"It's weird playing in the box, I haven't really done that since my high school days. But it is a good feeling, a good transition" – Pete Werner
While the national media understandably lauded the play of Chase Young and Jeff Okudah, anyone who watched Ohio State's defense up close in 2019 knows that Pete Werner's play was critical to the unit's turnaround. Though lined up at the same SAM linebacker spot as the year before, the Indianapolis native shined in the new system designed by Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison, manning an alley and setting the edge.
With great athleticism for a player his size, Werner acted as the wildcard of the Buckeye defense. Capable of filling a run gap, rushing the passer, or dropping into any number of zones in coverage, the junior offered an easy way to mix up looks without substituting.
As a senior, however, he's made the move from SAM to WILL, replacing Malik Harrison. To many, the move may feel semantic, as both roles are technically outside linebackers. As we'll show, however, the positions are quite different, and why it's worth changing the position of a player with 27 career starts already under his belt.
How do the SAM and WILL line up?
Perhaps the first, and most important, distinction between the two roles is their alignments. In the single-high system installed last fall (and which remains in place today), the SAM and Slot CB essentially follow the alignment of tight end and slot receiver, accordingly.
For instance, if the tight end lined up to one side of the field and the slot WR to the other, giving the offense a 2x2 look, then the SAM and slot corner (played last fall by Shaun Wade) would align on opposite sides of the field.
If both the tight end and slot WR lined up to the same side, creating a 3x1 set, then both Werner and Wade would be on the same side. As you'll notice, however, the MIKE and WILL don't change their alignment based on the movements of either the SAM or Slot CB.
In this system, the SAM is effectively a member of the secondary when it comes to alignment, tasked with creating the best matchup against the pass while the other two linebackers primarily set up to stop the run. As we've discussed before, the Buckeyes are a 'one-gap' defense, meaning each player in the run fit is responsible for filling a single gap, leaving the runner with nowhere to go (in theory).
One of the biggest reasons Ohio State made such a gigantic improvement in stopping the run last season came from the simplification of these run fits. The past regime constantly toyed with who covered which gap, creating confusion and opening up the unit to manipulation and, ultimately, breakdowns.
In the current system, however, the base look is quite simple. The MIKE lines up to the same side as the 3-technique tackle and the strong-side end. From there, the MIKE is responsible for filling the A-gap (between center and guard) to that side while the tackle has the B (between guard and tackle) and the end has the C (outside the tackle). If there is an attached tight end, the SAM will fill the D-gap (outside the tight end) and funnel runners back inside.
Opposite them, the nose tackle fills the A-gap, the WILL fills the B, and the weak end fills the C, setting the edge outside the tackle.
How are the roles different?
While both the SAM and WILL line up at similar depths and fill a run gap, the similarities between the two roles mostly end there.
The SAM is in a "contain" role, tasked with turning plays inside and chasing down runners from the backside. Rarely is the SAM taking on blocks from players much larger than him, save the occasional pulling lineman.
Meanwhile, the WILL takes on interior offensive lineman on almost every play, many of whom outweigh him by 50 lbs or more. While athleticism is rewarded outside on the edges, technique is critical inside the box.
"The little things matter at this position," Werner told reporters of his experience at WILL thus far. "One wrong step results in you being behind the play."
To be successful, Werner will have to become an expert at quickly diagnosing the movements of the offensive line and reacting without hesitation.
"You're in the middle of the box taking on blocks," Werner added. "There are a lot more things you need to do with your eyes to read your keys."
Based on the film we've seen, there's a reason Greg Mattison and linebackers coach Al Washington trust the senior to make such a move. Against heavier sets which brought him closer to the box, Werner looked comfortable shedding blocks and filling open lanes.
“Extremely versatile, extremely athletic," MIKE linebacker Tuf Borland said when asked about Werner's move inside. "Has a lot of experience, so you’re gonna have that veteran, savvy-type linebacker over there. And most people don’t know, he’s 245 pounds and he can bring it.”
While Werner credits Clemson's two-tight end sets in the Fiesta Bowl with providing him the opportunity to showcase his talents between the tackles, he showed flashes of it all year. Whenever the tight end cut back across the formation on common Split-Zone runs, all three linebackers bumped over a gap to account for the blocking scheme, meaning Werner often filled the A-gap.
Werner's responsibilities against the pass will change as well. The SAM lined up across the from the tight end to take him in man-coverage when called. Meanwhile, the MIKE and WILL would handle coverage of the running back if and when he left on a pass pattern.
When the Cover 3 zone defense was called, Werner was often responsible for playing the BUZZ (Curl/Flat) while the MIKE and WILL manned the HOOK zones over the middle.
Due to the way the Buckeyes drill every player through every zone drop, however, this adjustment should be an easy one for Werner, as he's manned the HOOK spot against 3x1 sets many times.
What does this mean for the rest of the defense?
As the schedule grew tougher down the stretch in 2019, the Buckeyes' defensive personnel became more predictable. Hafley and Mattison became more deliberate about who was on the field and in what roles based on the down and distance, and clear patterns emerged.
Werner and Borland manned the SAM and MIKE positions on early downs, as along with Harrison, the trio provided the best protection against the run. If the offense was in a double-tight end look, Wade came off the field in favor of Justin Hilliard, giving the defense two SAM linebackers, effectively.
When in likely passing situations, Baron Browning entered the game at MIKE, spelling Borland. Often times, Werner exited the ballgame in these scenarios as well, as the coaches inserted a true, fifth defensive back to better match up against a downfield passing game.
The one player who never seemed to come off the field was Harrison. With 701 snaps played last fall, the Buckeyes' WILL 'backer trailed only free safety Jordan Fuller in playing time, proving to be one of the most versatile defenders on the team.
This year, that role falls to Werner. While Borland returns as the starting MIKE for a fourth season, Werner will be the foundation of the entire linebacker room this fall, likely never coming off the field in close games.
“Because I know a lot about football, and I’ve been around the game for a long time, the switch has come very naturally,” Werner said. “There’s obviously some footwork and some certain things that I need to work on, but as far as transition, I think it’s kind of second nature.”
With fellow seniors Hilliard and Browning looking to make a consistent impact for the first time, as well as underclassmen like Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant looking to crack the lineup, there are plenty of options to fill his old spot. To make the transition easier, each player may be tasked with a situational role similar to the one Werner held last fall.
Though many are getting reps at his vacated SAM spot, Hilliard is the most likely to start there on early downs. Browning, meanwhile, may once again spell Borland in the middle against the pass, providing the defense with another pass rusher knowing Werner can comfortably drop into coverage.
Thanks to his offseason move, however, Werner will likely get no such relief. He'll be tasked with matching up against any look the offense throws his way. According to him, however, Buckeye fans need not worry about it.
"It's something I'm still getting the hang of, but I will be ready week one."