For Ohio State, Aggression is the Name of the Game in the Secondary

By Kyle Rowland on April 9, 2014 at 9:15a
41 Comments

The Ohio State secondary is filled with familiar faces, but the on-field appearance couldn’t be more different. Subpar pass defense kept the Buckeyes out of the national championship game last season, with head coach Urban Meyer vowing to correct the deficiency.

Damaged pride has spurred a rapid movement. The biggest change is the disappearance of gaps – literally. Ohio State’s cornerbacks allowed receivers to gain position with sizable cushions in coverage. Those are gone.

“We’re playing a style of defense that is very appealing to me as a corners coach,” Kerry Coombs said last week. “Every single snap of spring football we have lined up in press coverage, and that’s the way we’re going to learn it. Then we’ll find out how we stack up when the fall comes around.” 

A collaborative effort between Meyer, Coombs and safeties coach Chris Ash, who doubles as co-defensive coordinator, is set on ridding the Buckeyes from their disastrous 2013 pass defense, especially the final three-game embarrassment.  

In March, Meyer admitted a date with Florida State in Pasadena was probable had the pass defense not self-destructed. 

New this season is an aggressive man-to-man press coverage that’s geared toward limiting receivers’ options, beginning at the line of scrimmage. In the past, there was little contact at the snap, putting defensive backs in a rescue position once the ball was airborne.

“During the start of the season, I was a little shaky and I started to pick it up toward the end,” senior cornerback Doran Grant said. “I just felt like I was average. I know what I’ve got to do this offseason to become an All-Big Ten player, and that's what I’m going to do. Just work on the little things – recognizing formations and triggering to the ball better and making more plays.”

Grant has a stranglehold on one corner spot, while Armani Reeves, Gareon Conley and Eli Apple contend to be the second starter. Depth is paramount to Coombs because of the evolution of fast-paced offenses and arduous nature of press coverage. The departure of Bradley Roby, a possible first-round draft pick, leaves a hole on one side of the defense.

“We’re going to work our butts off.”– Doran Grant

The leading contender to replace the shutdown corner is Reeves, who started three games last year. While he received criticism for blown coverages and being out of position, Reeves approached the offseason with optimism. He recorded 26 tackles, seven pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble – experience he hopes to build on.   

“It’s a new year, fresh start,” Reeves said. “I can’t worry about what happened last year or even my freshman year. I have to worry about what’s going on right now and in the future. Working on my game and helping the young guys work on their game, too, because I’m only as good as they are and they’re only as good as I am. That’s what we’ve got to remember. It’s not just about one individual, it’s about the whole team.”

Safeties – and captains – Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett also must replaced. Combined with Roby, the trio tallied 175 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and eight interceptions.  

Saturday marks the first public display of the new-look secondary. Daily challenges are meant to test the unit and fully prepare them for games. Coaches want to mimic game situations with the goal of making it an unpleasant event for pass-catchers by putting them on the offensive.

There became an infatuation with intercepting passes under former safeties coach Everett Withers. Creating turnovers is critical to defenses. But fewer materialized, as completions piled up for opposing offenses. Coombs and Ash differ philosophically from Withers, hoping for incompletions and welcoming of interceptions.  

“It takes practice to play that way,” Coombs said. “Football is made up of a myriad of different schemes. There’s lots of different things, and it’s not like you can just say, ‘Hey, go put those guys up on the line of scrimmage and go play.’ It’s the scheme, it’s how everything fits together.

“I’m not blaming that on anybody, but that was not what we were doing. We did it at times, but we didn’t make it our base concept. It was an adjustment. Now it is our base alignment, and we will adjust off of that.” 

Coaches aren’t the only excited party – players have joined in on the enthusiasm. Jamming opponents at the line of scrimmage is more appealing than backpedaling. They believe it’s a nod to their strengths due to size, speed and athleticism.  

The operative word with Grant, Reeves and Co. is fun. Enjoyment was zapped out of the secondary at times a year ago. There’s been no such sequel during the spring. It doesn’t assure an upgrade, but positive results appear imminent.  

“Our whole team is liking it. We’re buying into it, and we appreciate this defense,” Grant said. “We’re going to work our butts off.”

