Ohio State v. Penn State: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on October 31, 2013 at 9:00p

The Ohio State defense turned in its best performance of 2013 in the Buckeyes' 63-14 victory.

While the first team defense did surrender some yards, they held Penn State to one touchdown and made critical stops. More importantly they consistently pressured freshman quarterback Christian Hackenburg, making him uncomfortable and forcing him to hurry throws.

The Buckeyes' defensive improvement was not a result of wholesale changes. Rather the Ohio State coaching staff adjusted at the margins to produce a more aggressive, fundamentally sound unit. 

The Buckeye defense also benefited from better execution. Nowhere was this more apparent then with Noah Spence and CJ Barnett, who played their best games of the season. 

Below I address Ohio State's scheme adjustments, responses to common offensive techniques against the Buckeye defense, and execution at critical positions.

Get Ready Because here it comes

Penn State picked up right where Iowa left off, immediately placing two tight ends to the boundary. The Buckeyes made several adjustments to better defend the offense's numbers' strength to the short field.  Tommy Schutt, returning from a broken ankle, started at nose guard. The coaching staff shifted the nose towards the boundary, moving him from a one technique to the boundary to align face up on the center or as a zero shade. This provided an additional defender who could get across the centerline.

Strong safety Barnett, meanwhile, was brought down over the tight end. The two changes provided sufficient defenders to combat Penn State's numbers to the boundary.

C.J. Barnett over Penn State's tight end.

These type of subtle adjustments were evident throughout. The Buckeyes altered when they used particular coverages. On first and second down the Buckeyes aligned in a quarter-quarter half shell. This put Barnett in the aforementioned position over the tight end. From there, the Buckeyes used one of two looks. The first was quarter-quarter-half, meaning that to the boundary Roby and Barnett played cover 2, while to the wide side Doran Grant and Corey Pitt Brown played cover 4. This put Roby in force support to the boundary, again helping against the short side run game.

Alternatively, the Buckeyes would play cover 1. From the pre-snap alignment, Roby and Barnett were in a position to cover the first and second receiver to their side. Brown would simply rotate over to the middle of the field. The adjustment was easy for the defense but sufficient to sew doubt for Hackenberg.

Ohio State in cover 1

TIghtening the screws

Up front, the defensive coaching staff did not drastically alter how often the Buckeyes blitzed. The changes were more incremental. The Buckeyes slightly increased their pressure, but more importantly changed the variety of blitzes. They brought six man pressures with Curtis Grant and Ryan Shazier, but also nickel and corner blitzes with Tyvis Powell and Roby.

More noticeable was the increase in stunting from the defensive line. To further combat the boundary heavy run formations the Buckeyes often slanted their defensive line to the boundary.     

The critical difference, however, was the sizeable increase in pass rush from the Buckeye defensive ends. The coaching staff largely eschewed three man rushes to bring pressure from each edge. Many of Ohio State's pressures on Hackenberg were from four man rushes. In cover 1 the linebackers were then given freedom to delayed blitz if the running back stayed in to block.

Noah Spence and Jamal Marcus were particularly effective as edge rushers. It was Spence's best performance as a Buckeye and a bounce back from inconsistent play against Iowa.

Spence was also put in a better position to succeed. He was deployed as a typical defensive end rather than as a hybrid linebacker with frequent pass coverage responsibilities. This seemed to allow him to get in a rhythm as a pass rusher.

But Spence was also much improved in a less heralded aspect, namely setting the edge against the run. Unlike Iowa, he consistently maintained outside leverage and held his position.

The Buckeyes also received a crucial performance from Barnett. Barnett has always been strong against the run but inconsistent in coverage. But he did an excellent job against Penn State's tight ends, particularly against seam routes, where he would divert and carry them down the seam, leading to his interception.

It is difficult to see the Buckeye defense move away from this formula. In particular, look for the Buckeyes to consistently use Spence and Marcus as bookends in passing downs, as it provides Ohio State two edge rushers an offense must account for.


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carence's picture

I was at the game and the 2 big things I noticed was Spence was changing back and forth from left and right end. It reminded me of Broncos vs Colts a few weeks ago. The Colts used Mathis like that and it proved effective against Manning(my man crush).
2nd, I would have thought Roby would be against Robinson all night and that wasn't the case.
It was a beautiful display of defense.

DMcDougal24's picture

I noticed that too with Bosa. I think they do that to line up Spence on the weak side, but perhaps Ross could shine some light on Spence's movement. 

Ross Fulton's picture

The positions aren't determined by "left" and "right."  Instead, each defensive lineman plays a technique.  Spence is the "Viper" i.e. 7-technique (weakside end).  So he goes wherever that position is in the defense.  For example, if the O is on the right hashmark and the call is a 4-3 under to the field (the defense's right) Spence is going to line up on the left.

idontsmellgood's picture

Last week you said Joshua Perry looked lost in coverage.  Was he in coverage as much and did his play improve?

"This kid scares me a little bit because I've seen him on film drop back and ...boom, boom, boom." Tuberville moved his head, mimicking Barrett checking through his progressions. "That scares me right now. Has all week."-Tuberville on JT Barrett

Wesleyburgess1's picture

If I'm not mistaken I believe the first penn state touchdown was against Perry. Correct me if I'm wrong but I believe he was guarding whoever caught the pass.

