Chris Ash Questions: Over or Under? Nickel or Base? Moving in Pods?

By Ross Fulton on March 25, 2014 at 1:15p

Now that we have focused upon Chris Ash's cover 4 defense we turn to his front seven and 4-3 front.

Kyle Jones provided an excellent primer on Ash's defensive alignments.  I now want to dig deeper to look at areas where Ash's philosophy differs from previous Ohio State defenses. Specifically what question marks remain regarding how Ash and co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell will mesh their differing backgrounds?

We going over or under?

Perhaps the most intriguing question is whether the Buckeye defense will base from an under or over front. Although Ohio State played some over front, for most of the last decade the Buckeyes' base defense has been a 4-3 under. That means that the defense line shaded away from the call and the linebackers shifts towards the call. As a result, the strong side Sam linebacker aligns over the tight end, giving the defense essentially a hybridized 3-4 look.

Ash's defenses, by contrast, bases from a 4-3 over

4-3- over

Popularized by Jimmy Johnson at the University of Miami, a 4-3 over front shifts in the opposite direction as the under. The defensive line moves a half gap towards the call, with the linebackers shifting away to compensate. Also known as a stack alignment, the defensive linemen cover up most offensive linemen, allowing all three linebackers room to roam and flow to the football.

As can be seen, Ash's 4-3 over cover 4 philosophy is very similar to another Big Ten defense – Pat Narduzzi's Michigan State units.

MSU 4-3 over C 4

Given that Ash employs a similar cover four formula as Narduzzi – down to the shadow man press technique – it should not be surprising that he also utilizing the same front.

One of the intriguing questions heading into fall then, is whether OSU will become primarily an over team under Ash, or continue to use the under that Fickell has coached.

To Nickel or not to Nickel

This is not to say that the Buckeye defenders are wholly unfamiliar with the over front. In fact, Ohio State's base alignment when they went to a nickel package was a 4-2-5 over. And given that Ohio State utilized nickel whenever an opposing offense used three or more wide receivers, a majority of the Buckeye defensive snaps last year came from a nickel over front.

So the transition to an over front may not be a seismic shift. But prevalent use of nickel is also at odds with Ash's framework. Although he will use a nickel defender, Ash is more likely to utilize his base over defense against 11 shotgun spread personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE), counting on his linebackers to fulfill their cover 4 responsibilities. 

As such, another aspect to watch going forward is when will the Buckeye defense utilize nickel?

One area of continuity, however, is how Ash utilizes nickel. As the Buckeyes have previously done, when Ash deploys nickel, the nickel replaces the Sam linebacker and walks outside the front and over the slot receiver.

4-2-5 over nickel

Moving in Pods

Another area of distinction between Ash and previous Ohio State staffs is how Ash moves his front seven between the over and under defense. With previous Buckeye defenses, the defensive linemen played a technique and would flip where they aligned depending on the over or under call.

For example, the 3-technique defensive tackle aligns between the guard and tackle. With the under he will align away from the call. But with the over he will flop and align as a 3-technique towards the call.

The linebackers, by contrast, stayed to the same side and slide over to match the front. So the Will linebacker would always align away from the call. With the under he is responsible for the backside A gap. With the over he commands the backside B gap.

Ash uses the same formula with his defensive linemen. But crucially he also flips his linebackers. In essence, the front seven works in two pods, with the Mike linebacker as the fulcrum. The Will travels with the 3 and 7 technique defensive linemen. The Sam with the 1 and 6 technique.

So in the Under Ash's defense aligns just as Ohio State's in previous seasons. The Sam aligns over the tight end with the Will away from the call. But with the Over they will flip. The Will becomes the strong side linebacker, responsible for the C gap. The Sam becomes the weak side linebacker, responsible for the backside B gap.

4-3 Over vs. I

Ash's goal is to have the two trios consistently gain repetitions together as units. He also wants to make it easy for the defense to easily adjust to motion and shifts that changes the offense's formation strength. 

In sum, Ash has utilized several different philosophies from Fickell and previous Buckeye defense coordinators. It will bear watching this spring and fall how the Buckeye defensive coaches mix their differing backgrounds together.


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Doc's picture

Ross, why was Arkansas' defense so bad last year if Ash is supposed to be this guru?  Are we going to have similar growing pains?

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ab1993's picture

He actually improved their defense quite a bit and he didn't inherit the talent there that he is here.

+7 HS
LealmanBuckeye's picture

You can only do so much with the talent you have, and the Hogs didn't have all that much. Plus, it's not like Ash can jack his players into the Matrix and download the defense. It takes, time, study and practice to learn a new defense. Will we have growing pains? Maybe, but they should be mitigated at least in part by the talent that we have.

+2 HS
Oyster's picture

Perhaps it was because of who the head coach was?

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

+12 HS
GH_Lindsey's picture

I dunno if you've noticed, but Arkansas has been a dumpster fire since the whole Petrino incident a few years back

Oyster's picture

True, but it's more fun to blame Bielema.

