Five Defensive Scheme Questions for Fall Camp

By Ross Fulton on August 12, 2014 at 1:45p

While the Ohio State offense grapples with finding new starters, the Buckeye defense is implementing an entirely new scheme under new co-coordinator Chris Ash. The installation began this spring, but must intensify and become more complex this August.

Below I examine five schematic questions Ash and his fellow defensive coaches will try to answer.

How is the Cover 4?

It is by now no secret that Ash's primary change is basing the defense from cover 4. Cover 4's benefit is its versatility.

With two safeties sitting at ten yards, the defense can defend four vertical routes. But if the safeties see the inside receiver block, they can come downhill against the run, providing the defense a nine-man front.

Cover 4 vs. Spread

Cover 4's popularity has grown in response to spread-to-run offenses. The multi-faceted play by the safeties provides the defense a method to meet multiple wide receivers and the quarterback as run threat.

But the Ohio State defense tried to utilize cover 4 in Meyer's first season, with minimal success. The primary measure of how successful the Buckeyes defense will be this season is how quickly and smoothly the players grasp Ash's cover 4 scheme.  

So we know you Press – What else you got?

The most talked-about feature of Ash's cover 4 scheme is press corner coverage. Ash deploys press techniques to limit and identify routes available to the offense and contest easy throws.

But press coverage is a technique, not a coverage. And like any other technique, it has its limits. In Spring, the Buckeyes emphasized cover 4 press coverage since it is new and requires repetition. But Ash must now install the remainder of his defense.

For instance, against pro 21 personnel (2 WR, 2 RB, 1 TE), Ash generally eschews cover 4. He switches to a middle of the field single-high safety look such as cover 1 robber, bringing the other safety down to create an eight man front. 

The Buckeyes must utilize preseason camp to implement – and more importantly understand – all necessary coverages. 

How Ya Blitz?

Another aspect that must be established this fall is the Ohio State blitz package. Again, much of spring practice was spent repping Ash's press cover 4. So it remains to be seen how frequently the new-look Buckeye defense deploys blitz packages.

Ash has discussed using fire zone blitzes to stymie the zone read. And at prior stops his defenses feature a variety of man and zone pressures. Ash likes his defense to cycle between both looks to create quarterback uncertainty.

With zone blitzes, Ash will generally deploy a three deep, three under coverage behind the blitz. But he will also zone blitz with cover 2

For instance, an Ash favorite is also a staple of Pat Narduzzi's 4-3, cover 4 Michigan State defense – the double A gap blitz. The Mike and Will cross into the opposite A gap. The weakside defensive end drops into flat coverage. (H/T: Blitzology). 

Crossfire Zone Blitz

Behind the blitz, the free safety drops into the underneath hole as a robber, with three deep defenders. The goal is to create a 2 v. 1 matchup with the center and get immediate pressure in the quarterback's face. Then, if the quarterback tries to throw hot over the middle the robber is waiting.

Fall will provide a better sample of how frequently Ash intends to mix man and zone blitzes.

How Much Nickel?

Another pressing matter is how frequently the Buckeyes utilize a nickel defender. In recent years, Ohio State utilized a hybrid nickel defender whenever an offense presented 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). In practice, that meant that the Buckeyes played nickel defense far more frequently then their base alignment. 

Under Ash, the linebacker responsibilities have flipped. The Sam linebacker – currently a competition between Darron Lee and Chris Worley – functions as a hybrid player.

Against spread offenses, Ash aligns his defense's strength to the multi-receiver side. This results in the Sam linebacker walking out over the slot defender and the Will linebacker – Josh Perry, aligns toward the tight end. 

The Ash D

The nickel, meanwhile, will be a third corner. As such, it is likely that Ohio State will play nickel far less frequently. But it remains to be seen in what situations Ash utilizes nickel.

How Much Rotation Up-Front?

If there is one position group the Buckeye coaching staff does not have to worry about, it is defensive line. Ohio State may have the best starting defensive line in the country. And they have depth.

The only outstanding issue is who plays. Under Mike Vrabel, the defensive line rotated far less than in previous seasons. New defensive line coach Larry Johnson has made it a point of emphasis to rotate more frequently to keep his defenders fresh. But how frequently such rotation takes place – and how many linemen play consistent minutes – remains to be seen.

