Ohio State Football Defense Midseason Review

By Ross Fulton on October 17, 2013 at 1:00p

The Ohio State defense has been nothing if not inconsistent throughout the season's first half. The Buckeyes have stopped the run against several quality offenses and have made crucial stops. The Buckeyes are also benefiting from extremely efficient special teams play.

But Ohio State's defensive efforts have been undermined by a porous pass defense. The Buckeyes are permitting .29 points per play (worse than their peer competitors), often as a result of allowing chunk yardage in the passing game.

This is partly reflective of a focus on the run, but also a result of perplexing coverage breakdowns. The Buckeye defensive staff must coalesce around a consistent philosophy and put a greater reliance upon their young, but talented, defensive line. 

Below I address the Buckeyes' coverage philosoph(ies), the breakdowns in pass defense, and how Ohio State can try to fix the pass coverage.  

Where Did that Come From?

In 2012, Ohio State primarily played cover 4 on first and second down against spread formations. But 2013 has been an entirely different story. Cover 4 has largely been abandoned.  In its place is an emphasis upon single high safety cover 3

Ohio State in Cover 3

The extensive use of cover 3 likely serves three purposes. It allows the Ohio State defense to bring an eighth defender, often strong safety CJ Barnett, into the box against the run while still having three deep defenders. 

Playing cover 3 also provides the Buckeyes a more consistent coverage scheme. In 2012, Ohio State would largely play single-high coverage against pro-style teams and cover 4 against the spread. The Buckeyes now appear comfortable playing cover 3 against any offensive scheme.  Finally, from a single high safety look the Buckeyes can also play cover 1 man without disclosing the coverage pre-snap, as both leave the free safety in the deep middle of the field.

Ohio State in Cover-1

Plugging One Hole...

Applying an extra defender against the run has enabled the Buckeyes to shut down effective run games such as Wisconsin. But the Buckeyes' passing defense has struggled. Paradoxically, this could reflect the coaching staff's trust in an experienced secondary vis a vie a young defensive line and linebackers. The coaching staff feels more comfortable applying an additional defender against the run because of its secondary experience, particularly at corner.

Wisconsin is a concrete example of this paradox in action. The Buckeyes primary concern was limiting Wisconsin's 1) inside run and 2) jet sweep game. To do so, the Buckeye coaching staff placed a large amount of responsibility upon corner Bradley Roby, having him shadow Jared Abbrederis across the field as well as be responsible for providing force support against the jet sweep.

Ohio State accomplished its primary goal in stopping the run, but at the expense of Wisconsin gaining chunk yards in the passing games. At times this came against Roby in man coverage, but as often against holes in Ohio State's zone schemes.

But the Other Hole Has Holes

A focus upon the run game does not excuse the Buckeyes' coverage faults, however. The primary problem is allowing explosive plays in the passing game. Ohio State is near the bottom quarter of college football in allowing completions longer than 10 yards and 40 yards.

Urban Meyer and Everett Withers correctly pointed out several of the defensive deficiencies that are leading to long pass plays during their Monday press conference. Many of them boil down to recognition and technique.

With cover 3, the Buckeyes' corners are responsible for the deep third, so they will often play off-coverage. This results in a weakness in the underneath flats and permits an offense to throw quick receiver routes. While perhaps frustrating, this does not result in big pass plays. For over a decade, the Buckeyes based from cover 3 and were one of the best defenses in the country at preventing explosive plays.

The problem, as Withers pointed out, is not necessarily where the defensive backs align but how tight of coverage pass defenders play once patterns distribute within their zone. Merely because it is zone coverage does not mean you cannot cover receivers within those zones.

Once the ball is thrown, defenders must trigger, meaning they must quickly recognize what is going on with the pass pattern so that they can take a proper angle and tackle. Five yard hitch routes do not hurt if you make the stop. Offenses struggle to drive the length of the field without explosive plays. But such throws do become problematic when defensive backs are slow in recognition and then miss tackles. 

For instance, Northwestern's only second half touchdown was engendered by a 60+ yard play off a simple slant route against cover 3.

Roby saves... himself?

As Withers described the problem on the play.

