Change is in the Air for Ohio State Defense

By Kyle Rowland on December 20, 2013 at 9:15a

It’s little secret where Ohio State’s problems reside. For two seasons, the Buckeyes have allowed opponents to pile up yards, mostly through the air. In the final two games of 2013, Michigan and Michigan State totaled 1,041 yards of offense and scored a combined 75 points. Now Ohio State must game plan for one of the most potent offenses in the country.

The faltering secondary is where the microscope is most intense. The Buckeyes rank 11th in the Big Ten in pass defense, ahead of just lowly Purdue. The Wolverines and Spartans managed to throw for 755 yards and seven passing touchdowns in back-to-back games.

“Tweaks might be an appropriate word,” head coach Urban Meyer said of Orange Bowl game planning. “We’re still working through that. We’re working on the changes.”

One of the biggest alterations could be added playing time for true freshman safety Vonn Bell – and the reported departure of co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Everett Withers. Bell, a five-star recruit, came to Columbus with immense hype but has spent most of his first season on special teams, even after repeated instances where Meyer said he should be playing more.

“He will play more in this game,” Meyer said. “We have to get him in. He’s doing a really good job. He has earned it, he has earned it on special teams. He’s a guy whose future we’re really excited about.”

Senior safety C.J. Barnett commented on the addition of Bell, saying he’s an instinctive player with a nose for the football that brings playmaking ability to the secondary.

But the fix isn’t as simple as inserting Bell into the line up. One player – a freshman no less – won’t change the fortunes of the defense. It will take a collective effort from all moving parts. Michael Bennett doesn’t believe the issues are schematic. He said it’s as simple as improving fundamentals and performing better.

“We’re not going in there to give up a lot of passing yards,” Bennett said. “We just can’t have breakdowns. We can’t have our guys having good coverage and a defensive lineman not winning one-on-one. We can’t have guys winning one-on-one and then have a breakdown in coverage.

“We just have to have 11 guys doing their job on every play. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. We have plays where we have 10 guys doing their job or nine guys doing their job and it just doesn’t work out.”

The pass defense’s decline has been precipitous. In 2009, the unit ranked 13th nationally in passing yards allowed per game before rising to eighth the following season. Even in 2011, which tied for the most losses in program history, featured a pass defense in the top 15 of the country. But it dipped to 78th last season and then bottomed out in 2013 at 259.5 passing yards per game.

Defensive breakdowns in the Big Ten Championship Game contributed to Ohio State facing a 17-point first-half deficit. Most glaring was the route safety Pitt Brown took on a pass play that resulted in a 72-yard Michigan State touchdown.

The problems Meyer sees are plentiful.

“There are too many things to say it’s one thing,” he said. “It’s not man coverage, it’s not zone coverage. It’s all of the above – the pass rush, when to call the blitzes, whether the blitzes match the coverage. We just have to play better.”

The 300 Club
Team Passing Yards
Michigan 451
Cal 371
Northwestern 343
Indiana 320
Michigan State 304

Senior safety C.J. Barnett carries a dissenting opinion. He may be aware of the defense’s shortcomings, but recognizing any glitches publicly remains in the background.

“There are critics for everything,” Barnett said. “I think LeBron James is criticized a lot, too.”

Staring down Tajh Boyd is an instant reality check. He’s the best quarterback the Buckeyes will face all season and wide receiver Sammy Watkins is even more impressive. Boyd has 3,473 passing yards and 29 touchdown passes, with Watkins securing more than 1,200 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris is one of the brightest minds in the game and specializes in overwhelming defensive backfields.

When Meyer was asked if the Tigers’ passing game concerned him, he replied simply, “Oh, yeah. You think?”

The two teams that slowed Clemson’s offensive attack – Florida State and South Carolina – possessed elite defensive lines. The Seminoles use a group effort, while the Gamecocks rely on Jadeveon Clowney, who could be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Both teams rank in the 20 nationally in pass defense – Florida State first, South Carolina 19th. Ohio State is a wee bit further down on the list at 102nd.

“It is what it is,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said following the Michigan State loss. “Guys have got to make plays, and we’ve got to put them in positions where they can make plays. There’s no finger pointing. The biggest thing is we’ve got to get better as a group.”

Singling players out isn’t the style of any coaching staff. But the blame can be passed all around. The secondary, linebackers and coaches have all shared the criticism. Even during a school-record 24-game win streak that spanned two seasons, pass defense became the topic du jour after countless shaky performances.

There’s one final chance to right the ship and steer it toward calmer waters.

