2014 Season Preview: Scouting the Buckeye Offense

By Kyle Jones on August 14, 2014 at 3:30p
30 Comments

The days of "three yards and a cloud of dust" are long gone in Columbus.

Eleven Warriors' 2014 Ohio State Football Season Preview

With the hiring of Urban Meyer at Ohio State in 2012 came the 'spread-to-run' offensive philosophy that became his calling card in previous stops at Bowling Green, Utah, and most recently, the University of Florida. With the additions of offensive coordinator Tom Herman from Iowa State and offensive line coach Ed Warinner (both considered to be rising stars in the profession), Meyer not only diversified the playbook, but changed the culture on the offensive side of the ball.

After amassing 7,167 yards of total offense and averaging 45.5 points per game in 2013, the Buckeyes not only set school records, but re-defined what success looks like on the offensive side of the ball.

With Braxton Miller returning and looking to add to his two Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year awards, the Ohio State offense remains the gold standard in the Big Ten after leading the conference in nearly every offensive measure. Even with the loss of star running back Carlos Hyde and four starters on the offensive line, the scarlet and gray seem poised to continue their dominance on this side of the ball.

For opposing coaches, the task of stopping the Buckeyes remains a unenvious one. But while the OSU offense may not resemble the traditional offenses of the past, the Buckeyes actually run a fairly simple scheme. With an emphasis on keeping opponents off balance through both alignment and pace, the Buckeyes are often able to simply out-execute their opponents, running the same plays over and over to perfection. 

So what do opponents see when looking to stop the Buckeyes? Let's take a look.


Personnel

The Buckeyes almost exclusively line up in "11" personnel, meaning they have 1 running back and 1 tight end on the field, which (along with five offensive linemen and one quarterback) means there are three wide receivers on the field.

OSU base personnel

While they appear to line up in a traditional "spread" offense personnel group, the Buckeye offense under Meyer has consistently looked for specific traits from each skill position:

  • Quarterback: Often asked to make quick decisions, must be athletic enough to pose a threat to run
  • Running Back: Downhill runner that spends the majority of time in between the tackles, must be strong enough to run through arm tackles, quick burst valued more than top end speed
  • Tight End: Jack of all trades that lines up all over the field, must block like a traditional fullback, also asked to contribute in downfield passing game
  • X Receiver: Very involved in screen passes as a blocker and receiver, often the least explosive of the three receivers
  • Z Receiver: Runs vertical routes and acts as deep threat most often, must also contribute as a blocker in the running game
  • H Receiver: Wildcard of the offense, involved equally as both runner on outside handoffs and options and receiver in short screens and option routes 

As the diagram shows above, the three wide receivers are denoted as H, X, and Z. While the X and Z receivers are what would often be considered "traditional" wide receivers, running vertical pass routes and blocking on running plays, the H receiver is the wildcard of the Buckeyes offense.

Though the H position was often manned by Corey 'Philly' Brown over the past two years, the Buckeyes are expecting big things from sophomore Dontre Wilson. By motioning Wilson in and out of the backfield, the Ohio State offense will attempt to get him the ball in situations where he can be exploit his greatest talent: speed.

Dontre TD

By consistently using this three-receiver set, the Buckeyes are able to spread out their opponents horizontally, forcing them to defend from sideline to sideline. More than often than not, opponents are forced to remove a linebacker or linemen and play with an extra defensive back to keep up with the extra speed the Buckeyes present. In turn, the Buckeyes gain an advantage when running between the tackles in this situation, as a typical run-first defender has been removed from the equation.

Teams with NFL-caliber athletes at linebacker, such as Michigan State, have been able to keep their base defense on the field with the Buckeyes in the past. But the constant threat of explosiveness in the form of Wilson makes that scenario even more challenging. To match the athleticism of the Buckeyes, it's very likely that nearly every defense the Buckeyes face this fall will take the field in that five-DB look.


Running Game

Without question, the foundation of the Ohio State offense under Meyer, Herman, and Warinner has been the Tight Zone. This fairly simple concept is installed on day one of spring and fall practice, and acts as the starting point for nearly everything else the Buckeyes try to do when they have the ball.

OSU TIght Zone

But while the concept may be both literally and figuratively straightforward, the Buckeyes have mastered the techniques necessary to execute this play against nearly any defensive front. Since the offensive line is governed by a set of rules on the play, and not assigned to any particular defender, they're able to adjust on the fly.

Knowing they can execute the play at virtually any time, the Buckeyes are able to control the tempo of the game, often lining up quickly for the next play without a huddle to keep the defense off balance. Even if their opponents are able to change what they're doing to defend, the Buckeyes have often seen that adjustment before, and know how to handle it with ease.