Well, a lot of it is, when we are playing thirds coverage and we are using what we call a clue technique, where the corner has to clue two to one, he has to stay on top and stay square. So if two goes to the flat, he's on top of one. If one and two go vertical, he's got to split them and we have to help him with a little bit of reroute on number two. That particular play, we needed a corner on top, we needed for C.J. to intercept the ball because they throw into buzz coverage.

In other words, Barnett was responsible for taking away that throw in his underneath cover 3 hook to curl zone. At worst that pass should have been a 8 yard gain, if not an interception. But Barnett was too slow in recognizing the slant-shoot combination that required Roby to stay on top of the throw. To compound matters he took a poor angle, resulting in a big game. 

The other primary problem, as Meyer stated, is the underneath coverage from Ohio State's linebackers and star. The Buckeye underneath zone defenders are failing to re-route receivers, get proper depth, and then trigger on throws. As Withers' referenced, the failure to do so is allowing teams to throw vertical seam routes before the safeties can play the football. Below, Curtis Grant allows the seam route to run free, permitting an easy touchdown.


The Only Stability is Instability

At a deeper level, the Ohio State defense seems stuck in a never-ending tug of war as to how aggressive to play. This seemingly results in differing play calling not only game to game but series to series. The Wisconsin game is an apt example. Roby has played boundary corner his entire career. But for one game Ohio State asked him to play an entirely different role. A similar tension was at play against Northwestern. Ohio State varied between aggressively blitzing and playing man coverage to rushing three and dropping eight. 

It goes without saying that a defense needs to vary the looks it provides the offense. But a defense must have a philosophy that players buy into and continually rep to provide stability. Defenses can be successful using either an aggressive or bend but don't break philosophy. But you must build your defense around one or the other. The Ohio State defensive coaching staff has struggled to find such a formula.

So Now What?

The bye week thus came at an opportune time for the Ohio State coaching staff to try and settle on a consistent formula. The simplest adjustment is to place a greater reliance upon the defensive line in both the run and pass game. While it made sense to protect a young front against the run, the defensive line is proving to be a strength, requiring less aggressive defensive back support.

Similarly, the Buckeyes need their burgeoning pass rush to take pressure off the coverage. As I noted, given the personnel it makes little sense for Ohio State to use three man rushes because the zone defense is insufficiently tight. Against Northwestern and Wisconsin, the Buckeyes' pass efficiency was far better when it forced the quarterback to throw quickly. 

The Buckeyes should also determine how it wants to approach coverage in terms of style. There is not necessarily a right or wrong answer to whether the defense is better basing from a zone such as cover 3 or man coverage. But the coaching staff needs to choose a consistent framework. The defensive staff continually seems to dip their toes in man coverage, only to retreat back to zone. Ohio State ultimately needs to figure out what formula works with the personnel available and commit to that game plan. To that end, Withers suggested that one possible change to replace the loss of Christian Bryant is to move star Tyvis Powell to free safety with freshman Vonn Bell coming in at star.   

In sum, the challenge for the Ohio State coaching staff is pulling together a strategy that minimizes the passing game missteps while maintaining what is working. Despite the miscues the Buckeye defense has been successful in several areas, primarily in stopping the run and on third down.  Meyer suggested he believes that the defense found a way to strike that balance over the bye week, making defensive adjustments against Iowa a point to watch for.   


Comments Show All Comments

Hovenaut's picture

Just pounded my desk...twice...looking at those NW gifs. 
In agreement on the pass rush being the key. With Schutt back and Diesel healthy, turn 'em loose. 
Hopefully the secondary can get things tightened up down the stretch. 

Jurmah12's picture

Thrashing, awesome analysis! Are you on the coaching staff?

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Earle's picture

Ross, do you think the increased use of Cover 3 has been at least partially due to the secondary's difficulty in either figuring out or executing Cover 4.  It seems to me that a lot of the big plays that were given up going back to last year were due to mistakes in Cover 4.  I have to wonder if the coaching staff has conceded that Cover 4 is not a good fit for this group of players and if that is the reason they have largely abandoned it, at least temporarily.