“I feel like guys are being put in the right place to make plays, it’s just some of the guys weren’t making plays we need to make,” junior linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We’ve just got to break on the ball a little better and be more sound in our gaps and responsibilities. We’ve just got to communicate a little better. It’s little things we’ve got to fix.”

For too long, the little things have added up to one big deficiency.


Comments Show All Comments

osubuck57's picture

Hope part of that defensive game planning is to double cover or shadow Watkins!! He's a one man defensive nightmare!!


Crumb's picture

Or at the very least tell Bradley Roby he's going to get to know Watkins very well and to follow him all game long.

"The only good thing about it is winning the d*** thing" - Urban Meyer on The Game The War

Seattle Linga's picture

Change is very good!

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

“We just have to have 11 guys doing their job on every play. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. We have plays where we have 10 guys doing their job or nine guys doing their job and it just doesn’t work out.”

The echoes what I've been saying all season long.  The mistakes are costly and they are player issues.  You can have 11 of the best players in the world, but if each of them make one mistake a game, you can give up 11 TDs if the offense can capitalize on each mistake to its fullest.  

Read my entire screen name....

buckeyepastor's picture

I respectfully disagree.   Many of the explosive plays we gave up had to do with SEVERAL making mistakes.   A pass play where one guy responding to the play fake left a man open, another guy with deep responsibilities playing giving too much space allowed for significant yards after catch, and then a third guy taking a poor angle allowed a big gain to become a touchdown.   How many times was that a more accurate description of our defense.   
Truth be told, there are few to no teams in the country where the defense is consistently 11 for 11 with guys doing their jobs effectively.   Every defense has random guys who have lapses.   To me, if we're batting 10 for 11 or even 9 for 11, that 9 or 10 get it done before the offense can see the one or two deficiencies and exploit them.   But that wasn't what happened most of this year.   I think it's bigger than just one guy here and there missing an assignment.   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

I see your point and you're probably right, but how many times did we see our guys in position to make a play and they didn't.  It's never ONE guys fault and was short-sighted of me to imply as much.  But if one guy makes that tackle, if one guy turns his head around to find the ball, if one guy stays in his position, if one guy gets to the QB, or if one guy takes the proper angle then a lot of those explosive plays either don't happen or don't go for TDs.

Read my entire screen name....

fanfarris's picture

According to your logic, it must be a coaching problem. We have better players ,talent wise, on defense than MSU.So why is their defense better than ours ??


Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

I'm not understanding your interpretation of my logic.  Players aren't executing.  Players are making mistakes.  You can tell someone to do something all you want, but you can't make them do it and you can't do it for them.  And sure, I do think we have more talent than MSU, but if all that talent can't understand where they need to be or can't make a play when they are supposed, it's wasted.  Let's not confuse talent with consistency and execution.

Read my entire screen name....

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Optimistic: right on. I'm not directing this at anyone in particular, but it seems like in recent years, the word "talent" has been used in ways that imply a certain logical circularity - i.e., if a team plays well and wins at the highest levels of a sport, therefore they were the most talented team. An even lazier version of this thinking is when football "analysts" attribute superior speeeeeed! to whichever team makes more big plays than their opponents.   
At essence, though, talent refers to an aptitude or "raw" ability. Certainly, one's ability to perform a task can - really must - be improved through training and repetition, but without the God-given aptitude or "gift" for that task, one's talent for it will not reach a high level.
Was Jadaveon Clowney any less talented when he was loafing around this season?

jaxbuckeye's picture

"...when to call the blitzes, whether the blitzes match the coverage".  A not so subtle jab at the DC??????

smith5568's picture

I think it is a jab at the co-coordinator roles that Fickell and Withers had. From what I have gathered on 11W, I believe Fickell calls the base D and Withers calls the coverage. If that is the case I think that may be a large contributing factor in why our pass defense has been awful. 

45has2's picture

You mean DC's, plural?

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes

Toilrt Paper's picture

MUCH better than calling blitzes would be if the D-line could consistently pressure the QB, without help. I can remember after the Spring Game, all of the people who were raving about the pass rush of Spence and Washington. Washington got beat out by a Freshman and Spence was no where to be seen on half of the plays.

jaxbuckeye's picture

Ready for some change!

InvertMyVeer's picture

When Meyer was asked if the Tigers’ passing game concerned him, he replied simply, “Oh, yeah. You think?”

What a great answer to a stupid question lol

Football is complicated...

hetuck's picture

Put Roby on Watkins in man coverage & zone the rest. That's what OSU tried against Wisconsin, you say? Correct, but I still think it gives OSU their best chance. Roby is playing much better now since his head is in the game. Bell in place of Pitt Brown will also be a step up. Mix in some zone blitzes & try to make Clemson beat you left-handed.  

