Chris Ash and Ohio State's Ongoing Struggle with Cover 4: Part I

By Ross Fulton on March 11, 2014 at 1:15p
Ross Fulton's Breakdown

It is no secret that Urban Meyer’s Ohio State tenure has been marked by inconsistent defense.  Poor defensive play cost Ohio State its undefeated season against Michigan State and then the Orange Bowl versus Clemson.

Much of that inconsistency is attributable to a lack of defensive identity.  And that, in turn, stems from Meyer’s staff’s on again, off again relationship with cover 4, aka quarters.

Setting the Table

Defensive schemes start with determining the coverage.  The called coverage determines what type of front the defensive will play, how many rushers the defense will have against the pass, and what defenders will have force, spill and lever support.  More intrinsically, its sets the tone for the entire defense.   How aggressively a defense plays is generally determined by its base coverage scheme.

The Buckeye defense in 2012 and 2013 struggled in all these areas because they have lacked a consistent coverage framework.  This has largely resulted from the defensive coaching staff’s failed attempt to implement cover 4.

Good in Theory

To take a step back, it is clear that Meyer has wanted his defense to play cover 4 since he took the Ohio State head coaching position.  That should be no surprise.  Cover 4 has grown in popularity to counter the rise of the spread offense.

Though it sounds like a prevent defense, cover 4 is actually an aggressive matchup zone.  The critical aspect is the safeties.  They put their heels at 10 yards and read the number 2 (inside) receiver to their side. 

Cover 4 Base

If the receiver blocks, the safeties flow downhill against the run.  If No. 2 releases vertically, the safety plays that receiver in man coverage, with the corners playing man against the outside receiver.  

C4 verticals

If the No. 2 releases outside, the safety passes him off to the corner, knowing that the outside receiver is crossing into his zone, whom he will pick up in man coverage.

C4 v Curl Flat

This versatility provides quarters’ effectiveness against spread to run offenses.  The defense has the ability to cover 4 vertical routes, while also applying two additional defenders against the run to account for the quarterback run threat.  In other words, a coverage that accounts for 4 spread receivers also becomes a nine-man front against the run.

Cover 4 safety

It should thus be no surprise that Meyer would want to adopt the defense that has been most effective against his spread offense.  Meyer simply had to look across the field in the Big Ten Championship game to Pat Narduzzi’s Michigan State cover-4 defense to see the aggressiveness the scheme allows against spread to run offenses and know that is what he would like his defense to emulate.

With a Short Circuit in Implementation

As such, when Meyer put together his staff in the fall of 2012 he brought in Everett Withers as co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach to team with Luke Fickell.  Withers’ background was in cover 4 and his intent was to bring the concept to the Ohio State defense.  This was a change from the Jim Heacock era, where the Buckeyes’ effective defenses based from cover 3.

The Ohio State defense spent spring and fall practice in 2012 repping cover 4, and opened the 2012 season utilizing the concept.  But the Buckeye coaching staff’s cover 4 plans quickly clashed with reality, as the Buckeye defense struggled mightily utilizing the concept in first half of the season.

Ohio State’s application of cover 4 had several shortcomings.   Cover 4 changed the Buckeyes’ force support against the run from the outside linebacker or nickel to the safeties.  The Buckeye defense struggled with this change, as the safeties failed to consistently provide force support.  Against the pass, the Buckeye safeties and linebackers too often had breakdowns with the man coverage often required with cover 4.

Ohio State staunched the bleeding in 2012 by going with a hybrid.  Against pro-style teams the Buckeyes returned to a cover 3 based defense.  Against spread teams, the Buckeyes largely stayed with cover 4 but altered force responsibility, shifting it back to the nickel position and having the safety fill the alley.

Another Step Back

It was assumed that the Ohio State defensive coaching staff would use the 2013 offseason to iron out the kinks with cover 4.  Instead, the 2013 Buckeyes largely eschewed the coverage entirely, opting to return to cover 3.

The problem was that the cover 3 utilized by the Buckeye coaching staff in 2013 was a vanilla version that was consistently vulnerable in the underneath flats.  Nowhere was that more emblematic then against Clemson, as the Tigers threw dozens of wide receiver screens that resulted in sizable yards after the catch.  The Buckeye defensive coaching staff seemed unable or unwilling to alter its coverage framework to limit these easy completions.   Yet despite taking a conservative approach, the Buckeye defense too often had coverage breakdowns that resulted in explosive plays.

