Ohio State v. Northwestern: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on October 10, 2013 at 1:00p

Against Northwestern the Ohio State defense turned in a performance that is somewhat emblematic of Luke Fickell and Everett Withers' era with the Buckeyes.

The Buckeye defense stopped the run, took away Northwestern's base option game and made crucial stops. Yet the Buckeyes' pass defense was porous, with coverage breakdowns and missed tackles yielding explosive plays that the Wildcats were able to turn into points.

Northwestern has a talented offense and it is unrealistic to expect Ohio State – or any defense – to completely shut Northwestern down. And the Buckeyes held the Wildcats to only one second half touchdown. Yet that touchdown was enabled by yet another coverage breakdown. 

Perhaps more troubling, it is difficult to discern what the Buckeyes' overall defensive philosophy consists of, as play calls shift from game to game and series to series.

Below I discuss the Buckeyes' defensive strategy, coverage lapses, and the stirrings of a consistent pass rush that could significantly improve the Buckeye defense.

Pretty Standard Actually

The Buckeyes generally employed their base 4-2-5 nickel over defense against the Wildcats. The Buckeyes mixed playing quarter-quarter-half and cover 3 with using cover 1 man coverage, often behind blitzes, in an attempt to stop Northwestern's run game.

On third down the Buckeyes often used their 30 odd front dime look.

Ohio State's 30 odd front against Northwestern

Here too the coaching staff mixed three man rushes and cover 3 with aggressive blitz schemes.   

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

The Ohio State defense had breakdowns with each scheme. With a three man pass rush a defense coaching staff does not expect substantial pressure. But that should be made up for with tight windows , making it difficult for the quarterback to throw. But Ohio State's eight man zone all too often had gaping holes. Northwestern's first touchdown throw came against such a package. Ohio State played a three deep, five under coverage towards Northwestern's trips.

Ohio State three deep, five under coverage.

But Curtis Grant did not hit and re-route the receiver or get proper depth. The result was an easy seam throw before Corey Brown got back to the middle of the field.


But the Buckeyes also yielded big plays bringing pressure with man coverage. Below Ohio State brought a six man blitz with cover 1 behind. The blitz did not get home and two poor angles by Bradley Roby and CJ Barnett later, Venrick Mark was racing down the sideline.

Same SONG Different Verse

Regardless of scheme, the Ohio State defense's biggest deficiency continues to be surrendering big plays in the pass game. While at times frustrating, short completions are not going to beat a defense because offenses have difficulty stringing plays together. But explosive plays (pass plays greater than 20 yards) are highly correlated with scoring.
Northwestern had four explosive pass plays against Ohio State. Every drive with an explosive play resulted in a score. The only metric more associated with the Wildcats' scoring was operating off a short field. Ohio State will not have a top level defense as long as they allow such plays. 

In Good News...

But it was not all grim against the Wildcats. A week after Wisconsin the Buckeyes shut down another efficient, albeit different, run offense. The Buckeyes' front four controlled the line of scrimmage against Northwestern's inside zone read, preventing the Wildcats from getting to the second level. When Kain Colter sought to keep, the Buckeyes often had a linebacker and safety sitting on the quarterback, often with a backside scrape exchange.

Perhaps more importantly the Buckeyes shut down Northwestern's option game. This is where the Wildcats are most effective. Yet the Buckeyes eliminated the play. Ohio State's force support player, here Roby, forced Colter to quickly pitch.

Ohio State's force support against Northwestern's option

Barnett then took an excellent pursuit angle to prevent any gain.

As against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes indubitably surrendered some pass yards in exchange for stopping the run, using a lot of single high safety coverage to provide an eighth defender in run support. In doing so, however, they took away Northwestern's preferred mode of attack. 

With a Twist

 Perhaps more importantly, the Ohio State defensive line exhibited a consistent four-man pass rush, particularly as the game progressed. The Buckeyes defensive coaching staff often ran a twist. The defensive end slants inside, with the defensive tackles looping around. 

