Open Week Mic Check: Tracking a Defensive Evolution

By Chris Lauderback on October 13, 2021 at 3:05 pm
Ohio State defense

The give and take of an open date hits Ohio State this week as Ryan Day's squad gets the upcoming weekend off before heading to Bloomington to take on Indiana under the lights on Saturday, October 23. 

On one hand, the Buckeyes are riding momentum on both sides of the ball after outscoring the their last three opponents 177-37. On the other, an open week gives guys like Thayer Munford, Haskell Garrett and Cameron Brown, among others, time to address injuries heading into the second half of the regular season slate. 

Speaking of Garrett and Brown, despite the offense leading the country in yards per game, the story the last few weeks has been the evolution of Ohio State's defense, both in schematics and player development, allowing the Buckeyes to become less predictable with the Xs and Os while clarity in role has been achieved by the Jimmys and the Joes. 

On the schematic side, the big story came after the Oregon loss in week two as secondary coach Matt Barnes took over playcalling duties from defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs. 

Coombs was still very much involved in game planning, primarily with Barnes and Larry Johnson, but he moved from the sideline to the booth on Saturdays while Barnes went from the booth to the sidelines. 

In addition to the shakeup of staff responsibilities, Ohio State has shown a ton more Cover 2, blitzed more aggressively and deployed other wrinkles, making it harder for offenses to attack. On the player development side, names like Ronnie Hickman, Denzel Burke, Cody Simon and Cameron Martinez, among others, have stepped into more prominent roles based on their productivity, helping give the Buckeyes a defensive identity. 

For his part, Day is cautiously optimistic about the defensive momentum after his decision to essentially demote Coombs but knows tougher tests ahead will provide eventual proof of the defense's progress. 

He said as much during his Tuesday press conference

It's still very early in the process but I think the overall chemistry, confidence and so far the results have been trending in the right direction.– Ryan Day

The eye test indeed gives off the notion Ohio State defenders are playing faster, the best players are now playing the most snaps and offenses aren't quite as certain as to what's coming on a snap-to-snap basis. 

The numbers over the last few weeks also support the belief Ohio State's defense is on to something. 

MARYLAND 24.4 17 6.3 4.5 3.7 5 9 2
RUTGERS 27.0 13 4.9 4.9 4.0 1 3 3
AKRON 21.3 7 5.0 3.1 4.0 9 12 2
TULSA 24.3 20 6.4 6.1 3.8 2 6 2
OREGON 35.8 35 6.6 6.9 7.1 0 1 0
MINNESOTA 24.4 31 5.3 5.4 4.3 2 4 1

Across the first two weeks with Coombs calling the plays and a host of players finding their way, with unknown true starters at a few positions and even an overall rotation that was far from set, Ohio State allowed Oregon and Minnesota to score more points and average more yards per play then their current season averages while forcing just one turnover with a paltry two combined sacks and five tackles for loss. 

With Barnes in place and the beginnings of increased defensive packages starting to come forward, the Buckeyes held Tulsa to below their current points per game and yards per play averages while forcing a pair of turnovers, shutting down the run and picking up six tackles for loss. 

It wasn't a perfect performance by any stretch as Brin Davis threw for 428 yards but it felt a little better than the Oregon and Minnesota efforts. 

With even more time to define roles and polish scheme, Ohio State's been on a roll the last three weeks holding Akron, Rutgers and Maryland below their current points per game averages, largely shutting down the run and turning up the big plays. 

After just two sacks across the first three games, the Buckeyes posted 15 over the last three, along with 24 tackles for loss while cranking out turnovers. 

The Buckeyes are riding a streak of four straight games with a pick six and have forced seven turnovers over the last three games after forcing just three across the first three weeks. 

As Day alluded to yesterday, Ohio State will face some stiffer challenges but the program has to be feel good about the defense's progress. For the Buckeyes to achieve their season goals however, this current upswing must only be the beginning. 

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