The Ohio State Defense: Where's the Identity?

By Ross Fulton on December 19, 2013 at 1:00p
Tough outing for the Bucks

As the Ohio State defense struggled against Michigan State, an issue roes to the forefront that has bedeviled Ohio State for two years – the Buckeye defensive identity, or lack thereof.

By identity, I mean the foundational concepts around which a staff builds their program. It is the scheme a team installs the first day of practice, what a unit constantly reps throughout the season, and what coaches and players turn to when the chips are down.

For Urban Meyer's offense, his identity is shotgun spread tight zone read. For Pat Narduzzi's Michigan State defense, it is 4-3 over, cover 4.

But the Buckeye defense lack an easy identifiable core. Luke Fickell's unit has cycled between schemes week to week and year to year without a consistent plan. The result is a defense that gropes for answers and is unable to quickly adapt.

Why didn't this defense have an identity? How can they fix that?

The melting pot

It was not always this way. The tenets of Jim Heacock's defenses under Jim Tressel were easily identifiable. The Buckeyes utilized a 4-3 under/4-2-5 over cover 3 base defense that deployed zone blitzing on third down. Heacock's defenses were not overly aggressive, but were fundamentally sound, forcing opponents to drive the length of the football field.

While most of the fanfare surrounding Meyer's hiring regarded his offense, what he would do with the defense was more of a mystery. Meyer hired a defensive coaching staff with diverse philosophical backgrounds. Luck Fickell spent his career under Heacock. Everett Withers espoused cover 4 pattern matching. Meyer, for his part, spent his later years at Florida with Charlie Strong deploying primarily single-high man free coverage.

What Happened to the Plan?

Early indications were that the Buckeyes would implement the same base fronts they used under Heacock in combination with Withers' cover 4 scheme. And that is how the defense entered the 2012 season. But the plan was quickly shelved, as the Buckeye back seven fell victim to repeated breakdowns, resulting in explosive plays. The Buckeye secondary struggled providing force support against the run from cover 4, and the safeties and linebackers could not consistently play the man coverage required by the pattern matching scheme.

In response, Fickell and Withers went to a bastardized version, using split safety cover 4 or quarter quarter half against spread teams, but changing force responsibilities, with the nickel or star defender playing contain and the safeties filling the alley.

Against pro-style formations, by contrast, Ohio State played single high coverage. And to the 2012 defense's credit they stabilized in the second half of the season, with Zach Boren providing a salve at middle linebacker.

Where to now?

It was assumed that the schematic dissonance would be smoothed over for 2013 after a year of staff continuity. But the drift continued. Rather than honed, cover 4 was  eschewed. In its place Ohio State primarily utilized cover 3, but it was a cover 3 of the lowest common denominator.

The implementation of the coverage was vanilla, with the defenders sitting in their zone. Even if you are playing zone, you must cover a receiver who appears within the zone, something that Buckeye defenders failed to accomplish.

Worse, the Buckeye coaching staff cycle through different concepts week-to-week. One week they had Bradley Roby play man-over. The next they deployed aggressive blitzing concepts. Against Michigan State they played large amounts of cover 2, a coverage they previously used sparingly.

The problem with such variance is lack of continuity. Self evidently, film review demonstrates that particular schemes work well against an upcoming opponent. Blitz packages must be altered to account for an offense's protection schemes. But a coaching staff cannot pick concepts at random. The adjustments must instead be made within the defense's system. For comparison's sake, Meyer is not going to line up in the I formation and run isolation plays merely because a previous offense successfully utilized the scheme against an opponent.

The problem with changing schemes weekly is that practice time in college is limited. If time is spent implementing differing game plans that means less time is spent honing fundamentals and refining the nuances of any scheme. Players are left thinking, rendering them slow and open to mistakes.

Cause and Effect

Why have the Buckeyes have not developed a defensive identity? As is often the case, multiple issues are at play. For two years, the defense unquestionably had talent deficiencies at certain important positions, such as middle linebacker and nickel. Safeties CJ Barnett and Christian Bryant were good players but not particularly suited to play cover 4. The problem was only exacerbated with Bryant's injury.

Nor were Ohio State's second level defenders adequate in man coverage. So the Buckeyes had the corners for cover 4 and/or cover 1, but not at other positions, leaving the Buckeyes vulnerable when they deployed aggressive play calling.

This perhaps explains the coaching staff's tendency to revert to vanilla defense. With safer schemes, the Buckeyes could at least limit explosive plays. Even this was not a panacea, as the Buckeye linebackers often failed to get adequate depth in their zone drops.

Execution issues explains some of the cycling through schemes, as the coaching staff understandably sought something that worked.