Ohio State defensive line stunts

This takes advantage of the Buckeyes' best defensive linemen Michael Bennett, allowing him to use his quickness to beat the guard and tackle as they attempt to exchange blocks. 

In addition to Bennett, the Buckeyes have four other defensive linemen who can consistently rush the passer in Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, and Jamal Marcus. Bosa and Marcus were particularly impressive. Bosa displayed an increasingly adaptiveness as a rusher, using a strong first step and rip technique to record several sacks. Marcus is able to come in fresh in third down situations and use his quickness to get the offensive tackle off-balance. 

The Ohio State defense was able to combine together solid run defense with a good pass rush to make several critical stops throughout the game, such as holding Northwestern to a field goal after the Buckeyes' failed fake punt, forcing a three and out after Braxton Miller's second fumble, and Doran Grant's critical interception.

So Where To?

The Buckeye defense thus continues to intersperse good play with breakdowns that permit explosive plays and points. It is too easy to throw one's hands up, however, and state it is an execution issue. Instead, the Buckeyes can emphasize their strengths to try and eliminate explosive plays.

Ohio State again demonstrated that when they pressure the quarterback they are able to eliminate easy throwing lanes and force mistakes. The last two weeks demonstrated that quarterbacks, particularly at the collegiate level, are far less effective when they have to make quick decisions in the face of pressure.  

That is not to say that Ohio State needs to bring six man bltizes all the time. But it does mean that they should allow their defensive line to operate. Whatever the merits of a three man rush with eight person coverage as a general manner, it does not work well for this defense because there are still open receivers. Luke Fickell admitted as much yesterday.

The Buckeyes simply have too many poor zone pass defenders. For instance, Curtis Grant is such a liability in pass coverage that he should often be used as a blitzer. This problem is only exacerbated by the loss of Christian Bryant. Brown was too often lost in coverage, raising the issue as to whether he is the long term solution to replace Bryant.

Ohio State thus must rely upon their defensive line to pressure the quarterback to help their linebackers and safeties in coverage. This would also help the Buckeye defense establish an identity. All too often it seems as though Ohio State is veering from bringing 7 man pressures and playing man coverage one series to dropping eight the next. A defense must obviously keep an offense off-balance, but the Buckeyes need a framework to rely upon in passing situations. Building upon their defensive line to stop the run and pressure the quarterback is a good starting point. This alone will not eliminate explosive plays, but it is at least a building block. 


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TravelingBuckeye's picture

Fickell must have taken an arrow to the knee

FitzBuck's picture

Great write up (but you forgot to blame the coaching staff).  

Fitzbuck | Toledo - Ohio's right armpit | "A troll by any other name is still a troll".

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

I'm wondering if we'll still see the 3 man rush in games where things are getting comfortable.  I hate to say it, but when its executed, it's a fantastic defense to have in the bag.  I didn't notice, but after reading numerous articles on college football, we apparently have an easy schedule so there will be plenty of time for teachable moments.

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Run_Fido_Run's picture

I agree - three man rush with eight in coverage can be very effective. It's just that the Bucks haven't executed it very well at times.
Ideally, a defense wants to be able to line up and either be able to rush/blitz 4/5/6 or drop 8 in coverage and only rush 3, without the offense being able to tell how many are coming, and with the defense equally adept at both blitz and 8-man coverage.
At this point, though, the Buckeyes seem to be tipping their hand before the snap and then not executing well on the 8 man drops.

yrro's picture

An 8 man drop makes  a lot of sense if the strength of this team were based on experience and expectations. We *should* have an experienced secondary filled with playmakers, and a weak, inexperienced front seven headlined by a few raw but talented physical freaks.
Instead our defensive line has been solid, our linebackers are great against the run and horrible against the pass, and our experienced secondary has looked anything but in terms of bad angles, poor coverage, and missed tackles.

