What to Watch for on Defense against Buffalo

By Ross Fulton on August 29, 2013 at 1:00p

In terms of issues to watch, the Ohio State defense certainly provides more questions than their offensive counterparts, simply by virtue of replacing numerous contributors. Fall practice has answered certain questions, such as Tyvis Powell locking down the "Star" nickel back position.

But outstanding issues remain: Who will join Shazier as the second linebacker in the nickel package? What will the defensive line rotation look like and how will the interior hold following Tommy Schutt's foot injury? How does Ohio State roll out dime coverage?

The game's almost here. Let's get to those questions.

Who Will be the Buckeyes' Second Nickel Linebacker?

Alternate title: "Has the light finally come on for Curtis Grant."

The Ohio State defense plays its 4-2-5 nickel defense at least 70% of the time.

In the nickel, the Buckeyes' Star defensive back replaces the Sam linebacker. That leaves the Ohio State nickel defense with two linebackers who both line up inside: the Mike (strong side); and Will (weak side). Since the Buckeyes overwhelmingly play nickel, the top two linebackers play far more than the third starter, making the battle for the top two linebacker positions crucial.

It is no surprise that Ryan Shazier will man the Will position. The second linebacker is more of a mystery. All indications are that Grant will get the first opportunity, with Josh Perry entering as the Sam in base sets. The Buckeye coaching staff has praised Grant throughout the pre-season and he certainly looks the part. It is fair to be skeptical of Grant's readiness to play, however, until he demonstrates it in live action. This is particularly true playing pass defense in space. This is the area where Grant struggled last fall, leading to his demotion.

If Grant is able to live up to his pre-season (and recruiting) hype, he will go a long way to solidifying the Mike linebacker position that has been a weak spot since Urban Meyer's arrival. Do not be surprised, however, if Perry also gets snaps as the second nickel linebacker. The coaching staff recently indicated that Grant and Perry are both in contention for the sport, suggesting the battle will continue into the season.   

What is the Defensive Line Rotation and How does the Defensive Interior Hold Up?

It is well-known that Ohio State is replacing its entire defensive line. But many anticipate that the Buckeyes' new starters can capably step in. "Viper," aka weak end Noah Spence and "5 technique," aka strong defensive end Adolphus Washington have received the most attention. Both received extensive action as true freshman and look poised for breakout seasons.

Less well-known (and bigger question marks) are the interior linemen. But 3-technique Michael Bennett was a starter at 5-technique last season before a groin injury. He has consistently drawn high praise this pre-season. Bennett is better suited for 3-technique where he can use his quickness without needing to rely upon straight line speed. Nose guard Joel Hale also has ample game experience and can likely capably fill the largely thankless nose guard role.

Less known, however, is whether the Buckeye defensive line has sufficient depth. The Buckeye coaching staff would ideally like to play 8-9 defensive linemen. This goal received a setback with Tommy Schutt's broken foot. Schutt could be considered another starter and was set to play both nose and 3-technique. Schutt will apparently return by mid-season, which will certainly improve the defensive line's run stopping ability. 

This makes depth particularly acute inside. The coaching staff recently moved Chase Farris back to defensive tackle, playing inside at 310 pounds. Meyer said that Farris' play has settled his concerns. Some may question why the Buckeyes would move one of their key offensive line backups to defense, but it shows the different nature of offense and defensive line. A coach does not want to play an offensive line backup unless and until one of their five starters is injured. As noted, however, defensive coaches want to liberally rotate up front. It remains to be seen, however, whether Farris can so quickly transition back to defense.

Freshman Joey Bosa and Michael Hill will also have the opportunity to fill this void. Bosa will perhaps play both 3 and 5 technique, with Hill and 3 and nose. Chris Carter has for whatever reason drawn extensive attention for heretofore limited playing time and production and now has the opportunity to demonstrate he deserves snaps. Jamal Marcus looks poised to get snaps at Viper. On third downs, look for Bennett and/or Washington to bump inside, with Spence and Washington or Marcus rushing from the ends.

The Ohio State defensive line is athletic and has players like Spence, Washington and Bennett that can get after the quarterback. The Bigger question is how the defensive front fares against a downhill run offense. This is where Schutt's loss is particularly acute. The line features explosive athletes but is somewhat undersized, particularly with Bennett at 3-technique. The Buckeye defense fortunately has opportunities to gain experience before facing such a rush offense, but will eventually have to demonstrate their ability to stop the run.  

Does the Ohio State Defensive Coaching Staff Stick to the Script?

Working together for the first time, the Ohio State defensive coaching staff had difficulty establishing an identity last season, contributing to an uneven first half of the 2012 season. It is no coincidence that the Buckeye defense improved when the defensive coaching staff found a formula. On first and second down, Ohio State generally played cover 1 or quarter-quarter half against pro-style teams, with cover 4 match-up zone against spread offenses. On third down, the Buckeyes mix and matched man and zone blitzes with cover 2 and 3. 

The matchup with Buffalo will provide evidence as to whether the Buckeye coaching staff will maintain this philosophy. Urban Meyer's recent comments regarding an increased use of man coverage suggests the Buckeyes are doubling down on the strategy. Cover 1 and cover 4 both employ man principles, so look for the Buckeye defense to liberally use those looks in early downs.

How does the Ohio State Coaching Staff Employ Dime Coverage?

One addendum to the Buckeyes' defensive toolbox is a dime package with six defensive backs. This is not a change of the above philosophy but provides the defensive coaching staff additional flexibility. As Meyer indicated,  the Buckeyes want to use the dime to maximize the defense's ability to play man coverage. But the question remains – how will the Buckeyes employ six defensive backs?

