After Ohio State gave up 539 yards and six touchdowns to Purdue’s offense in its 49-20 loss in West Lafayette on Saturday, many Ohio State fans want to see the Buckeyes make major changes to their defense.
But even though the Buckeyes’ defense has struggled all season with giving up big plays, and that finally caught up to them in the form of a loss this past weekend, Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano still believes his defense only needs smaller tweaks in order to start playing up to the standard that is expected in Columbus.
On Wednesday, Schiano acknowledged that his defense “had a tough night Saturday night without a doubt,” and that giving up big plays has been a problem all season. Purdue hit six plays of 20-plus yards on Saturday, including three plays of 40-plus yards that all went for touchdowns in the fourth quarter; the Buckeyes have allowed 26 plays of 30-plus yards this season, tied for the fourth-most among all Football Bowl Subdivision defenses.
While it hasn’t translated to game action, yet, though – and at this point in the season, it really needs to – Schiano likes what he has seen from his defense in practice, and is confident that the play of his unit will soon turn the corner.
“The truth of the matter is that we’re actually making progress in all areas,” Schiano said Wednesday. “There’s some things that I wish we’d make it faster. But when you watch the game and really evaluate it, there’s a lot of good plays. A lot of zero-yard gains. Negative gains. Sacks.
“Being around these guys every day, practicing with them, watching them perform and really evaluating them, I do think that they’re on this kind of ascension,” Schiano added. “I think we’re getting close, and just in the nick of time, because we need to go out and play really good defense down the stretch if we’re going to accomplish the goals that we set out for at the beginning of the year.”
Greg Schiano says he wouldn't label Ohio State's defense as a "problem," and he's confident it will make the necessary improvements.— Colin Hass-Hill (@chasshill) October 24, 2018
"I know it stinks to lose. It stinks to look at that scoreboard and see what it was. But, I don't think we're very far off." pic.twitter.com/EKkeqRTBZr
Schiano said the defensive players are making mistakes during games that they’re not making in practices, but he believes they will make less of those mistakes as they continue to gain experience.
“There’s this thing called the pressure of the game that can make a player do something that he hadn’t done in practice, and that’s where you got to take it from the practice field to the game field, and we’re getting really close to doing that,” Schiano said.
Schiano said Ohio State’s defense missed 20 tackles at Purdue, which he said was the highest number in any single game since he’s arrived at Ohio State, and a big reason why the unit struggled – particularly in the fourth quarter, in which he said about half of those missed tackles occurred.
Although the Buckeyes are placing a greater emphasis on tackling this week, he doesn’t necessarily see that as a lingering issue, because he said the Buckeyes were much better in that regard in their first seven games of the season than they were on Saturday.
“Up until last week, we’ve been one of the best tackling teams in America,” Schiano said. “It really wasn’t an alarming issue, we were in the single digits all the time and sometimes in the low single digits, and that’s what you look at as a coordinator, you want to make sure that your team is tackling at that level of efficiency. And for whatever reason, let’s give our opponent so credit, but for whatever reason, we tackled as poorly as we’ve tackled at least in my tenure here.”
The obvious issue for the Buckeyes all season has been the big plays that opponents have hit against their defense. Schiano acknowledged Wednesday that the coaches need to do a better job of putting their players in position to make plays, but he also doesn’t expect to make any drastic changes to the defensive scheme.
“We’re not going to make wholesale changes. Because I don’t think any of us believe we should. But you can tweak your scheme,” Schiano said. “You can say, ‘How are we going to help this guy?’ Where we’ve had troubles at this position, ‘How are we going to help that position be better?’ And without having a team to get ready for, you can really drill down on it and whatever that change is, which I certainly can’t share, you can really work on it in practice to help put that player in the position that next time out, he can do it better.”
“I think we’re getting close, and just in the nick of time, because we need to go out and play really good defense down the stretch if we’re going to accomplish the goals that we set out for at the beginning of the year.”– Greg Schiano on the progress of Ohio State's defense
One of the lingering questions about Ohio State’s defensive scheme all year has been its insistence on regularly playing press-man coverage, even though some of their linebackers and defensive backs have evidently struggling in that coverage this year, and whether the Buckeyes should be playing more zone coverage. Schiano said Wednesday that the Buckeyes actually have been mixing in more zone coverage this year, and could do so even more going forward, but that man coverage will still continue to be the defense’s primary philosophy.
“We have played in more zone probably this year than we have in the past,” Schiano said. “Can we play more of it? Sure we can. And might that aid and assist some guys that are right now maybe not right ready to play 60-70 snaps of man a game? Without a doubt. That’s all part of what we’re talking about when we say tweaking what we’re doing, but to say that you’re going to come out and see a Tampa 2 zone team 60 plays a game, that won’t happen. And we don’t want it to happen here.”
Another question, particularly after comments by both former Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis and Purdue coach Jeff Brohm this week that suggested that opponents are taking advantage of it, has been whether the Buckeyes are playing their linebackers too close to the line of scrimmage. Schiano said Wednesday that the Buckeyes actually moved their linebackers up to the line of scrimmage less against Purdue than they did in previous weeks, but acknowledged that the defense hasn’t been able to adjust to that scheme as well as he had hoped.
“There’s a lot of positives that can come out of that if you can get good at it, the main one being getting double teams off your defensive line instantly,” Schiano said. “But it’s not something that our guys, we thought as we went through the season, we would get more and more comfortable with it – that hasn’t been the case. So Saturday, we really limited it and picked our spots to do it, the times that the play set up perfectly to do that. And we’ll probably continue to do that.”
While Ohio State’s defense has had issues at all three levels this season, with blown coverages in the secondary and declining defensive line play since the loss of Nick Bosa, the linebackers are the position group that have drawn the most criticism from outside the program – truly, dating back to last season, Bill Davis’ first season as linebackers coach. Schiano said Wednesday, however, that he doesn’t believe the linebackers have played as poorly as some perceive.
“I get the sense that people are on the linebackers, I actually think the linebackers have played consistently,” Schiano said. “I think when the ball does break, we haven’t gotten it on the ground always, and that’s our job (as coaches). And there’s one glaring run from the game where we didn’t quite rotate the way we were supposed to, and people say, ‘Well, he’s right there.’ Well, he’s not supposed to be right there.”
With no game on the schedule this week, Schiano said this is a crucial week for he and the rest of Ohio State’s coaching staff to figure out what they can do better in order to put their players – which, from a talent standpoint, really should be among the best in the country – in better positions to succeed.
“I look in the mirror, then I ask our assistant coaches to look in the mirror and say, ‘Where are we not doing the very best for them?’” Schiano said. “There’s things we can tweak to help them. There’s an opportunity to talk with your guys, where there’s not this impending, ‘You got to get ready for the game.’ And to talk as a staff. And that we did Monday, we spent a really good day Monday and (Tuesday), looking at ourselves, not worrying about anyone else but just what are we doing, how we can help them?”
The Buckeyes’ next opportunity to prove they can play better defense will come on Nov. 3, when they host Nebraska at Ohio Stadium.