41 Comments

Comments

cplunk's picture

It's becoming increasingly clear to me that our defensive woes last year seem to relate to Withers more than Fickell.

Obviously that's just my impression based on the off season. The proof will be in the pudding once the season starts.

 

+14 HS
ToledoMan's picture

Yes.  People need to leave Fick alone.  The man has coached and had a hand in some of the best defenses we have had.  

+8 HS
Furious George 27's picture

He has also had his hand in some of the worst defenses as well too, and he deserves some heat for the comments he has made .... With that said I am hoping the relationship between Ash and Fickell works out..... The comments made by Koombs lead me to believe that Ash may be making the calls since the last two seasons featured defenses ran by Fickell or Withers. Thats just my opinion.

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

+4 HS
Buckeye06's picture

I would agree based on the comments, but you are never going to attack the guy who is still on staff.  Obviously it's easier for the players to say it was Withers since he isn't running defensive meetings

CGroverL's picture

Okay...let's erase 4 years of Luke Fickell's life...let's let those years be 1997, 1998, 2000, and 2001. During those years he was part of the New Orleans Saints and being the DL coach at Akron. Besides those years, he has been part of the Buckeye coaching staff, a Buckeye player (where he ran a consecutive starting streak of 50 games at nose guard), or a kid wanting to be part of The Ohio State University. Over half of his Buckeye defenses have been ranked in the top 10 in both total defense and scoring defense....of course those defenses BELONGED to Jim Heacock, but trust me when I say that Fick played a big part including making 3-star LB's AJ Hawk and James Laurinaitis into near legends as Buckeyes. In my opinion, no Buckeye bleeds scarlet and gray more than Coach Fickell.

Since it seems that you may know a bit more about it than me, I have a strange question.....Urban Meyer refers to Fickell as "Defensive Coordinator" and Chris Ash as "Co-Defensive Coordinator" (I've heard them introduced that way by Meyer 3 times). Is Fickell over Ash in any way? See, the reason that I ask is that I often heard that Fickell was the man screaming on the sidelines in 2013, but "Co-Defensive Coordinator/Asst. Head Coach" Everett Withers was actually the man in charge of the defense. His job title certainly made it sound that way. This season's "Asst. Head Coach" is Stan Drayton, the RB's coach. What does this actually mean? When you are the assistant Head Coach to Urban Meyer, it just seems like a job title that was kind of "thrown out there". Also, with Withers gone, Is Fickell running the defensive meetings this year?

"I hope they're last in everything"

Thanks, Urb!

m4's picture

CGROVERL,

It has not not been made clear who is in charge of the defense this year, but in 2012 and 2013 it was coach Fickell. When coach Meyer was hired, he said "Luke Fickell will make the calls on defense." Go to this website for reference:

www.nbc4i.com/.../fickell,-will-call-plays-on-defense-meyer-says

 

BuckeyeQ6's picture

I was thinking the same thing.  We are naturally optimistic during new seasons, and our season will be a bust if the secondary problems persist.  So, we all want to believe they are being fixed.

Still, I think there is some validity to the new system being an improvement.  Under Meyer, I think we need an aggresive defense that will stop drives quickly, even if we occassionally give up big plays, because we will probably outscore the opponent in the process.  Last year, Iowa hurt us with long sustained drives that kept our offense on the bench.  This is what we want to avoid.

This is different from our needs under Tressel.  We were fine with a bend-but-don't-break defense because it was successful in preventing the other team from scoring and we didn't need as many drives on offense.

In contrast, our bend and break defense was a real liability last year.  Hopefully Ash is the answer!  I think Fickell will do a decent job this year, and the LBs struggles were more lack of skill/depth and being put in situations they struggled with.

seafus26's picture

Or with those 2 particular guys maybe having 2 leaders was like having no leaders. Hopefully Ash and Fickle can coexist as coordinators. 

Go Bucks and michigan STILL SUCKS!