A New Era

Following the season, the Buckeye coaching staff underwent a shake-up.  Withers left for James Madison.  In his place Meyer brought in Chris Ash.  With explicit instructions to fix the pass defense, Ash’s focus is to simplify and streamline the Buckeye defense.

But Meyer’s hire reflects a related goal – to resurrect the cover 4 match-up zone he wanted to bring to Ohio State in 2012.  Ash is known for utilizing quarters, and the 2014 Buckeyes will base from the coverage often, particularly against spread offenses.  Ash’s marching orders are to implement his aggressive, pattern-matching coverage in a sound manner and avoid the missteps that prevented the Buckeyes from successfully utilizing cover 4 the previous two seasons.

As such, whether the Buckeye defense improves in 2014 largely depends on whether Ash succeeds in getting the Buckeye defense to effectively play cover 4.  In part II I will look at some specifics of Ash’s cover 4 defense, focusing upon how he can avoid the potholes that derailed the Ohio State defense in 2012 and 2013.


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Killer nuts's picture

I get pumped everytime I see an article from Ross, love the analysis

+19 HS
Earle's picture

So is there reason to believe that the current crop of safeties is any better equipped to play quarters than the last batch, and just how much of a setback will missing spring ball be for Vonn Bell?

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.

+3 HS
Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

I don't know.  Perhaps the hope is that these guys have been in the system and been exposed to Cover-4 as opposed to the other guys who had to unlearn an old defense to play in the new one. Old habits are hard to break.  I hope that is it.

Read my entire screen name....

+1 HS
Earle's picture

And I would hope that Meyer has been recruiting guys that can execute the scheme he wants to play.  Unfortunately we haven't seen much of them to this point, which is why I asked about Bell.

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.

+1 HS
Ross Fulton's picture

I guess the question is was it the players, or the implementation from the coaching staff?  I actually think the limitations at linebacker and nickel were more of a problem, but I certainly think there were some short circuits in the teaching and play calling.

Bamabucknut's picture

Michigan State doesn't seem to have a problem recruiting players  AND HAVING COACHES WHO KNOW HOW TO TEACH THE SCHEME.

+3 HS
buckeye4life050233's picture

great insight Ross....this helps explain some of the debacle we have seen from the defense the past 2 years.  it will be interesting if we finally get it in place, I really hope Ash makes the difference because I can't go through another year watching our defense give up so many 3rd and long plays for 1st downs and or explosive 30yd plays that demoralize a defenses identity


Ethos's picture

i watched that video play several times, now i'm all angry...

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

+12 HS
MacG91's picture

That play vs state is very frustrating to watch in many ways. Missed block, wrong play selection, ball should of been given to CARLOS HYDE!!!! 


+5 HS
IGotAWoody's picture

Many of us agree, give the ball to your bruising tailback! But also, I don't understand the alignment for that play call. Put the TE on the line of scrimmage, so he gets into the DE right at the snap! Instead, they had Heuerman lined up a yard deep, and the DE had an extra second to diagnose the play. That simple adjustment may have allowed Heuerman to get a block and sustain it, and it's first down, good guys!!

“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” ~Carl Rogers

+3 HS
northwoods buckeye's picture

And don't run that play to the short side of the field

Pay it forward

+1 HS
BGSUBucksFan's picture

Watching that 4th and 1 on repeat is rough.  Sorry, but I'm giving that ball to Hyde 100% of the time and even if the defense knows it's coming 100% of the time, Hyde still converts it 80% of the time.  It's simple math.  (Carlos Hyde + Ball) > 0 yards.

+8 HS
1MechEng's picture

So, 80% of the time, it works 100% of the time?

It's true because it's science.


+8 HS
BGSUBucksFan's picture

I was going to give him 90%, but figured I'd credit the MSU defense with stopping Hyde 2/10 times, which is still impressive.

+1 HS
Phoenix824's picture

Considering Carlos had like 3 negative plays all year I would go even higher than your 90%

+4 HS
D-Day0043's picture

That play makes me sick watching it. Hyde took his man out on the lead block, but Hauerman got blown up resulting in the tackle. The biggest issue I have with that play call is they ran it to the short side of the field. If they ran to the wide side Miller probably could have beat the defender to the edge even if Hauerman gets beat on his block. I just see a bad play call for that situation.

