Ohio State v. Clemson: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on January 7, 2014 at 1:15p

Clemson did not do anything fancy in rolling up 40 points and nearly 600 yards of offense. 

The Tigers' game plan was to exploit the horizontal edge with wide receiver screens and jet sweeps, combined with the occasional power read for Tajh Boyd.

And the Tigers never abandoned that strategy because the Ohio State defense never forced them to. Boyd's average pass went 2.6 yards, yet the Tigers' first down drive rate was 86%.  

An Ohio State defense that struggled on the edge throughout 2013 had no chance without Bradley Roby. And so the Buckeyes died by a thousand cuts.

Below I address the Clemson game plan, the Ohio State response (or lack thereof) and the Buckeyes' lack of fundamentally sound team defense.

Like Taking Candy From a baby

Clemson's offensive coordinator Chad Morris knew that his squad had an advantage with with wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavius against Ohio State's back seven. He also knew that the Buckeyes struggled all season with quick hitting screen plays. As a result, Clemson threw at least a dozen wide receiver screens, along with jet sweeps and flat routes attacking the edge.

Yet despite largely knowing what was coming, the Buckeyes could not stop it. Clemson's primary play was a flash screen to Watkins. As the outside receiver, Watkins faked up field and came back towards Boyd for the football, while the inside receivers stem blocked

Much has been made of the Buckeyes' corner depth in defending such plays. But the corner's job is to take on the blocker and force the play inside.

Ohio State's primary problem was not the corner depth but its inside pursuit. When Ohio State's defenses were playing at a high level under Jim Heacock they also used cover 3 and their corner depth was largely the same. But Ohio State's nickel, who is responsible for the wide side flat, quickly attacked wide receiver screens before the blocker could get in place. Recent Buckeye nickel defenders have recently struggled with this task. Von Bell, making his first start, was repeatedly blocked out of the play down field.

The problem was exacerbated by the Buckeyes' linebackers and safeties. All too often these defenders were hesitant in their reads, and once they diagnosed the play they failed to aggressively attack. The Buckeyes' weakness was exploited because Watkins is such a good athlete that once he got going he was able to gain chunk yards.

The Song Remains the Same

Clemson's continued success with its game plan meant that Morris did not stray far from the script. The Tigers interspersed edge plays with inside power runs to Boyd. Boyd was able to break several explosive plays because of the same pursuit issues. Linebackers were catching blocks down field instead of attacking the hole. And the safeties were hesitant to play downhill. It was not a good sign that Tyvis Powell, in his first start at safety, played more aggressively then three year starter CJ Barnett.


Boyd running was the primary source of the Clemson run game; otherwise the Buckeyes largely kept Clemson's ground game in check. 

Beyond the quick game, Clemson's passing offense largely consisted of the occasional down field throw. The Tigers were never forced to work the ball intermediately over the middle, and Ohio State could not force the Tigers out of their comfort zone.

It was not necessarily for lack of trying. The Buckeyes played large amounts of quarter-quarter-half and cover 1 robber along with cover 3, and frequently brought corner blitzes. But whenever Luke Fickell brought pressure the blitzer did not get to the quarterback and it left Ohio susceptible to explosive plays. As a result, the Buckeye defense could not or would not attempt to take away what Clemson wanted to do.  


But as alluded to above, any scheme issues were secondary to technique deficiencies.

Below, Boyd hit Watkins for a 34 yard touchdown from a trips formation against the Buckeyes' quarter-quarter half.

Quarter-quarter-half meant that Ohio State played cover 4 to the trips. Many teams will check out of split safety coverage against trips, but if a defense stays in the coverage the trips-side nickel and linebacker must work in tandem with what is sometimes call banjo. The nickel takes the first out breaking receiver and the linebacker takes the second out breaking receiver, and vice versa.

As the play progresses with Clemson running four verticals, Von Bell must play man against Watkins down field and Perry must do the same with the slot receiver, with safety help over the top. But as the play commences, Perry does not re-route the slot receiver or mirror him down field. This forces CJ Barnett to cover the slot receiver, and the inside help Bell was expecting never materializes.

Such breakdowns bedeviled Ohio State throughout the 2013 season.