+1 HS
Maffro's picture

Aside from OSU, UNC is the team I follow the most. I never liked the Withers hire from the beginning because his defenses at Carolina were not nearly as productive as they should have been, given the talent they had there under Butch Davis. They did force a lot of turnovers as Kyle pointed out (in no small part because Withers had some freakishly athletic linebackers to work with at UNC -- Bruce Carter, Kevin Reddick, Zach Brown -- a luxury he did not have at OSU), but they were also prone to basically looking like our defense did last year.

I still would like to see our DBs turn their heads and look for the ball more (I'm still not sure whether this is a Coombs or Withers thing), but I am looking forward to seeing more aggressive DB play.

+8 HS
bethesdabuck's picture

I called a UNC friend of mine right after we hired Withers. He said that while he had produced a lot of NFL talent, his defenses were incredible frustrating to watch and operated under the bend but don't break principle. 

Toilrt Paper's picture

Hate to say I told ya so.

seafus26's picture

If we'd faced Rappists (allegedly) Winston and Co. our best pass defense would have been Carlos Hyde playing keep away and grinding clock and working down the field on each drive.

Go Bucks and michigan STILL SUCKS!

-10 HS
BUCKfutter's picture

i didn't know winston had a hip-hop album. link? i'd like to listen

the kids are playing their tail off, and the coaches are screwing it up! - JLS

+2 HS
Doc's picture

I've been begging for press coverage and jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage for years.  Disrupting the offense from the get go will throw off timing and allow our stud defensive line time to get to the QB.  I'm looking forward to Saturday to see this in action. 

"Say my name."

+2 HS
KingsRite's picture

I really don't get the whole "Soft Coverage"  concept to begin with. I can understand playing prevent in some situations but not as a standard form of defense. It seems to me it is a way of basically admitting defeat before a game even starts.

“I have yet to be in a game where luck was involved. Well-prepared players make plays. I have yet to be in a game where the most prepared team didn't win.” -Urban Meyer-

+2 HS
Zimmy07's picture

I think with soft coverage you can bait the other team into thinking the quick outside throw is always there and a jumped route can lead to 6 points.  I was disappointed that this didn't happen a lot more often for the OSU secondary over the last few years.

I also hope that the DB's learn to turn and look for the ball (as Maffro said).  There were so many INT's we could have had last year if they would have just turned to look back at the ball when it was obvious the route was established.

+2 HS
Buckeye06's picture

The soft coverage is based a lot on the other teams making mistakes, and bending but not breaking.  If you play press, and you don't jam the guy at the line, the wr is behind your secondary in 3 seconds and even a mediocre throw is a 30 yard gain.  If you play soft, and play it well, then passes are short, and only for minimal gain, or the longer passes are still contested with DBs in the area since they were not blown up at the line.

Sorry this took so long to reply, work got in the way

+2 HS
cplunk's picture

"Prevent" and "soft coverage" are totally different things.

Prevent is completely selling out to stop long scores. Soft Coverage is utilizing zone defense and areas of responsibility to overcome perceived deficiencies in individual players or position groups (or, alternately, to allow for focus on a different area.

Withers last year played a soft defense that was effectively designed to give up short spaces in return for two things: domination in run defense and preventing the safeties/corners from being exposed deep. A prevent defense would not have been concerned with the run at all, but the run was the primary focus of last year's defense.

Footballis about trade offs. There is no "best" defense. 

 

whobdis's picture

We've played that soft coverage quite a bit over the years..and you CAN win with it. Heacock was able to pull it off. That said..I HATE it. I think Snyder was the worst. I still remember losing to NW on a  Saturday night and NW was at our 12 yard line..our DB's were at the goal line and backpeddling at the snap! We did that last year as well and it's so frustrating to watch. QB's are just too good to give that much room. You may give up a big play here and there playing aggressive but we did that playing soft! There are times I thought (after a big play) where in the h*ll are we covering! We are giving up the short pass AND the long ball. I guess we are really manning that 15 - 20 yard out.

+3 HS
BoFuquel's picture

Sounds to me like we end up with a safety leading the team in tackles. If that happens we're in trouble. All hail T.P. 2.0. Just give the ball to EZE and we win. One loss and no Dr. Pepper for you. GO BUCKS!

I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.

