verts vs press man  just proves why stoneburner should have been playing TE all yr matchup nightmare for LBs

We were born to love Ohio State and hate that team up north.

Ross Fulton's picture

I think it was partly born of necessity (remember at the time they needed a position for Boren) and partly because IMO the coaches did not feel he was a good enough blocker.

baddogmaine's picture

Splitting Stone out wide was still a curious decision. Part of the reason why our screens weren't as successful as they might have been was because our WRs weren't blocking as well as they needed to be - if Stone couldn't block then changing his position just shifted where the problem happened. Stone was not fast or quick, did not have great hands - why did the staff feel he needed to be on the field at all?

nvbuckeye's picture

IMHO, the keys for Miller in 2013 is staying healthy, keeping the O ling healthy and feeding Carlos Hyde more.  Hyde will open up Miller's running and passing as defenses will have to try and stop Hyde from gettin 5+ yard per carry.  Go Buckeyes!!!

crusher's picture

Great article! 

A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men

OhioKris's picture

Great job, though do you ever wonder if breaking this all down for the world to see is not such a great idea. 

bassplayer7770's picture

So, do you think opposing coaches are reading Ross's breakdowns on 11W?  What do you think they do when they watch the film?

Crimson's picture

Kris, if you ruin this for us, then I will . . . I will . . . I will write you a sternly worded letter!
Seriously Ross, you are the reason I come to this site every Tuesday and Thursday.  Please don't leave us, cuz we'd find you!

Ross Fulton's picture

No need to worry--Opposing coaches should know more than me. They can use programs that breaks down tendencies by down and distance, etc. I give broad strokes. The one benefit I have is that by following one team I can see themes develop--but they possess more granular information.

captain obvious's picture


I'm a friend of thunder is it any wonder lightning strikes me

d5k's picture

I think it became clear over the course of the season that to really constrain the defense we need a couple more playmakers on the outside.  If they only have to pay attention to Corey Brown while playing soft enough on Devin Smith to avoid the deep shots, they can still crowd the running game.  I think Stoneburner was a pretty good player, but probably overrated certainly with how he would fit in Urban's scheme.  I think it is still clear that Urban wants more little quick guys as a release valve for the offense that can do more with the vacated flats and flash screens you discussed above.  Hopefully the recruits coming in along with Jordan Hall coming back healthy can provide a little more in that area.  We seem to have an abundance of taller, decent to pretty good outside the numbers WRs like Devin, M. Thomas, Spencer, Reed, Fields, but not enough true slot WRs (basically Corey is it).  That is probably the most glaring hole in the personnel transition from the prior regime's offensive scheme.
We basically should have guys that can punish the defense when they over-commit rather than just taking 5 yard gains mixed in with some incomplete passes and breakdowns.

Ross Fulton's picture

Very well put. Urban likes featuring the slot receivers. But if you are going to throw underneath routes you want to have guys with the football that can make YAC yards.

Warfield's picture

I love these highlights! It's helping me get through the disappointment of the Bucks not being in a bowl game. Ross you really know your stuff! Keep up the great work.

IBleedSandG's picture

Next year, I want to see Vannett and Heuerman used is the passing game more. I think both are pretty talented receiving TE's. I'd also like to see Spencer ans Smith get more involved (I think they both will).


Doc's picture

Ross what an excellent write up.  Thanks for doing this for us.  I, for one, truly enjoy them.  I can't wait for next season.

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

BeijingBucks's picture

Tell em what you're gonna do.
Do it.
Tell em what you did!
UFM ownage.

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