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

You are correct on pretty much everything.  One point that I'd like to make to add to yours and really this common sentiment, is that we have been playing the run heavy in the past few games.  Obviously, there's no excuses for the bad angles, busted coverage, and missed tackles, but those are all things that can be addressed and fixed.  On that note, I feel the precedent was set last year in how those things actually and dramatically changed later in the year.  Back to my original point and a point I made on another thread, if we are starting to realize that our young or inexperienced front seven can hold their own against the run, we can stop leaving our pass defense on an island and dedicating our defense to the run.  I'm not positive that the confidence is lost in the secondary, and if that's the case, we would then have the ability to open our defense a little more.  I think the real question is the whether or not our LBs can handle pass defense.  It's a work in progress, but we're not playing for a championship next week - we're playing to have a chance to play for a championship.

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Ross Fulton's picture

Good points and I agree with the philosophy to take away these teams' run games.


That's why if they eliminate the busted pass plays, giving up 5, 10, 15 yard completions through the air aren't the end of the world.

bigbill992001's picture

Dropping 8 into coverage doesnt equal success if your Dbacks are playing 12-15 yrds off and then come up and try to arm tackle, resulting in even bigger gains/TDs.
You may have noticed that Grant's INT came when he was shadowing the WR.   Im not saying play man at every position, but I hate conceeding 12-15 yrds.   Also, by playing so far off, the WR has a chance to catch the ball, turn and spot him, and juke his man.

Doc's picture

Ross, I've been waiting for your take on this all week.  It seems like dropping 8 defenders into pass coverage is confusing to the defense.  It's almost like too many guys back there and they don't know where to go.  I'm hoping the begin to rush 4 or 5 with the occasional blitz and let the defensive line cause rushed throws.
I know Vrabel is the line coach.  Is the D line playing so well because they are freak athletes, or Mike's coaching?  Has he brought any techniques with him from the NFL that is helping?  It seems the play you show under the heading "With a Twist" is new.  At least I have not seen it before.

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OurHonorDefend09's picture

DOC, the twist is a simple D-line stunt. You probably have seen it several times; however, have not really noticed it until Ross brings it to light.
I agree with your assessment on the drop 8 coverage. There is no purpose to the scheme if the offense has all day to throw and still is finding open receivers. This reason is why I prefer the blitzing. Take advantage of your plethora of talent at fast LB and excellent D-line and keep Urban's aggressive mentality. When you have this many lapses in coverage, it is essentially the same thing as the secondary "getting beat" for the big play in man-to-man that everyone is so worried about.
Also, the one time OSU did get beat in the man-to-man was the play Roby stopped at the 2 yard line. However, it was a Robber scheme where another defender was supposed to jump the route for an easy pick and they just missed.

Don't give up... Don't ever give up.

Ross Fulton's picture

Yep, the play where Roby caught the WR from behind was actually on Barnett. He was slow in breaking on the ball and took a poor angle.


That's why I say as a general matter the 8 man zone coverage is sound, but OSU is doing a poor job executing. Putting aside some of Roby's missed tackles the corners are good. But OSU's remaining pass defenders are largely better against the run.

TheBadOwl's picture

I rewatched the second half on the Big Ten Football in :60 and I completely agree on this. I think that the defense played very well in the second half. The huge gain was a result of Barnett not jumping the route properly (he was in decent position), and the touchdown was on a slight mental lapse on Doran Grant. Other than those two plays, the defense played really well in the second half.

When I walked in this morning and saw the flag was at half mast I thought, "Alright, another bureaucrat ate it." but then I saw it was Li'l Sebastian. Half mast is too high. Show some damn respect.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Good point. Those two plays - a 67-yd pass to the Ohio State 7-yd line and a 12-yard TD on 3rd and goal - represented 39-percent of NW's total yards in the second half and 70-percent of their scoring.