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.

+1 HS
Daddypete's picture

Especially since they could have given it to him on 2nd and 2 and 3rd and 2 and chose not to do that either...really mind boggling at that point in the ball not know what Herrman was thinking!

"Stand and Deliver!"

+1 HS
buckskin's picture

We are better suited personnel wise from the safety position to play cover 4.  Von Bell and Cam Burrows should shine in this type of defense.  Ben Edwards will also be a great fit for this defense.

+1 HS
mobboss1984's picture

This is the best of the day. Finally I understand what was going on with the defense.

Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.
Bruce Lee

+2 HS
dwcbuckeye's picture

Really appreciate the analysis Ross.  I don't mean to be a downer on our kids, but I just can't imagine why someone that is making an effort does not understand mentally how to play their role in the Cover 4.  I mean as you explain it (slot receiver blocks, you do this, slot does this, you do that, slot does something else, you do this) it sounds pretty simple.  But, even if there was another 100 or 200 things to know, how can that be so hard to pick up?  I get it if you just don't have the talent, the guys aren't fast enough, but that is not the case here.

Now we are hearing that they are simplifying the defense again in the Spring to make it easier for them.  As a serious question, is it that difficult, more so then say calculus or stats in college?  Ross makes it sound easy and I am sure it is much harder then that, but still.


+3 HS
sivaDavis's picture

That's why OC's are starting to get paid the big bucks. If your opponent can master a defense like Cover 4, it's gonna be very, very hard to beat it.

"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

+2 HS
Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

You have to trust what the other guy will do. If you don't, mistakes happen.

+1 HS
buckeyeblur5's picture

"Ross makes it sound easy"

- It is way more complicated than what is here.  Ross only gives one set of rules for the reality they have multiple checks to every type of surface (TE+WR, 2 WRs, 3 WRs, TE+2WR, 0WRs, etc) that they will see in a game.  So they have to diagnose the formation to get lined up, diagnose the surface for their check, adjust to any shifts/motions, and then execute their assignment that may have changed 0.2 seconds before the ball was snapped.  So imagine you had to figure out a calculus problem in a limited amount of time but the problem morphed into a new one just when you were starting to devise a strategy for solving the original.

+3 HS
Ross Fulton's picture

I agree it is certainly more complicated then the general overview of cover 4 (and I will get into more of the nuances next week).


BUT, I still have trouble buying the "scheme was too complicated last year" line.  What I saw on the field was not a complicated scheme.  As I said, I think a lot of the short circuit was in a) knowing what they wanted to be scheme wise and b) properly implementing that scheme.


buckeyeblur5's picture

I did not state that the scheme was too complicated.  I merely stated that the scheme was way more complicated than what was presented here.  For example, many of the rules presented here change into something different vs. 3x1, vs no WR, vs. Motion, etc.  I did not state this fact to attack your article, just to respond to other comments that were shocked by how easy and simple the coverage seemed.

+1 HS
chili96's picture

I get smarter every time I read Ross's posts.

+6 HS
Tom57's picture

The coverage scheme is the clearest manifestation of the problem, but the root cause is a disconnect in philosophy IMO. It's subtle, so it been hard to fix.

A re-org should help, b/c I don't think our personnel at any position is as bad as things looked on the field. Although the personnel fit was a huge problem at all levels.

My take is that Luke and Withers both were very comfy with bend and don't break. As DVO45 pointed out last season the catch phrase he heard at OSU practice was "stop the run and tackle the pass". This equates to leaving the underneath zone open, making sure no one beats you deep and then "tackling the pass".

Urban wants a lot less bend and limited breakage.... I'd say his philosophy = force 3 and out AND prevent explosive plays.

Hopefully Ash can come in fresh and after two yrs of failure make the subtle change which says by scheme we will aim to force 3 and out and by execution stop explosive plays.

+2 HS
Ross Fulton's picture

I agree there was a disconnect in philosophy, but I think some of that disconnect existed between Fickell and Withers also.  Look at Withers' comments after he took the James Madison job.  Plus, as I said, he was a cover 4 guy.  But I'm not sure Fickell was ever comfortable with it.  But that doesn't absolve Withers of his tenure, as the defensive back technique was spotty at best.

jbenz's picture

I think I missed those comments from Withers. Can I get a link or summary, please?