-1 HS
OSUFlash's picture

I dispute that Doran Grant got better as the season went on; the statistics of Gardner, Cook and Boyd say other wise.

osuflash

cinserious's picture

Doran Grant stayed the same as the season wore on: average! Gardner/Cook/Boyd just upped the competition level to the point where the Buckeye DBs just folded. Not to knock only D. Grant, but it was the safeties, the scheme, and whatever the hell Roby was out there doing this season. 

Life's daily struggle is choosing between saying F--ck-it, or soldiering on with your responsibilities.  

RunEddieRun1983's picture

A DB of the size of Gareon Conley should NOT be back peddling at the line.  He should be in the WR's face and jamming the crap out of him at the line.  Good to hear they're making adjustments.

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

OldColumbusTown's picture

When you have the type of athletes OSU does at DB, there is absolutely no reason not to press at the line.  Unless you are blitzing a safety or have zero help over the top, it makes no sense to just give away yards in today's age of offenses.  Technique is extremely important, but when you have freakish athletes who can jam at the line and consistently stay with their man, it makes things that much more difficult for the offense.

I'm of the opinion that if an opponent can consistently beat your DB's deep over the top, you tip your cap to them.  But, if they consistently beat you on short, quick routes because that's what you give them.. shame on you.  Hopefully the extra pressure on receivers combined with a talented defensive line means more sacks and QB pressures, as well as more incompletions.  Too often last year this defense gave their opponents easy yards and made 2nd/3rd down manageable situations.  It would be nice to put other offenses behind schedule for a change.

cplunk's picture

Yes and no.

Press at the line effectively takes away your ability to blitz your CBs, safeties, and (depending upon numbers) possibly even linebackers. Press reduces the pass defense to "we're gonna beat you straight up." Certainly you CAN still blitz those positions, but doing say is far, far more risky than in a zone or soft defense.

Think back over the years and you'll realize how often we've gotten pressure on QBs with non-DL players. You give up a lot of that in press.

Press also does one other thing- it gives the advantage to the offense in the run game. This is because the offense gets to dictate where your CBs (and sometimes safeties) are located on the field. They are, of necessity, right across from the WRs. In a soft or zone defense the defense chooses where to locate its players. The WRs also have much easier time blocking in the run game when the DB is already right there.

Certainly you can play zone principles with press, but not always.

I would expect that moving to press will greatly improve our pass defense in the short game, but I'd also expect to see two bad things: opposing offense will have more success running against us than we're used to seeing, and we'll give up some long TD passes over the top.

Personally I agree with moving to more use of press, but we need to be realistic about what that means. Every positive in football brings a new negative with it.

DeepSouthBuckeye's picture

“Every single snap of spring football we have lined up in press coverage, and that’s the way we’re going to learn it. "

This makes me a little tingly inside. And I like it. Alot.

Loving all things Buckeye from SEC country in Alabama.

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

+2 HS
BEREABUCKEYE's picture

If it lasts for more than 4 hours you should see your doctor.

Wesleyburgess1's picture

Honestly this is the defense I have always wished for. Obviously Urban knew all along that this was going type o happen. Look at the type of players he has been recruiting. I think that the current personal wasn't good at playing aggressive, or Urban simply didnt want to blow it up because they went undefeated the year before. Anyways we are playing press man to man allot now so F*ck the past.

+1 HS
BuckeyeJAK's picture

Jamming receivers ? finally !  We gave up too many throws underneath last season with soft coverage. Just hope Reeves has learned to turn his head in coverage.

Mark May is a mental midget

pdan46's picture

Honestly, I do not want to dwell on last season!  There are plenty of people who need to share the blame for our incredibly terrible pass defense last year despite having All-American players and former 4 and 5 star players nearly two deep.  I only want to focus on this season.  And, if what we are hearing is actually what happens, we will all be pleased.  The only way that a secondary can play effective defense is to play press coverage (provided that you have the athletes to do so).  We have the athletes!  Limiting the receiver's options and letting him know that he is going to get hit as soon as the ball gets to him will translate into far fewer completions and far more interceptions.