Buckeye4ever21's picture

The TD against Grant was not a lapse on his part but a horrible scheme call.  The QB kept the play alive with his feet on a 3 man rush and grant was unable to stay with the receiver on the slick turf for that long of a play.  Refer to the play before it and look at the huge difference.  We go from a great scheme call to a horrible one.

omahabeef1337's picture

On TV (and in the stands) there was a lot of complaining and commenting on how the CBs were lining up far off the receivers. Was there anything wrong with their depth? I chalked it up to playing a defense that's weakness is the flat.

d5k's picture

It's not really the depth that is the problem as much as the players reading the play and playing tighter coverage after the snap.  It has became the scapegoat criticism of the defense when you see lots of passes completed and can see the depth on TV.  I do think the way that our corners play cover 3 can be too soft at times but this is in the 10-20 yard area not the line of scrimmage area.

Ross Fulton's picture

Well those camera angles showed about 3 players on the field so it is hard to tell...


In all seriousness, the depth is not a big issue to me. They are playing a lot of cover 3. The corners are therefore responsible for the deep outside thirds. Other guys have the underneath stuff.


That is why if you come up and make the tackle you make an offense string together a bunch of throws. It is where they throw a quick hitch and you miss two tackles and the guy runs 60 yards that gets you in trouble.

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

Exactly.  This is the same defense we've always run.  It's as effective as it ever was when the execution is there, which it is currently not.  The philosophy hasn't changed either - keep everything in front of you and make the offense execute on every play and execute on every play on a highly consistent basis.  

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Matt's picture

I've just about given up on Grant ever becoming a complete player at LB.  He could be a situational pass rusher, but I'm not seeing much more than that.  Grant was literally motioning/looking to the sideline/counting players when Colter snapped the ball for the critical failed QB sneak on 4th and inches in the 4th quarter, causing Grant to miss the snap entirely and only belatedly getting a jump on the play.   He had almost no impact on the play, with Perry instead coming in to help stop the rush. 
Meanwhile, Shazier perfectly timed his rush of the snap on that play and almost certainly contributed to the fumbled exchange.
Curtis Grant was rated the No. 2 overall recruit nationally by Rivals in the 2011 class, behind only Clowney.
Shazier was rated No. 42 overall -- in the state of Florida.

d5k's picture

15 years ago Grant might've been a beast at MLB with the style of offense that was en vogue then.  You really need agile linebackers these days that aren't liabilities in pass coverage and can change direction with all the misdirection in running schemes.

Wilkins78's picture

The twist seemed pretty effective for the D line as the game went on.  Do you think this was somewhat in reaction to Stave being able to step up in the pocket so often when we played Wiscy?

Ross Fulton's picture

Good observation. Yes I think that, and not having a running QB back there allows you to be more aggressive in your pass rush without as much a need to maintain lane integrity.

gumtape's picture

Of seemed like both of our lines just decided to use their size, strength, and speed advantage and "out-athleted" them. It was very nice to see.

High and tight boo boo


Gumtape, I agree and it was nice to see. The lines "strength" was evident, hat tip to Coach Marotti! 

"Woody is a God-fearing man. It's good to know that he's afraid of somebody." --Archie Griffin

Earle's picture

I'm a bit frustrated by the lack of an identity on defense.  Or maybe that the identity is "tough to run on but gives up big plays in the passing game".
I realize that the defense needs to gameplan to take away opponents' strengths, but it seems to me that the Buckeyes should be able to say "This is what we do on defense, and we don't care if you know it because we are better than you are." 
Line up and beat the man across from you.  I know it is simplistic, and I'm not downplaying specific gameplan tactics and adjustments, but can we stop trying to be so cute and just beat up some people, or do we just not have the talent for that?

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d5k's picture

I hope we just see a team that literally blitzes 5 or 6 guys every 3rd and 5+.  Especially if there are only 4 guys on the team that are good pass defenders you might as well rush more guys.  You bluff some but you still bring 5 a lot.  This is what Mike Zimmer is doing in Cincinnati with his Curtis Grant-like MLB Maualuga.

Earle's picture

The Grant-Maualuga comparison is a good one.  Tough against the run but lost in coverage, which pretty much seems to define the defense overall.