Maestro's picture

After the first series of the game it looked like the Bucks opted for having Tyvis Powell on the field instead of a 3rd LB (Perry).  Even in situations when PSU only had 3 WR's Powell was on the field.  

vacuuming sucks

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

Another fantastic article, thanks Ross.
It seems as though the philosophy hasn't changed at all and they are just finding better ways to a) use the talent that they have, and b) defend what they've already seen, all while they assume the least amount of risk.  I absolutely love the idea of using the DEs more as the prototypical speed rushers that they actually are and the implementation of the "RB spy" package for the LBs to generate additional pressure.
Hats off to the defensive coaching staff for sticking to their guns, gaining a grasp for their strengths and quickly understanding how offenses are attacking them, and making these adjustments throughout the season and getting the players to execute these things better.  Always room for improvement, and remembering what the defense was able to accomplish at the end of last season, I'm almost expecting a lights out defense from here in.

Read my entire screen name....

hcazualcc's picture

i love the versatility of our dline.  i hope the coaching schemes on defense continue to progress...

theDuke's picture

I'm still giddy as a school boy about our D line.  Not only the players themselves but the depth Meyer and Co. have built in just two recruiting classes is incredible.  Jamal Marcus is a mini Bosa, the kid is unstopable on the outside and has great moves to boot.  
IMO, look for many, many more stunts and twists. Nice mix of power and finesse to get to the QB. With our speed on the ends i just don't think there's an O line (in the B1G) that can stop our D line. 


MassiveAttack's picture

Once again, great breakdown Ross.
While your description appears to imply that only subtle changes were made on the defensive game plan, they feel enormous.  Specifically allowing players to play to their strengths (Spence not playing a hybrid), and keeping a four man rush with delayed blitzes, made all the difference in the world. 
Certainly it helps that Penn State is not a "dink and dunk", short-pass, quick release team.  I hope to see similar success against Purdue.

The Ohio State University - "Haters love us!"

Maestro's picture


vacuuming sucks

Oyster's picture

If you just read the title of the article, one could guess that it would be about the PSU defense, or lack of.

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

Buckeye06's picture

What people kept forgetting is that the front 7 is young.  Therefore, they are learning game by game, and the D-line especially is going to get better at keeping contain and getting to the passer

Nutinpa's picture

Thanks as always, Ross. 
I found it interesting that you seem unbothered by the ease in which PSU drove right down the field on their opening drive in their 2 TE set almost as a continuation from the Iowa first half as you wrote.  While there is no doubt that even a PSU TD on the opening drive instead of Pitt's INT, the game would have still ended in a rout.
That said, in addition to the adjustments we made that you write about, I think our D was assisted by the offensive scoring output and resulting "panic" that took Penn State out of their gameplan earlier than they perhaps should have.  Even a smurf like Belton got almost 100 yards of rushing as we geared up to stop the pass.  If you have the chance to respond, am interested in your thoughts as always!

Maestro's picture

PSU gained 357 yards, their 2nd worst output of the season (353 in the first game of the season against Syracuse), and Belton was held below his average of 5.27 yards per carry coming into the OSU game (4.45 against OSU). 
I certainly think there is some room for improvement, and I do love seeing a Buckeye defense put the clamps down on a team as much as the next guy, but good lord people enough with the negativity.  The other team is also trying to win.  This defense is giving up fewer yards per game than 111 other teams in the country, fewer yards per play than 97 other teams and fewer points per game than 109 other teams in the country.  This defense may not be elite or as dominant as some other Buckeye D's  this century, but they aren't nearly as bad as many act like they are.

vacuuming sucks

Nutinpa's picture

Negativity?  I simply asked a question, based on the ease in which Penn St moved on their opening drive, using a 2 TE set (as did Iowa)  if our scoring took PSU out of their gameplan, perhaps prematurely.  

Maestro's picture

The tone of your post seemed negative to me.  Apologies if misinterpreted, but I have a quick trigger after the amount of naysaying that has gone on this season regarding the defense.

vacuuming sucks

Spider1944's picture

thank you for the reality check. It is so easy to get spoiled, something we all need to guard against. 

"There are 3 things that can happen and 2 of them are bad" - the Curse of Woody Hayes

Aesculus.'s picture

They brought six man pressures with Curtis Grant and Ryan Shazier, but also nickel and corner blitzes with Tyvis Powell and Roby.

Ross, do I smell Urban Meyer influence here?  
It was evident last week that Meyer finally crossed the line over to the defense.  He made several remarks about how much more difficult is to run an offense when there is more pressure from the defense.  
Much like last season when Meyer called on Zack Boren to fill the D holes, it seems like he is doing it again, but this time in a more philosophical way.  I just wanted to get your take on where you see that turning up in the scheme. Thanks.

Seattle Linga's picture

Look at the strength used by RDS on the Hack-a-Sack. He pulled him down when he was falling backwards. Something you just don't see everyday. Kudos Ryan