Defending Ohio State (or how Michigan State Might)

By Ross Fulton on November 12, 2013 at 12:45p
42 Comments

Ohio State's second bye week provides the opportunity to examine an issue on the forefront of opposing coaches' minds – how can a defense go about defending an increasingly prolific Ohio State offense?

I will examine the question through the prism of how potential Big Ten Championship opponent, Michigan State, may use its aggressive cover 4 defense to accomplish this mission. 

First things First

It is difficult for any defense to adequately defend Ohio State without devoting an additional defender against the Buckeye run game. This begins with the Ohio State offensive line and Carlos Hyde, but is also on account of Braxton Miller. Miller's running ability alters a defense's numeric advantage, forcing the defense to not just account for an additional potential ball carrier, but one that is a threat to create explosive plays.

To take a step back, a defense has a one man numeric advantage – the counterpart to the offensive player with the football. Once the quarterback hands off, the defense gains a two-man advantage. But Miller's ever-present threat to run not only negates this additional man advantage, but forces a defense to game plan to defend the quarterback run threat.

Thus, if Ohio State is in its basic 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB), the defense must account for eight offenders in the box while also defending four immediate vertical threats. The defense's most immediate concern, though is Hyde and Miller. A defense cannot allow itself to be gashed on the ground and thus must seek to regain its numeric advantage by cheating an additional defender against the run. The defense's ultimate goal is to get its unblocked defender closer to the line of scrimmage.This generally comes in the form of a safety playing the run or the slot defender cheating into the "gray area."  

Whittling Down

The two most basic ways a defense applies an additional defender against the run is by playing cover 1 robber or cover 4. Both allow a defense to insert one or both safeties against the run game. 

The Alabama-Texas A & M game earlier this year is instructive. While Texas A & M's air raid offense differs from Ohio State's, the need for the Crimson Tide to defend Johny Manziel as a runner required Alabama to get an additional defender near the line of scrimmage to account for the quarterback.

To do so, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart primarily played cover 1 robber so that a) Alabama's strong safety could come into the box, and b) the Crimson's Tide's middle linebacker was free to effectively be a middle of the field spy. It should be noted that Alabama's defense was not particularly successful against the Aggies, however, as Manizel was able to exploit outside man coverage and scramble with defensive backs locked in man coverage..

Matching Up

Defenses generally seek to utilize a similar strategy against Ohio State. But the Buckeyes have exploited this formula in recent weeks, attacking the edge and down the field in areas vacated by defenders concerned with the run. This does not mean, however, that it is necessarily the incorrect strategy. Defenses have to pick their poison and the better option is still trying to limit the Buckeye run game.

But what it does mean is that a defense needs the defensive backfield talent necessary to allow the defense to devote additional defenders against the run game. The Buckeyes have very good receivers led by Corey Brown and Devin Smith. But they are not necessarily elite talents and can perhaps be manned up by very good corners. A defense's best chance against the Buckeyes is if they can limit the easy passing yards Ohio State has been gaining in recent weeks with their defensive backs while still devoting resources to the run game. 

The Narduzzi Experiment

Enter Michigan State. Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi have built one of the country's best defenses, a defense predicated upon defending the spread to run offense. The basis of the Spartan defense begins with aggressive cover 4 pattern matching coverage. As I have previously discussed, cover 4 means that the defensive backs split the field into fourths.

Though at first glance cover 4 sounds like a conservative coverage, it is actually quite aggressive as it allows a defense to apply both safeties against the run game and employs man coverage principles.

 The safeties read the number 2 receiver to their side of the field. If the receiver blocks, the safety comes downhill against the run. If they release vertically, the safeties will play the receivers in man coverage. And if the receiver breaks in or out, the safety will pass that receiver off inside or outside, expecting that another receiver will appear in their area. The coverage is thus effectively the equivalent of matchup zone in basketball. This allows the defense to apply its unblocked safeties against the run, while also being able to quickly respond to four vertical routes from spread offenses.

But Narduzzi takes cover 4 and puts it on steroids. With typical cover 4, the corners often align at the same depth of the safeties (see Iowa above). But for Michigan State, the corners often play press coverage. They rarely receive bracket help from the safeties and are generally manned up outside. The Spartan defense is thus very reliant on physical, aggressive cornerback play, led by Darqueze Dennard.