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

RuGettinIt's picture

I would put Grant on Watkins personally.  I think he has better man to man skills than Roby and he has a height advantage over Roby.  Burrows needs to see more time out there as well.  He played very physical in relief of Grant and seemed to be in good position.

Toilrt Paper's picture

Grant??? You mean the guy that had 2 pass interference calls against MSU. The guy who finds it impossible in man coverage to look back for the ball when the WR looks.

ih8rolltyde's picture

Roby hurt his back early in the Wisky game coming up in run support, as well.

****igan smells like old water that hot dogs were boiled in.  FACT

Nappy's picture

Roby needs to play like a first round pick against Watkins.  And it seems like whenever we blitz Roby and don't get to the QB we get burned.

I never saw a football player make a tackle with a smile on his face

TresselourgodUrbanoursavior's picture

I think Roby is playing for his draft round in this one. Should serve as some extra motivation.

brylee's picture

$$$ motivation

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

I would expand this thought to "whenever we blitz anyone and don't get to the QB we get burned."
But hell, we need to blitz more.... I mean if our guys don't know where to be in low risk coverage, let's put them in high risk coverage.

Read my entire screen name....

Nappy's picture

True.  And there has even been a few times where "whenever we line up on defense, we get burned"  Let's hope that doesn't happen too often.  But I do think it'll be first to 40 pts wins.

I never saw a football player make a tackle with a smile on his face

OSUFlash's picture

If it's the little things it would've been corrected long ago. Great teams don't let little things bring them down this far and this long. This defense has major issues that will not be corrected by the Orange Bowl. I look for Clemson to rack up a lot of yards and a lot of points.


Bamabucknut's picture

You said it all.We are going to see a LOT of points scored by Clemson.The question is....... can our offense carry the defense......again.
The defensive coaching has been under pressure for the last 3  years and  we have seen what they are not capable of doing.It's not going to change with the same people coaching and making decisions.They do what they do.Pressure to improve hasn't fixed it in the past.

RunEddieRun1983's picture

Man get Roby in Watkins face, bump him off the line, take him off course, make him work hard for every route, every yard, every play...  No free passes, no soft zones, and if he decides to catch the intermediate stuff over the middle have Von Bell there to blow him up.
This isn't rocket science, you have the athletes. USE THEM!

I don't always downvote, but I do always downvote a Michigan fan trolling the Buckeye boards.

Citrus's picture

Nope not rocket science. Simply a science that pays men 500k a year to figure out. So yeah, its really easy. 

DeepSouthBuckeye's picture

I wouldn't get your hopes up. I can count the times we have played tight bump and run coverage on one hand...

Loving all things Buckeye from SEC country in Alabama.

"How firm thy friendship....O-HI-O"

GVerrilli92's picture

I just don't see why a DC doesn't exhaust his options until something works. Putting Vonn Bell in at star and moving Tyvis Powell in front of Pitt Brown gets our best players on the field in very natural positions. I was expecting Vonn to have a Jermale Hines-type first year of playing.

I got a gray kitty, white kitty, tabby too, and a little orange guy who puts snakes in my shoes. Got mad MC skills, that leave ya struck, and I roll with my kitties and I'm hard as f*ck.

Hovenaut's picture

I want so badly to let myself think Clemson will wind up Clemsoning.....but I quickly remind myself the Buckeyes are going to have to earn this one. Ready to see this defense just turn in a quality game against a quality opponent for once.
Hope to see a pro-active (versus reactive) coverage scheme, with d-backs and linebackers working together and getting (and staying) in tune. Here's to the unit (and their coaches) finding a way this time.
Although I'm not concerned about the line, they are going to be challenged by Boyd - going to be imperative they get pressure on him early and often, stay on assignment and win the line of scrimmage.

fanfarris's picture

Good points Fred. Tell me the truth now..I have never played football,but i have been watching the Bucks since the late 70's. What is wrong with OSU defense now? Yes i heard about the changes for the Bowl game, but in all honesty,why didn't they make the changes all season long.Its not that the defense was great all season and had a bad game in the Big Championship game so now we need to change things!!! Can they really change and improve.I trust your judgment ..


txbucknut's picture

I agree that this is going to take a team effort to right the ship on defense, ie-all 11 guys, but based on the misses I've seen from him this season, replacing Pitt Brown with Vonn Bell should be a major part of the equation. That is assuming Bell is ready for the challenge, and considering that Meyer has been pushing for him to get in there for some time now, my guess is that he is ready.