First things First

Concededly, the Buckeyes played a lot of young players on defense, a problem that was only exacerbated with the loss of Roby, Noah Spence, and Christian Bryant. But the problems did not improve as the year progressed. For example, the problems with linebacker zone coverage techniques was as evident against Clemson as it was against Wisconsin. Multi-year starters like Ryan Shazier and Barnett did not make up for this inexperience; to the contrary they were as liable to be hesitant in their reads, catch blockers, and overrun plays.

The Ohio State defense cannot perform at a high level until they correct issues such as coverage techniques and pursuit angles. Having an identity helps, in that it provides a set of principles that trickle through the program, allowing position coaches to install techniques for that identity. But at its core, the Ohio State defense is currently not fundamentally sound, which does not work with any scheme.  


Comments Show All Comments

4thandinches's picture

"Defensive Breakdown' - Enough said.
But thanks for your knowledge and input Ross.

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

d5k's picture

Sorry, but you are by far not the first to say that and it is still not funny.

thePhilipJFry's picture

I don't think you're sorry at all.

d5k's picture

Not sorry for saying that, sorry for him that he failed to be funny.  Might as well just post "FIRST!!!11" for these threads.

Killer nuts's picture

Fantastic analysis as always, Ross

Ethos's picture

I almost didn't click this article as I figured it would just piss me off how awful our D is, but you did a great job again Ross.  Thank you!

"I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted." - George Best

Ethan's picture

Excellent breakdown, as always. Ross, your twitter feed was much more direct and incisive during the Orange Bowl than I'd seen from you previously. In your opinion, what changes should be made to fix the defensive woes?

brylee's picture

More importantly, can it be fixed in time for the start of the 2014 season?

Il_Padrino's picture

New Defensive Coordinator = YES.

Living the life!  Go Buckeyes!


NoVA Buckeye's picture

If we pick the right safeties coach

The offseason begins when your season ends. Even then there are no days off.


So how do the Buckeyes avoid a repeat in 2014? The recruiting appears to be going well. Everyone wants to blame the coaching but a complete overhaul of the D staff will cause even more problems with staff adjustments, scheme changes, etc. How can they even fix this?
P.S., great work as always Ross. We'd be lost without you.

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

klawsite's picture

I don't think it needs a complete overhaul. Who here thinks Vrable wasn't getting the Job done. His boys certainly had technique. They just had no help.
I think we just need a new DC.. Not CO-DC.. just a new DC who coaches the DBs. Let Luke coach up the linebackers and Vrabes coach the line. Coombs can stay around for special teams and DB assistant. No need to completely blow up the D coaching staff.

d5k's picture

I think Fickell's title stays the same, we bring in a more widely respected DB coach and he becomes more empowered in the meeting rooms and sets the philosophy.  This is a huge hire, and it has all of Meyer's focus this time instead of building a whole staff at once.

buckeyedude's picture

Give Coombs some pom-poms and let him coach the cheerleaders. That's where he excels.



chemicalwaste's picture

I have a hard time accepting that this got a downvote. Agree or disagree, it was funny.

Boomcat's picture

Is it possible that this defensive coaching staff is split in terms of their philosophies, and thus the players are being taught to play two completely different ways? I'm not football expert, but I know from my basketball days that one coach might tell you one thing and another coach will tell you something else, which really can cause hesitation and thinking instead of just reacting. This entire defense is pretty much dumbfounded, which is why I ask. I refuse to believe that a coaching staff comprised of people who were extremely successful before they came to OSU can seriously coach bad enough to screw up a defense like this.

Oyster's picture

This is why I don't agree with having co defensive coordinators.  There has to be one person who is the final say on all decisions, and one person only.  Two bosses never works, never.

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

Ross Fulton's picture

We know that, no matter what, the D coaching staff will not be the same next year.  Meyer's hire to replace Withers will tell us a lot about the direction he wants to go.

Bamabucknut's picture

Someone please email this to Fickell.He's still trying to find out what happened and how to stop it.
Clearly the above analysis shows a continuing coaching failure.

Earle's picture

My first thought after reading this was that I'd like to see some video of those flash screens.  Then I realized that seeing them live was more than enough.  Kudos, Ross for going through the film, and for keeping your frustration thinly veiled.  If I had to watch that defensive performance again, I might break something.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

Ross Fulton's picture

On youtube, someone posted a cut-up that has all the plays from the Orange Bowl with everything else removed.  Check those out and you will see plenty of flash screens (and every other manner of horizontal edge play).