This fairly simple play allows OSU to keep the defense off balance in other ways as well. In particular, the defensive end with the red box around him in the diagram above doesn't get blocked on the play. Instead, he will be read by the QB and virtually taken out of the play that way. If the end crashes down to try and tackle the running back, Miller will simply fake the handoff and run outside, as we've seen him do countless times over the past two seasons.

While the Buckeyes also run the "Power" and "outside zone" on occasion, the tight zone accounted for the vast majority of Carlos Hyde's carries in 2013, which resulted in over 1,500 rushing yards for him alone. There's no reason to think the Buckeyes will change this approach in 2014, even though a new starter at running back is yet to be named. 

But the Buckeye running game doesn't stop there. With such a great weapon at hand in Braxton Miller, the OSU coaches regularly call a number of plays that highlight his unique ability to run the ball. Since the offensive line already has the scheme in place to block the "Power" play, the Buckeyes will often run the "inverted veer" made famous by Gus Malzahn's offense at Auburn. On this play, Miller now options the front side defensive end with the option of handing off to the running back on an outside sweep, or running inside behind his pulling guard in what effectively becomes a regular "Power" play.

Additionally, Meyer and the coaches will regularly call runs designed directly for Miller, in the form of sweeps and counters.

With so many proven ways to beat a defense on the ground, the Ohio State running game has proven incredibly difficult to stop. However, as Clemson showed in the Orange Bowl, the task is not impossible. The Tigers held the Buckeyes to 193 yards rushing, and a season-low average of 4.02 yards per carry. Specifically, the Tigers shut down Miller, only allowing him 35 yards rushing on 18 carries, by far his lowest output of the season.

It's likely that the Tigers provided a template of how to shut down Miller, although much of that credit belongs to the athleticism of Vic Beasley and the Clemson defensive line.

Very often, defenders will wait for Miller to make a decision to hand off or keep, but Beasley forces Miller into an uncomfortable spot where the timing of the handoff is rushed. In addition, the other Clemson defensive linemen don't allow themselves to be double-teamed by the Buckeyes, instead bull rushing straight ahead at both guards and forcing penetration into the backfield. Had Miller made the handoff to Hyde, he wouldn't have had anywhere to go. 

Teams with great athletes like Virginia Tech, Michigan, and certainly Michigan State will all likely try to copy this blueprint this fall, hoping their defenders up front are able to win enough of these individual battles to upset the cadence of the OSU running game. For teams with lesser athletes though, the challenge is much more difficult. Such opponents are forced to commit extra defenders into the box, hoping to overwhelm the Buckeye blockers, but leaving their pass defense exposed in the process.


Passing Game

When teams decide to commit extra defenders, often defensive backs, inside to defend the run, the Ohio State offense tries to expose their newfound numerical advantage outside. Most often, the Buckeyes like to package their tight zone running play with a quick pass to the outside. The offensive line and running back will run the tight zone, but instead of reading a defensive end and potentially keeping the ball to run, Miller now has the option to throw a quick pass outside to one of his receivers.

OSU packaged play

The quick pass might be a wide receiver screen, like we see below to the H receiver, or it might be a quick hitch to the Z on the opposite side.

OSU packaged hitch

With the constant threat of the tight zone, the Buckeyes found these short, quick passes open quite often, and Meyer has even said that we'll likely see more of this in 2014.

To build on the threat of the running game, the Buckeyes like to often throw deep on play-action as well. Not only do the Buckeyes have deep play-action passes built off the tight zone, but nearly every other base run play described above as well. As we can see below, it's critical for the offensive line and running back to sell the fake just as much as the quarterback. The entire Wisconsin defensive line is going one way, allowing Miller the room to set up and make a great throw.

OSU Play action

The Buckeyes have found the most success throwing the deep ball on early downs, when the threat of the run is most apparent. But they haven't found as much success in the past when trying to convert longer passing situations

In these scenarios, the Buckeyes usually attack defenses in one of two ways. The first, and most basic, concept is by running variations of the four verticals attack.

What might look like a "everyone go long" play you ran in your backyard is actually all about timing and matchups. With the threat of Miller to run on any broken down passing play, defenses often like to play a zone defense, allowing their players to keep an eye on the backfield and help out if Miller takes off.

But by playing a zone, a defense is effectively showing the Buckeyes where the holes will be, allowing the receivers to slightly adjust their routes and Miller to throw to a spot, which in the example above was the open area between the two safeties, and just behind the linebackers.

In addition to vertical routes, the Buckeyes like to run "flood" routes that might overwhelm one of these zones to either side. By putting more receivers to one side of the field than there are defenders to cover them, the Buckeyes theoretically have the chance to always make the defense wrong.

Sail concept

To make thing even easier for the quarterback, the Buckeyes often won't even run routes to the opposite side of the field, allowing him to make an easy read from deepest to shortest. 

