The Buckeyes gave up far too many big plays to spread offenses in 2018.
Ryan Day essentially began to take over the Ohio State program in 2017. While the hire of former Indiana HC and longtime spread guru Kevin Wilson was the splashier hire, the Buckeyes ended up installing Day’s offense and promoting him to play-caller for 2018 and then HC for 2019. Day made the mesh passing concept central to Ohio State’s offense, after it’d been the zone running game and QB option under Urban Meyer’s previous OCs.
Taking over as HC, Day also inherited a problem defense. The Buckeyes slipped from seventh in defensive S&P+ in 2017 to 26th in 2018, with notable failures against spread offenses. Teams inflicted enough big plays to knock the Buckeyes to 118th in IsoPPP, which measures explosiveness.
Co-DCs Greg Schiano and Alex Grinch departed, with Schiano joining his pal Bill Belichick while Grinch took on another fixer-upper defense in Oklahoma. CB coach Taver Johnson found a spot with the Oakland Raiders, and LB coach and longtime Meyer friend Billy Davis went back to the NFL at Arizona.
Day kept legendary DL coach Larry Johnson and paired him with another great DL coach, Greg Mattison, who’d been at rival Michigan for the previous decade. He brought in former co-worker Jeff Hafley from the 49ers to co-coordinate with Mattison and coach the secondary. Davis was replaced by another Michigan coach, Al Washington.
It’s a totally remade staff tasked with repairing the Ohio State defense for a new era.
The 2018 defense was done in by a combination of three factors.
The first was a decline in DB play. They had to replace No. 4 pick Denzel Ward and Damon Webb, who’d had five INTs in 2017 while finishing third on the team in tackles. The Buckeyes had become a revolving door of DB talent, but the losses caught up.
Only a single DB, safety Jordan Fuller, made 2018’s All-B1G team (the second team, and the one selected by media, not coaches), and he spent the year moving back and forth between the safety positions as the Buckeyes scrambled to patch holes. With Schiano’s scheme built largely around man coverage, this was a not-inconsiderable problem.
The next was their insistence on playing with base 4-3 personnel. Ohio State got away with that during their 2014 title run because they played some exceptional athletes at the sam LB position and underrated strong safeties like Damon Webb and Vonn Bell. Those were converted corners who could match a slot in man coverage and play over the top of the third linebacker.
Finally, the Buckeyes dabbled heavily in line stunts and gap exchanges, trying to maximize the athleticism of their DL. This was a “boom or bust” scheme that occasionally saw the Buckeyes badly creased, while playing man coverage with many of their DBs’ backs turned to the ball. The combination helped cause big plays.
Like many older defenses trying to keep up against modern spreads, trips formations often created the biggest problems. Maryland used unbalanced sets early …
… and often:
The latter example demonstrates all three of Ohio State’s issues. The Buckeyes spent much of this game in their older, press-quarters defense because Schiano’s man-free defense left them too vulnerable to motions and sweeps. In particular, their insistence on using three linebackers in their base defense limited their ability to defend the boundary.
The setup is pretty ridiculous. Their devotion to base 4-3 personnel and setting up the DL to make plays in the backfield has their corner responsible for setting the edge and their free safety fitting the A-gap from 10 yards off the ball. Meanwhile their DE is unblocked, their nose tackle is vacating his A-gap, and two of their three linebackers are defending a screen in space, while the third is trying to defend a gap away from the direction of the run.
Spread opponents can force big linebackers to cover athletes in space. Ohio State leaned on man coverage in the Schiano era, but teams still found ways to force the LBs to the perimeter or else make Ohio State predictable. If the defense only has a single DB who’s capable of covering a slot, it becomes easy to move pieces around and force the defense to tip its hand or put defenders in uncomfortable situations.
Of course, 2018 Ohio State didn’t even consistently have a third DB after the two corners who could cover the slot reliably.
The 2019 defense returns nearly every starter in the backfield, save for CB Kendall Sheffield.
While some of the techniques and schemes will change, that makes for a lot of flexibility in packaging personnel and finding the best fits against familiar opponents.
The new staff largely consists of experience teaching the 4-3 defense. Mattison was a practitioner of the 4-3 Under for years, before moving to the 4-3 Over in the late stages of the Brady Hoke era and in DC Don Brown’s Over-based scheme. Hafley was regarded in the NFL for teaching zone coverages, including versions similar to the two-deep/quarters coverages that Chris Ash installed for Meyer years ago.
Up front, things should continue to go well for the Buckeyes. They’ll have a pair of highly regarded DL coaches and a resumed focus on single-gap techniques that allow good athletes to attack.
On the back end, the philosophy is going to shift. Under Ash, they pattern-matched on defense, but with relatively simple rules. The corners played press-man nearly all the time, and the linebackers and safeties would work their combinations on the inside receivers. Under Schiano, they played more straight man. The simplicity made it easy to rotate NFL-bound defensive backs, particularly at corner.
In 2015, after their title, they sent CB Doran Grant to the NFL in the fourth round. In 2016, they had CB Eli Apple go in the first and Bell go in the second. 2017 had CBs Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley go in the first, where FS Malik Hooker joined them. Last year, they had Ward drafted in the first.
It’s going to be difficult to match that output in a more intensive scheme that requires chemistry between multiple players. However, it might produce defenses that are less susceptible to being divided and conquered by the spread. Against the sorts of trips formations that took them apart a year ago, the Buckeyes will play more conservatively on the back end, behind an aggressive DL.
The interesting thing will be how the Buckeyes handle the increasing usage and efficiency of the spread in the Big Ten.
Their man schemes under Schiano made it easier to play big linebackers of the sort Ohio State has been known for since the Tressel era. In the new defense, those linebackers are going to have to roam more, and the sam position will likely be phased out for a nickel.
Day is going to drive changes in the Big Ten with his pass-intensive offense, and he’s preparing his defense to better handle those changes as they come.