"It's all of the skills. Because they have to cover in man. They have to be able to stop the run and they are going to have run fits. They have got to be able to block destruct and get off good blockers, sometimes tight ends. They have to be able to play zone coverage and have a great feel for that. They have to be able to pressure and blitz the quarterback. So all those skills are in play for a guy who is playing in the slot." - Kerry Coombs
'Twas late March 2019 when Greg Mattison and Al Washington first mentioned the vaunted Bullet position to reporters following an early spring practice.
“A playmaker,” Washington said at the time when asked what exactly, this exciting new position would do. “Put him in position to make plays. See what they can do well. We’re trying to figure out what a guy does well and then try to put them in a position to do it.”
After a deep corps of linebackers and a thin group of safeties forced those same coaches to seemingly abandon such plans in the 2019 and '20 seasons, we may finally get to see its debut after nearly two and a half years. Yes, the Bullet is a hybrid player that is part linebacker, part defensive back, but that only tells us the player's body type, not what he'll actually be asked to do on the field.
But while many believe Ohio State has run a basic 4-3 defense over the past two seasons, the reality is that the Buckeyes had actually been employing something close to the Bullet the whole time.
As Coombs, entering his second season as OSU's defensive coordinator, detailed above, the slot corner position manned by Shaun Wade in 2019 and Marcus Williamson in 2020 requires a variety of skills that are often associated with a number of different traditional roles. That position is now known officially as the Cover Safety, and it largely mimics the role of the Bullet, just on the weak side.
In an era where one-back offenses with three receivers have become the norm, that Cover Safety can often be found lined up across from the slot receiver. Meanwhile, the SAM linebacker will now be replaced in base packages by the Bullet, who will line up over the tight end.
The Cover Safety will find himself split out in the alley more often than not. The Bullet, however, will often be looked at as a box defender matched up on a tight end and filling the D-gap in the run game, but the post-snap skillsets between the two roles are very similar.
This personnel will be classified by many as a 4-2-5, with a player like Ronnie Hickman, listed at just 6'1" and 205 lbs, taking the field at Bullet instead of a traditional, bruising linebacker. But to call this a Nickel defense would be a mistake - this unit effectively features three safeties instead of the three cornerbacks that often take the field on passing downs.
In many situations, it will be difficult to identify much of a difference between the Bullet role Hickman and Craig Young will play this season compared to that of SAM linebackers Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard last fall. When the Buckeyes drop into their favored Cover 3 zone, the Bullet will most often occupy the underneath Buzz (curl/flat) zone outside the hash mark to his side of the field.
Throughout much of the past two seasons, though, those zones were easy for opposing quarterbacks to identify before even taking the snap. With Jordan Fuller sitting in the middle of the field on nearly every snap in 2019 and Josh Proctor doing the same in '20, opponents could easily out-leverage individual defenders in coverage.
Now, however, with nearly identical players flanking either side of the inside linebackers, the Buckeyes can become more dynamic in their pre-snap alignments. Instead of sitting in a single-high safety look all the time, they can rotate to a two-deep look with either the Cover Safety or the Bullet lining up 12 yards off the line of scrimmage.
By mixing up the pre-snap look, Ohio State can more easily switch up the roles and responsibilities within the three-deep/four-under zone look, giving opposing quarterbacks just enough reason to hold the ball beat longer until the pressure arrives or an open passing window closes.
Such was the case in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson, as the Buckeyes unveiled many such looks throughout the second half. With a lead in hand and the nation's best quarterback on the opposite side of the field, Coombs didn't just make the same call every play.
Instead, he removed a linebacker in favor of a second Cover Safety, Lathan Ransom, allowing his unit to employ a two-high look against the Tigers' four-wide sets. From there, the Buckeyes did enough to slow down the dangerous Clemson offense by dropping one of the deep safeties down into an underneath zone, throwing off Trevor Lawrence's reads.
While Lawrence did finish the game with 400 yards passing, he had to attempt 48 passes to do so. It was also the first time we had seen the 2020 Buckeyes play from a two-deep shell this often.
But with a few weeks to prepare for the CFP, it was the first time we got to see Coombs' broader plan for his defense, given the challenges presented to him almost immediately upon taking the job in early 2020. With practice time and in-person film review severely hampered by COVID-19 protocols, Coombs hardly had a chance to install much beyond his base defense.
"It will affect you dramatically in how you call a game based on your level of confidence in all three levels of the defense," he told the media earlier this month. "When you call a game, you want to play to your players' strengths."
Based on what we saw in the Spring Game, Coombs has no plans to completely overhaul his system. Instead, he plans to expand on it, using the Bullet and Cover Safety as Swiss Army knives asked to fill different roles from play-to-play.
Not only does this versatility allow the OSU defense more ways to play Cover 3, like by changing up who acts at the fourth rusher in a simulated pressure (above), but it can also employ change-ups like Quarters or Cover 2 from these two-high shells quite easily.
By leaning on these two players to do many different things, it allows their teammates to simplify their games and play faster. But Coombs has made it clear that who fills these two positions can change, based on the situation.
"It's going to be based on our opponent and based on our skillset - the best 11 players to win that play are going to be on the field for the Ohio State Buckeyes. And then on the next play, the best 11 players to win that play are going to be on the field," he said of the depth at hand. "The great news is at Ohio State you have more players. You've got a lot smaller group when you're in the NFL. Now, we've got a lot of guys. You're articulating all these different kinds of body types and skillets and all that kind of stuff, they've all got a great role to play."