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Ross Fulton's picture

Yes I think they decided that their safeties aren't good enough in coverage for it. 


I also believe they have been limited by the linebacker play. 

ibuck's picture

I also believe they have been limited by the linebacker play.

Is OSU going to have continuing problems at LB? Even next year?  
Are the Buckeyes recruiting enough LBs?

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If you can't win your conference, just quietly accept your non-playoff bowl game.

InHartWeTrust's picture

They have a handful in this class, primarily Booker (very highly rated) and Kwon (the #1 MLB), plus Mitchell with a RS, Trey Johnson (FR) if he develops, Kyle Berger coming next year, and a couple of others I am forgetting.

d5k's picture

Do you have an insider tip that puts "Kwon" as a commit in this class?  I think we will be better at LB next year even if Shazier goes pro just because we won't have the same holes.  I'm hoping Mitchell wins the Mike job next year and Grant moves to Sam.

InHartWeTrust's picture

Yeah my bad on that one, when I was writing I was thinking to type "hopefully" and apparently I never did.
Personally, I would like to see Mitchell take Shazier's spot on the edge, due to his speed and athleticism.  Grant is built for MLB with his size and strength, not great for the edge IMO.  Obviously if we get Kwon, I want to see him or Booker there (iirc Booker is a MLB currently too? might be wrong)

d5k's picture

Yea I meant Grant taking the Sam spot that is only on the field in our base 4-3.  Trey Johnson is the Will of the future (Shazier's spot).

GV9's picture

Antoine Winfield just retired. Let's bring him on board as an assistant coach and see where it leads.  Worked with Vrabel.  

Ahh Saturday's picture

I realize this is not the point, but damn is Roby fast! 17 catches that pass in full stride while Roby is running the other way.  He puts the brakes on, switches direction, and starting from a stand still, catches a dude already five yards ahead of him who is at a full sprint.

Amalgamate's picture

That's what I got out of watching that GIF as well. WOW. What speed. When they say that Roby is probably the fastest on the team, it's no surprise after seeing that. I think that will stand out to scouts watching film on him. You can teach him up on technique but you can't teach that closing speed. 

saevel25's picture

That should have been a interception on that NW 60 yard pass. How do you over pursue a route like that.

Ross Fulton's picture

Unfortunately after years of starting Barnett still makes major miscues in pass coverage



BuckeyeSouth's picture

Six months ago, who would have thought that Ross' analysis of the defense for the first half of the season would be focused on our secondary?  Goes to show that what we all seem to believe to be obvious is not what we thought it was at all.

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Ahh Saturday's picture

There seems to be a default reaction in CFB that one year older=one year better.  Our secondary had problems last year, and it continues to have problems this year.  You never hear an NFL analyst say, well, their secondary was awful last year, but they bring all the same guys back this year, so look for big things!

InHartWeTrust's picture

Correct, that is applicable for freshman to sophomore but not much after that.  Doran Grant has probably been our best asset in the secondary, at least to my eyes.

NewEraBuckeyes's picture

I'm mostly curious to see how they rotate the DE's. Clearly, Spence is the #1 at the moment, with Bosa being declared a starter. But you can't really sit Diesel, he's too much of a powerhouse. I would be slightly curious to see Diesel line up at DT, with Bosa and Spence at the ends.

GH_Lindsey's picture

Can you imagine, on 3rd and long, having the front four of Spence, Bennett, Washington and Bosa to rush the passer. We wouldn't even need a secondary

NewEraBuckeyes's picture

That's what I was thinking!
Maybe we will see something like that at some point this year. . .

InHartWeTrust's picture

I would assume starting on Saturday.  Bosa is also very good as a pass rush DT, depending on the play they call on D.

Ross Fulton's picture

This in essence is what they do on third downs. They generally bump Bosa down with Bennett, with Washington and Spence or Marcus on the ends.

Washington may be the best pass rusher, while Bosa is the better run defender.

