No matter the opponent, Urban Meyer enters every game with the same 'plan to win.'
The Ohio State head coach believes that his teams must accomplish each of the following objectives in every single contest: play great defense, win the turnover battle, score in the red zone, and win the kicking game. For defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, half of that plan to win sits firmly upon his shoulders.
While his unit excelled at the second goal of taking the ball away from opponents, finishing 10th nationally in total takeaways and third in turnover margin as a team, it's the achievement of the first goal that's kept the Buckeyes among the nation's elite. To accomplish this rather broad and undefined task of 'playing great defense,' Schiano has his own blueprint to ensure his troops live up to the program's standards.
From day one of spring practice, Schiano emphasizes four pillars of a successful defense:
- Give '4-to-6, A-to-B' effort
- Block destruction
While this may seem obvious, Schiano and his defensive assistants spend a great deal of time teaching these fundamental aspects of the game. Of course, they work on tackling drills, practice stripping the ball, and demand their players to hustle on every single play.
But in recent years, coaches at every level have begun emphasizing block destruction, and not just for players along the line. As the game has spread out and an emphasis has been placed on player safety, the way offensive players run block has subtly changed over the past couple decades, meaning the way coaches teach their defenders to get off those blocks has done the same in kind.
Instead of creating a 'flipper' with their arm and trying to hit defenders as square as possible, using their shoulders to open holes for a ball carrier, linemen today are taught to use their hands far more when run blocking. Now, there are a number of variations and styles to this technique with an entire cottage industry of tools for sale to help coaches teach it.
Many defenders in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s were taught to absorb those 'flipper' blocks with a shoulder of their own, simply trying to angle their bodies and stay as low as possible to maintain leverage. But with the popularity of this new technique of hand-fighting, defenders find blockers hitting them straight-on, meaning they had to develop a new way to get free.
When Chris Ash arrived at the Buckeyes' defensive coordinator in the winter of 2014, he instituted a new system to free up his defenders that emphasized both lateral and horizontal leverage. Given the success of the system, it's no surprise that his successor, Schiano, elected to continue its teaching.
Though the drill is important to Schiano's fundamental plan, every player on the roster is tasked with mastering five skills to destruct blocks, known as The Difference:
- Get your hairline under the chin of the blocker
- Keep your thumbs up
- Get your elbows together
- Speed to lock your arms out
- Snag or rip to get free
The first four skills are taught in a drill that is part of every Ohio State practice, pitting players against one another without:
"Good teams, whether it's offense, defense, or special teams, play the game here - with your arms and wrists tight to gain leverage on your opponent," Ash said at the beginning of Ohio State's training camp in 2015. "It doesn't matter if it's an offensive player trying to execute a block, a defensive player trying to get off, or somebody on special teams, if you want to be successful in the game of football in a one-on-one matchup, you need to learn to use your hands properly. That means blow delivery: good physical, aggressive blow delivery with proper hand placement."
When slowed down, it's easier to see how each technique comes together. In the example below, linebacker Tuf Borland perfectly executes the first four elements of The Difference, winning the vertical battle by getting lower than the blocker, while also getting his hands inside to win horizontally. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, he beats his opponent to the spot, eventually locking out first and controlling the battle for position.
This battle is most famously executed at a high level in the 'Circle Drill,' which we often see before the spring game each year. Now that the players have been drilled to execute these fundamentals, they're tasked with executing them in a high-intensity situation with all their teammates, and sometimes even thousands of fans, watching their every move.
The goal is not to simply hit your opponent, but to be the first to gain the vertical and horizontal leverage needed to then drive them backward, 'winning' the drill only once it's clear who has the advantage.
The drill is obviously about more than just technique, as Ash pointed out when discussing its implementation at Rutgers, where he took over as head coach one year ago:
"It just reinforces all the things that we want: We want players that will compete. We want players that play with good football position. We want players that use their hands the right way. And we want players that when their number is called they can go out and be ready to go in front of their peers.
"It's a competitive drill. It's a fundamental drill. And it's one that is a great tempo-setter for the start of practice. I love it. We're going to continue to do it. I think it's a great way to start the day.''
But defenses aren't simply in the business of driving opponents backward, the goal is to get off opposing blocks, which is why the Buckeyes also constantly drill the technique of 'strike and snag.' Once the defender has executed the first four techniques, gaining control of the breastplate of his opponent's shoulder pads, he's then taught to toss his defender out of the way and get to the ball-carrier.
When all five elements are executed properly, the benefits are immediately evident. In the example below, we can see both defensive linemen on the left side (#6 Sam Hubbard and #67 Robert Landers) bother properly carry out all five phases of The Difference as they shed bigger blockers.
Landers does an excellent job of getting low off the snap and getting his hands inside first, making it look relatively easy to get through the block. Meanwhile, Hubbard, though held after trying to toss away his blocker, had still controlled his battle enough to get into position to assist on the tackle.
Block destruction is more than just a set of drills for Schiano and the Ohio State defense, it's a fundamental part of playing the game. Though it's easy to get caught up in recruiting stars or specific schemes, more often than not, the ability to flawlessly execute fundamental skills truly make The Difference on game day.