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.'
- Executing an automatic 'scrape exchange' to the backside.
- 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.
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:
The related shallow cross plays:
- 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
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.
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.
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.