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

holtzy's picture

I would like to see this as well as long as we don't get burned on to many screens because they know it is coming.

Ross Fulton's picture

Yea, OSU's D isn't that much better than the opponent, particularly in the back 7 up the middle.


Good offenses will move the ball some.  Hate to sound like a broken record, but the key is shoring up the breakdowns.

German Buckeye's picture

So does it boil down to the secondary is just out of position and missing tackles when in position?  Don't know how many times I yelled at the the TV (both Wiscy and NW games) where their WR's just sat down in wide open areas and there were two Buckeyes looking at each other 5-10 yds away from the play.  Extremely frustrating based on the hype at the beginning of the season where the D backs were supposed to be the strength of the D.   Appears our Freshman D-backs not catching on as quickly as some other true freshmen on the team.  Coaching?


I loved watching our 4 man rush bring outstanding pressure and get some sacks and hurry-ups. As stated by others, the pressure got better as the game went on. I’m sure the Bucks are busy working on something to shore up our pass coverage and they will get a chance to show it off when they play Indiana. I know there has been some discussion of bring Bell on soon but what about Apple? Does anyone know where they are in their development?  And when they might see playing time?

"Woody is a God-fearing man. It's good to know that he's afraid of somebody." --Archie Griffin

InHartWeTrust's picture

Apple is a CB, so, you likely won't see much or any of him this year...I'd guess your first chance will be next season when Roby is gone.  Last I heard, he was behind Burrows and Conley anyway, and obviously behind Reeves still.  All of the above may get passed up by Damon Webb if he is all he is cracked up to be, it will be interesting to see next year...we have a ton of talent at CB, we just need a few of them to really develop very well.
It is the young safeties that have a big chance to step up and make an impact this year, IMO.  Vonn Bell, I'm looking at you.  I can't wait for him to continue to develop (at the quicker pace Urban mentioned before) and get his chance to win the spot.  I feel like I've been watching Pitt Brown look lost for too many years at this point...Vonn can't do much worse, I wouldn't guess.  Pitt is great on special teams, pretty bad as a safety.

ChazBuckeye's picture

Thanks for the break down Ross.  Just on concern about something you mentioned...

"Northwestern has a talented offense and it is unrealistic to expect Ohio State – or any defense – to completely shut Northwestern down."

I hope NW takes care of the ball and stops Wiscy's run.  I have a feeling that Wiscy runs for over 250 and passes for a good amount too.  I really hope I'm wrong, but I bet Wiscy's defense shuts NW down for the most part.  Gosh I hope I'm wrong!

Some people think we’re the hunted.I don’t feel that way at all.We’re the hunter.Everybody wants an angry football team.Everybody wants a team on edge and a hungry team.If you’re a hunter,that usually equates to being hungry.

Ross Fulton's picture

I don't think Wisconsin will shut down Northwestern. Northwestern can move the ball on anyone.


I do think Wisconsin will run the ball up and down the field.

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

I'm surprised you think that, Ross. While OSU presents two legitimate big play receivers in the pass game with Smith and Brown, and another solid receiver in Spencer, Wisconsin has one - Abbrederis. Now he burned Roby badly, but if I'm Northwestern I do exactly what Ohio State did - load the box and dare Stave to beat you. If he does, you tip the cap.

ExpatBuckeye's picture

Ross, it seems like our blitzes this year aren't as effective as in years past.  I can recall a number of occasions - especially against Wisconsin - where we brought extra rusher(s) and the QB still had time to find someone open on a long-developing route.  Have you noticed anything we're doing or not doing that's causing us to be so vulnerable even when we bring pressure?  It almost seems like we get about the same amount of pressure rushing four.
Curtis Grant seems very good against the run and lost in pass coverage, either not getting a redirect on a receiver in front of him or not getting back into his zone in time to recognize the play (or both).  Is he a lost cause in pass D or do you see some improvement?  Anyone else stand out that could take his place?

d5k's picture

Wisconsin was leaving TE's and RB's in to block a lot and pretty much looking for Abbrederis on those play action double move plays.

osuguy2008's picture

During the game I noticed on on several occasions (actually, more than several) that we moved Spence into the boundary; could you address this and what the coaching staff may have been thinking?
I ask because Spence plays that Leo/Viper position which seems to play to the field side mostly

Ross Fulton's picture

Spence only plays to the field in the over defense. When they go to their odd front they move him to the boundary, where he is more of a threat to rush and less of a liability in pass D (when they drop 8).

