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2013 D Line and the importance of Larry Johnson

rock flag and eagle's picture
March 10, 2014 at 9:18am

(This is long.  CliffsNotes? OSU's 2014 D-Line has a lot to prove.  The competition faced in 2013 was very bad)

Somebody already posted that the website Football Study Hall used some advanced metrics to rank college offensive line performance for the 2013 season.  According to the FSH website, Ohio State had the most effective O-line in the country.  But, what that poster did not mention was that the same website using the same methods also ranked college football defensive lines, and Ohio State’s was downright mediocre.  (I've only seen this article linked once on 11W in a comment thread by Brandon26841.  Thanks for the heads up, B)

This post hopes to put OSU’s 2013 D Line/rushing D performance in perspective. (The FSH article does mention it is difficult to evaluate D line performance independently of the entire front 7.)   I’m not trying to predict or calculate the type of performance the D Line needs to have in 2014.  But, many people on 11W seem to think that the defensive line will be the strength of the team, and perhaps one of the best in the country.  I’m asking if the fanbase’s perception of the 2013 D Line matched reality, and what that means for Larry Johnson’s assignment next year.  I must admit that I think the 2013 line needs to improve a lot to match the hype they have been getting on this site going into 2014.  Larry Johnson is a better coach than Vrabel, and the line was young this past year.  I assuming that they will get better with another year of maturation.  But, maturation alone won't be enough to make this line elite.   Becoming elite all depends of the job done by Johnson. 

(all my stats come from FSH (linked) or cfbstats.com)

OSU finished 9th in the nation in rushing defense (yards/game) and 7th in the nation in sacks/game, so it’s tempting to declare the D-line among the nation’s best.  But, I think we need to look very critically at the D-Line to see just how they achieved those numbers.  We’ve seen overly optimistic predictions on this site before and we need to avoid that.  For instance, at the end of 2012, a popular sentiment began circulating on 11W that OSU’s defense had turned a corner.  A somewhat arbitrary stat supported this opinion, that stat being OSU had the nation’s #1 defense (yards/game) for the month of November 2012.  OSU actually finished the month 2nd in that category, behind Boise State.  This led to a lot of optimism about the 2013 defense, and higher expectations for the 2013 secondary.  This perception led to ill-fated articles like this, in which the author argued “Ohio State’s pass defense, much like the defense as a whole, improved as the season went on” and “They surrendered 10.9 yards per completion and only 6.4 yards per attempt. In November, that number was a full yard less.”  I believe that because the author looked at specific stats without the proper context, he came to an incorrect conclusion about the 2012 defense/secondary and this caused him to speculate wildly inaccurate things about the 2013 secondary, such as “A stout starting lineup and equally impressive depth have made the secondary undoubtedly the strength of the defense.”  In reality, the 2013 secondary was the team’s weakness, and one of the nation’s worst units.

Enthusiasm and despair can be kept at appropriate levels if we do a little more research and try to contextualize the core stats that typically fuel confidence and doubt.  To put OSU’s secondary performance in perspective in November 2012, they played Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan with a bye week mixed in.  Remember that Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan finished the season 112th, 115th and 97th, respectively, in passing offense.  Ohio State played three of the worst passing attacks in the country in November 2012, and two of them were starting inexperienced backup QBs.  Coming into their respective OSU games, new starter Curt Phillips had attempted 7 passes all year; converted WR Devin Gardner had attempted 70 passes.  I personally believe that the 2012 secondary did not turn a corner in November 2012.  They just played very poor opponents in November.

I also want to try to contextualize the performance of the 2013 Ohio State D-Line, but it’s harder to isolate their performance considering that Shazier was everywhere he needed to be.  Needless to say, the front seven was effective.  OSU finished the season 9th in total rushing defense (109 yards/game) and 12th in the nation in average yards/carry allowed (3.29 ypc).  OSU also finished tied for 7th in the country in sacks/game (3.0)  I would like to try to view these stats in perspective.  This starts by looking at who Ohio State played and how good those opponents were. 

According to Football Study Hall, looking at an opponent-adjusted ranking, Ohio State was the 96th best line/rush defense in the country.  Other lines that performed that poorly relative to their competition were Texas State, Army and UL-Monore.  The other stats Football Study Hall used are NOT opponent-adjusted, and in these cases Ohio State ranked a little better, but still far from elite, and way below where they should have performed if we take into account just how weak OSU’s schedule was.   

