Ohio State v. Buffalo: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on September 5, 2013 at 1:00p

An already inexperienced Ohio State defense was so decimated by injuries and suspensions against Buffalo that it is almost difficult to draw conclusions from the performance.

Despite missing its few experienced players for much of the contest, the Buckeye defense held its own. Though it may have been dinked and dunked once Ryan Shazier left with cramps, the defense only allowed one non-turnover created touchdown and had a goal line stand.

The Ohio State defense's young starters have ample room to progress, and the unit should only improve with the return of Bradley Roby and others this weekend against San Diego State.

We'll explore how the defense played significant stretches of the Buffalo game without its two best players, take a closer look at Ohio State's new dime formation, examine how the cover 4 shell formation exposed the Buckeyes to underneath throws to the wide-side flat and more.

Battered and Bloodied

Other than Braxton Miller, perhaps no players are more important to the 2013 team than Bradley Roby and Ryan Shazier. Not only are they All-American candidates at cornerback and linebacker, but the drop-off between them and their back-ups is sizeable.

Against Buffalo, however, a defense that is replacing seven starters played for significant stretches without Roby and Shazier – as well as CJ Barnett. This turned the one area of returning strength – defensive back – into a weakness. As a result the Ohio State coaching staff sought to keep their play calling fairly basic. Against Buffalo's base 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB), the Buckeyes largely employed their 4-2-5 nickel over defense. The defensive line plays an over to the field, meaning that the viper (Noah Spence) and 3 technique (Michael Bennett) play to the wide side, while the nose (Joel Hale) and 5 technique (Adolphus Washington) play to the boundary. The back seven aligns their strength to the wide side. The field corner (Armani Reeves), star (Tyvis Powell), strong safety (Corey Brown), and mike (Curtis Grant) go to the field, while the boundary corner (Doran Grant), free safety (Christian Bryant) and will (Shazier) play to the field's short side.

On first and second down the Buckeyes primarily used cover 4 or cover 1. Ohio State did mix in a noticeable amount of run blitzing, often coming in the form of a single blitzer from the corner or nickel position. The Buckeyes generally played cover 1 behind the blitz. 

Diming It

On third and long, the Buckeyes unveiled their new dime formation.   

The Buckeyes' dime is a variation of their nickel formation. Corey Brown simply comes in at Mike linebacker. From dime, the Buckeyes generally played cover 2 or cover 3 (though the Buckeyes did run one man blitz from dime). For instance, the Buckeyes played dime cover 2 on Ron Tanner's interception.

Look for the Ohio State defense to continue to use dime in must-pass situations, with the Buckeyes likely being more varied in their schemes going forward.


The Buckeyes' cover 4 shell left them vulnerable to underneath throws to the wide-side flat. Every coverage has a weakness and cover 4 is exposed in that area. By playing cover 4, a defense to some extent concedes these short throws, counts on its corner to make the tackle, and seeks to force an offense to string together completions to drive the field.

Buffalo took the Buckeyes up on this dare, gaining most of its yards on wide receiver screens and quick outs. And, it should be noted, Buffalo had difficulty stringing together such drives.  

A cover 4 defense does not need to simply concede these yards, however. A cover-4 corner can quickly close on such throws. The defense can also make what Nick Saban terms a "Meg" call.  This puts the corner in man coverage against the outside receiver, allowing that corner to play the receiver more aggressively. In addition, the player responsible for the wide side flat – Ohio State's nickel, aka star – can defeat the block on a wide receiver screen and make the tackle.

This is where Ohio State's inexperience came into play. Armani Reeves' was inconsistent in his first start. He played soft coverage, likely out of a concern about getting beat deep. Ohio State's defensive coaches were likely uninterested in putting Reeves into Meg coverage. Going forward, Roby can be far more aggressive in attacking the flat. Star Tyvis Powell was solid, but did not come in and blow up wide receiver screens as we have seen from previous nickels. Buffalo was thus able to have some success with short, underneath throws.