While these concepts are great in theory, they've proven more difficult to execute against press defenses. As Michigan State has shown the past two seasons, Buckeye receivers have struggled to get off the line of scrimmage when they're jammed by opposing defensive backs. Additionally, OSU wideouts have had problems creating the separation needed to get open when facing man-to-man coverage, something Meyer eluded to recently at Big Ten media days.

There's no question that development in the receiving corps offers the biggest question mark in defending the Buckeyes. If they're able to beat press-man coverage, the potential of the Buckeye offense remains endless. While throwing off their timing isn't going to stop the offense completely, it begins to undermine the entire effect of the offense overall. If they can't get off the line, then the defense can commit more defenders to the run. 

There's no doubt that defensive coordinators like Bud Foster, Pat Narduzzi, and Greg Mattison will force Wilson, Devin Smith, Evan Spencer, and a slew of young Buckeye receivers to show them they're capable of beating the press. It might be their only chance of slowing down Meyer, Miller, and the rest of the Buckeyes in 2014.

30 Comments

Comments

apack614's picture

I love our new offense it is a lot more fun then that 3 yards a play offense but sometimes I can't help but miss it.

"If we worked half as hard as our band, we'd be champions." - Woody Hayes

+1 HS
yrro's picture

I had as much fun watching hide on IZ last year as I have watching any pound and ground game we've had. I had less fun watching our passing attack.

I kind of hate the spread screen pass game, even though I get all of the good things it does for the rest of the offense.

+3 HS
apack614's picture

You know, I assume we would all agree both were fun as long as we were winning haha.

"If we worked half as hard as our band, we'd be champions." - Woody Hayes

brbrbuckeye's picture

That clip of the Clemson game made it sound like they stopped our offense, when they didn't stop it. I think our problem in that game was our crappy defense.

GO BUCKS!!! URBAN RENEWAL!

+2 HS
d5k's picture

Clemson made us punt more than we wanted to but we still got a good number of big plays once we got guys to the second level.

brbrbuckeye's picture

Now take our score and imagine if we had a typical Buckeye defense.

GO BUCKS!!! URBAN RENEWAL!

+2 HS
IBLEEDSCARLETANDGRAY's picture

This is why Urbz is recruiting so much speed, to beat the opposing secondary. Dontre, Corey, Johnny, Devin, Evan, Jeff and Michael CANNOT disappear this season. We don't have El Guapo to bail us out if they do. Keeping my fingers, toes and eyes crossed our WRs get it done. Please, please, please.

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

+1 HS
avail31678's picture

Awesome analysis.  I'm usually pretty bad with X's and O's, but I'm going to pull this up in 16 days and wow my friends and family.

+3 HS
CGroverL's picture

I played youth football, practiced on "no pads days" with the football squad in high school and after my junior year, after much begging from the coaching staff, I decided to play high school football for just my senior year (which ended up ruining my life because of an injury that took me out of sports completely after 18 months in cast after microsurgery on my wrist). My point is simply that I was learning football 101 and then in high school after my injury, I stuck around and learned football 102 (we were a weak squad in a strong 6A conference which was the highest division you could play at the time and was based on school population) while my Grenadiers football team finished the season (0-10).

I thought that I had learned a lot about football. Now, these "Let's take a look at Urban Meyer's offense" articles pop up and to a great degree, I am lost. I have to re-read everything, and then re-read it again. On top of that, I'm being told how simple it is by the writer/writers. It may be easy in theory but it seems to put a lot of pressure on the QB as he has to do everything perfectly for the plays to go well...it seems.

Defensive coverage and blitz packages are much easier for me. This offense just amazes me at how well it works. These guys have done a great job though  and it is showing more and more each year. Defense was always easier for me to understand as I played CB and signaled in coverages after my injury. Thanks to these guys at 11W, I'm getting much better at seeing why our Buckeyes seem to be hitting the line quick and going straight into the secondary. Thanks for all of the articles, writers. The articles have taught me a lot and most of it does seem simple as the ultimate goal is to get your guys in open space right?

"I hope they're last in everything"

Thanks, Urb!

-1 HS
brbrbuckeye's picture

It can't be easy, after two years we still haven't seen the full extent of Urban's playbook. He didn't have the WR core to implement effectively.

GO BUCKS!!! URBAN RENEWAL!

+1 HS
southbay's picture

I think he does now.

Kyle Jones's picture

Glad you're able to take something away from these articles. If what we write is confusing, don't hesitate to ask questions, I'm more than happy to talk about this stuff for days!