Ohio State Adjusted Line Yards Standard Downs Pass Downs Short Yardage
National Rank 96th 69th 47th 34th

Let’s look at each opponents yards/carry average, and where they rank nationally.  This will give us an indication of how good OSU’s opponents were at rushing.  Also, by evaluating a team’s rushing prowess by yards/carry instead of total yards, we help take into consideration that some teams didn’t try to run as much against OSU because they could pass so easily.  The ypc stat helps us understand how good the teams on OSU’s schedule were at running the ball each time they tried, regardless of opponent.

Team 2013 Yards/Carry Avg National Rank (ypc)
Buffalo 4.04 84th
SDSU 4.25 66th
Cal 3.49 108th
Wisconsin 6.62 2nd
Northwestern 4.08 80th
Iowa 4.21 71st
Penn State 4,17 75th
Purdue 2.52 124th
Illinois 4.06 82nd
Indiana 5.29 16th
Michigan 3.28 115th
Michigan State 4.28 63rd
Clemson 4.19 73rd

There were 125 teams in FBS in 2013.  The median team ranking is 62.5.  Of OSU’s 13 FBS opponents, 2 were in the top 50th percentile of rushing offenses, and 11 were in the bottom 50th percentile.  They also faced an FCS school.    

The first thing that jumps out is that outside of OSU, Wisconsin and Indiana, the Big Ten was awful at running the football.  Secondly, OSU’s rush defense was not challenged out of conference, as all 4 FBS teams they faced (including Clemson) were in the bottom half nationally of rushing attacks as measured by ypc.  So, on the one hand, OSU played 11 below average rushing attacks (including 3 teams ranked 100th or worse) and on the other hand, they played 2 top notch running teams (including the nation’s #2 team.)    

Next, I wanted to look at how each of these teams fared against OSU, and whether or not they met their season average.  In other words, did they run better or worse against OSU’s defense than they fared over the course of their respective seasons.   Ohio State held 9 of their FBS opponents below their season average.  The four teams that performed better against OSU than against the rest of their schedule were Cal, Iowa, Michigan and Clemson. 

What this says about OSU’s rush defense is tough to tell.  On the one hand, OSU’s rush defense stats were buoyed by playing 11 bad to very bad FBS rush offenses and a bad FCS team.  On the other hand, they held 69% of their FBS opponents below their season rushing averages, including the two best rushing teams they faced (Wisconsin and Indiana.)  So, even though the competition was bad, they still held them below their normally terrible production.  I do think it’s telling that Cal and Clemson, OSU’s two “big” OOC opponents, both rushed more effectively against OSU than they did against their own conference foes. 

If you think about it, it certainly isn’t a coincidence that Michigan State, Wisconsin, OSU and Iowa all finished in the top 20 for rushing defenses in yards/game.  And, it wasn’t because each team fielded elite lines.  The Big Ten was awful at rushing the football, and each of these four teams looked better on paper than they really were.   Of course, when these four teams played in their bowl games, Stanford, South Carolina, Clemson and LSU all ran for a better yards/carry average than the Big Ten teams had given up on average.  Michigan St. held opponents to 2.85 ypc.  Stanford ran for 4.5 ypc against MSU.  South Carolina ran for 3.44 ypc against Wisconsin’s 3.22 average.  LSU ran for 4.31 ypc against Iowa’s 3.51 average.  Ohio State’s rushing D performed the worst relative to their average ypc allowed, as Clemson ran for over 5 yards per carry and more than 2.2 yards/carry above the average OSU opponent.  I really felt that all four of these teams were exposed in their bowl games, and that the Football Study Hall advanced stats would demonstrate that all four had overrated rushing Ds. But, according to Football Study Hall’s opponent-adjusted Defensive Line Ranking, that's not the case.  Only one team was significantly overrated by the yards/game stat:

