More Pressure From Ohio State's Front Four Is Needed to Give Defense a Boost

By Chris Lauderback on March 12, 2023 at 10:10 am
Larry Johnson

Heading into what will be his 10th season with the Buckeyes, Ohio State defensive line coach and associate head coach Larry Johnson has seen and done some mighty impressive things during his time in Columbus. 

Johnson shaped Chase Young into just the ninth defensive player to become a Heisman Trophy finalist on the strength of a 16.5-sack 2019 season while guiding Joey Bosa (twice), Nick Bosa, Tyquan Lewis and Young to B1G defensive lineman of the year honors. Eight of his defensive linemen at Ohio State racked up first team All-American honors. 

His status as an elite talent developer and world class person is unchallenged. 

For all his historical greatness, the last few years have generally seen Ohio State's collective defense struggle to generate the same quarterback pressure. As part of that, the front four's sacks and hurries as a percent to the whole have also decreased.

And while not an absolute corollary by any means, Ohio State's scoring defense the last three seasons has also largely seen a drop in effectiveness compared to the first six seasons with Johnson on staff. From 2014-19, Ohio State's scoring defense ranked in the top-15 nationally four times. Since then, the Buckeyes have ranked 43rd, 38th and 24th in scoring defense. While not where they want to be, the Buckeyes at least look to be trending in the right direction. 

2022 2.62 34 67.6% 62.9% 21.0 24
2021 2.77 34 85.1% 70.8% 22.8 38
2020 2.63 37 64.2% 63.6% 25.8 43
2019 3.86 3 70.3% 76.4% 13.7 4
2018 2.93 15 74.3% 76.0% 25.5 50
2017 3.21 10 76.7% 75.8% 19.0 15
2016 2.15 58 75.0% 76.2% 15.5 3
2015 2.92 9 71.0% 60.4% 15.1 2
2014 3.00 13 65.6% 65.0% 22.0 26

To take that next step toward reestablishing the defense as top-tier nationally, it'll take more than just the defensive line stepping up but it's certainly a great place to start given the three-year stretch in which Ohio State's sacks per game have fallen off a bit compared to the previous six years with Johnson guiding the front four. 

During the 2020-22 seasons, Ohio State ranked between No. 34 and No. 37 nationally in sacks per game after ranking in the top 15 in five of the previous six years. In two of those years, sacks generated by the defensive linemen accounted for less than 70% of the team's overall total. That had only happened once in the previous six years under Johnson - his first season in town when the front four accounted for 65.2% of the team's sacks. 

Quarterback hurries by the front four have also cooled the last three campaigns, twice accounting for less than 64% of the team's hurry total. In the six seasons prior, only the 2015 defensive line failed to account for at least 65% of the team's total hurries. In four of the six seasons the front four generated at least 75% of the defense's total hurries.  

Of course, numerous circumstances beyond just talent acquisition and development can influence metrics such as these as the overall defense must work together to achieve the greatest results. The secondary has to keep guys covered long enough so pressure has a chance to get home, frequency and design of blitzes plays a part and in some years and situations, schemes adjust in a way that asks different things from different players and positions. 

But it does seem like a universally accepted truth that getting pressure on the quarterback is a good thing for a defense looking to attack and dominate. And despite losing five guys from last year's defensive line rotation, there's reason to believe Johnson has the horses to create more havoc at the line of scrimmage for the defense's greater good. 

The 2023 defensive line may not have a beast like Young or the Bosas but if J.T. Tuimoloau can build on his success last season (3.5 sacks, four hurries), Johnson has a linchpin on the edge. Tuimoloau showed he can take over a game, like he did against Penn State, but had just one sack over the final five games though he did record four tackles for loss during that stretch. 

Johnson will also have Jack Sawyer outside after another year of seasoning and the time is now for the Pickerington product to make at run at doubling his 4.5-sack total of 2022 though his role could evolve depending on how Jim Knowles deploys the Jack position this fall. The third edge in Johnson's rotation should be Caden Curry. Plenty of folks are high on the Greenwood, Indiana product after just a 78-snap glimpse of his skills last fall. 

Maybe the most intriguing edge candidate is Mitchell Melton. After arriving in Columbus back in 2020, injuries have plagued him including an ACL tear in last year's spring game. That said, Ryan Day noted recently Melton is back to doing some individual drills and the head coach is hoping Melton can help Ohio State's pass rush this season. 

True sophomores Omari Abor and Kenyatta Jackson will also make their case for meaningful snaps. 

On the interior, Johnson looks to have three guys ready to do most of the heavy lifting in Ty Hamilton, Mike Hall Jr. and Tyleik Williams. Hamilton played the second-most snaps (300) among the tackles last year, behind Taron Vincent, and word is the 2020 recruit also from Pickerington is ready to take a huge leap this season after registering half a sack and two hurries last fall. 

Hall Jr. got fans really excited with five tackles for loss and two sacks in the first two games last season but injuries limited his snaps in the back half of the slate and he failed to register a sack or a TFL over the final six games. He still finished with 4.5 sacks, tied with Sawyer for the most of any returning OSU defensive lineman. 

Williams had one sack last season in 253 snaps but it feels like the year of experience and understanding what it takes to earn snaps at this level should benefit him greatly this fall, giving Johnson three legit pieces up the middle. 

True sophomore Hero Kanu is the odds on favorite to fill out the interior two-deep though he logged just 16 snaps in 2022. Of course additional talent resides on the roster and a few more defensive line recruits arrive this summer but barring injury, the heavy contributors for 2023 are known.

What's left to define is which of the known entities will make the biggest leaps, and whether the combined performance of Johnson's defensive line, particularly in the pass rush, will assist an ailing pass defense and give Ohio State a much-improved total defense this fall.  

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