As for 'getting the ball in space,' you're right, there is a much greater emphasis on that now. However, that's not the end all, be all. The goal is to make your opponent defend all 53.5 yards of the field horizontally, (aka SPREADing them out). The areas between the tackle or tight end and the wide receivers weren't being exploited much in the past, whereas now the slot/alley player is forcing teams to defend that space too. Watch a team like Baylor, and how their WRs literally line up on each sideline, and look at how much space is in between each defender. All of a sudden, defense becomes about making an open field tackle, which when the guy with the ball is Dontre Wilson, Jalin Marshall, or Curtis Samuel, that's a very difficult task. However, you have to attack that area just as much as you attack the sideline and in between the tackles. It's really all about creating a balanced attack where the defense can't overplay one area.

bbb's picture

excellent analysis, per usual

+1 HS
Tim's picture

I'm excited to see the development of the receivers, and I hope that in the near future we'll be seeing Noah Brown or another big receiver push some corners around when they're trying to press him.

buckguyfan1's picture
+1 HS
sivaDavis's picture

Love in the first gif of Dontre he tells the WR blocking to come back and take the LB nearest to him because he knew 1on1, there was no way that corner was stopping him.

Also love the way Rod Smith runs, big and fast. Hope he puts it all together and him, along with EzE and the rest of the stable run all over teams.

"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

+1 HS
BURGEYE's picture
I feel the need...

I feel the need...

+6 HS
TURD_BUCKET's picture

Hopefully everyone is getting more comfortable with the offense beginning the third year.

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

Knarcisi's picture

Year 3 for Urbs in his offense, now with more of his type of players. As he stated, he rode the horse with Hyde. Good coaching to me to adjust to what you have and make the most of it. Wa he did was make it the most productive offense Ohio State has ever had. Scary thing is, now with the athletes to fit his offense, could even be better. I love the short passing game. Lots of options, frankly suits our QB better, and creates big time mismatches. Hate to keep saying these UF names, but Wilson, Samuel, Marshall might be the closest thing to Harvin, Demps, and Rainey we've ever seen. Look out. 

brbrbuckeye's picture

We sure are loaded with talent this year. Does it feel to you that this is the deepest team we've ever seen?

GO BUCKS!!! URBAN RENEWAL!

+2 HS
whiskeyjuice's picture

Can't wait to see this years offensive execution.....................and can't wait to see this years defensive execution.......GO BUCKS!!

"You'll find out that nothing that comes easy is worth a dime. As a matter of fact, I never saw a football player make a tackle with a smile on his face." -- Wayne Woodrow Hayes

CC's picture

Watching the Clemson highlights made me sick.

CGroverL's picture

I'm still sick and I refuse to watch the highlights.

"I hope they're last in everything"

Thanks, Urb!

+2 HS
Vinsaniti's picture

This offense is so simply but so hard to defend when you have guys like Dontre, Braxton, and company. Watch out for Jeff Heuerman and the rest of out talented TE's they are the sleepers that will burn defenses when they are keyed on the speed of the WR's and the power and execution of our RB's.

+1 HS
Spider1944's picture

I hate to be the fly in the ointment but who is going to be getting the ball to all these playmakers. Everybody seems to be ignoring the big elephant in the room. Where is Braxton Miller? Starting week 3 and I don't hear anything about him. Is he even practicing?

like I said who is going to be getting the ball to all these playmakers?

"There are 3 things that can happen and 2 of them are bad" - the Curse of Woody Hayes

Nairion's picture

He is practicing. If you watch the videos hes thrown some good balls too.
Urb is just bringing him back slow. He doesnt want to rush his arm becausehe knows he has to ride that cannon all season long.

Shangheyed's picture

The Key is the Offensive line... where the playmakers weren't ready last year, but the Oline was superior... this year the playmakers are there...the OL is the only question mark.  Miller will be improved(again contingent on the OL). 

The good news is they are playing every day against the best DL in the Nation... that can only help make the line stronger individually and as a Unit(most likely they will need to double team often).

Problem of inexperience is compounded by having 3 guys Baldwin, Hale and Lindsay(all not signed as OL or transfering in to a new team/system).  So even the experienced guys are not as experienced as their college year would assume. 

Walrus left the kitchen bare!

+1 HS
Urbz4President's picture

Great read, Kyle. Between this and Ross' articles, I just might end up fully grasping the fine details of our offense and defense. Salute!

+1 HS
zhamilton05's picture

Shortly after the video chop of Braxton getting stuffed early in the 3rd quarter was the muffed punt by Philly Brown with tOSU up by 9 in the 3rd. Ugh...I had forgotten how close we were to taking control of that game, and then a SR kicks the door open for Clemson's comeback! I wonder how different the tone of this spring and summer would have been--both in the Buckeyes' camp and on the national scene--if tOSU had finished with, say, a 42-33 win?

brbrbuckeye's picture

Something that still bugs me, though, is the interception that was dropped. Those refs....ugh.

GO BUCKS!!! URBAN RENEWAL!

+2 HS