CLosing Daylight

Buffalo's drives were limited early by their inability to run the football. The primary cause for their inability was Ryan Shazier. The difference between Shazier and the other Buckeye linebackers is noticeable. Shazier quickly sheds blocks and aggressively closes the hole.

It is no surprise that the Bulls began having more success running the football once Shazier left with cramps. That is not to say the other linebackers performed poorly. For his first college game Trey Johnson showed flashes as will as Shazier's backup. Curtis Grant demonstrated noticeable improvements. Grant's recognition was still slow at times and he did not take the crisp angles Shazier did. But Grant was around the ball and was a sure tackler. He showed that with increased repetitions he can play well at mike linebacker and has likely locked down the position.

Manning the Line

Buffalo also provided the first extended action for the Buckeyes' inexperienced defensive line. The new starters largely acquitted themselves well. Concerns were raised about the lack of consistent pass rush, but Buffalo provided little opportunity to rush the passer, as the Bulls threw almost exclusively quick from shotgun.

Noah Spence established himself at viper. In addition to a sack he controlled the line of scrimmage. Spence must continue to work upon his pass rush technique rather than relying upon his athleticism. Adolphus Washington set contain well, but had stretches where he was rather quiet. Michael Bennett and Joel Hale maintained the point of attack inside. Bennett also demonstrated his pass rushing ability from 3 technique. The Buckeyes still miss Tommy Schutt as an interior run stopper, particularly for the depth needed at those positions.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was Joey Bosa in his first extended action. Bosa demonstrated his strength controlling his gap, while also showing a nose for the football. Bosa and Washington cannot play an entire game. But with depth so thin, the defensive coaching staff may perhaps play Bosa and Washington simultaneously, with Washington moving inside to 3 technique.

Call in the Cavalry

Fortunately for Ohio State, Roby, Barnett and Shazier will hopefully be available for the remainder of the season. With Roby at boundary corner, Doran Grant can move to field corner. Grant played well against Buffalo, attacking the underneath throws that bedeviled Reeves. This should limit teams' ability to exploit the Buckeyes underneath.

Barnett provides the Buckeyes leadership as well as a run stopper in force support. Roby and Barnett's return allows the defense to play a greater variety of coverages and provides more freedom to Ohio State's front seven. With Roby, Barnett, Christian Bryant and Grant the Buckeyes have one of the best defensive backfield's in the country. As such, some of the mistakes against Buffalo will hopefully be corrected by the return of multiple key Buckeye defenders.


Comments Show All Comments

Buckeye06's picture

Ross, could you jump in and explain the situation on the TD where there was a blown coverage?  Who did you think had that responsibility?  Was that Grant's guy or Pittsburg Brown's guy at that down and distance?

ohio gf's picture

Very good read....Meyer had alluded that he wants closer coverage from the db's....and that they will do that more (I took it to mean once Roby gets back and the others get experience.

Space Coyote's picture

There are more than a few ways that you can mix up cover 4 to give the offense some different looks, as you point out.
One thing a team like MSU does almost all the time is to press with their field side corner. This makes the screen game to that side more difficult. If teams are running quick outs with their slot receiver, there are calls that can be made where the field CB will leave his man and undercut underneath, basically converting that side of the field to cover 2. Simply running some cover 6 (cover 4 to field side, cover 2 to boundary) can also give the QB the impression that the defense is running a different defense than it actually is. If this is a new package for OSU, expect those things to start getting installed and more practice reps before seeing the field in situations where they're actually need.
Good write up by the way.

breakdownsports.blogspot.com - A B1G Football X's and O's site. @SpaceCoyoteBDS

Ross Fulton's picture

Yep, Ohio State runs quarter quarter half (aka cover 6) a lot with Roby. But I don't think they are comfortable doing it without him at boundary corner.

Hamer's picture

Thanks for the breakdown.
Going forward, Roby can be far more aggressive in attacking the flat. I assume this should be Grant replacing Reeves on the wide side.
At the beginning of the 4th qtr, I could swear I saw OSU using a 5 down DL set at mid-field. Any ideas or comments on this?

