Film Study: Addressing the Many, but Correctable, Defensive Mistakes in Ohio State's 2018 Season Opener

By Kyle Jones on September 3, 2018 at 11:30 am
Greg Schiano and the Ohio State defensive coaches have a few issues to address after allowing 31 points in the season opener.
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

"I think it's a huge learning experience for a lot of guys," - Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Alex Grinch after the 77-31 win over Oregon State.

Ohio State Football Film Study

Coming into the 2018 season opener, a number of questions remained about the Buckeye defense. Would the linebacker unit improve from the year before? Can they replace three NFL-caliber defensive linemen? Who would replace Damon Webb at safety opposite Jordan Fuller?

While the excitement over Dwayne Haskins' debut at quarterback and the drama of the coaching staff may have overshadowed these issues last Saturday in Ohio Stadium, it's clear that each of those questions remains largely unanswered.

Though they faced an offense that ranked 113th in yards-per-game a season ago, Ohio State surrendered 392 yards in the season opener. Not only did those yards come after the Beavers lost their starting quarterback following the opening possession, they continually shot themselves in the foot with four fumbled snaps that stalled multiple drives.

To be fair to the Oregon State coaches, they came in with an excellent game plan in their first game together. New head coach Jonathan Smith's staff expected Buckeye coordinator Greg Schiano to come out with a heavy dose of man-coverage, attacking the newest members of the starting lineup with a number of designed screens and draws that isolated smaller defenders against a larger blocker.

Werner gets caught covering 2 gaps

Young players like WILL linebacker Pete Werner were punished for over-playing initial actions, only to be caught by misdirection. On the second possession of the game, the Buckeyes had Oregon State pinned back on 2nd & 10 but saw a well-designed screen away from jet motion catch Werner too far toward the middle of the field.

Werner gets sucked inside on the screen

Werner's inside position allowed the releasing guard to easily seal him and spring the receiver for a huge gain while his teammates chased the other receivers downfield in man-coverage.

Werner had a strong game overall, finishing with four solo tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble, but recognized there was still room for improvement. "I missed a few assignments, a few of those little dumps I need to focus on ... screen passes," he said after the game. "Overall, I'm just trying to open my eyes and read my keys a little bit better. But overall, I think I did pretty good."

Werner wasn't the only new starter to see mixed results in his first real action inside Ohio Stadium, however. Star end Chase Young may have recorded two hits on the QB, collapsing the pass pocket and forcing quick throws, but he played an unfortunately big role in both of the Beavers' long touchdown runs early in the second half.

With the game well in-hand and established stars like Nick Bosa and Dre'Mont Jones already relegated to the bench, Young was joined on the field by less experienced defensive linemen like Haskell Garrett, Tommy Togiai, Taron Vincent, and Antwuan Jackson. On the Beavers' very first snap of the half, a simple, counter-trey concept sprung running back Artavis Pierce for an 80-yard touchdown run.

Young gets too far inside

While Jackson was largely blamed for missing what should've been a sure tackle, Young's aggressiveness played a major role as well. Though he read the down block from the offensive tackle across him correctly, stepping down inside to take away the open gap, he went too far inside and makes it easy for the pulling guard to simply seal him inside away from the play. 

On the very next drive, however, a simple inside zone-read play would catch Young out of position yet again, springing a 78-yard scamper this time. Though Young is being optioned on the play, he comes too far upfield in an effort to get to the quarterback, creating a big gap between he and the tackle that linebacker Baron Browning was forced to fill.

Young gets too far upfield

Against a MAC or FCS team, the running back probably doesn't make the same cut Pierce showed to dart upfield. But though their record may not have been impressive last fall, the Beavers still feature Power-5 talent and were able to make the Buckeyes pay for seemingly minor mistakes the same way Iowa had the year prior.

Of course, it didn't help that Ohio State was without one of it's three All-American candidates in safety Jordan Fuller. Given how coy Schiano had been when asked about who would earn the starting spot opposite him throughout the preseason, it seemed clear that the staff wasn't totally confident in either Isaiah Pryor or Jahsen Wint to line up in Webb's former role.

Now, with both players forced into the lineup, the difference between Webb and his successors was quickly apparent. As Schiano called the same, Field-Sting zone blitz that sent a linebacker through the C-gap and led to Webb's pick-six in the Cotton Bowl last January, Pryor looked lost in coverage and allowed the receiver to run right by him on a slant route that led to a touchdown the other way.

Pryor runs right by the receiver

Pryor would also be victimized when forced into man-coverage, giving up the Beavers' second touchdown on a simple corner route in the red zone in addition to two other receptions by the slot receiver for whom he was responsible.

But these mistakes are all typical of young players getting their first real playing time. Every one of them can be attributed on the defender playing too aggressively in hopes of making the same kinds of plays seen from Bosa and Jones, each of whom tallied a pair of sacks on the afternoon.

These kinds of mistakes may seem minute, but will be picked up by opposing coaches as the season progresses. Just because Young's mistake against the counter-trey was only exposed because Jackson missed the tackle doesn't mean it couldnt come back to haunt them later in the year.

Rather, these mistakes combined with the memory of the late-season loss to Iowa last fall should force these stumbles to serve as a learning experience.

"There's several guys that made their first starts as college football players today. It's different," Grinch added after the game. "You're playing a Power 5 opponent and all eyes are on you. There's certain plays all those guys would like to have back. But overall, a real positive experience."

As the game continues to slow down for these young players, the mistakes should begin to disappear. However, coaches will always take this kind of dynamic effort now and work out the details later, rather than the alternative lack of effort or confidence. 

Additionally, the return of Fuller should force Pryor and Wint to step up their games in an effort to earn playing time - a model that should have similar effects on every other position group. Due to the talent at the top of the depth chart, those looking to earn rare playing time snaps will have to eliminate such mistakes as the season goes on.

"The first half, we did real good until we got in and made a few mistakes," Young told reporters following the game. "But when our starters were in, you saw we were fast and explosive."

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