"We missed a few passes down there that we've hit (in previous weeks) ... but also, we have to be able to pound the ball and get three yards when we need to." - Ohio State offensive coordinator Ryan Day on his team's recent struggles in the red zone.
Nearly every coach will agree that the most critical element in finding success near the goal-line is a team's mentality. No matter how well prepared they may be in terms of scheme and execution, at some point, they must find the will to win a one-on-one battle with their opponent from a purely physical standpoint.
Many pundits and fans agree that this edge is missing from the Buckeye offense right now, after failing to punch the ball into the end zone on any of their five trips inside the Purdue 20-yard line two weeks ago. However, mentality and effort will only get so far with a unit that has completely changed from its 2017 form.
While OSU has seemed incapable of running the ball effectively at any point on the field recently, their struggles are magnified in the red zone once the defensive secondary no longer plays in fear of a Dwayne Haskins Deep Ball™. In the past, this extra attention from a safety playing near the line of scrimmage could be negated by the running threat of Buckeye quarterbacks like Braxton Miller or J.T. Barrett, making the team one of the nation's best at scoring touchdowns inside the 20.
With athletic backup QB Tate Martell sitting right there, a special package featuring the redshirt freshman seems to be the obvious answer to many, and one Ryan Day and the other coaches are "evaluating right now." However, such a move would require such a heavy investment in practice time to ensure Martell is prepared to do more than simply run a zone-read, that the risk may not justify the reward.
However, Day and Kevin Wilson should consider changing things up once inside the red zone. While they often use a high tempo to catch defenses off-guard down there, the schemes and personnel hardly change from what the team runs elsewhere on the field, often relying on the same, 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE) that lines up on virtually every other snap.
This is a departure from how many of their peers operate, however. According to a report from XandOLabs.com, 81% of offensive coaches have a separate plan dedicated to the red zone, with 69% saying they will vary their philosophy once there, leading many defensive coaches to not use a yard-marker to determine where the red zone begins, but rather when the offense changes their play packages.
Ohio State has regularly relied on their tight zone run to pound the ball between the tackles in this area, but that play alone does not negate the extra bodies near the line without an option element.
Per the XandOLabs.com report, the most popular run concept in the red zone is Power, which pulls the backside guard around to lead the back behind a wall of down blocks. In theory, this concept negates any extra defenders to the play-side, as the pulling guard gives the offense more blockers there and forces any unblocked backside defenders to fight through traffic before making a play.
Against Purdue, however, the backside ends were still able to crash down and make a play on the runner while the tackle blocked the linebacker.
To get the most out of this concept, the Buckeyes should consider using 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs) more often. By adding an extra gap to either side of the formation, the defense's edge defenders are a few yards farther away from the play, making it harder to come downhill and chase the runner. Meanwhile, the offense still has a numbers advantage to the play-side thanks to the puller (#78 in the clip below).
Another way to hold these edge defenders is by leaning on Jet motion. The OSU coaches have often brought Parris Campbell across the formation at full speed, giving him a quick handoff behind a cadre of blockers around the edge.
This motion was especially effective with Barrett at the helm, as it could be used as the sweep element in the Power-Read concept that had been so effective near the goal-line. The QB read the unblocked front-side end to decide whether to give on the sweep or keep on a Power run for himself.
Since Haskins lacks the skillset to carry the ball for big yardage on such a play, the Buckeyes could take another page from the Clemson playbook and combine the Jet motion with a regular Power run, asking the QB to simply give on one of two handoff options instead of running for himself. Though the QB does not negate a defender himself by posing a threat to run, the combination of the Jet motion and inside blocking scheme still puts the end in conflict.
The same theory also applies when Ohio State wants to run Tight Zone. Instead of blocking the play for the sweep itself, simply using the motion as bait to will attract the extra defender that would otherwise gum up the box (watch #30 in the clip below).
Another way to use Tight Zone blocking without simply ramming the ball between the guards is by combining it with a speed option. As Penn State showed last year in their trouncing of Michigan, the defense darts inside to take away the interior run gaps, only to see the QB and RB execute a speed option on the unblocked end.
While Haskins isn't going to beat anyone around the edge, the play isn't intended to be a true option. Instead, the QB's job is to run right at the outside shoulder of the unblocked defender and force him to commit, leaving the pitch man with plenty of open grass outside.
As we've seen this season, the Buckeyes have relied heavily on Run/Pass Options (RPOs) to put unblocked edge defenders in conflict, often by pairing a wide receiver screen with an inside run. However, these combinations stretch the field horizontally instead of vertically, allowing the defense to press up at the line of scrimmage without fear.
Penn State's offense under Joe Moorhead offers plenty of examples for how an offense could attack such looks, even without a mobile QB. One such way is to combine a Tight Zone run with a simple pop pass to the tight end. If the safeties bite on the run to give the defense extra bodies at the line, there is no one home to defend the tight end.
The same mentality can be added to virtually any run play, including Power, when the offense is between the 5-20-yard lines. Instead of trying to throw outside the hashes, the Buckeyes should look for opportunities to get big receivers like Binjimen Victor in one-on-one matchups and use his size to box out the defender on an inside slant.
With the safety flying up to the line after he reads the pulling guard, there is no one there to help on the inside slant. Such a concept would be perfect against Michigan State's Quarters defense which often commits a safety to help against the run.
While none of these suggestions is particularly earth-shattering, they're easy first steps for a unit searching for answers. The Buckeyes currently rank 118th out of 130 teams nationally in Red Zone conversion percentage and have only scored touchdowns on 21 of their 37 trips inside the 20 this season.
Change is certainly necessary, but it doesn't have to involve substituting a likely Heisman finalist.