In sum, fall practice is critical for the Buckeye defense to fully implement Ash's new defense. But at least the Ohio State defense will have a identity and consistent scheme for its defenders to buy into – putting the Buckeye defense ahead of where it was last season.


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GVerrilli92's picture

But at least the Ohio State defense will have a identity and consistent scheme for its defenders to buy into – putting the Buckeye defense ahead of where it was last season.

This is the best quote of the summer. At least we have a system for the kids to buy into this season. You can't get better at what you do if you don't know what it is you're trying to do in the first place.

I got a gray kitty, white kitty, tabby too, and a little orange guy who puts snakes in my shoes. Got mad MC skills, that leave ya struck, and I roll with my kitties and I'm hard as f*ck.

+6 HS
apack614's picture

Awesome read! I love seeing the breakdowns of our schemes, very informative

I can't wait to poop in the PL bathroom.

+1 HS
Run_Fido_Run's picture

Ross, what are the basic differences between Ash's SAM in nickel versus the previous "star" position in nickel?

+1 HS
Athens BuckCat's picture

I can't wait to see the new scheme in action, hopefully the silver bullets we all love will be back this season

+1 HS
Ahh Saturday's picture

Ross, given the lack of success the Buckeyes had with Cover 4 last time we ran it, is there reason to believe we'll be more successful with it this time? Do you think our personnel is well-suited for this scheme, or are there a couple square pegs we're trying to jam into round holes? How optimistic/pessimistic are you regarding the implementation of Cover 4 for the Buckeyes?

+1 HS
sarasotabcg's picture

Here's Ross' take on the defense after the spring game.

After reading both posts back to back, I've come to the conclusion that Ross is really really good at what he does.

+4 HS
Hovenaut's picture

Breakdown of the preseason thus far, excellent stuff.

Optimistic to seeing the schemes bring back the SB's.

Urbz4President's picture

I desperately wish I understood more of this than I currently do. 

Frimmel's picture

Just keep reading. Eventually you pick up on the lingo and it ceases being an entirely foreign language. Then you kinda sorta see what he's talking about. Then the color commentator says something and you go "Hey, that's what Ross was talking about." Then you start having an idea what's going to happen before it does.

+2 HS
bakerjon's picture

Ross do you think we'll need to blitz much given the strength of the D Line? If we get pressure with four, why bring the backers and/or put the End into coverage? Maybe we blitz just the Mike instead the zone blitz?

"You do what I cannot do. I do what you cannot do. Together we do great things"

+1 HS
whiskeyjuice's picture

While it is expected that the OSU D-line will be causing havoc in the backfield, I think it's still nice to throw in random blitzes from different positions/players to keep the offense guessing. If OSU does the same thing all year and don't add in wrinkles or new additions to the scheme, that opens the door for really good teams with great coaches to be ready. Some of OSU's best defenses had several different blitz packages. The '96' season is top on my list when it comes to various blitzes. I haven't seen OSU blitz as well as they did that year. Going back to this years team, I don't think we need to blitz as much as OSU did in '96' but I like still like showing variety when OSU does blitz.

"Championships are not won on Saturdays in November. Championships are won on Tuesdays in August." -- Kerry Combs

Tater_Schroeder's picture

Very informative write-up. Always a student of the game.


Barnsey69's picture

Love it, be fun to watch it work in 18 DAYS!

Thank the Maker that I was born in Ohio, cradle of coaches, US Presidents, confederate-stomping Generals, and home of The Ohio State University Football Buckeyes- 2014 UNDISPUTED National Champions!

+1 HS
osu407's picture

In this article:

 The Buckeyes could go to three corners, with Reeves at nickel, and Doran Grant and either Gareon Conley or Eli Apple at corner, on third down, Ash said.

But that may be a look when the Buckeyes take a bigger player off the field, maybe a defensive tackle. It may not be the walkout linebacker coming off. The idea in those situations will be to attack with speed. In the past, that would have been considered more of Ohio State's "dime" look, with that third corner.