TheBadOwl's picture

What's up with dropping Spence so much when they run the 8-man dropback schemes? They don't even really disguise it, they just drop him to the flat.

When I walked in this morning and saw the flag was at half mast I thought, "Alright, another bureaucrat ate it." but then I saw it was Li'l Sebastian. Half mast is too high. Show some damn respect.

osuguy2008's picture

Odd being their 30 front, correct?

Frankly Scarlet's picture

...having nightmares of Dileo and Gallon running wild through our secondary with only amber waves of grain ahead of them...

"Buclkle your chinstrap, we're gonna grind meat!" - Woody Hayes  

The Butler's picture

I think some credit should go to Northwestern passing game. 25-31 is an impressive stat. I've always though that our pass defense was predicated on the fact we make their offense string together successive passes in order to be successful. Northwestern consistantly put that string together.

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whobdis's picture

I have to admit..I'm suprised  to see so many positive posts on the 8 drop/3 rush scheme. Frankly I hate it. Does it have it's place..sure. But limited situations. And as mentioned here..this personnel group has difficulty with it. As someone else mentions I think there is confusion as to assignments.  It also takes some of our best personnel (Dline) and put's them on the bench. I think the scheme was used early on due to turnover on the dline..but it's our strength at this point and we should use it.

d5k's picture

Well it puts one of the D-linemen in a flat zone but yea if we can't execute it it doesn't provide value.

InHartWeTrust's picture

It is only really useful (or I should say most useful) when you have a dime personnel in there.  They should have 3 DL, 1 LB, and 7 DB's on the field on any occasion they would consider running the 8 coverage.  From there, design exotic blitzes that utilize the DB's speed, and also mix in some disguise for when we are really doing to drop 8.  Make everything look the same pre-snap, cause lots of confusion, and then have varied play calling out of it.

d5k's picture

While I don't think this is feasible with lack of practice time I do think CFB will eventually use more hybrid/safety type players all over the field.  LB's like Shazier should become the norm rather than "undersized".  You need to be able to run more than you need to be able to take on a FB/TE block.

Doc's picture

I sure hope they are working on tackling fundamentals this week.  Roby had a huge whiff where he put his head down and lunged for a players legs, missing the tackle and allowing the chains to move.

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The Official DDS of 11W

Larryp713's picture

Roby is an excellent tackler, so that might be a sign of him pressing to hard. Or playing hurt. I agree, back to the basics for the whole secondary.



Doc's picture

I think it is more along the lines of him trying to make a big play late in the game and letting his technique go out the window.  I'm a fan of Roby's, I love his abilities, I hope he can get out of what ever funk he's gotten himself into and destroy the rest of the reason.

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The Official DDS of 11W

Buckeye06's picture

I give props the guy who jumped over him; that was a great play.  Often smaller corners have to go low on guys who have 50 lbs on them.  Roby did that

Larryp713's picture

I am shocked that Roby has not developed into a better lock-down corner. He has all the physical skills and mentality. It has been said by many that he studies film and seems to be a very hard worker. It's almost like he needs to find his own CB guru, like Braxton found with Whitfield. I know it won't happen, but if he could spend an off-season working on technique with Antoine Winfield, and come back for his senior year, Roby could be terrifying. I thought that was the corner we would see this year.
But I wish him all the best. He is a favorite of mine (I played CB in high school, so I have a lot of respect for these guys). I think he will work hard wherever he ends up, and if he finds a good situation, he will likely be a very effective pro.



BuckeyeMark's picture

great write up!  thanks!