Earle's picture

Thanks, but no, I don't think that would be wise.  For some reason, I don't mind (too much) seeing the long TD to Watkins, but watching all those screens again would not be good for my blood pressure.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

d5k's picture

It's too bad there wasn't a BCS film room with all-22 and coach analysis.  Although there would probably be a lot of hey look the Clemson slot receiver who never gets targeted is owning every nickel/safety in his way.

cuttyrock's picture

Can we get a link to the content you are referring to?

seafus26's picture

Agree with all above. Also helps when you have a QB that puts ball where athlete receiving it can make a move or not slow and give up his advantage on defender. They know where the ball will be.

Go Bucks and michigan STILL SUCKS!

Jack Fu's picture

Hopefully people will read this analysis and the steady stream of users demanding that OSU "play press coverage" and "blitz more" will wane.

andretolstoy's picture

I have had the suspicion that we've run a lot of the same in the past - the difference being leaders and players with the "Ronnie Lott" mentality. We just don't have that right now. I think we will in the near future.
When Ohio State's defenses were playing at a high level under Jim Heacock they also used cover 3 and their corner depth was largely the same. But Ohio State's nickel, who is responsible for the wide side flat, quickly attacked wide receiver screens before the blocker could get in place. Recent Buckeye nickel defenders have recently struggled with this task. Von Bell, making his first start, was repeatedly blocked out of the play down field.


I pray Vonn learns how to get off those blocks quickly. I was encouraged by him in the Orange Bowl. Let's hope some of the other young guys have a great offseason and spring.

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

Furious George 27's picture

I think this is where experience comes to play in that situation. I will say as a true freshman, he was pretty solid going against Watkins and Boyd. The FAN had some interesting insight as to why there may have been so many red-shirts this year on LB and DB.If Meyer can get the production from the new guys like he did out of his first class on DL.... The back 7 could be very good next year with the right secondary coach to go with it.

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

tcm1968's picture

Still think the biggest problem is we have a head coach for the better part of two plus years describing how he's going to bring his offense to the B10 and bring an SEC type of attacking defense to the B10. Urban then goes out and recruits SEC type kids and then we try and plug them into a Heacock 2.0 defense. 
Very few moving parts in SEC country on defense. If it takes you four seconds to throw the ball I'm going to recruit kids who can hit your QB in three seconds. Corners are going to play up and attack you at the line. The gamble being if your WR gets behind our D we are either going to have your QB on the ground/scrambling or have guys in the defensive backfield who can track the wr down ( saw that from Roby a lot this year ).
If you want to beat SEC teams or SEC style teams ( FSU/Clemson) why not get a guy on the defensive side of the ball who has actually coached in the SEC?
Appreciate everything Luke has done but he's shown no signs in two plus years of anything other than being Heacock without the in game adjustments.

Furious George 27's picture

I think the recruiting is on that path... In the 6-7 season the class was at 18 (16 were rated as 3*) before Meyer came in. He rounded it out with the big DL commitments, we may see the LBs and DBs take shape next season with these last two classes.... I kind of have the feeling that Fickell was kept because he was an OSU guy more than Meyer's guy. But that is my opinion.

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

lljjgg's picture

Clemson's offensive coordinator Chad Morris knew that his squad had an advantage with with wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavius against Ohio State's back seven. He also knew that the Buckeyes struggled all season with quick hitting screen plays. As a result, Clemson threw at least a dozen wide receiver screens, along with jet sweeps and flat routes attacking the edge.

I suppose what frustrates me most is that this isn't the first time this has happened. It's not the first time this has happened in the last year, not the first time it's happened in the last several years. Even more frustrating, the guy who essentially popularized this method of attack against the OSU defense is on our own sideline, Coach Meyer! That was seven years ago tomorrow, and it's still happening! Not to name names, but there was a Co-DC for that OSU team that got ripped that is still the Co-DC, and the same nightmarish "death by a thousand cuts" you mentioned is reoccurring every year. Doesn't give me any faith whatsoever in his ability to change his coaching style or scheme.