"All things being equal, if we can match up and get better athletes on the field and move pieces of the puzzle around and get some of the bigger athletes off the field, that's what we'll do," Ash said.

Ash is known for innovative looks on third down, so all bets are off when it comes to what the Buckeyes could show when teams absolutely have to pass.

I wonder if this is true or not.  Given that our Defensive line is the strongest unit on the defense right now it is hard to imagine.  Unless the defensive line is really so incredibly good that they can still get adequate pressure with one less rusher.  In 3rd and 20 situations or prevent-type end of game situations I guess it makes sense.

+2 HS

What has me optimistic was seeing those close-quarter drills (from that video) Ash has the DBs doing (and I'm hoping the LBs are, too). It teaches them basic press skill technique while also teaching them how to properly disrupt a WR's route. If the WR is going to catch the ball, fine, at least make them earn that catch. Too many times receivers ran downfield untouched/unfazed and were wide open. You bump them just a little it buys enough time for the DL to pressure the QB. Even as good as the DL was last season and could be this year, the secondary HAS to disrupt things first. Not the other way around. We didn't have very many coverage sacks last year did we? I am cautiously hopeful that will be the case this season.

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

+2 HS
Tampabuckeye85's picture

Well if you go back and look at the end of the NW game you will answer your own question, which is our line is most certainly good enough to get pressure with 3!!!! That my friend is a great thing to have.

+1 HS
Tampabuckeye85's picture

Another great point is, look how great our DL was with that Shitty secondary. If they would have been a little better imagine the pressure they would have gotten and those TFL and sacks would have racked up.

+1 HS
Jbucks's picture


Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it-John 1:5 SEC meet Ohio State, Ohio State meet SEC

hetuck's picture

First the defense has to answer Navy's option game. Totally different reads. 

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

+3 HS
kb1's picture

The Navy offense is an abomination of what we will see the rest of the year. Good point. +1

Frimmel's picture

Don't a lot of the read concepts currently in vogue derive from the triple option? There isn't a lot of passing granted but it's mostly just read option football. For the most part doesn't stopping Navy just come down to playing your assignments? Aside from the cut blocking this should be easier than some of the spread read concepts we'll see.

Fugelere's picture

Yes and no.  During any running play the defense will have at least a +1 numerical advantage (b/c the ball carrier's defensive counterpart will always be unblocked). In a more traditional offensive scheme that number increase to +2 because the QB hands the ball off and doesn't block anyone. However with a read option play one player is "blocked" by the QB's read and the defense is back to +1.

With a triple option that doesn't change the fact that the defense has a +1 advantage.  The main difference is which defenders are read.  During the triple the QB reads one defender and pitches off another.  Because both defenders are on the play side the offense has a 3 vs 2 fast break.  Compare to a zone read where the QB reads a defended on the backside of the play.  In short the offense does not gain the same blocking advantage that the triple does.  If you ask old school triple option coached they will tell you the zone read isn't even a real option play.  This doesn't really apply to inverted veer or power read play since it reads a play side defender.

Sorry for the long post I hope it helped clear things up.

+1 HS
Frimmel's picture

Thanks. That cleared things up a lot. Been away from computers for s few days.

BeijingBucks's picture

but if you look last year we were fine against the run, even option run.  but over pursuit killed us on plays against the grain and screen passes.

last year teams passed on us liberally to set up the run.  Isn't it supposed to be the other way around?

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

Hoody Wayes's picture

Who's the leader?

I thought conditioning was an issue, too (see whole game, but - especially - the last drive B1G CG...D was torched for 16 on play one.). The D-Line was a sieve. That same D-Line remains.

And this guy...awaits:

Amalgamate's picture

Hopefully depth on the D-Line and Johnson's willingness to substitute frequently will help with some of the conditioning issues on the D-Line. It seemed Vrabel took more of an NFL approach and left the starters in but I think at the college level, this is a mistake - especially with the athletes we have on the line. 

HighBallAce's picture

A little off topic but has anyone heard how Mike Mitchell is doing at Tech?

Edit: Nevermind, he's being forced to sit out this year due to NCAA transfer rules.

TURD_BUCKET's picture

Very insightful and informative

“Being average means you are as close to the bottom as you are to the top.” John Wooden