Ohio State Considering “Other Combinations” in Secondary, Looking for Better Execution to Limit Big Plays Against Pass Defense

By Dan Hope on November 24, 2020 at 5:09 pm
Kerry Coombs

Ohio State’s defense has been designed to avoid giving up big plays, but that’s not what happened on Saturday against Indiana.

In throwing for 491 passing yards on Saturday, the fourth-highest total ever allowed by Ohio State in a single game, Indiana hit four plays of 50 yards or more through the air, which played a big part in the Hoosiers nearly coming all the way back from a 35-7 deficit before the Buckeyes escaped with a 42-35 win.

After reviewing the film from Saturday’s game, Ryan Day said the coaching staff identified multiple problems that need to be remedied, though he didn’t want to get into specifics about how the Buckeyes could change their defense ahead of this week’s game against Illinois.

“The glaring issue was the big plays, and one of the things about this defense is that it’s designed to avoid big plays,” Day said Tuesday. “That’s really the idea of this defense is to make you work your way down the field. So yeah, there was a few things there that we gotta fixed. I’d rather not get into too many details at this point, but yeah, we have to get a couple things changed.”

In his interview following Saturday’s game, Day said the Buckeyes would need to look at their personnel, scheme and coaching to figure out what went wrong for their pass defense, and Day said Tuesday that he believes they need to improve at least a little bit in all three of those areas.

From a personnel standpoint, Day indicated that the Buckeyes will be “looking to see if there’s other combinations back there that work better.” Ohio State played only five defensive backs in its secondary against Indiana – Shaun Wade and Sevyn Banks played every snap at cornerback, Marcus Hooker played every snap at safety and Josh Proctor and Marcus Williamson were each on the field for 46 of Ohio State’s 68 defensive snaps – and defensive coordinator and secondary coach Kerry Coombs said he would like to get other defensive backs on the field going forward, though he didn’t specify whether there are any defensive backs who are on the verge of playing a bigger role against Illinois.

“I think that as the season continues to progress, we would certainly like to play more guys and to have more opportunities for guys to play,” Coombs said. “I’ve always believed that. And so we’re constantly looking for those opportunities to get more guys on the field.”

Schematically, Day suggested that the Buckeyes aren’t looking to make any major changes to what they’ve been doing. In his mind and in Coombs’ mind, Ohio State’s single-high safety scheme is the best scheme for the Buckeyes to play; they just need to actually play better within that scheme.

“I think that we have the right stuff in. We just have to execute a little better. And if we do that, I think we’re gonna be in good shape,” Day said. “I don’t think there’s been anything schematically where you look at it and you’re like, ‘Well, that’s not good.’ We were up 35-7 with a defense that’s designed to avoid big plays, and we had too many big plays. So I think schematically, we’re right where we need to be, we just need to execute better.”

So far this season, the players on the field haven’t been able to execute Ohio State’s defensive scheme to the championship-caliber standard that’s expected, so there’s reason to believe the Buckeyes need to make changes to at least one if not both. What’s uncertain is whether there’s players on the bench who could execute the scheme better or if there’s a different scheme that could better fit their current starters’ strengths.

Ultimately, the responsibility for finding those answers falls primarily upon Day as the head coach and Coombs as the architect of the Buckeyes’ pass defense, and Coombs said he takes personal responsibility for all the big plays Ohio State gave up on Saturday.

“I think sometimes we press, we look to make a bigger play than what exists for us in the structure of our defense, and it’s really important that I do a better job of coaching that and making sure that we all understand, we don’t need to go necessarily all the make plays, we need to make sure that we’re not chasing something that’s not there that creates a big play,” Coombs said.

“I have to do everything better. Whatever you see on the field is a reflection of what you’ve taught and how you’ve taught. And so, when any player at any position makes a mistake, as his coach, you should take that personally, and I do. Those are things that I have to fix. And I have to do a better job. And I think it’s important that I tell the kids all the time that it’s my opinion that when we make a mental mistake, that’s my fault. That’s something that I didn’t get coached well enough, that I didn’t get taught well enough, and that’s my responsibility. And so that’s where we’ve gotta see improvement this week.”

Ohio State’s issues in pass defense, which currently ranks 115th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards allowed per game, shouldn’t be pinned solely upon the secondary – middle linebacker Tuf Borland said Tuesday that “this is a collective problem as a whole defense” – but it does seem to be where most of the mistakes are being made. 

Although Ohio State had only two sacks against Indiana, its pass-rush did generate 28 pressures and 10 knockdowns against Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix Jr. according to Coombs, so Ryan Day thinks the Buckeyes’ defensive line is doing a good job, even though they would like to finish more pressures with sacks.

“I feel like we were winning and getting our pressures, but what we try to be really critical of is how can we be a second faster, a step faster, just a little bit, .1 second or a step faster so that we can get that ball out and get a sack or get a sack-fumble and make plays for our team,” defensive end Jonathon Cooper said Tuesday. “So we just still have to look at the film critically and figure out what we can do better.”

One way or another, the Buckeyes have to make improvements to their passing defense to avoid giving up the kind of big plays that Indiana hit and that could certainly lead to losses going forward if other teams can make the same kind of plays against them.

Day is expressing optimism that the Buckeyes can fix the issues that have them plagued them in that phase of the game so far this season.

“I know that we can correct them,” Day said. “I know we have the right scheme. Now we just have to go do it.”

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