Joey Bosa is one of the best players in college football. You know that, I know that. Cool.
Because Bosa is one of the best players in college football, offensive game plans against the Buckeyes have largely been based around attempting to at least slow down number 97. These game plans have been effective in the sense that Bosa "only" has four sacks this season, but these game plans have also been ineffective in the sense that Bosa's 13 solo TFL's this season rank fifth (and that's in one less game than most).
Most football fans have heard the analogy that football can be "like a chess match" in that both sides will strategize to attempt to gain an advantage. By moving Bosa all around the defensive line, from his home at left end, to a standup rush linebacker over top the center, identifying where Bosa is pre-snap is absolutely vital to the success of any offensive play against the Silver Bullets.
But once Bosa is located, the offense faces a new question: how does one stop Joey Bosa? Illinois took their best stab at answering this question through deploying numerous blocking schemes and plays designed to contain Bosa. These included gems such as:
- Attempt to fool Bosa into being blocked by one man.
- Block Bosa with three men who get a free tuition based on their ability to block other men.
- Run right at Bosa.
- Double-team Bosa and live with the results.
Bosa's seven tackles (three for a loss, including .5 sacks) largely point to Illinois' game plan of containing Bosa being an absolute failure. It was, but those stats don't serve Bosa's presence on the field justice. Let's take a look at the four potential "Bosa-Stopping" strategies I listed above and see how Bosa and the Silver Bullets managed to exploit them.
Bosa-Stopping Strategy No. 1: Attempt to fool Bosa into being blocked by one man.
On 2nd and 21 from their own 10 yard line with only 0:39 seconds left in the first half, it's safe to say that Illinois had very low expectations regarding what they could accomplish on the rest of this drive. By calling an inside handoff, the Illinois offense was more or less conceding the rest of the clock and, with that, any opportunity to cut into Ohio State's 14-3 lead. Unfortunately for Illinois, Bosa was unaware of this plan, and decided to make every play of the game count.
As mentioned before, it isn't exactly a secret that Ohio State likes to move Bosa around on the defensive line. This is what makes the fact that Bosa lined up at left end over Illinois' right tackle Christian DiLauro on over 75 percent of Bosa's snaps so surprising.
Maybe it was co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Chris Ash simply recognizing a mismatch when they saw one and exploiting it over and over again. Or maybe it was something more. Maybe this attack on poor Christian was more personal than we could have ever anticipated. Maybe the Illinois coaching belief that the Uniontown, Ohio graduate could block Bosa one-on-one was so insulting to Fickell that he just decided to unleash his beast on DiLauro over and over again.
When you hear the expression "He put that guy on roller-skates!" this picture should come to mind. Bosa plays with an absurd amount of power, and when combined with his ability to play this low, Bosa manages to get all 300 lbs of DiLauro off of the ground, and essentially places him "on roller-skates". The key part of this play, however, is how Bosa also essentially assumes control over DiLauro by not only getting inside position with his hands, but also by completely extending his arms at the point of contact.
You may notice that this is a run pay, but DiLaurio finds himself in a pass set against Bosa. This was Illinois' attempt to "fool" Bosa. One way offenses attempt to neutralize a very good defensive end is by showing pass against the end when there is a run the other way. Defensive lineman cannot see and diagnose an entire play the second they get off of the ball, so the idea is that by pass setting, the offense can confuse the defensive end into pass rushing instead of pursuing the run.
This is a tried and true offensive concept that can be very effective, just not when Bosa is perfectly content with taking that pass setting offensive lineman with him directly into the backfield.
The end result is first the predicted tackle for a loss with DiLaurio on his back, but as a cherry on top, Bosa threw DiLaurio into Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt, taking him to the ground as well. What goes in the books as a simple tackle for a loss by Bosa was, in reality, a complete domination by a player who was supposed to be too busy dealing with a pass setting tackle to make a play on the run.
Bosa-Stopping Strategy No. 2: Block Bosa with three men who get a free tuition based on their ability to block other men.
The play that may have garnered the most national attention for Bosa was one that saw him not even lay a finger on the quarterback. However, the amazing part of the play wasn't what Bosa did with his fingers, it was that Illinois attempted to stop him with 30 fingers of their own.
