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Inside the Playbook: Ohio State football passing concepts to attack MSU Cover 4

We look at how the Buckeyes can try to put MSU's safeties in space, forcing them to defend the run game and Ohio State's potent slot receivers.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

So it comes to this: one of the best defenses in the land against one of the top offenses in college football. Michigan State is well known for their cover 4 defense. This is a defense that allows the Spartans to match up on the edges and play with a quasi-9-man-box against any offense. Meanwhile, Meyer has brought his version of the spread offense to Columbus, and the Buckeyes are clicking on all cylinders. In my opinion, we know OSU's run game and what it pretty much consists of, and we understand MSU's run defense and how it plays. So the interesting matchup is what happens on the back end. It is these plays - set-up by the run threat - that can allow the Buckeye offense to get working up to their standard. We will look at some of the pass concepts within this offense that will force Michigan State's defense to respect the pass and allow Hyde and Company to do their work on the ground.

MSU Defensive Primer

Michigan State primarily stays within their cover 4, 4-3 Over scheme for the most part on normal downs and distances. That doesn't mean that they are predictable though, as they'll make adjustments within their scheme, both on the back end and on the front end to put the players in a better position based on what the offense is presenting.


On the back end, much of the adjustments are between the OLBs and safeties and how they cover the #2 receiversm like how they work that transition, whether they keep their OLBs more in the box and work their safeties in coverage, whether they play in the gray area and utilize their safeties as alley defenders, or whether they decide to the LB level with their safeties and let their OLBs work more in space.

Up front, it's as simple as changing their shades to provide certain strengths against certain types of run plays.

Just for the sake of completeness, on third down and long they tend to go to more of a cover 3 look. They will do a more standard defense, and they will also utilize a defense that I have detailed a few times.

Matchup Primer

The key thing that moves Ohio State is the offensive line. Their ability to get solid push on the interior allows them to release off their doubles and get out to the LB level. On top of that, because they are so accomplished running the ball, a group of veteran players also get the added benefit of holding the defense with run fakes in pass protection. This pass protection is what will eventually allow the Buckeyes to do many of the things they want to do in the pass game.

One thing that is good about the Buckeye's rushing attack is that it is more downhill and power oriented than many spread offenses. I think this helps Ohio State, because moving horizontally against the Spartans isn't a great idea. This inside/outside combo of Hyde and Miller does present some problems, and while MSU is about as sound as it gets at reading their keys and surrounding the football, plays like the veer option could churn out yards at a much more successful rate than most.

What these plays really stress is the secondary involvement in the defense. It's odd to say, considering how well regarded Michigan State is in the defensive backfield, but where to start exploiting them is on the backend where they are forced to play a lot of single coverage. Because the safeties have to get involved in the run, it is the matchup between the Buckeye's slots against MSU's safeties in trying to play both pass coverage and run support that needs to be exploited. The Ohio State offense prefers to attack deep and to the outside for several reasons. For one, it's where the defense doesn't tend to already be to stop the run. But it also allows for Miller to make easier reads as the field gets spread and things open up. Against what essentially becomes single coverage, there are certain plays within the OSU scheme that will likely be called to put the receivers in positions for Miller to hit them. We'll look at a few of those plays here.

Flood Concept

This has been Ohio States go to play for much of the year, and for good reason. It works to stretch the field vertically while attacking different levels of the defense when in zone. More importantly against MSU, it allows the Buckeyes to utilize play action and then get receivers in positions against safeties that are favorable.


What actually makes this so difficult is that OSU will run it from so many different looks, which force safeties and LBs to defend the entire field. On the play above, for instance, the safety lined up over the TE has to be prepared to cover a simple post or a seam, but by turning it into a deep cross, the defender's positioning on the TE must change as the receiver crosses the field. This is difficult in many regards and can cause confusion on passing off players or not (this is why this play is so effective against cover 3 as well).

And as you see, based on how the defense is aligned and the personnel, the Buckeyes can hit the different spots in their flood play with a lot of different players and from many different looks. For instance:



This puts those players in a precarious position to get good position in pass coverage, especially when they also must respect the run threat. This also gives Miller fairly easy reads for who to throw open. With speed at a lot of positions, this is a concept that could get players behind the coverage or open in space in the intermediate range.