ChazBuckeye's picture

I understand they're trying to limit the big play with the zone coverage to keep everything in front of them, but at what cost (missed tackles and out of position players on zone resulting in big plays anyway).  It seems to be the opposite of what OSU's DBs do well, especially the CBs, which is man to man.  
I say more man to man and man press with blitzes.  This team is fast on defense and aggressive, why not utilize that more? 
Check out this below of Grant's int vs NW.  I just don't understand why the coaches dip their toes in it and then go back to zone as Ross pointed out.  Makes little sense besides to confuse the QB and OC.  Otherwise, why go away from what works best.  

Not only does he jump the route but he's in man coverage....

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extemporary08's picture

Everything is Roby's fault (sarcasm), seriously, where are all the Roby haters? you have vanished!

Amalgamate's picture

He could have played better against Wisconsin. Obviously we won the game so it's a moot point (i.e. the defensive game plan worked albeit having given up some big pass plays). In the NFL, a shut down corner is going to be expected to shut down the other teams best receiver, especially if that receiver is especially good. I think Abbrederis could be a serviceable NFL receiver so Roby having to cover him with little help over the top was good experience for him. Should we cut him some slack because he's not often asked to do that? Perhaps. But I don't think it's unfair to say he made some mistakes in that game.
What impressed me most in the GIF's above was Roby's closing speed. He was significantly faster than any of the guys (NW or tOSU) running the field on that play. 

d5k's picture

I don't think Roby gives up as many big plays if he doesn't also have to keep his eye out for jet sweep actions.  There were also a couple where you tip your cap to Abbrederis for holding onto the ball with Roby disRobing him.

InHartWeTrust's picture

He's also made terrible plays on balls where he had proper coverage, missed the ball, and missed the tackle giving up huge plays.  I'm not one of the Roby haters, but he has made plenty of mistakes that led to big plays this year. 

extemporary08's picture

I agree with you, the coaches have often lamented about missed tackles as a huge source for YAC, and they do have the potential to become a very serious problem. Only an idiot would say he hasn't made mistakes, but conversely he is no dumpster fire (not that you were saying he was). I for one would not want to see the Wisky and NW games without him.

fartymcpooperson's picture

Nice breakdown as usual.  As a non-expert, it seems like the defensive coaching staff is suffering from some of the same philosophical issues as in 2012: namely settling on a consistent defensive scheme and linebacker issues.  One would think that the coaching staff might have learned its lesson from last year on the former.  Anyone have thoughts as to why a consistent defensive scheme cannot be settled upon by this staff?

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podux's picture

Ross, you mention that Withers talked about putting Tyvis at FS and Vonn at the Star. How would that help compared to having Pitt at FS and Tyvis at Star?

d5k's picture

My theory:
Tyvis is our 2nd best safety with Bryant out but Bell can't play FS better than Pitt Brown.  Brown is not good at Star though so you trade a slight downgrade at Star with the young Bell for an upgrade at FS in Powell perhaps.
Did they release a depth chart for the Iowa game?

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

Ross - This is an excellent discussion of OSU's defense through the first half of the season. After watching last season and the first half of 2013, I'm coming to the conclusion that Withers and Fickell must be on different pages philosophically. After a season and a half, this defense doesn't seem to know what it is at it's core.
I know Fickell catches the most grief, mostly because he stuck it out and took the bullet during 2011 so the perception of some is that he's a lousy coach. But Withers is equally to blame. IMO one of them has to move on, and I'm not sure I care who it is. This team has to forge a defensive identity and I don't think this staff as currently constituted can do it - because they haven't yet.

dlb72osu's picture

So Withers and Fickell are not on the same page, philosophically speaking, concerning pass coverage. Let me get this now; they are inconsistent, they are not capable to evolve or learn from previous games (seasons) and cannot realize an identity as a unit. OK, I get it.  Major thought... where is HC in all of this? Ultimate responsibility is UFM's.
We all believe that he is hands on in every aspect of this team. He is detail oriented, has total veto power over any and all coaching decisions and is committed that this team be a reflection of his defensive and offensive philosophies. 
So, are you calling out Urbz on these defensive lapses? If someone has to go is anyone suggesting that the person with the ultimate responsibility must go? Wow...