Michigan State- 2nd

Iowa- 14th

Wisconsin- 17th

Ohio State- 96th

Is Ohio State’s D-Line as overrated as Football Study Hall thinks?  Is the only way they can stop the run like they did against Wisconsin with a loaded box, and surrendering 300 yards in the air?  What about the fact that they finished in the top 5 nationally for sacks and 7th in sacks per game?  Does that show this was an aggressive, attacking line?  Well, according to Football Study Hall, despite racking up the sacks, OSU was the 43rd best D-line in sacks when adjusted for the quality of opponent.  To me, that’s definitely a fair assessment.  The O-Lines OSU faced were pathetic at protecting their QBs.  Purdue (117th), Michigan (109th), Northwestern (106th), Clemson (104th), Cal (99th) San Diego State (88th) and Illinois (85th) were among the worst in the country at keeping their QB upright.  And, OSU took advantage.  But, against teams with decent O-Lines, OSU didn’t get to the QB.  Only 1 sack against Buffalo (ranked 38th), 2 against Wisconsin (ranked 15th), no sacks against Iowa (ranked 12th), 1 sack against Michigan State (ranked 15th).  Sack performances against Penn State (ranked 43rd) and Indiana (ranked 21st) were decent, but, is that enough to justify the 11W praise for the 2013 D-Line, and do the numbers in the context I provided justify the positive outlook for 2014 D Line?

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SOF_Buckeye's picture

Very informative read. I do believe the defense has the talent to be elite, but the win streak, offense, and a couple of very good D performers (RSD, the LilBear), allowed for the perception/expectations to be higher than actuality. I really like Vrabel, but I believe we've stepped up with the addition or LJ. Hopefully the results this year will reflect that.

"The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." Woody Hayes

+3 HS
hodge's picture

Really fantastic work, RockFlagEagle; definitely opened my eyes.

I think a lot of the d-line's perceived strength comes from the lack of enthusiasm anywhere else.  The LBs outside of Shazier were bad and the secondary was marred by maddening inconsistency by Roby and the loss of Christian Bryant (something that contributed significantly to the unit's subsequent unmitigated meltdown); and while we've definitely landed some studs in recruiting across all fronts, some of Meyer's best pulls have been along the d-line.  And where the young talent elsewhere on D seems unproven, the d-line has shown a host of talent. 

Guys like Washington, Spence, Bosa, and Marcus all look good.  We see them blowing guys up, playing nasty, and we can't help but think that they're the next coming.  And while they may have been overrated, I don't necessarily agree that there were 95 better d lines out there then that of the Buckeyes.  50?  Yeah, I can see that.  But I don't buy 95.

Personally, I think a lot of the "necessity to load the box on runs" came from our linebackers.  With an inconsistent unit (outside of Shazier), the d line had no fallback if someone got through the first level; where a more sound front seven could alleviate such a concern.

Bottom line is that there's no question we need to be better.  I think a lot of us forget that we were very unimpressed with the d line early on in the season, we just forgot about it because the rest of the defense was imitating a Seppuku ritual.

+4 HS
cinserious's picture

+1 Hodge for the Seppuku link. Never heard of it before. In short, its 'Hari-Cari'.

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

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Good analysis, .but maybe you are just a wee bit condescending toward 11W staff predictions from spring 2013. A lot of unpredictable things can happen between a spring prediction and fall season (e.g., Roby suspension and lack of fire, Bryant injury,. etc.). It's fair game to go back and call someone out for a wildly inaccurate prediction, but it's odd (in a logical sense) to retroactively claim that a prediction arrived at an "incorrect conclusion."

A few other points . . .

The 2013 Buckeyes had an uncharacteristically mediocre LB corps overall, so I'm not sure about your suggestion that the DL was propped up by Shazier. In theory, wouldn't the DL have benefited just as much, if not more, from three "average" Silver Bullets LBs as they did with Shazier + two struggling LBs?

My attitude toward these models is that they're useful tools, but that you shouldn't put too much stock into any one of them in isolation. Nate Silver excelled in election predictions not by creating his own polling model; instead he devised a composite index of a bunch of polling models.

Simply from a common sense perspective, do you really believe that Ohio State had the 96th best DL in 2013, no better than Texas State or UL Monroe? It's clear that you don't agree with that ranking, yet you also believe that the Buckeyes DL was not as good as it looked "on paper." Okay, I agree, but here's the thing . . . if the overall performance of the 2013 DL was closer to their "overrated" stats than it was FSH's ranking model, what does that say about FSH's model?