To step back, the Buckeyes often use a three-man front with a stand-up Viper in third and long.

The Buckeye coaching staff uses this front to a) bump defensive linemen inside to increase the pass rush and b) provide flexibility in coverage and blitz capabilities.

Expect the Buckeyes to operate a dime package from this framework. The sixth defensive back replaces the second inside linebacker (the one not named Shazier) from the nickel package. In must-pass situations, six defensive backs can provide the Buckeyes the opportunity for a variety of both zone and man blitzes. For instance, a zone blitz generally brings five rushers with a 3 deep, 3 under zone. Defensive backs can more easily cover the larger zones. The dime takes advantage of the Buckeyes' depth in the defensive backfield while permitting more aggressive packages to get after the quarterback. 

The Buffalo game will thus provide an opportunity to examine the Buckeye defensive coaching staff's answer to many questions. But position battles such as Grant and Perry may continue further into the fall.



Comments Show All Comments

TheHostileDwarf's picture

Thanks for another excellent piece, Ross. This one was particularly easy to understand for someone like me who isn't as familiar with football terminology.

yrro's picture

6) Can any of these boys remember how to tackle?

Doc's picture

Ross, thanks so much for these.  I have learned more about foozball this last year than I knew in the previous 42.  It's beginning to make sense too.
Meyer said this week he doesn't want a "bend but don't break" D.  He wants to be more agressive.  Who's wheel house will that fit better Withers' or Fickell's.  We haven't had a mean and nasty type defense since Pugac left.  I would like to see him back.

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

cinserious's picture

The 'dime' package on third and long is most exciting for me. It allows us to be agressive with bitzes and also provides opportunities for more interceptions given the depth and athleticism in the backfield.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

BucksfanXC's picture

I think since DBs are our strength that we play that up by going with the dime package but we gotta press so we can stay tight in coverage and still get to the QB

“Any time you give a man something he doesn't earn, you cheapen him. Our kids earn what they get, and that includes respect.”  - Woody

Ahh Saturday's picture

All those names along the DL, all the concerns about DL depth, but no mention of Steve Miller?  Is that an oversight or is the former 5* prospect really never going to see any significant playing time for the Buckeyes?

Buckeye_Ryan's picture

Ross is the man! Great breakdown as always...

Born a Buckeye, raised a Buckeye, will die a Buckeye.

Buckeye06's picture

Really not to worried about the interior.  Yea it's a little thin without Schutt, but we can move Washington inside on 3rd and long situations, and we have 3 other DTs already ready to go. 
Schutt (when he returns)
That's already 11 names and we only want to rotate 8-9?  That means 2 of these guys are NOT getting a lot of snaps

45OH4IO's picture

Chase Farris: this year's Zach Boren???

BKLYN_Buckeye's picture

Plus former Purdue DL Rashad Frazier.

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes but these guys are not interchangeable. You have 4 different positions on the line. They are thin inside. Without Schutt the backups are a true frosh and a guy that was playing OG 4 days ago. 


I don't have any faith in Carter and have never understood peoples fascination.

45OH4IO's picture

I have a theoretical question. If Shazier were to get hurt, would they scrap dime package, put in Grant/Perry, or insert a Star into the MLB spot? I know this is not what people want to think about, but I think we really need to push the backup LBs to see what they have. I hope they play a lot of backup LBs and even take Shazier out later in the game to see who sinks and swims without him.
good news: expect a lot of nickel/dime practice once the Bucks get a good lead on Sat.

buckeyepastor's picture

Agree.   Buffalo and FAMU are two games that should allow us ample opportunity to get others out there at LB for a significant stretch.   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

bucks_4_life's picture

I've been reading this site for the past couple months and just decided to activate an account.  This is my first post on here. This is, hands down, the BEST Buckeye site on the internet.  I love reading everyone's comments!!  I'm sure my wife is tired of hearing about all of the articles and comments.  I'm convinced that the writers on this site are the best in the business!!  Thank you all so much for making the past several months go by just a little bit quicker!  I'm so ready for college football I can barely stand it!!  Go Bucks!!

The juice is worth the squeeze

BeijingBucks's picture

Haha.  Apologies... That was supposed to be an upvote for your first comment but fatthumbitis struck. Welcome! O-H!

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

CentralFloridaBuckeye's picture

Great article Ross.  I can't wait to see the new faces on D to see how they interact.  I'm hoping Tommy recovers with the foot injury asap.  I think the D line will still be tough and once he's back it will help, but a lot of players will get some good reps.  Hopefully by the 2nd half of the year the front 7 are tearing it up. 

southernstatesbuckeye's picture

Excellent as usual.
My thought also is that with Heacock back, he has the ability to enhance the foundation of this defense.  You watch.  This year, there will be the overall feel of one of those ferocious Ohio State Bullet defenses of old.  Speed is rampant, nastiness is oozing from these guys, and the coaches are pulling off the kid gloves. 
Aggression with "boot on the neck" closing power.
This may be what some think a bold "prediction", but I believe at the end of it all, this defense will hold opponents under 14 on average, and rank in the top three in the nation.

I like cookies.

pjtobin's picture

As the first comment said this one was very easy to understand. I love learning our plays. I just hope I retain everything. Thank you Ross for your time. 
One question Ross, do you think we will see a bunch of our backers rotate? Or will we see the two/three starters until mop up time?

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

Ross Fulton's picture

I expect two/three starters until mop up time unless the coaches are trying to determine who should start.

JFKBuckeye's picture

I know everyone is excited to see our young offensive talent as am I, but I've been anxious to see these young defenders in action. We've always had great defenses but never had this much elite athleticism and speed on defense!