What's plaguing Ohio State's defense?

Greg Bartram-US PRESSWIRE

Is the Ohio State defense as bad as people seem to think?

In the Year One of the Urban Meyer era, I don't think most fans really cared about the W-L record when the season began. I mean, they did, but with the bowl ban and all that, there wasn't much difference between 9-3 or 10-2, as long as the Buckeyes beat Michigan. I don't know what everyone else did, but with the post season ban, I decided to take last year as The Measuring Stick to which all other Urban Meyer coached Ohio State teams would be judged.

Although that 2012 team went undefeated, we all know it was as imperfect as a perfect team could be. There were lapses on both sides of the ball, for maddeningly long stretches of the game, yet the offense, defense, and special teams seemed to get it together when they absolutely, positively had to. There was a lot of good, don't get me wrong. When you go undefeated, you're doing something right. But I think we all knew that there were areas where all three units could improve.

Fast forward to 2013. The offense is humming along, and categorically better no matter how you look at them. With Braxton Miller back to 100%, the Buckeyes look equally dangerous running or passing the football. They can go from an old-school, between the tackles power running game on one play, and switch to a wide open ‘basketball on grass' passing attack the next. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman calls a very good game, and seems to be a step ahead of his defensive opponent more often than not. One of the most frustrating things about the offense from last year was their inability to sustain drives, and a penchant for going three and out for long stretches of the game. This year, although they don't score on every drive, they're much better at staying on the field, and at least flipping the field position by getting a couple of first downs. The third down conversion rate is up almost 10%, from 42% in 2012 to 51% this season. They've gone from 21st to 7th in scoring offense, and from 46th to 20th in total offense between last year and today.

Special teams are better, too. The 2012 units were plagued with blocks, a penchant for giving up a big punt or kickoff return at the worst possible time, and an almost non-existent field goal unit until the final game of the season. They had three punts blocked, and allowed three of four onside kicks to be recovered. Opponents also returned two punts and one kickoff for a touchdown. It was one of the most uneven performances in school history. But 2013 has been markedly better. Through six games, Drew Basil has made one less field goal this year than he did all of last season, and special teams units have yet to give up a blocked kick, or a return for a score. Opponents are also 0-3 on onside kick attempts, as well.

The problem, it seems, is the defense, and there is grumbling in certain circles about whether or not defensive coordinator Luke Fickell will, or should, be back.

The main complaints are that the defense is regressing, there is no consistent pass rush, and the secondary is getting gashed. But are they worse than last season? Over at Off Tackle Empire I wrote, regarding the OSU defense in a preview of the Penn State game:

Yet, in a lot of ways, they don't pass the eye test. Other than the ‘throw-out-the-results-because-it-was-an-FCS-team' shutout against Florida A&M, the Buckeyes defense can either be run on, thrown on, or both, with a fair amount of regularity. In just about every game save the A&M one, Ohio State's defense has been average or below average for good parts of either the first half or second half. Buffalo moved the ball and made it close early, Cal pummeled the OSU secondary, as did Wisconsin. Yes, the Buckeyes stopped the Wisconsin ground game, but they let Joel Stave play pitch and catch with Jared Abbrederis all night long.

Northwestern did what they wanted, for the most part, for almost the entire game against the Buckeyes, and it seemed like the coaching staff was a step behind in making adjustments the whole night. Against Iowa, the Hawkeyes just lined up and played some old school, between the tackles running in the first half, and OSU couldn't stop it.

But let's look at some comparative stats between last year and this year.

The completion rate for opposing quarterbacks last year was 58%, in 2013 it's almost 61%. Last year teams averaged 243 yards a game, this year it's actually lower, at a shade under 241 yards a game. Average per pass is up in 2013 to 7 yards per attempt; last year was 6.4. Average per catch is also worse as well, going from 10.9 to 11.5. Last season, the Buckeye defense gave up 15 TD passes, this year it's 13, with five games still left to play.

So yes, the pass defense has gotten worse, but the Buckeyes are also better in a couple areas. They're giving up over half a yard less per rush (3.6 to 3.0) this season over last, they've improved from 31st in scoring defense to 22nd, and from 34th to 15th nationally in total defense. And when it all boils down to the nitty gritty, it's how many point an opponent puts up, isn't it?

But it's hard to sit here and call the entire defensive unit demonstrably worse; that would be painting with the broadest of brushes, and it would also be inaccurate. Yet still, there is an air of discontent among the fanbase, and even among Coach Meyer.

For me, I go back to the 'eye test', which admittedly, can be as subjective as one wants to make it. The run defense has been stellar, for the most part. They locked down Wisconsin, and made some solid adjustments against Northwestern and Iowa, eventually getting the better of them in the second half. The pass defense seems content to play a soft zone more often than not, and employ a ‘bend but don't break' theory. But when you give up an 85 yard pass to a backup tight end, it's hard to say that's been a winning strategy.

I think overall, the defense is at a minimum no worse than they were last year, but it's not the Silver Bullets of Jim Heacock and Jim Tressel. That's what everyone wants to see, but they're not. They're seeing a good to very good defense at times, but this unit is not elite.

More importantly, they're seeing the same things from last year, whereas the other two units have demonstrably improved. For as much as Fickell has done for this program, both as a player and as a coach, if you're not getting better at Ohio State, you're getting worse.

And with a demanding coach like Urban Meyer, that might not cut it.

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