+1 HS
cinserious's picture

I would line up the Buck's D-linemen up against 90% of the D-linemen around the country (starters and backups) and bet the farm that OSU's linemen come out victorious.

On another note, Larry Johnson probably is a better line coach than Vrabs, but Vrabel got the best out of his guys with passion and intensity.

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

+1 HS
Buckeye06's picture

I will admit I did not read EVERY word here, but scanned a lot of it and thought it was very good.

My only argument is that we have a bit of the chicken and egg type debate going here.  OSU/Wisky/MSU/Iowa all had good rushing Ds, or the teams they played had crappy rushing attacks.  Rushing averages will go down if you are playing elite D-lines every week, just as they will go up playing bad D-lines.  On the other end, defensive rankings will look good when you play bad running teams, and bad when playing good running teams.  Every time OSU played an "elite" rushing D, OSU was able to run on them very well.  Does that mean OSU was a great rushing attack, or that the other teams ranking against the rush previous to the OSU game was "overrated?"



+3 HS
Run_Fido_Run's picture

On that point, I feel like RockFlagEagle puts too much stock into the results of the four big bowl games. I realize that such contests, against high-level opponents, are good litmus tests; however, it's still only four games of data.

And, sure, Stanford managed 4.5 yds/carry against MSU, but MSU held Gaffney to 3.8 yds/carry, his second worst per carry average all season (Oregon "held" Gaffney to 3.5 per carry on 45 rushes! but that was only after Stanford had steamrolled them for three quarters and was trying to drain the clock).

Against Iowa, LSU obviously spent their entire bowl practice period preparing to run the damn football against offensively-challenged Iowa. Kudos to LSU, which was inconsistent running the ball during the regular season, but is still considered an elite program with top-level athletes. LSU took the same approach against offensively-challenged Florida earlier in the season, and also ran for 4.5 yds/carry. IMO, Iowa beats LSU if they had any playmakers on offense.

It was Wisconsin's secondary that got torched against South Carolina, especially on deep balls.

+1 HS
Alpo's picture

You're a real jerk buddy!

In all seriousness, this was informative and eye opening, but I have to say a little depressing too. I still think they have the talent to be one of the best units in the country, but as you pointed out, a lot falls on the shoulders of LJS and whether or not the guys buy into what he's selling. Let's hope they do. Thanks for the hard work, you'd get a +1 from me if we could still upvote forum posts.

+1 HS
Ahh Saturday's picture

~~ (The FSH article does mention it is difficult to evaluate D line performance independently of the entire front 7.)

One of the dangers of starting an argument that concedes in advance the limits of its usefulness is that it often leads us to conclusions as patently absurd as the one that OSU fielded the 96th ranked defensive line in the country last year.  A couple things should have been obvious to anyone that watched the Ohio State defense last season.  First, it was a unit that lacked cohesion, had limited talent, and was poorly coached.  The other thing that should have been evident is that the D-Line was its strongest unit.  I agree with the OP that Larry Johnson's role is critical in helping the '14 d-line reach its potential, but I disagree with the OP's implicit criticism of the talent that LJ has at his disposal.  Bennett, Washington, Spence, and Bosa have all shown superior individual talent on the field.  This season they all come back, stronger and more experienced. I do in fact have very high expectations that the unit will demonstrate that it deserves to be considered not just the top unit in the B1G, but an elite unit nationally.

+3 HS
sivaDavis's picture

I watched the D Line shut down two of the nations most elite rushers. Melvin Gordon and James White. Give me all the numbers you'd like, I know the defensive line will step up to any challenge that might not have been faced in 2013. All this quality of the opponent talk and whatnot just rubs me the wrong way. Any team can get beat on any given day by any opponent, that was proved in 2013. If you watched the team this year and didn't realize they were a talented and elite bunch, then you're just a numbers cruncher and didn't even watch a game. Numbers show alot, just not everything, like heart, what a player was doing or wasn't doing in the secondary to contribute to no sack by the defensive line, vice versa. You could have the nations #1 pass defense....but usually that means that teams are just running all over you and don't need to pass (ala TTUN 2011-2012). Appreciate the post though.