Oyster's picture

Has anyone seen whether Withers is leaving now or will he be part of the bowl game?  I know what my gut wants the answer to be.

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

Earle's picture

Ulcers or projectile vomiting?

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

Oyster's picture

All I know is that I didn't have problems with ulcers until you and I started bantering.  I'm thinking there might be a connection.

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

TMac's picture

Withers taking a substantial pay cut to be a HC at JMU
"It’s all of the above – the pass rush, when to call the blitzes, whether the blitzes match the coverage. We just have to play better"
"Bell, a five-star recruit,.... spent most of his first season on special teams, even after repeated instances where Meyer said he should be playing more."
You do the math!

ONE Not Done!

Boxley's picture

Dead on point. +1 for getting the math correct.

"...the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic-the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done." President T. Roosevelt

D-Day0043's picture

Clemson also uses Watkins as a decoy a lot on jet sweep play action. They better be prepared for it. Watkins isn't their only weapon.

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.

Concord's picture

“There are critics for everything,” Barnett said. “I think LeBron James is criticized a lot, too.”
Sometimes a guy can say some of the stupidest shit.
You're going to try in some way to compare the Best player in the NBA and 2 time Defending NBA Champion to that shit sack of a defense that let Michigan St... ( are you kidding me?)... beat the hell out of you with a chance at the National Championship on the line?
One deserves every bit of shit coming their way and the other doesn't.
I'll let you figure out which is which.

ATXbucknut's picture

For all the (justifiable) fear about what Boyd is going to do to our pass defense, here's an interesting factoid from the Clemson writer at Rivals.

Oyster's picture

That is what having a back like Hyde will do for your team.

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

brylee's picture

Thank you everyone else, please step away from the ledge!

bukyze's picture

My toes are hanging over, and will be firmly planted there during the entire game.  I can't help myself.

trock's picture

I speak unofficially for Vonn Bell's brother when I say "Thank you"

buckeyepastor's picture

I get that the players and coaches believe in each other and support each other, but Barnett's defensive response to reasonable critique, and Fickell's some weeks ago ("hey, we won.  So who cares about all the yards we gave up?") are not signs that the defensive staff are handling things well.   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

luckynutz's picture

What ive noticed throughout the season is what shazier touched on with his comment. There seems tobe no communication between players once the play is sent in. No checks, nobody talking to each other. Just staying in a base set and not changing. Even when the offense changes up formations and plays. No one is talking. When guys go in motion, when they shift formations or when the qb checks out of the original playcall. I've watched a lot of football, and one thing I've always paid attention to os the dance between qb and mlb. Qb changes a play, mlb is making calls. Hopefully it is somethi g they address and work on for the bowl game. Boyd is an experienced qb, and will no doubt be moving guys and using hot routes and checks throughout the game. We need someone to step up and engage in the chess match on the field.

buckeyedude's picture

What is sounds like you are describing to me is leadership. Or lack of it. Maybe there just isn't much leadership on that side of the ball? It could be the reason for many of the problems.



TheSpiteHouse's picture

Yes, this has bothered me as well. But this may have something to do with the revolving cast at LB. I'm thinking maybe Christian Bryant would have this role if he were still playing, though?

BamaBuckeye144's picture

I'll be honest, I am worried. I don't know that just adding Bell will be enough to stop Tajh Boyd from dropping 400 yards on us in the pass game. We've been so out of position on so many plays this year, bad tackling has reemerged as a real problem (arm tackling against Michigan State about cost me a TV) and it seems our defensive staff call schemes not by logical reasoning but by dart board.
I'm scared. I'll admit it.


The Rill Dill's picture

No one said that that is the only change that is being made.

BamaBuckeye144's picture

Likewise, there's no guarantee that they do anything other than add Bell.