 

We have four CBs who can play press coverage and we need to rotate these guys so they are fresh throughout the game.  We have at least 3 solid Safeties and we should try to develop at least one or two more (Worley? Smith? Tanner? Thompson?).  Rotating will also be the key with our Safeties.  Coaches, you have the athletes, let them compete!

-1 HS
DBell8's picture

Reeves has never impressed me to be honest. Seems to me that all the talk is about the linebacking corp and I think the focus should be more towards the secondary. I am heading to the spring game Saturday and I am looking forward to seeing what this new defense can do. I feel that our corners are built more for press coverage than soft coverage anyways. Also, don't forget to factor in Erick Smith as he will be coming in this fall and should battle for playing time along with Apple, Conley, and Reeves.

 

 

+1 HS
CGroverL's picture

As a group, the Buckeye defense seems to have fallen from grace a bit as the majority of Buckeye Nation won't even call them "The Silver Bullets" anymore. This "more aggressive" defense seems as a much needed part of the defense. Besides the soft coverage being (hopefully) taken care of by this pressing defense, bump and run, or straight up man to man defense being played by the secondary, another thing that seems to have been missing is gang tackling. In years past it seemed that once a RB got close to the line, he had 6 Buckeye defenders just licking their chops and getting ready to finish him off. Did that happen in 2013 or 2012? Let's hope the aggressive secondary work translates into aggressive LB work, too. I won't mention aggressive work by the front 4 being needed as being aggressive is their #1 job...I'm sure we will have no problem there.

"I hope they're last in everything"

Thanks, Urb!

UrbanCulture's picture

Perhaps this is why our WR's were so bad against tight coverage last year...because they never faced it in practice!

+9 HS
CGroverL's picture

Great comment....I've always thought that the Buckeye (Miller's) passing numbers were light because of WR's never breaking tackles, but your comment makes tons of sense to me as the WR's practice against the defense....I just never thought of it that way. All in all though, the Buckeye WR's have improved over the last 2 years but still have not become PLAYMAKERS. Hopefully, this speed from these younger kids will translate into a few missed tackles and some bonus yardage for Miller that he hasn't gotten his fair share of in the past, not to mention them getting some separation from CB's when facing tight coverage.

"I hope they're last in everything"

Thanks, Urb!

bignut2017's picture

Last years attitude on defense was bend but don't break, this years will be I forget how to even bend

"Championships aren't won on Saturdays, they're won on Tuesdays in August" Kerry Coombs

harync's picture

Even before Withers left, I had heard that the front 7 and back 4 schemes were totally disconnected (which was pretty obvious). I'm actually surprised how few negative comments have come out about Withers. I really believe he was the main problem as opposed to Fickell (though he shares some responsibility). Interesting to see someone mention Mark Snyder. Synder and Withers are easily the worst defensive coordinators at OSU in the past 20 years.

-1 HS
Zimmy07's picture

Does anyone know if press coverage presents a problem against Navy's triple option?

I remember their cut blocking seemed to neutralize our D-line in the game in Columbus a while back & it seemed to turn into a game between their RB's & our LB's and whether or not our LB's could make every tackle.  Will the press coverage against this scheme let our safeties cheat up on the run considering our corners are probably more talented than their receivers?

bleedscarlet's picture

Press man has it's downsides as well... missing a jam and letting a receiver get past the corner, susceptible to back shoulder throws, corners having their backs to the line of scrimmage. I seen a lot of guys out of position last year, a lot of misplayed balls, missed tackles... if the players themselves don't play better it won't matter what the scheme is. With the way the DLine can get after the QB though, if they can buy them another step, the risk/reward will probably be well worth it.

I'm too drunk to taste this chicken

+1 HS
Actorjonnyb's picture

I'm sorry but this was Fickel's defense for the past 3 years. Period. Meyer has said it many times. If he would just be accountable and say the right things we would all rally around Fick. 

As I read this article I kept saying over and over again why...Why the gaps? Why the recovery by the defense once the ball was snapped. Someone had to be calling this D. Withers maybe, but this was Fickel's Defense. The buck stops here.

buckeyeinla

Go1Bucks's picture

WHAT?!   Fickell is still here?!

 

 

 

Just messin'

Go Bucks!