Gareon Conley was in the middle of explaining the importance of the cornerbacks in Ohio State’s defense when he was proposed with a question. What position group is more important, the pass-rushing defensive line or the corners?
“It’s the same,” Conley said. “Defensive ends, we get them sacks and they get us picks. It goes hand in hand.”
For the Buckeyes’ defense, that certainly seems to be the case.
Ohio State puts its cornerbacks in a lot of one-on-one situations and demands they shut down opposing wide receivers as they aren’t given much help. The defensive line is tasked with getting pressure on the quarterback so those corners aren’t left out on their islands for an extended period of time.
Everything works together.
“If you have bad corners, you are really restricted in what you’re doing in our base defense,” head coach Urban Meyer said. “It’s really evolved to do you have corners that can hang up in our style of defense? Then, obviously the D-line, too.”
The Buckeyes are currently ranked eighth nationally in pass defense, allowing just 171.6 yards per game through the air and are ninth in the country in total defense, surrendering only 298.4 yards per contest. Conley and fellow cornerback Eli Apple are obviously a huge part of that, but both also admitted it’s much easier for them to try and contain wide receivers if Ohio State’s defensive line is getting to the quarterback.
Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash agreed, saying when the Buckeyes’ front four is applying pressure, things become much easier for the defense as a whole and for the coaching staff trying to put together a game plan.
“It helps,” Ash said with a smile. “I think every defensive coach out there, if you’re going to build your defense you want to start up front and build it from the inside out with the defensive line being first.”
“Fortunately here, in my two years here, we’ve had a pretty disruptive defensive line and that has been continuing here as we go through the season. It’s getting better, but yeah, it makes everything a little bit easier if you know you can hold the point and get after the quarterback.”
Ohio State's defensive line has been pretty effective at doing just that this season, too. Joey Bosa, Tyquan Lewis, Adolphus Washington and Co. have made things extremely difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
“That’s the main thing about playing defensive line is getting penetration and being disruptive up front," Lewis said. "It benefits everybody that’s playing behind you."
Perhaps nobody on the field for Ohio State’s defense has a better view of things than Raekwon McMillan, the Buckeyes’ middle linebacker who is, well, right in the middle of things. McMillan is able to see how the defensive line in front of him harasses quarterbacks while also getting a first-person view of the secondary clamping down on wide receivers.
“Eli and Gareon do a great job locking down the No. 1 receivers to the boundary and to the field so that’s just one less thing that we have to worry about,” McMillan said. “Their level of competitiveness really raises the competitiveness of the whole defense and they do a great job in there.”
Ash’s scheme was installed prior to the 2014 season when he was brought to Columbus to fix what had become a broken pass defense. It’s been somewhat of a remarkable turnaround in just two short seasons.
It’s not all been done in the secondary, though. Ohio State’s defensive line is equally responsible for the success.
“We play man-to-man because they have confidence in me and Eli to play man-to-man, but that also comes with guys stopping the run,” Conley said. “Our D-line and our front seven are real good at getting to the quarterback so they help us get picks.”
“We all fit together.”