MikeEagleBuckeye's picture

This makes it easier to see how there could've been communication problems in the secondary like Coombs has said.  It sounds like that the first go around of trying to teach the cover 4 wasn't a complete success and left some question marks among the players.  Add that to having two different coaches teaching it, and I can see where problems could arise.  I feel confident that Ash, who literally wrote a manual on how to play this defense, can get the message through to our guys and we can see a better version of the silver bullets this fall!

+3 HS
TUNBUCK89's picture

Once explained by Ross, things become so obvious. Hopefully, Ash will do the same with the Bucekyes this spring & fall and the team will be ready from game 1.

+1 HS
Hovenaut's picture

I'm bookmarking this selection, and revisiting this fall. Great write-up.

+5 HS
nburns18's picture

We have the guys to play cover 4 and exceed. Our secondary has been horrible but it is one of the most exciting positions to watch heading into this season. 

"You win with people." -Woody Hayes

Knarcisi's picture

Ross, great write up. In the scenario above where the #2 receiver goes to the flat, there obviously needs to be recognition from the CB to pick him up in the flat. Is this where Roby got caught "peeking" at times last year?  Ex. Wisconsin. 

+2 HS
buckeyeblur5's picture

This scenario only happens when a specific defensive check is made vs. specific offensive formations.  If the check was made both the Cornerback and the Safety have their eyes on the #2 receiver.

TheNorthernBuckeye's picture

Watching Heuerman get his ass kicked on that 4th down really hurts, you HAVE to want to destroy the man across from you.  

Stay the course 

+3 HS
Bourbon Meyer's picture

Great stuff. That's why I made the switch to 11W.

+2 HS
sivaDavis's picture

Congrats on having one of the best names I've seen on here recently. I need this on a shirt, would be even better if they played in New Orleans for a title soon.

"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

+2 HS
bull1214's picture

communication and play diagnosis are the keys to success in all schemes. one guy out of position can make the difference. offenses aren't dumb either. so they attack with blocking, misdirection, double moves, crossing patterns, etc. the players make or break a scheme. end of story.....

HattanBuck85's picture

That failed 4th down...

"The height of human desire is what wins, whether it's on Normandy Beach or in Ohio Stadium." - Woody Hayes

Qujo's picture


Our arch rivals.... 11 National Championships, 10 before 1949 - eight of eleven shared. Trying to respect them... trying.... Ugh!

+2 HS
causeicouldntgo43's picture

I've always been an Ash man.

+3 HS
gm3jones's picture

Lol I see what you did there. Nicely done!

There is nothing more remarkable as learning to think better.

tussey's picture

Thank you Ross for this write up.  For me it helped answer some questions I had concerning the staff and their respective preferred  coverages.  

FitzBuck's picture

I loved the write up but was that gif really necessary?  I'm unable to sleep thanks to watching that play over in over in an endless loop.  

Fitzbuck | Toledo - Ohio's right armpit | "A troll by any other name is still a troll".

+1 HS
Whoa Nellie's picture

Excellent description of the scheme, Ross.  Another thank you.

As explained, this defense puts enormous pressure on the safeties.  They must read and react quickly.  Close on receivers or come up fast to stop the run.  And, be tough enough to take on a blocker and the runner, and still athletic enough to cover. 

Traditionally, you might pick cornerback as the most athletically demanding defensive position, and linebacker as toughest.  That probably isn't the case in this scheme.  Safeties are like corner/LB hybrids, tasked with doing it all.  Takes special cats, and the more the better.

“Don’t fear criticism. The stands are full of critics. They play no ball. They fight no fights. They make no mistakes because they attempt nothing. Down on the field are the doers, they make mistakes because they attempt many things.”

Daddypete's picture

FYI...Sam Hubbard is super smart and very quick to react from the LB position. I believe he could also do that from a safety position and he could also recognize and call the defenses. Something to think about as we get to summer practice.

"Stand and Deliver!"

+1 HS
Whoa Nellie's picture

Please don't misunderstand.  Wasn't denigrating any other positions or players.  Just expressing my increased respect for what the "S" position demands in cover 4.

“Don’t fear criticism. The stands are full of critics. They play no ball. They fight no fights. They make no mistakes because they attempt nothing. Down on the field are the doers, they make mistakes because they attempt many things.”

