The Impact of a Deeper Defensive Line

By John Brandon on June 25, 2014 at 11:00a

To rotate or not to rotate, that is the question.

When Mike Vrabel coached the defensive line in 2012 and 2013, his aversion to rotating defensive linemen was well documented. Vrabel wanted his best players on the field at all times, an approach considered more pro-style than college. After two highly successful seasons, Vrabel now finds himself on the coaching staff of the Houston Texans. 

Enter Larry Johnson, longtime Penn State defensive line coach. Johnson has a track record for getting guys to the pros, but with a very different style from Vrabel. In particular, the angle that has been played up since Johnson’s arrival is his willingness to rotate a larger group of linemen. Buckeye linemen will be utterly dominant in the fourth quarter because they will be rested – or so the theory goes. To be honest, I’m skeptical that rotation will lead to a massive improvement.

Scarlet suits him well, eh?
Things are changing with Johnson in charge.

If NFL defensive linemen can play the entire game, why can’t college defensive linemen? NFL players play football and train for a living, but college players – especially at a schools with phenomenal strength and conditioning programs like Ohio State – are in rigorous training throughout the year. Sure, pro players are older and more physically advanced than college players; does that mean college players can only handle half as many snaps? It seems like a stretch.

What's more, the talent gap between first and second strings is greater in college than the NFL. Vince Wilfork at 50% is worse than his backup; Jadeveon Clowney at 50% is better than anyone South Carolina could put in for him, and a tired Noah Spence could probably outperform his backup as well. On the whole, I'd rather have Bosa, Bennett, Washington and Spence on the field at all times.

Still, this is a topic that deserves an objective look before jumping to any conclusions. What we’re going to do today is expand on what we’ve learned with offensive and defensive line analytics to determine if fatigue limited the defensive line’s effectiveness last fall, and what impact a larger rotation could have this year.

RELATED: GBR Primer and Defensive GBR

A few weeks back, I explained Good Blocking Rate (GBR) as a measurement of an offensive line's success against a defensive line. After that, I applied GBR to the defensive line and brought in a new stat called Sack + Hurry Percentage (S+H%) that measured the Buckeyes' ability to pressure the quarterback. After running the numbers, it was determined that last year's defensive line was very good, though not quite elite.

Towards the end of that piece I briefly mentioned what I found regarding Ohio State's quarter-by-quarter splits:

  rush attempts well blocked oGBR
1st-3rd Quarters 321 202 62.9%
4th Quarter 101 58 57.4%

If the Buckeyes' front four were fatigued in the fourth quarter, they didn't show it. They were substantially better in the fourth quarter against the run than they were in the first three quarters, but why?

One possible explanation is strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti's fitness regimen. He has a reputation for excellence, and he may have conditioned the defensive line well enough that opposing offensive lines wore down first. If this is the case, it would support leaving the starters in.

Nevertheless, there could be an explanation that supports rotating more often. In 2013, Ohio State often had the game in hand by the fourth quarter and brought in backups, who did a better job than the tired starters. To test this hypothesis, I broke down the above splits even further - into close games (winning by 10 or less, or losing) and blowouts.

Close Games
  rush attempts well blocked oGBR
1st-3rd Quarters 143 96 67.1%
4th Quarter 42 24 57.1%
  rush attempts well blocked oGBR
1st-3rd Quarters 172 110 64.0%
4th Quarter 59 32 54.2%

In both close games and blowouts, opposing offenses were 10% less successful in the fourth quarter than the rest of the game. No matter how you slice it up there isn't any evidence that the the line performed worse when starters had to play the whole game.

In fairness this is a pretty small sample size, and the defensive line might be better this fall while rotating more often. Other rotation factors, like having a deeper group that's able to handle injuries, can't easily be quantified but are important as well. I'm looking forward to tracking this in the fall to see how much of an impact a deeper rotation has.


Comments Show All Comments

Mortc15's picture

There is a difference in college vs NFL offense though. College has a lot more teams that provide hurry up no huddle compared to the NFL. Even qbs like Peyton manning don't exactly run a "hurry up" although it is a no huddle, he uses that to make all checks. 