This frees the safeties to play more aggressively against the run, often aligning inside ten yards.

With their cover 4 established in the secondary, the Spartans employ several common tactics up front from their base 4-3 over defense. Michigan State employs a regular scrape exchange with their defensive end and linebacker against the zone read, generally cheating the walked out linebacker into the gray area. The Spartans also deploy two regular blitzes – a double A gap linebacker blitz and a blitz from their boundary corner. The latter is another method to attack the mesh point of the read run game.   

Every Theory has Limits

Even though Michigan State's defense is designed with the spread in mind the plan is not foolproof. A much more limited Ohio State offense proved that last season, generating enough points to win a close game in East Lansing. Urban Meyer and Tom Herman made blocking adjustments that exploited the Spartans' scrape exchanges, getting Miller outside contain. Smith was then able to beat Michigan State's man corner down field for a cruical score. Once Michigan State was stretched horizontally Ohio State was able to run Hyde inside to seal the game.

The 2013 Buckeye offense is far more diversified in its play calling and execution. Expect Ohio State to seek to utilize a similar game plan as it has in recent weeks. The Buckeyes will likely seek to stretch the Spartans horizontally, exploiting outside linebackers cheating off the inside wide receiver with the outside screen game, and then take advantage of the aggressiveness of the Spartan safeties with play action off read plays such as inverted veer.

With tight end Jeff Heuerman staying in to block and a pulling guard showing run, the play action makes it extremely difficult for the cover 4 safety to read his keys.

Then, once a defense is forced to play the Buckeyes more honestly, the Buckeyes will turn to Miller and Hyde in the run game.

The Ohio State offense is too good and diversified to stop. But if any defense has the ability and design to slow down the Buckeye offense, it is Narduzzi's Spartan defense.

42 Comments

Comments

SuperBuckFan08's picture

Well Sparty and Bama, here's your blueprint. 
 
In all seriousness, great read though!
 
Edit: A suggestion for a defensive breakdown should be how our Buckeye defense can/would stop the Bama offense.

Because I couldn't go for three.   -Woody-

Red Shirt Ensign's picture

That's how

"Statistics always remind me of a fellow who drowned in a river where the average depth was only three feet." - Coach Woody Hayes

 

SuperBuckFan08's picture

As much as I may love for this to be duplicated with McCarron in the title game, Bama is no slouch. 

Because I couldn't go for three.   -Woody-

MichiganBuckeye222's picture

I thought I knew football.  You, my friend, are a genius.

Representing the Buckeyes in the Mitten State since 1987.

www.septemberheisman.com

 

1967Buck's picture

  Very nice Ross. I enjoyed your write up. "IF" we play them, its going to be a great game. Peace and Go Bucks!!!

Red Shirt Ensign's picture

In all fairness Sparty already knew that :-)     But I definitely appreciate the tutorial !

"Statistics always remind me of a fellow who drowned in a river where the average depth was only three feet." - Coach Woody Hayes

 

Wesleyburgess1's picture

I would like to know how to stop Florida State too.

Red Shirt Ensign's picture

Repeat as Necessary
 

"Statistics always remind me of a fellow who drowned in a river where the average depth was only three feet." - Coach Woody Hayes

 

Nutinpa's picture

Agree.  I think between Bama and FSU, Bama has the tougher row to hoe.  FSU losing would be a huge upset.  Auburn may have the tools to beat Bama...and possibly Mizzou or So Car as well.  
FSU?  Who?  
Miami?  Nope.  Ga Tech?  I don't think so.  VA Tech?  Please. 
 

fear_the_nut70's picture

I think you are right.  What is so frustrating to me is the pass FSU is getting in terms of their schedule.  Clemson was a good win, but the rest, pffft.  Miami is very lucky they don't have 4 losses (yet) and simply isn't a good team.  The ACC is 3-13 in their last 16 BCS games, the ACC title game is mostly a joke each year (and will likely be again this year) and yet, FSU is getting a complete pass on their schedule.

darkhorse3d's picture

Bama O is so over-rated. What I can't figure is how they get away with as much blatant holding as they do. Bama does not get penalties that other teams do on offense and it helps them. That said I think we beat bama. I don't think we'd blow them out but 10 - 13 points would not be out of the question. 