We can say it's the players' inability to get off blocks (in this case Vonn Bell), but the players have continued to change over the last seven years, and yet the same problems exist. That's not on the players in my mind.

seafus26's picture

Playing the role of Mr.  Obvious here, the better QB play gave every underdog the chance to upset their opponent in BCS games. 

Go Bucks and michigan STILL SUCKS!

Barnsey69's picture

Nicely done Ross, a thinking man's dissection of the painfully obvious:

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!

rufio's picture

Ross, I would love to see some more breakdown of the fundamentals that we need to improve on. If there are enough good examples, that is. 
Someone needs to coach the old Saban "in-phase" vs. "out of phase" stuff for the DBs, because watching these kids never get their heads around is infuriating. I love Coombs' enthusiasm, but lets get these DBs to find the ball.

cplunk's picture

The play you describe above (the Vonn Bell/banjo/Fundamentals section play) is not the first time this year that a big play or touchdown has resulted from Josh Perry failing to bump, alter the route, or alter the timing of a receiver. 
I wish I had a better memory so I could lay out the specific games, but I remember at least two other times during the season the exact same thing happened. Perry has a tendency to pay service to the idea of rerouting a guy rather than actually rerouting a guy. He makes a slight move in the receiver's direction, kinda waves an arm that way, and then slides inside immediately. 
Not exactly what he did on this play, but along the same lines in terms of not understanding the fundamentals of his role with the receivers. If you must alter timing or route on a play, you MUST alter timing or route. 

AltaBuck's picture

Ross...does Fickell call any zone blitzes anymore? It just seems under Heacock, tOSU utilized multiple zone blitzes to confuse offenses and create TOs. I can think of some big defensive plays in the past (2010 Sugar Bowl Interception by Solomon Thomas).

I am Groot - Groot

d5k's picture

We rarely man blitz so almost all of our blitzes are zone blitzes I believe.

ExpatBuckeye's picture

It's going to take a couple years to get the depth of talent we need to be consistently great.  CJ Barnett (bless him) came in with an aggressive mentality but was writing checks his body physically couldn't cash.  But he never had great awareness or cover skills.  
I think the coaches need to A) start considering moving some of the stockpiling offensive talent to defense and B) re-evaluate the kind of kid we recruit in the defensive back seven.  How many times did we hear Urban lament the lack of "home run hitters" on offense?  Where are those guys on defense?  Even Christian Bryant, for all his leadership, is no defensive All-American-- just the best (excluding Shazier) that we had.  Don't get me started on Bradley Roby.  He's been my favorite player the last couple years but this year I feel something was missing in his ... preparation.
I've got high hopes for Doran Grant and even Vonn Bell but they don't jump out at you like Bosa does, like Shazier does.  Who else is a star in the making of the current LBs and DBs?  
Instead of spending so much time deciding who is the next Percy Harvin, let's spend a little more time finding the next Ryan Shazier or Donte Whitner or Antoine Winfield.

d5k's picture

I just want the next Jermale Hines.

chemicalwaste's picture

I vote for Winfield.

bucknut94's picture

What can Myer do about it. I'm not a football guru. All I know is that OSU's pass defense has bee bad and never got better. My question is, what can be done to correct the problems? Is the problem coaching or is it lack of player ability and technique? I believe pass defense had the same problem last year.

st pete bch buckeye's picture

All they had to do was press coverage or at least show press coverage pre snap, but i guess they could have done that all year.  

Wesleyburgess1's picture

Im pretty sure if they could press they would. Every time I've seen them press this year they got burned. Players have to get better and we have to wait till the young guys are out there. Most of the young dbs are a lil bigger so they can manhandle the receivers then flip there hips and stay with them in coverage. Also helps to have a go to coverage like Msu 4-3 under cover 4 press with players that fit that scheme.

Firmthyfriendship's picture

It was back and forth as I expected. I just figured Braxton would win it with the ball in his hands at the end there when our defense gifted him with a fianl opportunity. What a disappointment. Not a dumpster fire debacle, but a disappointment.

Madaris32's picture

I don't think its a matter of finding that SEC style of defensive coach. The SEC didn't invent the aggressive style of defensive play. When you coach very aggressive on defense, you must recruit those type of players. What's also important is the development of those players as well. Well ultimately don't know if ball skills aren't being taught to our guys, however, being able to recongnize and locate the ball being thrown to your receiver is more important. Understanding ball flight and how to attack the ball, while preventing the receiver from catching it. I've been saying for years, basketball style training for DB's, should be taught, because of the explosive and drive, coming from their base, but also, it teaches you how to box out and catch the ball at the highest point.