OldColumbusTown's picture

I think the point about the timing of blitzes and coverage alignment with the blitzes made by Urban is a great point.  Too often we'd see this defense in one of two extremes - either a 3 man rush, dropping 8 into zone coverage, or a 6-7 man blitz trying to confuse the OL/QB.  Neither hardly ever worked, most especially because of the timing as to when they were called.
How many times did we see Michigan run the RB/TE/WR screens into a blitz call from OSU?  How many times have we seen a QB diagnose a poorly designed CB blitz (always the best cover corner - Roby) which generates an automatic check for the receiver to take advantage of safety coverage?  OSU's defensive strategy is a panacea, much like Ross talked about yesterday, and a master at none, yet offenses have figured out blitzing tendencies from the Buckeyes and have taken advantage numerous times this year, most notably these last two games.
There was little for this defense to hang their hat on, save for being able to stop the run.  But, when offenses know they can throw all over you, why even try to force the run?  I liken it to a hitter knowing what a pitcher's tendencies are based on the count, or if he cannot control one of his pitches.  If you know you're getting a first pitch fastball, or 1-2 curve, it makes your job a heck of a lot easier.
Stability is key and a guy like Vonn Bell coming in probably won't do anything for the Orange Bowl, but it may start the process of building a foundation for next year.  Yet, the main driver for all that needs to be a consistent schematic game-plan, with wrinkles thrown in here or there.  Allow your guys to be comfortable in what they're doing, but keep the offense off balance.

AAStagg's picture

When you outscore opponents as massively as tOSU did early in games this year, you'd better be ready to play some pass defense, because you've essentially forced them into it.  Not the only reason for the poor pass defense numbers, but it's a big part of it.

Keep calm.  It's only a game.

Jdadams01's picture

True, but teams adapted when they saw us on film and realized our pass D sucks. Cal, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, and MSU all passed early and often. Cal, Iowa, and Wisconsin weren't late in the year and found some success.

Furious George 27's picture

If that were the case teams like Bama, FSU and even Oregon would give up just as much in the air because they score fast as well.... OSU was just bad, be it coaching or players at times... A team may have to pass a lot being down big, but it doesn't mean the yards are guaranteed.

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

allinosu's picture

I'm not really sure a lot can be fixed in such a short time. Little things maybe to make it a bit more difficult for them but I feel we have to win this one offensively. If we start two drives in their territory and come up empty like against Mich state, it will make things hard to win. I'm thinking the key to a good defense is a good offense in this one. It is our strenght after all. Wanting to see Bell, Wilson and Guiton play bigger roles. GO BUCKS

Jack Fu's picture

In the final two games of 2013, Michigan and Michigan State totaled 1,041 yards of offense and scored a combined 75 points.

[looks at Clemson's offensive statistics]
[pours drink]
[pours drink]
[pours drink]

LiveLoveARob's picture

This situation is actually very similar to how my night went the night of the B1G Championship.
[Watch end of game]
[Pours Drink]
[Pours Drink]
[Repeats Many Times]

HotSauceCommittee's picture

Watching from the stands as Michigan's offense ran rough shot over our Buckeye D the same questions kept popping into my head.
(1). I can see what play MI is running before the snap, why cant our coaches or our players on the field?
(2). Why do our LB and CB seemingly let the MI players catch the ball on every play. Besides Roby there are little pass breakups.
(3). Why dont we utilize our TE more. Funchess and Butt murdered us.
(4). Vonn Bell looked great on special teams, why doesnt he get in the game more?
(5). Why is Josh Perry three yards out of position on every short pass play.
(6). How in the hell did we allow Fitz Tousaunt to catch a 30 yard screen pass with 30 seconds left in the game? 
(7). What position is more important Safety or STAR? Cant Tyvis Powell play Safety?
(8). Why was their no DL penetration?
We now know these have been chronic problems that plagued our entire season. In retrospect, I guess #8 was the one that surprised me the most against MI.

DiasporaBuck's picture

Agreed, let's hear it for more penetration!

OSU Class of 1999

buckskin's picture

A good head coach operates with class when he uses the word tweaks about this defense.  IMO, it's much more than that.  With that said though, it's a start and some definite room for optimism.  Hopeful to see the D play better against the Tigers (cause if not, it will be a massacre.)

Buckifan4Life's picture

How about our defensive backs get physical with those Clemson receivers at the line of scrimmage? Nothing wrong with jamming them hard inside of 5 yards. They should put their plams through their chest and let them know they are in for a rough night.

The Rill Dill's picture

Re-routing.  That is what it's called, and what needs done.  Our DBs don't do it, at all.  Just doing this alone, would help immensely.  Number 2 above is what pissed me off the most.  You can not let a receiver catch the ball, then go to him.  You have to be there to blow it up.  Pull the damned trigger, and get there.  Make sure you have the correct hand in use, and body position---so if you miss the break-up, you can still make the tackle.  101

Maestro's picture

Just freaking tackle.

vacuuming sucks

buckeyedude's picture

Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Madness.
I for one am glad to see Bell get some playing time. It's worth a try. I believe it's time to prepare for next season. Get the young bloods in there.



Crimson's picture

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
- Albert Einstein

It's odd that you didn't get the quote right, considering your avatar.