Time may tell which if either strategy is better, but the d line had a great coach in Vrabel and now another in LJSR


+7 HS
theopulas's picture

we do have a sample to go by....his previous years does show that starters will play most of the game and be in at the4th quarter....


+1 HS
Buckeye06's picture

I have a couple thoughts/comments on this:

1. Would we be rotating during a drive, or would we leave the same 4 guys in throughout one drive, then bring in 4 new linemen for the next drive?  I feel that may be effective in quarters 1-3, then leave the best players in in the 4th quarter for the most important drives if need be

2. How many up tempo offenses are we going to see this year?  This is one of the reasons why offenses became so up tempo; to wear down defenses.  So if your philosophy is to rotate guys, then you are unable to due to the offense dictating substitutions, are we going to be worse off because our guys are used to going 100% for 5 plays, then taking the next 4 off, as opposed to playing to their best when they are tired at the end of a long drive in the 3rd quarter?

Just my thoughts

BroJim's picture

Right. I think the independant variable that needs to be looked at is the amount of rotation. How can you measure impact without knowing how much? Obviously we don't know the answer to the how much question yet, but in my opinion a better formative assessment would attempt to predict this variable. I'm not too sure of the author's measurement tools on this one. However, I don't disagree with the question, perhaps D-Line by committee is not the way to go. . .

I season my simple food with hunger

buckguyfan1's picture

Look forward to your findings this year John.  Can't wait to see this rotation in action.

Earle's picture

One impact of a deeper defensive line, apparently, is that you need more fodder walk-ons to line up against them.

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.

+8 HS
Unky Buck's picture

How much of that rotation can be placed on deserving backups getting playing time? Obviously the starting 4 are the best on the team but it doesn't mean that 5-7 don't deserve some playing time. I like to think the rotation isn't merely for getting rest for the starters but in giving meaningful playing time to other guys who are just a notch below. I am also of the belief that the playing time those non-starters receive only benefits them more down the road and makes them better. So yeah, for me, it's not so much about rest, but building depth down in the trenches where games are won and lost.

Rock over London; Rock on Chicago. Timex: It takes a lickin' but keeps on tickin'

+9 HS
theopulas's picture

well said...


shaggybuckeye's picture

The rotation also allows different style of attack. A swim move, dip and rip, bull rush, etc... from one player varies greatly than that of another. Rotating can make the offensive line have to deal with these variations and can cause more errors with their footwork, handwork, and blocking assignments.

With the horses in our stable the drop off from 1st string to second string is very little and as Unky mentioned rotating allows us to get those 2nd stringers meaningful game time which should keep the line maturing season after season even with player turnover.

+1 HS
MarkC's picture

One of the biggest frustrations the past two years has been the lack or rotation among all positions except QB. Playing starters basically the whole game is short-sighted in college. These younger non-starting players are the future of the program. They need game reps, preferably some of which occur early rather than garbage time. 

Jim Tressel used to play his entire second string offensive line the third series of every game. In an interview prior to the 2006 Texas game, he talked about trying to get as many players as possible in the game early. This was both to keep players fresh and to develop talent that would be needed in case of injury or the following season. 

The types of players Ohio State recruits could contribute enough to play 20-30 snaps/game as freshmen an non-starting sophomores without hurting the team. Then, the following season, we are not starting at square one to replace graduating seniors. As it stands, many rising juniors are basically third-year freshmen with no meaningful game experience. 

Winning games now and building for the future do not have to be mutually exclusive. 

+1 HS
tussey's picture

As it stands, many rising juniors are basically third-year freshmen with no meaningful game experience. 

Well said Mark 

BuckeyeSki's picture

Should 11W be posting all these pic's of LJS? I mean he IS stolen property and all...

Banned from BlackShoeDiaries since 2008. Crime: Slander/Defamation of Character Judgement: Guilty

+4 HS
DCNick's picture

One advantage of rotating guys that I don't think was mentioned is that it helps with recruiting and player development.