But that cannot entirely explain the lack of identity. One suspects that the differing coaching philosophies make it more difficult to reach a common conclusion as to how to remedy problems. Meyer's periodically requests more aggressive play calling, but he is not actively involved with the defense to see it through to implementation. It is also not clear if Fickell has the feel to call such a game plan. It is one thing to call a corner blitz; it is another to call it at the correct time. Meyer's comments yesterday that improvement is needed regarding when the staff calls blitzes and how coverages are matched to blitzes speak directly to coaching. And one wonders if the coverage problems do not result from Withers being forced to teach schemes outside his comfort zone.

Time Heals all Wounds

The upshot is that Meyer often talks about continuity of purpose amongst a coaching staff, but the defense staff has lacked a singular schematic framework. If the Buckeye defensive staff returns intact, the hope is that extensive time together leads to a more unified plan.

The Buckeye coaching staff is also helping itself through its recruiting efforts to fill the aforementioned holes. Identity issues could fade once the coaching staff does not have to hide certain defenders. One thing to watch for is whether the Buckeyes return to cover 4 once they have the players in the back seven to do so. Time will tell if the lack of identity was merely a result of talent deficiencies, or whether it results from more systemic problems.


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bassplayer7770's picture

Ross, out of curiosity, do you feel the staff will remain intact assuming none of them get hired away?

Bucks777's picture

     If we lose a close one or barely win and give up a lot of points due to pass scheme/coverage, I believe there will be some staff changes.
     It's all on the line Jan 3rd, show up, or changes to be made!  If however, we lose but our defensive backs play well, INT/ create some fumbles, play tight pass coverage, tackle and are in the passing lanes and coverage's like they should be , then I believe it will still save the jobs; and the NEW defense will have been created.  
    I believe this is the perfect game for our team right now, if our DB's and the coverage scheme are not working it will definitely show against this pass happy attack.  So this is exactly what the doctor ordered!   :-)  my 2 cents.   Go Bucks... I believe they will come out and play very well, and we will all be positing on Jan. 4th  "Where was that all season"?  

nfischer's picture

If the DB's play well, I don't see a likely loss scenario.

Indy_Buck87's picture

One thing that drives me mad is the soft coverage on the corners. How many times have we seen the DBs 12 yards deep on 3 rd and 6. Amazes me!  Then Again when we play tight they are burnt deep. 

I know of only two things that are infinite, space and human stupidity.....and I'm not sure about space". Albert Einstein.

Buckeye Chuck's picture

The "explosive plays" are what one really notices about the last two years. Heacock's defenses could frustrate because the Buckeyes would often allow so many short completions that it seemed like they were getting shelled -- think here about the game against NC State and Philip Rivers in '03, or (less successfully obviously) all of Chris Leak's dinking and dunking in the national championship game. But the key to such a defensive strategy working is that it's hard to have that many positive plays on a row. One incompletion or penalty at the wrong time can do in the whole drive, and then you get the punt Tressel so loved.
But in 2012 and 2013, there wasn't so much nickel-and-diming against us because we've been giving up those big chunks of yards. I do think we've had some talent issues and those shouldn't be discounted, but the long gains on screens and guys free in zones 30 yards downfield don't happen if the defense knows what it's supposed to be doing at any given time.

The most "loud mouth, disrespect" poster on 11W.

BuckAlum35's picture

Great analysis, I have not been a big fan of the two coordinator system. The identity issues have been evident due to the contrasting styles. Also, the point that Fickel may not have a grasp of the entire defense is a good point, I think he may be best suited to being a position coach at this point. Although maybe they will make some drastic improvements and prove everyone wrong....I thought that after last season though. 

Buckeye1004's picture

I hope they get a big enough band-aid on the defense to win the bowl game.  Then they get their sh*t together over the off season and come back out in the spring with a plan.  Defense Wins Championships!  Right now, ours ain't cuttin' it!

Larryp713's picture

It's funny how I thought all 200yds for Abbrederis was on Roby, yet there is 50+ yds on one play where he found a pocket in the zone. Roby was in the flat. I know Roby got torched a couple times in that game, but Abbrederis is really good. Those 50 yds were on the LBs getting sucked in (not hard against Wisconsin) and a really good route from the receiver.



d5k's picture

Roby was asked to do a position he had not played with a couple of practices worth of reps.  The coaches should apologize for the hit to his draft stock as they are certainly partially to blame.
He had a lot of responsibility to contain the jet sweeps and Wisconsin came out slinging with play action double moves to Abbrederis.  Pretty much the perfect counter to the type of responsibilities Roby had (eyes in backfield) and like I said Roby wasn't repped enough to be prepared for the counters.