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

- Invictus

Ross Fulton's picture

I'm with you. Meyer is not a defensive coach but it is up to him to determine what style of D he wants to play and find the coaches he wants to employ that style. I'm not sure if Meyer did that in hiring his D staff. I've always gotten the sense that he wants something that is different than Fickell and Withers' natural style. 

dlb72osu's picture

I have met Luke Fickell. Nice man, wonderful father and family man, I'm sure. But I have always wondered if he doesn't have someone, a very powerful someone, behind the curtain pulling strings for him. His ascension through the ranks, his interim head coaching stint and his retention by UFM all seem too "magical", if I can use such a word there.
I am not a conspiracy theorist at all. But things look to be too contrived. I know that Coach Meyer said that he interviewed Luke, at his home with both spouses present, and he thought that Luke was a perfect fit for his staff. But all the time, I wondered...

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

- Invictus

NJ_BUCKEYE's picture

 UFM takes the heat if OSU were losing game after game due to the D, but since he is in fact not very hands on with the defense he largely puts his faith in the staff.  Remember last year when we got torched in the 52-49 win at Indiana?  The next week Urbz said he was going to be present a lot more for the defensive meetings and practices.  He did that after he lost some faith in the staff, but they righted the ship and he gave them the responsibility to get it right this year.  
Remember what UFM said about burning out at Florida when he was hired?  He essentially said that he became a micro manager, which is actually counter-productive for a HC in CFB.  He was getting new assistants as he replaced those who left for HC jobs or Coordinator positions at other schools.  With so many new coaches he lost the level of trust he had previously experienced with his assistants and that's how he went nuts essentially.  So in a perfect world it is better if Urbz doesn't micro manage, which he has been successful at avoiding largely thus far at tOSU.
P.S.- I think there was an underlying message in the off-season when UFM hired Jim Heacock to come back on staff at OSU as an administrative adviser or some crazy title like that.  If Fickel doesn't get his $!?? In order Meyer just might change Heacock's job title to defensive coordinator if Jim is willing to take it up again.

dlb72osu's picture

Coach Heacock is not on tOSU football staff in any capacity.

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

- Invictus

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

@DBL72OSU - Put words in someone's mouth much? Wow.
No where did I suggest that Urban Meyer should be fired. That's just stupid. But he is responsible for his staff and should make changes when the team could benefit.
I simply suggested that Fickell and Withers don't seem to be meshing well and one of them should move on. Ideally that would be to a HC role somewhere. Could they change and forge a clear defensive identity? Sure. They haven't in a season and a half, but it is possible.  With each game that appears less likely though. Meanwhile the issues with pass coverage and tackling continue to fester.
My guess is that something happens in the off-season. What that is, I don't know. That's why I asked Ross.

InHartWeTrust's picture

Thanks for posting this Ross!

cal3713's picture

God, why Bible camp??  It disturbs me endlessly to see children being given these experiences.  You simply should not be bawling over the amazing mysticism of the universe at age 8.

causeicouldntgo43's picture

Just imagine it's Dinosaur camp and she is crying over the demise of the T-Rex.

cal3713's picture

Much better... thanks.
P.S.  Downvoters, you really think children should be having their minds blown at this age??  Regardless of what you think of bible camps in general, or that bible camp in particular, that experience is neither normal nor healthy.

joeorozco12's picture

Ya, that documentary was disturbing to say the least.

dlb72osu's picture

I don't believe a gif like this is appropriate to the submission of football commentary. Sorry, there is no downvote, just an opinion.

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

- Invictus

InHartWeTrust's picture

Ross is preaching to the choir, I'm digging it.  It fit the bill, I have no idea where the .gif is from or what the premise of it is...nor do I care.


Meyer suggested he believes that the defense found a way to strike that balance over the bye week, making defensive adjustments against Iowa a point to watch for.

If this is true there won't be anyone that can touch us the rest of the way. Keeping my fingers crossed. It does seem the D's biggest problem is just not being able to put the entire package together. They did it last year. Can they do it again?

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

hspbuy1's picture

I too hope the pass coverage improves. & I just wanted to say I don't care for the 3 man rush,the 4 man rush hurried hackensack all night long, yeah he got away a few times,but not enough IMO to play safe coverage.   Our D-line is coming together.