Earle's picture

A couple of observations:
1) I think it is no coincidence that the Buckeyes have come out throwing early in many of their games, given the blueprint to stop them is to bring the extra defender up to defend the numbers advantage in the running game.
2) I think Sparty will be vulnerable to big plays in the passing game if they take this approach, much like Wisconsin was early before the offense went into "protect the lead" mode.  I know they like to bring the pressure, but if the O-line can keep Miller upright, I have to like the big play potential against such an aggressive approach.

Italics are for emphasis.

Ethos's picture

but if the O-line can keep Miller upright,

 
 
This is key.  If you pay attention to our games, even in our last game Miller got "touched" many times by the defensive lineman and linebackers, only to hop or struggle free in time to throw or run.  Sparty's defensive boys are a heck of a lot better at tackling and holding you there, so our offensive line is going to have to step up a little more against them.

"What do you need water for, Sunshine?!" - Coach Coombs, if you don't love this man, you have no soul.

awwwwwwop's picture

I also think that Sparty will be vulnerable on those corner blitzes. Braxton has seemed to have a zone read quick pass option all season that would have been wide open on the corner blitz in the youtube video above.  If Sparty wants to blitz corners, they better be prepared to roll their safety over or else its gonna be 8-10 yards for Smith and Philly all day.

"Who cares? Go Bucks." - Aaron Untch

d5k's picture

If they roll the safety and blitz the corner and we are in a packaged play or straight WR screen it will more likely be a huge gain.

yrro's picture

Definitely. *If* Miller can make quick decisions, or the O-line can hold off the extra blitzer, I think we can do some real damage in the passing game.
MSU is basing their defense on the idea that most O-line and college quarterbacks can't handle the kind of pressure they are bringing.

Earle's picture

Yes, but what kind of QB's have they faced?  Tommy Rees?  Devin Gardner (behind that poor excuse for an O-line)?  Sparty's D is legit, but they've not seen anything like what's coming.  I'm not saying the Bucks will hang 40 on them, but they'll certainly score enough to keep the Walrus at bay.

Italics are for emphasis.

Ross Fulton's picture

Agreed, and as I said last week, I think the goal of throwing early is also being done with one eye looking forward. Want to make defenses think twice about loading up the box. 

gunni070's picture

 

The safeties read the number 2 receiver to their side of the field. If the receiver blocks, the safety comes downhill against the run. If they release vertically, the safeties will play the receivers in man coverage. And if the receiver breaks in or out, the safety will pass that receiver off inside or outside, expecting that another receiver will appear in their area.

In a cover 4, it would seem like the safety could be fooled on a delayed run play by having that number 2 receiver run a vertical route instead of immediately going into a block to pull both the db and the safety towards them and possibly opening up a running lane.

d5k's picture

The jet sweep motion / inverted veer / play action game seems to be incredibly problematic for this defense as not only do you have safeties conflicted between run and pass but you just added an additional receiver to the other side of the field confusing the coverage responsibilities.  Ross, do teams typically have a safety follow the slot receiver across the field in cover 4 pattern matching if the numbers basically go from twins to trips to one side?  Or I guess how does it adjust with trips to one side and how does the jet sweep complicate things?

Ross Fulton's picture

Trips often force a team playing split safeties to adjust. A lot of times teams will check to "Banjo coverage" pattern matching the twins with man coverage to the single side. 

 

Brophy Blogspot has some good articles on this issue if you are interested in digging into it in-depth. 

fear_the_nut70's picture

The next article needs to be "How can Ohio State possibly stop Bollman's offensive Juggernaut in the B1G Championship Game!"  I will see if my five year old nephew has a few minutes after his recess and nap to pen this column!

fartymcpooperson's picture

Ohio State was  successful in defending Oregon's offense in the 2010 Rose Bowl (awesome game, was totally there).  How hard is it for teams to consistently do that to a very good spread-run team like Ohio State or Oregon?  Is there a nugget in there than Narduzzi can use to defend against Ohio State's offense?

Into the garbage chute, flyboy!

Ethos's picture

the biggest reason for our success?
18 minutes.  18 minutes was the time of possession for Oregon's offense for the entire game.

