To the Booth: Let's Get Defensive

By Chad Peltier on December 12, 2013 at 11:15a
Joey Bosa certainly emerged for the Buckeyes.

To the Booth is typically reserved for previewing the numbers behind the upcoming Saturday's matchup. However, we're still a ways off from our battle with Clemson, so we have plenty of time to dissect this year's team. 

Up first is the team's biggest weakness: the defense. Even the most pessimistic Buckeyes were probably surprised by the defensive performance in the Big Ten Championship game. A regular season's worth of data contained little if anything to suggest that the Buckeye defense would be punished as badly as it was. 

Here are some highlights from the statistical preview

My only real concern about the Michigan State offense – the one led by Mr. Bollman – is an overabundance of running back screens on passing downs against over-pursuing defenders.

Michigan State's offense is not really built to create explosive plays, nor does it average a high number of plays per drive.

Instead, the defense allowed .436 points per play and six explosive plays. That was the first time all season that the Buckeyes did not win the explosive play margin and had a lower points per play than their opponent. Furthermore, Ohio State's defense – which courteously allowed Langford to become its first opposing 100-yard rusher on the season – had consistently held opponents below their season averages in rushing yards. 

I don't rehash the game to depress you or to pile on an already beleaguered unit, but instead to emphasize the limitations of our data each year and to suggest an even deeper look into the statistical roots of our defensive problems. 

Towards that end, we'll break down two commonly cited Football Outsiders' metrics – the S&P+ and the FEI – for all of their components. Both are composite metrics, containing a series of opponent-adjusted measures of efficiency and explosiveness that are then combined to give a single number and rank for each team. 

S&P+ Data

  S&P+ Play Eff Std Downs Pass Downs Rushing Passing Drive EFF DNP
OSU Def 112.2 (40) 102.9 (52) 102 (64) 106.9 (49) 110.2 (37) 102.2 (59) 121.5 (33) -1.53 (8)

The basic S&P+ component is comprised of a play's success rate (like the running back success rate, it measures whether a play advances a certain number of yards towards a first down), a measure of points per play that places an expected number of points an offense might gain at each yard line, and a measure of drive efficiency (which takes field position and an offense's ability to score points from a given field position). 

In the table above then, we have the overall S&P+, the individual measure of play efficiency, and then the S&P+ scores for standard down, passing down, rushing plays, and passing plays, the measure of drive efficiency, and finally a difference in net points measure, which is the "raw average of the points an offense scores on a given drive compared to the points it would be expected to score based on starting field position." The numbers in parentheses are the ranking. Obviously, that's a heck of a lot of information. 

  • The thing that first jumps out to me is that the Buckeyes are ranked lower on standard downs S&P+ than on passing downs S&P+. Especially considering that the Buckeyes passing S&P+ is significantly worse than the rushing, this indicates that opposing offenses are comfortable throwing the ball against the Buckeye defense on standard downs (standard downs are all first downs, second down with less than eight yards to go, and third or fourth down with less than five to go). 
  • Despite opposing defenses' success on standard downs, the Buckeyes are far better against the run than against the pass (obviously). However, what's interesting to me is that this unit, despite just now allowing a 100 yard rusher, is not in the elite group of rushing S&P+ defenses (with MSU, Alabama, Virginia Tech, and Utah State). 
  • Our S&P+ peers are Rice, Houston, Tulane, and Duke. Remember that these metrics are adjusted by strength of schedule, compared "to the expected output based upon their opponents and their opponents' opponents. This is a schedule-based adjustment designed to reward tougher schedules and punish weaker ones." 
  • Where the Buckeyes really are elite, however, is in the difference in net points metric. Essentially, this implies that the Buckeyes do a great job beating expectations for how many points an opposing offense is expected to score given a particular starting field position. DNP is the only category that MSU, Virginia Tech, USC, and Stanford (all top seven overall) do not rank in the top fifteen in. 