"I've had smarter people around me all my life, but I haven't run into one yet that can outwork me. And if they can't outwork you, then smarts aren't going to do them much good." - Woody Hayes

teddyballgame's picture

Why can't I upvote you

+1 HS
The Rill Dill's picture

I LOVE this type of analysis.  Enough with the sugar coated, rose colored glasses rah-rah shit.  Tell it EXACTLY like it is.  The honeymoon is well past over, and it's time to SHOW us, (stop TELLING us) how awesome we are. 

+2 HS
Run_Fido_Run's picture

Yeah . . . sort of. It's not possible to tell it EXACTLY like it is in college football. A more realistic goal is for our assessments to be in the right ballpark. Yet if rose-colored glasses tend to keep us from landing in the right ballpark, so do gray-colored glasses - i.e., it's just as easy to skew things from an overly-negative perspective as it is from an overly-positive one. 

And the honeymoon ain't over for me yet. It might be the hungover and chafed part of the honeymoon, but I still got a big smile on my face.

+2 HS
Ahh Saturday's picture

I'm not dismissing the FSH data out of hand, but to say that it tells it "EXACTLY like it is" is giving those numbers more credit than I think FSH would grant them themselves.  Do you really believe there were 95  D-lines better against the run than OSU last season?

+1 HS
The Rill Dill's picture

I will just say that I am a fan of non-rose colored glass analysis. If a guy carries the ball for two carries, the first being a 5 yarder and the 2nd being an 85 yarder---- saying a guy has a 45 yard per carry average is entirely TRUE,  but not telling the whole story.  Sometimes stats DO lie.

Calgarybuck's picture

Great analysis, I did notice that one thing we lacked was a rush up the middle whether that be the DT's and or from an LB blitz..What's also hard to falter is that if our Coverage was "tighter" (Luke knows no such concept) Our D-line stats would be that much better, I count at least another 3-4 sacks for Bosa had he had that extra split second that turns a (hit qb deflected pass) into a sack.  I think our D-line is going to be special this season since Johnson will be cycling more lineman than Vrabel!

Seattle Linga's picture

We should all be so happy the LJ is with us - I think we will all like this upcoming season for a lot of reasons.

-1 HS
buckeyedexter's picture

Good analysis.  While the D line probably wasn't as good as they looked at times because of the competition, they were still young last year and I would fault LB with much of the running yards against us.  The D-line is the one place on our defense I'm not worried about.

+1 HS
Knarcisi's picture

Here's the abbreviated version ... Our DL is going to be really damn good. 

+1 HS
Silver Bullet 10's picture

Stats do not tell the entire story. Our defensive scheming and blitzing was subpar. Watch any other team's defense. Their defensive lines are able to collapse the pocket and backfield more easily because there are linebackers and DBs hitting the gaps from all different angles. We did not have that. All we had was four linemen and an occasional blitz from Shazier. It was too predictable. If you take Ohio State's DL and put it on USC's defense, they would look ten times better than they do now. There is no doubt that we have the most talented defensive line, but it isnt always clear at times.

rock flag and eagle's picture

I don't agree with most of your comments on scheme and blitzing.  It seems fairly obvious that what OSU was doing in rush defense was working.  Their scheme?  They finished in the top 12 nationally in both yards/game allowed and yards/carry allowed.   Also, they finished 5th in the country in "least long runs allowed," allowing only 42 runs of 10+ yards all season.  Only four teams did better in that regard, and those were Alabama, Michigan St., Wisconsin and Memphis, all very good rush defenses.  Even more impressive is that OSU played 14 games, compared to Alabama and Wisconsin (13 each) and Memphis (12).  They were right up there with MSU as the best in the country at containing the run.  They had no problem stopping the run, and their scheme was sound in not allowing teams break big runs.  Also, as Jeff Beck's article demonstrates, OSU did get pressure on their opponents behind the line of scrimmage.  Scheme and blitzing were effective this year.  They did, however, accomplish these things against some very poor rushing attacks and some of the poorest offensive lines in the nation. 

But, I do agree with you when you say "stats do not tell the entire story."  The most commonly cited stat, both in the media and on message boards, for how good a rushing defense was is yards/game allowed.  When you open the NCAA website's official ranking for Rushing Defense, teams are ranked according to that stat.  According to that stat, OSU was elite (9th nationally.)  But, if we put that stat into a bit of context, we see how Football Study Hall may have found that OSU's D line underachieved. 

+1 HS