Otown Buckeye's picture

The key to us running cover 4 is having press man in the field to negate the outside receiver.  Roby makes this happen.  Otherwise, it's dink and dunk all day.

"because we couldn't go for three"

yrro's picture

Even the dink and dunk wouldn't have been so bad had Reeves ever made a tackle. He missed every single one in the 3rd quarter.

Matt's picture

I didn't understand why they kept Reeves covering Neutz.  Grant was clearly superior to Reeves in defending the pass, and Neutz was essentially Buffalo's entire receiving offense.  I get the boundary/field corner responsibilities, but at a certain point it becomes foolish not to put your best corner on the other team's best (and really, only serviceable) WR.

Ross Fulton's picture

OSU doesn't partition their corners that way. One plays to the field, one plays to the boundary.  See here.

Matt's picture

I get that, but at a certain point the coaches have to be willing to let go of dogmatic plan and go with the practical fix.  We were never in too big of a danger from Buffalo (although we would have been if that penalty on Mack hadn't been called and overturned the Braxton fumble), but if things had gotten tighter than they did, I would want Grant to be shadowing their top guy (and Roby to do the same if we found ourselves in a similar situation down the line).

d5k's picture

You are basically saying it would work out better if Reeves switched to a position he had not had practice reps at.  And they would probably just move Neutz to the other side.
The other point is you don't go back to the drawing board because Buffalo has a couple good players.  You just play your base stuff and let the guys learn how to cover/block (in the case of Mack on the other side of the ball).

Ross Fulton's picture

Because of how coverages work the boundary corner is more important. So they would be cutting their nose to spite their face by trying to flip them around. 

Him1stftballl8er's picture

I was pleased with our defense specifically Curtis Grant, Joey Bosa and I liked watching Trey Johnson when he came in. I feel that this defense is only going to get better and by the end of the year could be one of the best in the country. 

The wise shall inherit glory, but shame shall be the promotion of fools. 

buckeyeblur5's picture

"The back seven aligns their strength to the wide side."
In 99% of nickel packages at the college level the defense is not divided into front 4 and back 7, it is divided into front 6 and back 5.  The front 6 align to the run strength or the field based on the call and the back 5 align to the passing strength or field based on the call.
Also, the nickel man (star in OSUs defense) will go to the side with the most fast receivers in base nickel defense, not necessarily on the wide side of the field.  The only time the nickel man will play strictly to the field is when a field blitz is called.
Also, early in the game when Buffalo was dinking and dunking...at least the first drive...Ohio State was playing Cover 3, not cover 4 or cover 1.  This would make the quick hitting outs and hitches the responsibility of the curl/flat defender and not the corner.

Ross Fulton's picture

Good point and I agree that it is divided between the front 6 and the back 5. What I was trying to explain is that in Ohio State's over, the defensive line positions flip to the technique they play, but the Mike and Will stay to the strong and weak side. I was trying to explain the outcome not necessarily the way it is called. Perhaps I did not explain very well.


I agree that OSU played a decent amount of C3 also. A problem of having to over generalize. With either C3 or C4 the corner is not responsible for the wide side underneath flat (unless its a rotated C3). With C3, your SS is generally responsible for the flat. 

d5k's picture

And I imagine Barnett will be more effective than Brown/Tanner were at diagnosing those plays quickly.

Squirrel Master's picture

Did Spence's sack count when Curtis got the penalty or did I miss another sack that he got? That was a heck of a play. It was obvious the game plan was to throw quick and avoid Washington and Spence from getting there.
It will be a pleasure this week with Roby in and being able to play press coverage, allowing Spence and Washington time to get to the QB more often. I anticipate a few more sacks against the Aztecs.

I saw a UFO once.......it told me to have a goodyear!

pjtobin's picture

Ima learning Ross. Thanks. 

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

Crimson's picture

I like what Bosa and Curtis Grant brought to the game, although Bosa needs to learn the +2; he kept slowing down before the whistle.
"Ross, what do you mean dime coverage?  Didn't you hear me?  It's called dollar coverage?"
- Beth Mowins