+4 HS
allinosu's picture

Good point, I think watching talented players stand on the sideline would make one question if that's the place for you.

2002osubuck's picture

Exactly right, and it'll create an extremely competitive culture within the group, leading to higher production.

buckguyfan1's picture

Seeing the fleet of Destroyers rotate in formation has to be a challenge for the opposition.


+5 HS
Knarcisi's picture

Maybe I missed this in the Vrabel years (or maybe we just did it a little less), but in recent history, we've always rotated 8 guys or so on the DL.  And yes, it's a great idea.  Guys staying fresh on the front and in the trenches is critical.  Gets guys ready for full time play, as well, in coming years.  I think it's been a strength of ours for years, and we have the personnel to do it this year:  Spence, Bennett, Washington, Bosa, Miller, Schutt, Carter, Lewis.  That's really, really solid.  Throw in another with Frazier, then something from a young pup like Hill or Holmes?  Yeah, I think a rotation is the way to go.  Always have.

+1 HS
buckeyedexter's picture

I see more benefits to rotating than just fresh legs.  If a guy gets hurt or when the leave to the NFL/graduates, you already have someone to replace them with plenty of game experience.  Also, you reward and motivate the #2 guy, because he knows he'll be playing instead of just sitting behind the #1.

+5 HS
OfficerRabbit's picture

Nailed it. I would also add that getting the #2's playing time not only motivates them, but also the guy ahead of them. We've already seen how an unexpected guy (Bosa) can come in and prove themselves worthy of #1 status out of nowhere. Nothing like a little competition to keep the #1's motivated.



+3 HS
Ahh Saturday's picture

While the Buckeyes have nice depth on the DL --with veterans like Steve Miller and Tommy Schutt, and younger talent like Michael Hill and Jalyn Holmes among the most likely to see minutes-- the gap between the starters and their back ups is pretty significant. Rotate situationally, give the starters rest when it can be afforded, give the younger guys experience when they can get it, but in the 4th quarter of a close game I want to see Spence, Bennett, Washington, and Bosa out there.

+4 HS
BroJim's picture

100% agreement. 

I season my simple food with hunger

alust2013's picture

I have little doubt that this will be the strategy. It would hardly make sense for them to put out 2nd stringers in the 4th quarter unless it was a blowout or a guy was winded or injured.

...and Michigan still sucks.

DannyBeane's picture

I really don't see any downside to this at all. We have depth on top of depth with all top notch players. Their legs will always be fresh. Everybody gets experience in every game. Plus think of the recruiting. If as a freshman you're good enough to break the rotation then you will play guaranteed.

If we were like some of the other B1G schools where we have very little depth and there is a solid drop off after the 1 or 2 deep then I can see this being a huge problem, but we're The Ohio State University damn it. Other than tight end we have depth for days at every position.

+2 HS
MikeTheBuckeye's picture

I'm all for a rotation. Even though we have arguably the best D-line in the country, there is still talent tucked away in the reserves that can make an impact. So a drop off in play isn't a fear of mine. Besides it gives the whole line some fresh legs. But perhaps the biggest upside of this is, when the D-line begins to graduate (or even more likely, opt to leave for the NFL), there will be reserves with real playing time and experience.

osubuck57's picture

Love the idea of rotating d-linemen. Keeps them fresher, is a great recruiting tool, and the kids that aren't starters, but prove through practice and academics, that deserve to get playing time, actually see the field. The only way I would be against this, is if there was a huge difference between the 1's and 2's, which in our case, I don't believe will be an issue. Besides, if it's a close game, you know who will be on the field. It also pushes the starters. if they're underperforming, the next guy up should get a chance to push for more playing time.


sb97's picture

I just think back to the 2009 defense.  We rotated a ton of guys on that line and the results were excellent. 

Heyward, Gibson, Worthington, Williams, Wilson, Larrimore, Denlinger, Simon, Rose all saw significant playing time on a regular basis.  I would be thrilled to see this season's line have that same kind of performance.