"What do you need water for, Sunshine?!" - Coach Coombs, if you don't love this man, you have no soul.

yrro's picture

Of course, a fair part of the reason for that was that the defense put them in far more three and outs than they were used to.
When we blew up their first play for a loss I knew I was going to enjoy watching that game.

d5k's picture

This is really oversold as the reason for Stanford beating Oregon or OSU beating Oregon.  It is really cause and effect mixed up.  If your defense is forcing more short drives (punts/turnovers/Fg attempts) and your offense is creating long drives then you are going to be successful AND you will just happen to win the time of possession battle as well usually.  You can't just choose to win time of possession as a goal, it is a side effect of what Stanford and OSU really accomplished which was to have successful offensive drives, be efficient on 3rd down on both sides of the ball by forcing 3rd and longs by disrupting the other team's base 1st and 10 offense.  Ross is describing the latter strategy above which has far more to do with success than the way in which the time ticked off the clock.
Correlation <> causation.

fartymcpooperson's picture

This.

Clearly offensive efficiency helps against a team like Oregon who can put up points in a hurry.  But what's more, I don't see a lot of successful read-option in the NFL.  Defenses seem more fundamentally sound and defenders seem more likely to beat the offensive lineman than in college football.  The main thing that worries me about MSU is that they could be the most fundamentally sound football team we will face on defense.  Luckily, I think Ohio State has the best offensive line MSU will face. 

Into the garbage chute, flyboy!

d5k's picture

Actually Chip Kelly was quoted saying time of possession is a terrible stat and the only TP he was worried about in that game was Pryor.

Ross Fulton's picture

There is but I don't think MSU can use it. 

OSU and Stanford shut down Oregon by controlling the interior line of scrimmage. Zone read plays are not true option plays; they still require successful blocking on the front side. If you are beating their offensive line you can't overcome it with the read.

I don't see anyone doing that to this O-Line. 

d5k's picture

Luckily we don't have to play against Cam Heyward.

Davep160's picture

I think it is simple...we can score and sparty struggles to do so.   It's a walrus thing.

d5k's picture

This is why I am confident about that game, I think we will have favorable field position even if they do force more punts than we are used to.

Doc's picture

The Rossenator droppin knowledge.

"Say my name."

whobdis's picture

Great read. It was nice to see us to to the tight ends a bit lately as many teams will give give that up freely as opposed to other aspects of the offense. Seeing teams cheat towards the run game has been going on a long time with the buckeyes and that in part is what would frustrate some with JT"s offense. I rarely felt we made teams pay.

IBLEEDSCARLETANDGRAY's picture

The beauty of OSU's offense is, when it's firing on all cylinders and does not turn the ball over, it forces any defense to have to play a perfect game to stop it. One breakdown or weakness or failure to cover in one area can easily be exploited. Meyer and Herman have spent the entire season implanting little tidbits for opposing DCs to have to plan for. Brax and Kenny G on the field at the same time is just one example. The long-awaited diamond formation. Some wild reverse with Dontre, the swinging gate from the Buffalo game. just in the event a D is able to lock the Buckeyes down, here comes an ace up the sleeve.
I watched the Bama-LSU game. Bama beats you by pounding you mercilessly. If they ran the spread I'd be MUCH more worried. We can stand up to them.
Ross, as always, your work is unparalleled. Bravo :)

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

Blue Eyed Buckeye's picture

I fear no one this season, I really think we have the best team in the country - or at least a team that can play anyone in the country.  It all comes down to whether the silly BCS will give us the opportunity.

Seattle Linga's picture

All we really need is a shot. I am also a believer in this team especially with our OLINE and weapons like we haven't seen in some time.

Davep160's picture

AND THAT is why you are my favorite ex highschool sports writer EVER.

IBLEEDSCARLETANDGRAY's picture

LOL! Thanks brother

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

Blue Eyed Buckeye's picture

If a defense is playing both its safeties within 10 yards of the LOS and its corners in press coverage they had better get a good jam on Philly Brown or he will destroy them with the post route.
I can't believe that is what Sparty is doing because I think that is so dangerous against a team with a passer.

IBLEEDSCARLETANDGRAY's picture

^ They haven't faced a QB good enough to beat them.

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

d5k's picture

They are relying on pressure as well as for their corners to win individual battles.  They want the routes that they are giving up to take too much time to develop.  But our offense puts them in enough binds to open up quicker hitting throws and if not we will take our shots down field.