Sail Concept

Sail concept utilizes a smash scheme to the playside, it adds a comeback or snag route to complete the triangle. As the Buckeyes continue to attack deep, you can expect a backside post. This is designed to take advantage of the roll in coverage that often occurs within MSU's cover 4.


The trips look also forces a LB in coverage. The smash route further outside, gives the #3 a lot of room to work against a LB. MSU will attempt to wall off any crossing route from a WR, so he'll have to try to stem as far inside as is reasonable before working back outside. What makes this potentially difficult for MSU to defend is how they want to play their alley defense. If the run is sold, that safety will tend to want to pull up to fill the alley and how Miller inside. If LBs are chasing the play fake, then this corner route from the #2 becomes very difficult to cover with any hesitation. The key to defending the corner route is positioning to tighten that window, but being threatened in two ways makes that positioning difficult on the safety.

Levels Smash

This concept will utilize a smash concept to one side and a levels concept on the backside. The intention from the smash concept is to force the playside safety to the sideline (similar to the above). This then allows a levels concept on the backside to work the backside of the defense. Because Ohio State tends to prefer stretching the field vertical off their run action, the drawn concept has a post and dig combination. This post puts the receiver up against a safety with all the room to work with. Whether the smash side safety (FS) plays an alley run support or follows the corner route, the levels side post route (from the Z-receiver) can be adjusted based on the strong safety's ($) positioning on him. With all the room to work with, he has room to work within the scheme and use his athleticism, and again, the threat of the run to his advantage.


You could also see something like a streak and out on the playside to force the safety down or to get the LB stretched in coverage. That short or intermediate out is a tough spot for the cover 4. It's a transition region in the coverage between the OLBs and the safeties against the number 2 receiver. So that is a favorite for some.



Here we are going to give the look like we are attacking the middle of the field against the safety to open up room to the sideline. This also acts as a quasi-rub on the CB to get the WR open on the post. Away from this I added a fade and a bench route to extend the vertical look and give an outlet as well. Now you are able to get across the face of the outside CB in a way and work into the open void there if the safety tries to fight over the top. But the safety and CB in general are rubbed off one another, making it difficult on both. It's an easy read for the QB and you see an evolution of threatening the whole field with single move routes and now simple double move concepts.



A post wheel is a good play because it initially looks like the streak-out play. But it opens up everything inside for the post route and forces the safety to bite up on the outside. The Post-Wheel has been a play that Meyer has used sparingly but on occasion to get a big play, and getting MSU to bite is a pretty good option here. This utilizes the idea that the short/intermediate out is something that this defense tends to give up by scheme (though the safeties to the field tend to minimize the window even with that in mind). But to take advantage of them working to make even what they give up more difficult to execute, you can pull them out of position. Getting the outside CB to turn his back to the wheel makes this extremely dangerous, it also makes for a fairly easy read. And you see a hot concept installed with the #3 (that also helps sell the outs and puts him on a LB) and a dig other side to draw up the strong safety to open up grass behind him for the post, making that read even simpler for Miller (he doesn't have to worry about it being undercut by a rolling safety).



All these plays can be tied with run action. It's important to note that while OSU can actually roll out Miller and force the alley fill from the safety, even faking the belly will put the defense in a predicament. That's because off of that look the QB usually attacks the edge, and while it may not force the defense to commit to that, it may draw their attention or at least hold them.

The other common thread here is forcing the safeties to play the entirety of the field without the benefit of help. The Spartan's have great safeties, but OSU has great slot receivers. Forcing them to play the corners, the center of the field, and the out route is a lot to ask, especially when they are also tasked with playing the run. It's not that these are bad players, it is that within Ohio State's scheme they can be tasked with simply having to do too much.

Now, the Buckeyes still need to run the ball. Running the football will open up these types of plays, and hitting these types of plays will really open up the run, and that makes it so Narduzzi can't make his early adjustments and play football, it instead forces him to play a chess match the entire game, something they haven't had to do this season.