Film Study: Will Ohio State's Defense Remain As Dominant As It Has Looked in the First Two Games of 2023?

By Kyle Jones on September 14, 2023 at 11:35 am
Tommy Eichenberg has led the Buckeye defense during its first two games of 2023

“We’ve gotten better in our first couple of games at explosive plays and minimizing that, but we haven’t really been tested yet." - Jim Knowles

Film Study

Fourth nationally in yards-per-game. Fourth in yards-per-play. Tied for second nationally with the likes of Georgia and Michigan in points allowed. Perhaps, most importantly, allowing the second-fewest gains of 10 yards or more this season. 

But as its coordinator told reporters this week, it's too early to pass judgment on the 2023 Ohio State defense. While fans in Austin, Boulder, and Coral Gables are rejoicing that they're (finally) back in the national consciousness after just two weeks, their counterparts in Columbus should be savvy enough to avoid jumping to conclusions so soon.

Neither the Hoosiers nor the Penguins unleashed an aggressive passing attack against the Buckeyes. That has made it difficult to truly judge if and how things have improved from a year ago when the unit had a bad habit of surrendering big plays. 

Although it may be too early to declare this unit cured of all its past ills, there are reasons for optimism beyond the box score.

Though Knowles called for a heavy dose of man-coverage in the opener, taming Indiana's surprise adoption of the triple-option (for one game), he showed far more zone concepts against Youngstown State a week later. YSU's spread system is far more the norm in today's game, and although it may have been deployed with FCS talent, it still provided a decent taste of what the '23 Silver Bullets may truly look like.

The biggest stylistic change comes from the nickel safety spot, with Sonny Styles playing what is really the role of a SAM linebacker on early downs. Capable of lining up next to Tommy Eichenberg in the box or manning the alley across from a slot receiver, his role has been reminiscent of Darron Lee in 2014.

With OSU defenders keeping eyes on the ball more often in these zone schemes, they've shown an ability to make plays on the ball and break up plays more often.

After years of Buckeye corners living primarily in man coverage, including last fall in Knowles' debut season, it seemed fitting that the first interception from the position group in 19 games came on a zone concept. More often than not, the silver bullet secondary has stayed on top of opposing receivers while employing zone-match coverage, marrying the best of traditional 'vision-and-break' zones with man-coverage techniques.

Ohio State in Cover 3 leading to an INT

But the Buckeyes haven't avoided giving up big plays by simply making some of their own. Quite the opposite, actually. Instead, the unit has quietly shut down both the run and the pass by bottling up opponents and forcing them to dink and dunk their way down the field like a pickleball game. 

Much of the credit for this belongs to the defensive line, which looks far more comfortable executing Knowles' scheme in year two. Rather than simply trying to penetrate the backfield on every snap, Larry Johnson's crew has instead occupied opposing blockers long enough to allow Eichenberg and Steele Chambers to vacuum up ball carriers with ease.

Ty Hamilton eats up a double team

Going into the season, J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer garnered most of the headlines among those in Johnson's meeting room. But during the first two games, it was the efforts of Ty Hamilton, Tyleik Williams, and Mike Hall Jr. that made the most difference, forcing themselves to be double-teamed and gumming up rush lanes.

These efforts have extended to making plays themselves, with Williams tied with Eichenberg for second on the team in tackles.

"I think our interior defensive linemen are doing a better job using their hands, Ryan Day said earlier this week. "And because of that they're getting off blocks and making more plays."

Tuimoloau and Sawyer have embraced similar roles to stop the run, absorbing punishment and abandoning the pursuit of personal glory in service of the greater good. But the flip side to that has been an utter lack of penetration against the pass.

While neither starting end has registered a sack or hurry through two games, Tuimoloau at least has a tackle-for-loss and remains the focal point of opposing pass protection schemes. With the Penguins regularly running the play clock down all the way, he showed an awareness and burst to explode out of his stance, only to get double-teamed by a running back or tight end.

On the other side of the line, however, it was a different story...

Sawyer is slow to get off the line

Unsurprisingly, Knowles unveiled more pressure packages in clear passing situations against YSU, resulting in a pair of sacks. While Styles hasn't always remained on the field in such situations (more on that in a second), his athleticism as a blitzer may be an intriguing addition to an underwhelming pass rush.

With the ends failing to get home, Knowles showed some creativity by simulating a 6-man blitz before dropping Sawyer and Tuimoloau in coverage. This allowed the two ends to swap places with Eichenberg and Chambers and keep seven men back in coverage while overwhelming the center and guards.

“It’s always about balance,” Knowles said of his blitz tendencies. “You never want to be predictable. You want to be able to put the pressure in when it’s least expected.”

But with the front failing thus far to create much pressure, albeit in limited opportunities, the Buckeye defense has quietly signaled a move away from simply putting 'the best 11' on the field at all times. Rather, the unit has taken more of an NFL-style approach to personnel, swapping out Styles for a more traditional cornerback to man the slot on 2nd or 3rd & long.

"You're balancing how much man you're going to play vs. how much zone, how much disguise you want to have," Knowles said of how he calls plays based on which player is in at the nickel spot. "Man is man, you certainly want a corner there, but you have to have looks off of it so he has to understand."

That understanding was put into question on Saturday, as YSU repeatedly created chaos in the OSU secondary by sending receivers in motion. With some new bodies occupying roles different, busts were prevalent when reviewing the tape.

After Cam Martinez was sent to the bench for giving up a long gain on the Penguins' first possession of the game, getting beat deep by the slot receiver, Knowles didn't respond by keeping Styles in the game at nickel. Rather, it was cornerback Jordan Hancock who occupied the alley in pass situations.

Yet Hancock looked lost at times when responding to motion, following his man all the way across the field instead of passing him off to a teammate. When that receiver yo-yoed back across the formation, he was wide open for an easy catch in the flat while Hancock was still running the other way, resulting in an easy first down.

"We have guys who want to make plays, and I think at times that leads your eyes to being in the wrong place," Knowles said this week of the errors, recognizing that they must be addressed. 

However, not all the errors were due to communication or unfamiliarity. There were a handful of mistakes made by defensive backs that were all too reminiscent of the past few years.

Burke is in his third year as a starter, and although he has sparkled in pass coverage so far this season, his ability as a run defender continues to be another story. While some may argue that he wasn't recruited to meet running backs at the line of scrimmage, an FCS opponent proved how easy it was to force him into the run fit with some basic motions and alignments.

Meanwhile, the most experienced of Knowles safeties, arguably the most important position group in the system, showed glimpses of his 2022 form. Lathan Ransom has looked more comfortable this fall, playing the deep safety role more often despite still lining up as the boundary safety.

But while is often in the right position, missing an open tackle in the backfield was all too reminiscent of the kind of breakdowns that plagued this unit a year ago.

Though it's just one play against what may be one of the better backs in FCS, the Buckeyes will absolutely need Ransom to be a reliable tackler against the likes of Notre Dame, Penn State, and Michigan, all of whom feature at least NFL-caliber running backs. Much as their counterparts on the offensive side must clean some things up this weekend before making the much-awaited trip to South Bend, the defense still has room for improvement.

Luckily with an offense keen on airing it out and extending the game, rather than shortening it, the Silver Bullets should get their best test yet.

"On both sides of the ball, they challenge you schematically," Day said of this weekend's opponent. "On offense, they spread you out, they have a really good quarterback. ... It'll be a really good challenge for us on defense."

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