Bosa lines up at left defensive end here, this time with a tight end on his side along with DiLaurio. Now is the time to clear up what exactly constitutes a "triple team".
When dealing with an exceptional pass rusher the offense can attempt to contain him by blocking him with more people than just one. Two of the most common ways of doing this are by having a running back or tight end "chip" the pass rusher, allowing their offensive tackle to get in good position to take on the rusher, before continuing on into their pass route. Another common way is by simply assigning an additional blocker (whether it be a running back, tight end, or guard) to the pass rusher, and double teaming the rusher for the entirety of the play. What happened this past Saturday is something I have not seen attempted against anyone not named Watt.
That's right, not one, not two, but three blockers were assigned to block Bosa on this play. Not briefly block Bosa before helping elsewhere, but to block Bosa for the entire play. I cannot imagine this concept being implemented during practice. Imagine the Illinois offensive line coach trying to explain to his linemen that he totally believes in their ability to go out there and gain positive yardage against the Buckeyes, but oh yeah, we're going to need three of you to block Bosa on this play otherwise we don't think it will work.
...Maybe next time they should try four.
Bosa-Stopping Strategy No. 3: Run right at Bosa.
One reason why (mostly) no one freaked out over Bosa's somewhat underwhelming statistical start to the season was because of his ability against the run. Running to Bosa's side typically involves double teaming the beast himself, and then trying to deal with an unblocked Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan, or Joshua Perry. Because of this, Illinois decided to not take many chances running at Bosa, and instead relied on quick passes or screens mixed in with a run game away from Bosa in their feeble attempt to get any type of offense going.
Unfortunately for Illinois, deciding to not take many chances running at Bosa was still a few too many. Here Bosa is responsible for defending the "B" gap, while field corner Gareon Conley will be the "force" player (responsible for forcing the ball back inside, essentially playing the "C" gap for this play) and safety Vonn Bell is the "fill" player whose job is to fill the hole created by Conley and Bosa and take down the ball carrier. On this play Bosa manages to defend both the B and C gaps through his once again impeccable technique and overall refusal to be blocked.
This play actually starts off wonderfully for Illinois. DiLaurio appears to do his job of forcing Bosa inside, and all Illinois backup running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn needs to do is cut off of his lead blocker's block on Conley to have a one-on-one open field matchup with Bell in the secondary. However, Bosa does an excellent job of keeping his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, which allows him to keep his base (and thus his power) against an, once again, overwhelmed DiLaurio.
Vaughn is forced to attempt to beat Conley to the corner (spoiler alert: he doesn't win) as Bosa is able to swim back outside past DiLaurio and into the "C" gap where the play was supposed to go. Bell would have found himself in perfect position to take down Vaughn for a short gain had DiLaurio blocked Bosa (lol), but instead, thanks to Bosa's disruption, is able to help Conley run down Vaughn in the open field for a TFL. Bosa essentially took what would have been (at least) a three-yard run and turned it into a tackle for a loss.
Bosa-Stopping Strategy No. 4: Double-team Bosa and live with the results.
After a dropped Illinois punt return led to a quick dagger touchdown for the Buckeyes, the Ohio State defense once again took the field attempting to continue to keep the Fighting Illini out of the endzone.
Up by 25 at this point, the Buckeyes are in their base cover-4 defense and are content relying on their fearsome front four to generate pressure on their own.
Bosa appears to be inexplicably left single blocked, and easily defeats DiLaurio with a swim move to the outside. This is when the Illinois guard stops paying attention to Ohio State nose guard Tommy Schutt, and instead decides that helping block arguably the best defensive player in the country might be a better idea.
Bosa is picked up by the Illinois guard, but still was able to penetrate deep enough into the backfield to cause Lunt to step up into the pocket...right into the waiting arms of the now single-blocked Schutt. Even when the plan works and Bosa is contained, that just means there's another Buckeye more than capable of making a play now with a prime opportunity to do so.
Bosa will face one of his biggest challenges of the season this week against Michigan State left tackle Jack Conklin, but fortunately for Buckeye fans, Conklin faces the biggest challenge he has faced this year in Bosa. Expect Bosa to be moving around the formation more than he did against Illinois, but don't expect his impact on the game to change. Maybe not for another year?