+3 HS
buckeyeradar's picture

Well said 97.   If there is a lot of difference between 1st and 2nd or 3rd team I don't see it.  The rotation will create greater competition and team play.  In my humble opinion. 

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box but I'm one of the most colorful.

+2 HS

i think the gap in TALENT between the rotation guys and the starters are far less then most think.  The starters are obviously the best, however, the recruiting we've done over the last few years has prevented many others to prove themselves.  I think the older guys like steve miller and frazier have more EXPERIENCE.  Don't really see an issue with the rotation, any of these guys could play the entire game, but why not keep them fresh?

theopulas's picture

when you are Ohio State and recruit top notch players nationally, and have backups that would be starters at most schools, there can be no possible down side to this....and coach Johnson is smart by saying it publicly so blue chippers know they might play early while playing for championships. We are The Ohio State....


+1 HS
Hovenaut's picture

If I'm with the "next man up" mentality (hint: I am), then having depth and rotation is a good thing.

I think the challenge is finding balance and effectiveness when using the rotation, and I'm glad LJSR is leading that effort.

BTBuckeye's picture

I favor rotation. I like seeing kids that work hard get some playing time, even if its just a few snaps. Keeping our boys fresh isn't a bad idea IMO.

I also really favor rotation at RB. We have a stable of legit RB's at OSU and I'd like to see them all get a few touches a game. Yes, run EZE all day, but seriously, he doesn't need 30 carries against Kent State. Warren Ball and Rod Smith should each have 5-10 carries in that game. Just my thoughts tho. Whatever Urban says!

+2 HS
BTBuckeye's picture

I would also favor having some guys who get playing time for specialty situations (like using Miller or Frazier on goal line duty for example, or 3rd down pass rushers in 4Q or something).

Or just have John Simon play with broken ankle. Whatever!

+1 HS
OSU_1992_UFM's picture

Joey Bosa?

Spring football is like non-alcoholic beer.  It looks like what you want, but only intensifies your desire for the real thing--Earle

Shangheyed's picture

Ok cat is out of the bag, would John Simon start on this team?

shaggybuckeye's picture

With how much Meyer loved him I don't think there's a way he wouldn't.

buckeyepastor's picture

To me, the advantage of rotation of players isn't so much keeping them fresh, though that should in theory be true.  To me the big upside is knowing that the "next man up" is really ready to be the "next man up."   If Spence or Bosa or Bennett goes down, it makes a big difference to know that whoever steps in for them will be someone that has had a lot of quality time.   

Clowney was a bit of a specious example.  I have a feeling that if the drop off from Spence or Bosa to the next man is that dramatic, they aren't going to rotate that person in nearly as much.   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

BuckeyeJ's picture

Question: does anyone feel that we didn't rotate because of lack of development and depth? I feel that is one important thing UFM has brought in with recruiting and then developing the talent. To have a good rotation you have to have both

DC-town's picture

Yep, Unky Buck said it well, it's not just th fresh leg argument, but it breeds competitiveness on the lower part of your depth chart and sets a good tone / mentality for the younger guys.

Jalyn Holmes might be third on the depth chart and probably isn't overtaking spence anytime your ass off and you WILL be getting meaningful consistent reps this year.  Definite benefit that can't be measured

'Piss excellence' -RB

Citrus's picture

Rookies often hit a "wall" when they enter pro-sports. Also, the NFL is full of situational pass rushers. Another consideration is injury. When a player gets tired form can suffer and injury is more likely. Also, if a player sees fewer snaps there is less of a chance of injury. So why not rest some of the studs? I don't think there is that big of a drop off between our starters and 2nd string. 

As for your evaluation, tOSU won 24 straight games. In the majority of the court quarters over the last two years, tOSU was leading by several TDs. Thus, opposing offenses become one-dimensional. I think this explains the statistical improvement in the 4th quarter. 

+1 HS
CowCat's picture

I'm in favor of rotating in the backups as much as possible, in all position groups.

To win it all we'll have to play 15 games, topped off at the end by TTUN > B1G Championship > Playoff game > National championship.

The more games we play, the greater the risk of injuries. We need as many experienced players as possible heading into the home stretch.