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

+4 HS
d5k's picture

Does the fact that we have a new Will LB play into this decision/scheme identity at all?  If I understand correctly, in the past the Will LB in the under was the guy responsible to make the tackle after everyone else funneled the play to him.  So this was a sideline-to-sideline player like AJ Hawk / Ryan Shazier.  In this alternate system that responsibility would flip around between the Sam and Will, correct?

+3 HS
Fugelere's picture

I was wondering that too.  In C4 we know that if the safeties read run they crash down essentially making it a 9 man front.  That being the case, who has force responsibility the OLB or the safety?

Ross Fulton's picture

Good question. With cover 4, generally the front side safety has force support. The linebackers lever and spill and the backside safety plays the backside cutback.

Wesleyburgess1's picture

Pretty sure that Urban said yesterday that Josh Perry is taking Shazier old spot at Will and Darren Lee will take Perry's spot. It was on a YouTube video from his interview with Cbs.

willshire58's picture

Will the Over/Under alignments change for the linebackers depending on Boundary/Field? I've read in a couple places that Darron Lee as the Sam is playing to the field and Josh Perry as the Will is playing to the Boundary. Doesn't this cause a conflict if a team lines up the strength of their formation to the boundary?

+2 HS
Ross Fulton's picture

That goes to the point in the article. What is happening is that OSU is lining up in the Over to the field. So the Will, Darron Lee, is going with the 3 and 6 tech to the field. The Sam, Perry, is going with the 1 and 5 to the boundary.

chili96's picture

Great stuff, but way over my head.

+4 HS
buckeyeblur5's picture

"Popularized by Jimmy Johnson at the University of Miami, a 4-3 over front shifts in the opposite direction as the under. The defensive line moves a half gap towards the call, with the linebackers shifting away to compensate. Also known as a stack alignment, the defensive linemen cover up most offensive linemen, allowing all three linebackers room to roam and flow to the football."

The 4-3 over and 4-3 Stack are actually separate defensive fronts with different responsibilities for the linebackers.  The 4-3 over descends from the Eagle front, which used the Pod flipping that you talked about.  This is the defense Penn State ran for years under JoePa.  The 4-3 Stack is what Jimmy Johnson popularized and what Michigan State bases out of.  These defenses are similar in that they both have 4 DL and 3LBs but there are key differences in how they are executed in practice.

+1 HS
D-Day0043's picture

He may be referring to the shift of the linebackers in reference to the D-line rather than the actual defensive front. That would be my best guess. I was confused about that as well.

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Horvath22's picture

Great stuff, Ross. Good to have you and Kyle in tandem.

+2 HS
Buckeye_in_SEC_country's picture

So is Ash going to be calling the plays or are you saying his influence will make the defense look this way in the future?

Fugelere's picture

I know that this defense was designed to stop spread teams but i have to wonder how it will do against an option team.    

The fact that we are in the midst of a schematic overhaul, combined with the fact we have to play Navy first does worry me somewhat.  To be fair, I don't think we'll be able to accurately judge the defense off of its performance in the first game.

+2 HS
D-Day0043's picture

I have been worried about that game as well, and I wouldn't be surprised if triple-option Navy comes out and throws the ball 40 times for the first time in school history. Considering how bad our secondary was last year, and all of the young guys starting, that is exactly what I would do if I were them. Plus, the guy they will have starting for them this year at quarterback is more comfortable running a passing offense than a triple-option attack. I would not be surprised at all if this was a close game like the last time we played them.

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ronbizi's picture

Playing the service academies is tough.  Everyone roots for them (honestly, if we had to lose a game, I'd pick one of them to lose to), they'll always be the underdog, and they run crazy offenses.  And you know those guys will be bringing it every play.  This game vs Navy does make me nervous.  I will be very glad to get out with a W.  We can get style points later.

+2 HS
Wesleyburgess1's picture

I am. Im going to judge everything this team does at face value from now on. Im sick of having Scarlett glasses and reading into everything to much.

D-Day0043's picture

Honestly, I thought the defense played better in the base 4-3 (what little they used) than they did in the nickel.

The 4-3 over, cover-4 philosophy is probably my favorite 4-3 concept. I like cover-1 press man as well. I would like to see them switch to a 3-4, considering they already use 3-4 concepts, and the personnel they usually recruit (undersized defensive ends) would better suit the scheme.

I think they would be better served predominantly staying in base, although they should revisit the past success of the 4-2-5, and use it if needed (They had a pretty good stretch of shutting down the spread).

My only concern with the cover-4 is that it susceptible to exploitation in the flat (considering our history of being burned by screens). Perhaps that is why they have been working on passes into the flat this spring?

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+1 HS
BeijingBucks's picture

Until our lb situation is shored up I'd be happy with a hybrid 5-2 press coverage


we have so many beady DLs let em rattle the QB tunnel screens be damned ;)

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+1 HS