My primary takeaway is that the Buckeyes must improve specifically against the pass on standard downs. Opponents are comfortable throwing the ball short distances (second and five, third and three) as well as on first down. They are less successful – again relative to other defenses and adjusted by opponents schedules – getting yards on actual passing downs. This suggests to me (though the numbers alone cannot confirm it) that a major part of the issue is scheme. 

We know that coverage breakdowns are certainly the result of personnel problems (mainly young players and backups receiving significant playing time), mental lapses, and miscommunications, but the numbers above are symptomatic of structural issues as well. There is a clear difference between the defense on passing downs and standard downs, and against the pass versus the run.  

FEI Data

OSU Def -.217 (36) -.086 (53) .638 (36) .406 (31) .134 (68) .157 (80) .342 (35) .158   (64) .720 (27)

Brian Fremeau's FEI is a possession-based composite measure of efficiency and explosiveness, that uses nine opponent-adjusted metrics of efficiency and explosiveness.

DFEI is the overall measure of opponent-adjusted efficiency, while DE is the raw unadjusted measure of drive success against expected drive success considering opposing field position. FD stands for first down rate (percentage of drives that result in at least one first down), and AY is short for available yards (opponent yards divided by total number of yards considering field position).

FICKELL ROARRRRRRCan Fickell and Withers clean up the defense for Clemson?

EX is the percentage of opposing drives that average at least ten yards per play, ME tracks methodological drives (ten or more plays), VA considers drives that begin on an opponent's own side of the field and end on at least the defense's 30 yard line, and finally, the two DSOS measures consider the likelihood that an elite defense (two standard deviations above average) would have an above-average defensive efficiency (DE) against each of the offenses faced (PVS, or previous), or will face (FUT, or future).

  • The Buckeyes are ranked in the mid-thirties on many of the FEI components, including overall, defensive efficiency, first down rate, available yards, and value drives. This matches up well with how we might judge the defense with just our eyes. 
  • While mid-30s is unacceptable, where the Buckeyes really struggle according to the FEI are in explosive drives and methodological drives. That is, the Buckeyes too often allow drives that average at least ten yards per play while also too-frequently allowing long drives of 10+ plays. What's really interesting here is that the Buckeyes are actually fairly excellent at preventing explosive plays of 20+ yards (tied for 16th overall), but much worse (43rd) at preventing explosive plays of 10+ yards. Opponents attack for intermediate gains (quick screens, curls and outs on soft coverage, and short crossing routes) rather than long touchdown breakdowns for the most part.  
  • Just a little more on the low ranking for methodological drives – Ohio State is fairly good at opponent third down conversion rate, so the problem again lies in opponents picking up first downs on standard downs, before even forcing a third down conversion attempt. In particular, the Buckeyes are fairly poor on second down, when opposing quarterback completion percentage spikes.
  • Some room for optimism might be that the DSOS FUT, or future defensive strength of schedule, is the highest ranked component for the DFEI. With Clemson as the only opponent remaining for the Buckeyes, perhaps that suggests an elite defense could have an above-average performance against the Tigers. We know Chad Morris and the Tigers can be stopped (see: Florida State), but the question is whether the Buckeyes can scheme effectively and coach the secondary into taking better angles against Boyd's fearsome passing attack. 

There is no easy answer for the Buckeye defense according to statistics alone, though the advanced numbers certainly reflect the mediocre performances we see each Saturday. However, there is ample evidence that the problems are, at least to a degree, consistent and structural.

That absolutely does not mean that coaches need to be fired, but it does make me question the limited development over the course of the season. It's possible that the defensive coordinators simply believe that the changes we suggest as a fan base (rotating in younger personnel, playing tighter coverages, calling more aggressive plays) would result in even worse outcomes than the current status quo.

However, with fifteen practices between a date with the Tigers, the coaches have ample time to refine coverages and play calls to maximize personnel growth and set up the defense on a better trajectory for next season. 