"We get paid to score touchdowns, not kick field goals"
-- Urban Meyer

+2 HS
kc_buck's picture

I am not overly concerned about a starter still being fresh in the 4th quarter of any one game, but very concerned about a starter still being fresh in the 4th quarter of games 12, 13, 14 and with any luck game 15. The wear and tear of a full season is brutal regardless of elite training. Any break the starters can get during the season builds depth and keeps players fresh throughout the WHOLE season.



+1 HS
chirobuck's picture

I'm kinda of curious as to what happens when rotating guys in, does he give guys an entire series off or will the rotation look more like a guys comes out for a couple plays then goes back in.....


^ best post ever ^

CC's picture

I know very little about the NFL, but I did play DE in college.  I can tell you that having big hoss leaning up against you all game get's really tiring.  The D lineman are much more tired than the o-lineman at the end of the game, that's how it felt anyway.

Something that hasn't been talked about is that rotating guys in creates competition and depth.  The backups are less like backups and the starters know they need to push at 100% always.

southernstatesbuckeye's picture

I've read a lot of excellent comments above, but there is one huge advantage to rotating players that may be overlooked.


When a high school player commits to a place like Ohio State, he already knows the talent level is extraordinarily high.  However, also knowing that he may be able to break into that rotation early in his career as opposed to riding the pine until his time huge.

I like cookies.

+1 HS
Tom57's picture

There is only one possible reason not to rotate... you have very poor depth.

This was the case in 2011, 12 and 13. A combination of recruiting misfires and injuries.

This season - unless injuries crop up - we will have some very solid experience and depth.

The open question is how LJ will deploy the starters who are effectively all DE's, and then mix in some of the next 4-6 guys. The issue is that the top 5-6 DL (assuming Smith and Lewis as next up) are all DEs. The three DT bodies (Schutt, Hill and Munger with Carter thrown in for "good measure") all have very little experience.

I see rotation as critical to the success - not so much for endurance, but to get some true NG's on the field. Playing either Washington or Bennett at the 1 Tech is a waste of talent IMO.

j_stinebaugh's picture

Agreed, you absolutely rotate as much as you can if you have the depth.  Fresh legs are more important than people think.  Bennett even spoke out and said how LJ's rotational strategy will benefit them.  It also gives the depth more experience, and as noted above benefits recruiting.  Everyone rotates their DL, just maybe not to the extent that we will under Johnson.  

National Champs 2015

Bamabucknut's picture

I like the idea of rotation. One key reason is injury. Your first stringer goes down and the gap between first and 2nd string should be smaller with #2 getting more reps. Hurry up can really gas a line and it shows up late.Rotation help your defense hold up late in the game.Lastly you may see a #2 because they are in the game more...continue to grow and possibly become a #1.

Max Power's picture

While I want to see Spence,.Washington, Bennett and Bosa decimating the backfield as much as possible, having talented backups will not only decrease fatigue in our starters but risk of injury as well. Getting younger backups more quality snaps will only speed up their development IMO. If the 2s are capable of stepping in with little drop off and if morale stays high, I am ok with it. Something tells me that at least 1 or 2 starters will be on the field at all times anyway. I dont think its gonna be like a line change in hockey


Depth is great to have in the event of an injury, equipment malfunction, cramp, or whatever. Run in a backup for a play or two and having no drop off in production is every coach's dream. I personally like it from a conditioning standpoint when playing a team with a spread offense, especially someone like Cal or Texas Tech who throw 60-70 times a game. But I've always looked at backups as understudies more than anything. They're there for depth but also to learn under the starter while waiting patiently for their turn to shine. That's what allows teams to reload instead of rebuild like our defense did at one point.

As for rotating them in like a platoon, that tends to cause cohesiveness issues, more on the OL, but it does affect the DL. You don't want your version of Vince Wilfork on the field vs. a spread team but you don't want your undersized DLs on the goal line on 4th and inches either. I think it's probably best to have as versatile a D-line as possible to address any situation rather than simply rotating in 3 or 4 players of the same position.




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