DC-town's picture

Great read and insight Ross. It makes sense and people should give some of these players a break for 'not picking up the scheme'.  It sounds like they weren't seeing r hearing a lot of consistency in the teaching...

and while its nice to have some insight on the plays, let's not pretend that it's easy for a player to know your assignment and make the right decision when a slot guy is running a 4.5 forty at your face

'Piss excellence' -RB

Larrinator's picture

I don't care about spread offenses, go back to Cover 3. It worked! 


Aesculus.'s picture

Heuerman makes that block and Braxton is in the end zone.  

+1 HS
BeijingBucks's picture

Nothing like a nice piece of Ash. 

i hope

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

+3 HS
buckeyeblur5's picture

Is that GIF supposed to be MSU playing Cover 4?  Because that sure looks like a Cover 0 blitz to me...

Earle's picture

I think it is, it's just that they (and everyone else) knew the Buckeyes were going to run the ball on that play, so effectively you get the same thing.

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.

buckeyeblur5's picture

To me it looks like a 6 man blitz with Cover 0 behind it.  They crash the DEs down hard inside and then bring the OLBs off the edge for Braxton.  MLB has pass responsibility for Hyde and when he sees run he can flow freely to the play.  This is a blitz for the zone read, that is obviously what they were expecting. 

Jpfbuck's picture

I am not sure where the team switched from cover 4 in 2012, (I am sure ross could tell us, but if we assume that Withers was brought in to install cover 4, which as noted puts pressure on safeties, then his attempt at the start of 2012 was an abject failure. go back and recall how bad the pass D was and how many big plays we gave up in the fist half of last year

even terrible Miami O thru for 60% and over 300 yards in the opener. and they had a 58 yard completion and a 44 yard one that went for their only TD

Cal had over 500 yards total offense which included both long runs and passes all due in part to safeties taking bad angles and blowing coverage's, they completed 71% of their passes for nearly 300 yards

later came Indiana who threw for over 350 yards and they had a 50+ yard run and a 76 yard TD pass and then another 25 yard TD pass in the last minute

my guess is the switch came after that week as we saw some improvement

The came 2013 where we went to cover 3 due to our inability to teach and play cover 4, and Wither's safeties are terrible again

I think the entire staff deserves some blame, but given that Wither's left taking a 50% paycut I think we know who Meyer was putting the blame at




Whoa Nellie's picture

Thanks to this article, I'm just now appreciating the full impact of Christian Bryant's injury.

“Don’t fear criticism. The stands are full of critics. They play no ball. They fight no fights. They make no mistakes because they attempt nothing. Down on the field are the doers, they make mistakes because they attempt many things.”

causeicouldntgo43's picture

Yah - remember how pained Meyer looked when Bryant was injured and how he telegraphed how big of a blow it would be? I tended to chalk it up to some kind of hyperbole at the time, but it was genuine anguish, because he knew what it really meant.

+1 HS
Crimson's picture

We all hoped it meant Vonn Bell.  It meant Pitt Brown, and we almost rioted.

+1 HS
Ashtabula's picture

Cover 4 is quite demanding on safeties which means when you play a 4-3 in front of it, you must have a stud mike linebacker that can cover up some for them in both the run game and on bubble screens and slants. Grant might prove to be OK here, but probably not the stud that is required. I'm also hesitant to bank on a freshman to be such a difference maker. So, I'm excited about our young safeties and mike linebacker and what cover 4 will look like in 2015, but I wonder if this is the best coverage for us in 2014.

buckeyeblur5's picture

Cover 4 actually makes things simpler for the Mike linebacker as his pass responsibilities are quite diminished.  He can instead focus on being a heavy run player and fast flow to the football.

Ashtabula's picture

Mike's pass responsibilities are fairly easy in most is the "fast flow" to the football that worries me.  And, that is not just speed, but read and react.

Buckeye06's picture

I haven't heard a full explanation on that 4th down play.  It seems JH is blocking and keeping leverage to the outside, like that was the first option for the play and BM tried to improvise and failed.  Would not be the first time or last time something like that happens with athletic QBs who make big time plays (see Pryor in 08 against PSU with his fumble).

His feet indicate to me the run was inside (but it could have easily been a missed assignment



Crimson's picture

Heuerman missed his block.  He's admitted as much and essentially said that it haunts him.  UFM called the play, not Herman, for anyone who wants to call for Herman's head for the call.