TMac's picture

So what you're saying is that we need to be more aggressive and take away those 10ish yard pass plays.....

ONE Not Done!

Oyster's picture

Aren't those the plays where to defense lines up about 10 years off the line and then starts back peddling at the snap, which then allows the receiver to run a quick route, turn, catch the ball and voila, 10ish yard play?  I have seen those used effectively this year.

3M hoards the KoolAid like Elaine hoards sponges.

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

TMac's picture

10 years off the line

That wasn't a typo was it ?!

ONE Not Done!

Oyster's picture

I'm gonna have to blame that on my contacts.  I'm on two and half weeks with this pair and I was trying to get just one more day out of them.

3M hoards the KoolAid like Elaine hoards sponges.

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

TMac's picture

I thought it was a pretty accurate description of where they seem to line up far too often imo.  

ONE Not Done!

Oyster's picture

Let's just call it a Freudian Slip then ; )

3M hoards the KoolAid like Elaine hoards sponges.

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

Chad Peltier's picture

Taking away the ten yard pass plays is easier said than done with this mix of personnel, coaches, and schemes. So that's a problem. 

Oyster's picture

I'll give you that, but when it's 3rd and short and they line up 10 yards off the line, I think we have an obvious disconnect.

3M hoards the KoolAid like Elaine hoards sponges.

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

Chad Peltier's picture

Thus my issue with schemes

Doc's picture

Which would ultimately come down to coaches and their philosophies.

I'm hiding baby and I'm dreaming
I'm riding down your moonlight mile

Furious George 27's picture

I would agree 2 of the 3 issues would be on the coaching.... Players will make mistakes at times, but not to the tune of one of the worst pass defenses in all of CFB.... And perhaps is 3 of 3 on coaching because why would you have personnel out there that cannot accomplish what you want?

Yeah, well…that’s just like, your opinion, man.

bobby_gunz's picture

They have had all year to 'fix' it.  Sometimes a product (or defense) simply cannot be fixed - it is a lemon.  In that case you need to get a new one.

Barnsey69's picture

Well my pay grade does not allow me to correctly interpret your statistical presentation, however I think that allowing Ryan Shazier to make all the tackles isn't working...i.e.= bad scheme.

Thank the Maker that I was born in Ohio, cradle of coaches, US Presidents, confederate-stomping Generals, and home of The Ohio State University Football Buckeyes- 2014 UNDISPUTED National Champions!

fanfarris's picture

Sorry. The defense problem is not going to be fixed in 3 weeks.It was not fixed in 3 years.'the one with more points will win ' And Taj  Boyd is licking his chops now.


buckeyeEddie27's picture

At this point I have zero confidence in our defense as a whole.  Bosa, RDS, Roby & Spence will all put in great individual efforts.  But that won't win the game.  This team has not faced a Qb and receiver duo with the kind of dynamic that Boyd and his top wide out have. (can't remember name) That does not bode well for The Buckeyes.   To say the coaches have their work cut out for them is hilariously conservative.

I know there's a game Saturday, and my ass will be there.

Doc's picture


I'm hiding baby and I'm dreaming
I'm riding down your moonlight mile

BuckGuy003's picture

Watkins is the receiver, they will be an issue

hetuck's picture

For the Clemson game, I'd put Roby on Boyd in man coverage and zone the rest. Isn't that what they tried against Wisconsin, you ask? Yes, it is. I think Roby has improved mentally since then & gives OSU their best chance. Of course you have change ups, but it goes back to the Woody adage of making your opponent beat you left-handed. Take away (hopefully) their best passing threat. 

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

OSUFlash's picture

Roby has his eye on the NFL and will be one of our weak links in the Bowl game by playing not to get hurt. And D. Grant and Reeves are just plain horrible. I agree with the concensus, this defense will not be fixed soon enough for it matter on Jan. 3rd.