2morrow's picture

Toward the end of 2012 I thought Roby sucked. I was pretty hard commenting on his play through most of this year wondering how anyone could think he was an NFL top draft choice and all-american. Toward the end of the season, I could finally see that he was doing a lot to boost run support yet appeared to have to play off his receiver to help out in the general scheme of things in other areas. I think I was wrong about him. I think the defensive scheme and coaching really had an impact on what he could accomplish. He will be good at the next level --- and you are correct - the defensive coaches need to apologize to him for causing his draft stock to take a hit.

buckskin's picture

Meyer said he mentioned V. Bell to the defensive staff as a possibility this past year for improved safety play.  I understand respecting your staff, but with our safety play this year, he should have said "get Von Bell the hell in there now.  Give him a shot."

2morrow's picture

Seems to be a pattern. I think UFM should have told the OC during the MSU game that if anyone but Hyde gets the ball in the 4th quarter - you are walking back to Columbus. He had two carries early on in the 4th quarter and that was it.

Doc's picture

With Urban's comments this week it seems that he is more than fed up with the defensive breakdowns.  I don't think the coaching staff comes through this unscathed.  I believe someone will leave for a new gig, or be forced out.

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Barnsey69's picture

I agree with you, and the bowl game will be the last opportunity to save some jobs (most likely). 

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!

buckskin's picture

Some of the worst LB pass coverage at OSU in years.  This is a sign guys are lost and not grasping the D.

d5k's picture

While I agree that Barnett and Bryant are good players (Barnett an in-the-box SS and Bryant a center field FS), their inability to play cover 4 without allowing 80 yard TDs 2 times per game is really the culprit that led to all these mismatched bandaids.  The scheme isn't based on the flaws at linebacker or nickel as you mentioned, it is based on the inability of safeties to play the pattern match style.  If we roll with Bell and Burrows or some combo like that next year I wonder if they re-re-invent the scheme.  I also wonder what the bandaids will look like on Jan. 3rd.  I tend to think with a month of practice to prepare we will have less of the continuity problem with having a gameplan specific scheme and could surprise with sharper execution.

gwalther's picture

Pitt Brown is awful. Just watched the B1G Journey on the B1G Title Game...There was some ugly, ugly stuff.

Class of 2008


It seems the defense has had to adjust just about every week. Different defense to play California and NW than the one to play Wisconsin and Iowa. I guess the 4-2-5 was the "base" defense all year. That's hardly a defense to rally around.
I asked this question in the fallout of the Sparty loss. Will having 1 defensive coordinator with 1 plan and 1 "identity" fix the problem? Or make it worse? Or do we need to start from scratch (which means the D could be even worse next year).

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

Earle's picture

Time to see what the kids can do.  Hope to see a lot of Bell and Burrows on Jan. 3.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

angelique's picture

Male ice-skater announces he is gay.    Are the Muslims & Hindus right?


ATXbucknut's picture

You never pass up a chance to chime in on race and religion even when no one else has any clue what you're talking about.  I see a ban-hammer in your future. The MODS warned you last time, didn't they?
You can do better, Angelique.  You can be better.

Wesleyburgess1's picture

I have a gut feeling were gonna lose this game in a very bad way. Idk why but I think it has to do with Boyd/Watkins and Beasley too...If I hope not

Spikebone's picture

I've have maintained throughout the season that the biggest issue is that when in pass coverage all players (LB\DB) prefer to stare into the backfield and occupy space in their zone instead of identifying a receiver moving though the zone.

Stuck in Ann Arbor for work, I can confirm she is indeed a whore.

Bucks777's picture

Identity missing for 2 full years, while people collect enormous paychecks for less than average work.  The players are fine. Curtis grant , and Perry are as good a LB as you will see across the BIG 10, the best LB;  of course not, but how many teams have 3 great LB'?? None.  So it is coaching that is in fact lacking. Oh and the DB's same goes for them, they have the talent: Speed, athleticism, instincts; but have not been taught the basic fundamentals and it shows like a black eye on a sunny day!  I hear things like well, grant can't cover that well, he is out of position a lot; it is coaching.  Sure we have studs coming in, but let's remember at the beginning of this season how well Urban and staff said the Tyvis Powell, and Armani Reeves were doing in practice!  I remember all to well.  SO obviously whatever is being taught, done, executed in practice is in no way making it to the field on Saturdays!  If you continue to practice the same way and expect a different result...well you know the answer to that.  I would not be ranting so much if I had seen even the most obvious , no brainer changes that should have happened months ago!  Tight cover on 3rd down and 4, not playing 12 yards off the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately I have been able to go back and watch all the games, and there was not 1 (one) noticeable change in anything fundamentally, not a one!  Heck I would even say that we played some of our best defense earlier in the year, I felt like we became worse as the season progressed. I saw guys standing around lost in space, what is my role on this play, wide open receivers with no one within 20 yards of does this happen??  enough said sorry for the rant but had we made some fundamental changes back after the Penn State game which I felt like we brought our lunch on that day, we would probably be playing for the NC right now!  Oh and one last comment I played for coaches that would have benched Roby mid season for his poor tackling, poor awareness, and just lack of a leader on defense!  I don't care about HYPE, he is an all American this or that, bring the wood on Saturday or I will find a leader that wants to hit someone and bring it with authority... He was our DB leader..?? 