Ivan Madaris

Hovenaut's picture

I knew this writeup was coming (Spidey sense tingling), yet I was still compelled to read.


Buckeye80's picture

As a coach, all you can do is put your players in a position to be successful. I don't think that has happened consistently. Can you blame the coaches for asking the players to do something they aren't capable of?  Can you blame the players for not executing basic fundamental football skills?  The answer is Yes and Yes. The reason most teams get out of cover 4 to the trips side is that it's not fundamentally sound to get out flanked. That's not giving your players the best chance to be successful. I also refuse to believe that at d7 high school football, I know to coach my LB's to chip the TE (or inside slot) and coaches at tOSU do not.  So that means the players just aren't getting it done. 
A combination of less than ideal, possibly confusing schemes, and players that just aren't quite there yet is likely to blame for our defensive troubles. 

cuttyrock's picture

I've said the same thing since I saw it at Cal, NW, Clemson and etc. LB do not redirect slot wr. I may get down voted but even Ryan Shazier didn't do it. LB could not cover in zone. We are a finesse team that refuses to get physical within the rules. Everyone gets a clean release and we depend on the d line who doesn't always get pressure. We by no means are aggressive enough on defense. We refuse to dictate anything on defense. We will let decent teams with good players have anything to not get beat deep. This is not Buckeye football! This is not the Silver Bullets! We should always have personnel to play man, zone, recognize, read, react, tackle and be fundamentally sounds in all aspects of football. Anything else will not be tolerated.

OfficerRabbit's picture

If Ross can recruit half as well as he can break down the X's and O's, I'm all for lobbying Urban to interview him to be our next DC. Maybe we would see an in-game adjustment once in awhile, or heaven forbid some improvement in player's fundamentals over the course of an entire season.
Ross for DC!



chitown buckeye's picture

Ross it would be interesting to hear your opinion on how Heacock played Florida in 06'? If memory serves me right it seems very similar with soft coverage and allowing the Gators to throw quick screens and passes all day long. 
Might be insight on why Fickell plays this scheme vs this style offense.

"I'm having a heart attack!"

cplunk's picture

My memory is similar. I remember making Chris Leak, CHRIS FREAKING LEAK, look good.

Buckeyebiddaddy's picture

Looked like we played the same soft zone coverage we have played for years, keep the receivers in front of you, let them catch the ball then make the tackle.
what amazes me is this is the defense Urban torched us with in 2007, Florida put up 41 Clemson put up 40.
you have to deny the playmakers the ball.  Imagine if a defense let a Teedy Ginn catch the ball 12 times?

causeicouldntgo43's picture

Feels like we have been stuck in the movie "Groundhog Day" for years and the damn clock goes off at 6:00am every Fall Saturday and a jail break screen is immediately completed with massive YAC-age.
Thanks for your rational, insightful commentary this year Ross!

jccavanaugh's picture

I watched the National Championship Game. They were doing this weird thing to the ball carrier. I think it's called "takkeling" or something like that? Is that something Ohio State should consider doing, going forward?

buckeyeblur5's picture

On the Trips 4 verticals TD to Watkins I disagree a little bit with your analysis Ross.
OSU is playing "Special" coverage to the trips side (a common Nickel adjustment to trips). 
Special coverage puts the corner man to man on the #1 receiver.  The Nickel man and deep safety to that side then play a Cover 2 "Read it" scheme vs the #2 and #3 receivers.  This is a combo coverage where they both read the #3 receiver. 
The Nickel man will stay on top of #2 unless #3 runs an out-breaking route within 5 yds of the LOS.  If #3 breaks outside the Nickel man will immediately release #2 up the field and come down to make a play on the #3 receiver. 
The deep safety (who is also reading #3) has a rule to cover the #3 receiver man to man on anything vertical (past 5 yards.)  If the #3 receiver breaks outside then he will play over the top of #2.
With these rules in mind it can be seen that the deep safety would have jumped any route by the #3 receiver over 5 yds, regardless of what Josh Perry did or did not do.  Vonn Bell simply made a freshman mistake and either didn't read his key or just got lost.