BuckGuy003's picture

Boyd's the quarterback bud, you mean Watkins. I would like to see them pump the young talent in there, at least the kids that can't red shirt

73buckeye's picture

If Roby really is ready for the NFL, we should be able to expect he would be good enough to play a rookie NFL quality receiver like Sammy Watkins to a one on one draw. If he isn't able to do that, he ought to stay in school for another year and continue to learn how to play the position. Based on his mediocre play this year (Abbrederis is good, but is he going to be drafted higher than Sammy Watkins?) I don't see how anyone can say he's good to go unless they think he's reached his plateau and another year in school won't help. On the other hand, maybe he's learned all he can here and NFL quality position coaching is what he needs.


chitown buckeye's picture

Roby might be one of the most overhyped and overrated players I've seen at OSU in a long time. Now I am stating this while knowing he is the best we got at this moment but he gives me zero confidence in any aspect of his game except running a guy down from behind. He has incredible speed but it has not translated to great one on one coverage or tackling. He has been incredibly subpar on tackling this year. You can argue his "head" has been elsewhere which is fine but if he doesnt get better at the basics he wont make it in the NFL. Tackling is a must and he is not good at it.

"I'm having a heart attack!"

BuckGuy003's picture

It sucks but you are right

superbuck's picture

I hate to say this but I will and will take all the crap i'm going to get, but Urbs threw that game . He took the ball out of Hydes hands you knew each play Braxton was going to run . I truly believe he knew FSU would make us look like The little sisters of the poor if we played them in the NC to Buckeye Nation I'm sorry .


73buckeye's picture

I think you're dead wrong, but if that's true, I guess I'll go watch professional wrestling.  


mc22's picture

Does anyone have an update on christian bryant?  He could help  - big time.
Will he be granted a medical redshirt by then ?  Could he be ready in three weeks - won't that be like 12 weeks of recovery?

Poison nuts's picture

My theory is that we will actually see a much improved pass defense during the Clemson game. Why? Glad you asked....It's one thing to talk about needing improvements as the coaches did all year while they were WINNING. While I'm sure they wanted to get things fixed - there is less urgency if you're walking away every week with a win & on the way to a National Championship game. Now that there has been a loss & this season is not what many expected, I believe there will be a change in how the coaches do their jobs on the defensive side of the ball. The loss is humbling & an eye opener & there will be urgency to make things better. I believe wholeheartedly that OSU will come out & look much different on defense & will at minimum get stops on more occasions than what we saw all year.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

RufusVonDufus's picture

Exactly how does it feel to be sickeningly optimistic?


Poison nuts's picture

Good!!! Seriously though - I'm not some "everything is wonderful" type of guy at all. The defense sucks. It cost them a shot at a NC. I just believe that there will be more pressure than ever from UFM to get this at least improved. I don't think I said it will be what it should be, I said now that there's been a loss, it will finally force some sort of change in the right direction.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

niblick's picture

unless our DL gets nonstop massive pressure on boyd play after play after play, theyre gonna put up 700 yards of offense.  i mean we just gave up 1000+ to devin gardner and connor cook for gods sake lol.  boyd has a chubby right now at the thought of throwing on our db's.

rock flag and eagle's picture

Chad, you wrote several times that one of the measures of the Fremeau Efficiency Index is methodological drives.  The term is "Methodical" drives, as in teams that methodically move the ball down the field with precision passing.
It must by the political scientist in you that misread it as methodological.  Put APSR down!

Chad Peltier's picture

I read International Security the most - I've got no excuse! 


2morrow's picture

Seems to me as though we line up in soft coverage on many downs to prevent getting beat on the big play --- and we still get beat on the big play. I think our D would have been better in the long run had we played aggressive and allowed big plays - we certainly had the offense to compensate for it. Take the um game for example. Most of their opponents blitzed unmercifully for the entire game. The result - um usually fared better in the first half but the pounding took a toll on them and they collapsed in the 2nd half. We started out aggressively at um and when they used it against us by way of our over pursuit, we backed off and started running 3 man lines at them and only played aggressively on occasion.