d5k's picture

I recall a quote earlier in the year where Withers was asked essentially about zone depth particularly with corners (as this is the talk radio/ message board topic du jour in terms of the blame game).  I believe his response was something along the lines of "it is not about alignment but how tight they play to a receiver who enters their zone".  I was reminded of this by Ross's "And one wonders if the coverage problems do not result from Withers being forced to teach schemes outside his comfort zone."  Withers definitely would prefer to teach pattern matching concepts rather than this sit down and wait for the ball to be thrown to a wide open guy method.

ChazBuckeye's picture

Win with good style defense against Clemson. Or its a shoot out and OSU barely wins (or loses). That will determine if the staff stays intact. I think the "scheme" needs modified extensively. I love hearing that word...scheme....makes me laugh.

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.

Barnsey69's picture

I disagree, the defense has a definite identity...


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!

Bucks777's picture

Let's not forget a great point from a Hall of Fame QB.  The more times a QB goes to the line of scrimmage and completes a pass to a wide open receiver the greater he becomes in that game, confidence builds, and produces higher results than would be the case under a pressure defense with very small windows to throw the football into...the tougher you make it to complete a pass the tougher it is mentally for the QB!  Soft coverage = Great quarterbacking!!!

Bucks777's picture

Heck I am 47 yrs old and I could undoubtedly complete passes against this defense and would probably throw for 275 yards against them with this coverage, not saying I would wake up alive the next day after all the those hits, body cant take that at this age!  But I know without a doubt you could get a decent high school QB and he would look great throwing against this defensive back game plan/Scheme!!!!  :-)  I know you could complete passes against them as well, whoever is reading this...  :-)  Things gotta change and quickly

Killer nuts's picture

Two of the most valuable points from this article in my opinion:

For comparison's sake, Meyer is not going to line up in the I formation and run isolation plays merely because a previous offense successfully utilized the scheme against an opponent.

Identity issues could fade once the coaching staff does not have to hide certain defenders

jccavanaugh's picture

Ross, in 2012 the defense started off weak but improved noticeably over the season. I hear that attributed to Zach Boren's help in the LB group, but how did 2012's schemes compare to 2013's?

another-navy-buckeye's picture

The question we can pose now, given the update on Withers, what changes do we expect within the defense and that ludicrous Co-DC position? For some Im sure this move was with the wrong coach.


ATXbucknut's picture

Great write up!
I'd rather have Bollman as OSU DC instead of the two-coordinator system. It's clearly not working.

brglr14's picture

to me its a matter of depth. identity will come has the D  grows. the line is already showing it with strong depth and leadership. when the back 7 have that it will be just like before.

I dont know karate but i do know crazy and i'm not afraid to use it.


NJ_BUCKEYE's picture

IMO even with depth along the D-line their is still too much inconsistency from week to week and play to play, which comes back to the complete lack of a clear identity.   Some weeks the line looks great, and those weeks often are the weeks where the defense as a whole becomes more aggressive.  When the defense is trying to be disciplined and not get real aggressive the d-line begins to look at the very least inconsistent.  They get caught out of position due to over pursuit and silly mistakes with regularity when opponents start to run draw and screen plays. When the linemen take themselves out of the play they leave the back 7 the unenviable task of taking on extra blockers.  Depth is only helpful if the defense can practice and implement a single scheme that everyone learns inside and out allowing the next guy up to have a clear understanding of his role. IMHO

Seattle Linga's picture

Get that Beth Mowins video voice off my laptop.

+1 HS
cinserious's picture

ROTFL, or what ever you people call it these days.
EDIT: Damn it! now I have Beth Mowins' voice on MY laptop.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

NJ_BUCKEYE's picture

I hope Fickel can figure out how to call a "complete" game for the bowl, and into the future, because I think he is struggling with the decisions that he needs to make in between every play.  If he is having problems during games, the fact that there is no defined scheme that he can use as a fallback option exasperates his troubles.

4thandinches's picture

How would you feel coming into work every week and every week your boss changes the method of how to do your job. After awhile you are going to get beyond confused and start taking some techniques from one method and applying them to another. Well that's what happened with our defense. You say our LBs/DBs looked lost and and confused? Well that is because they were. Plays happen very fast any if you have to for a split second try to remember if you are playing a cover 4 as opposed to a 4-2-5,man, etc. then yeah, I think almost everyone would look lost back there. 

I wasn't born a Buckeye but I became one as fast as I could.