How Ohio State can limit Watson
Ohio State doesn’t change the principles of their defense based on the opponent. This is what happens when your entire defense is stockpiled with some of the most talented players in the country.
While much has been made of Ohio State’s cover-four scheme, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley are talented enough that the defense has run an abundance of straight up man-to-man coverage. The secondary’s coverage ability, combined with the pass-rushing prowess and athleticism from the front seven, has allowed Ohio State to stifle scrambling quarterbacks all season.
Man coverage with a QB spy
Against Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma Sooners, Ohio State got basic and played cover-one spy during a huge moment early in the game:
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield has the ability to make plays outside of the pocket, so the defense needed to protect against a possible quarterback run. In the above play, Ohio State shows blitz at the line before the snap, but it's really just designed to confuse the quarterback and offensive line. The Buckeyes are only rushing their three down linemen and almost everyone else is playing man coverage.
Free safety Damon Webb (#7), bails at the snap to cover the middle of the field. He is just playing a deep zone and is looking for work. Strong safety Malik Hooker (#24) rolled into the box before the snap and is in man coverage with the tight end. They'll often switch responsibilities which makes it difficult for quarterbacks to know who is playing which role. The Buckeyes' three cornerbacks are all in man coverage.
Raekwon McMillan (#5) and Chris Worley (#35), the two outside linebackers on this play, are responsible for covering the running back. Since the running back went to McMillan's side of the field, he covered him while Worley stayed home to spy Mayfield and look for work. Regardless of what goes on around him, middle linebacker Jerome Baker (#17) spies the quarterback to prevent any running lanes or scramble attempts.
At the snap, all three of Ohio State's cornerbacks and Hooker turn and run with their receivers. Mayfield appeared to be fooled by the blitz and didn't set the protection correctly, as Jalyn Holmes (#11) was gifted a free path to the quarterback. From there, Baker made a great play by finding the tipped pass and managed to take the interception all the way to the house.
The Buckeyes' defense gets complex when it needs to. Third-and-longs will sometimes result in well-timed blitzes, but Ohio State has often been able to get pressure on the quarterback without bringing pressure. In these instances, they've been more than happy to simply let their cornerbacks matchup with the opposition and hope that their players are better than the opposition.
The Rushmen package
If Ohio State is struggling to get pressure on Watson, they could move to their rushmen package sooner rather than later. Last season, Ohio State's defensive line was the strong point of the defense, as they had an abundance of NFL talent that excelled at getting to the quarterback. When opponents were forced into obvious passing downs, they began toying with a "rushmen" package that took their nose guard off the field for a defensive end. Joey Bosa was so good at playing inside or outside that they were able to put three defensive ends plus Adolphus Washington on the field at the same time. It was a nightmare for quarterbacks and offensive lines alike.
This season's version of the rushmen package involves two substitutions since the defense doesn't have an interior pass rusher on Washington's level. Nick Bosa (#97) and Holmes play plenty of snaps in non-passing situations as well, but the Buckeyes will bring them in as defensive tackles to join starting defensive ends Sam Hubbard (#6) and Tyquan Lewis (#59) to really get after the quarterback.
In the above play, Ohio State had forced Wisconsin into a fourth and goal with four yards separating the offense from the end zone. The defense subbed in Bosa and Holmes to play defensive tackle and proceeded to unleash the four pass rushers. The linebackers, safeties and corners play the same Cover 1 spy principal that we discussed before, except there are only two linebackers instead of three. The only difference is that there is now one quarterback spy instead of two, so the focus is more on pressure and less on defending against a run or broken play.
With great coverage across the board, the Wisconsin offensive line is overwhelmed by the pass rush and speed of the interior defenders. Most of the Buckeyes' pass rushers are hard to handle without a double team, so putting them all on the field at once makes it very difficult to protect the quarterback, while also allowing the defense to drop seven guys back in coverage. Holmes eventually makes it to the quarterback and seals the game.
The bottom line
Both Clemson and Ohio State will have a few surprises in store for each other, but at the end of the day both teams got to this point by playing their style of football. Clemson is going to try to spread Ohio State out on defense and let their best player attack them in a variety of ways. The Buckeyes are going to bet that their corners and defensive linemen are better than the Tigers’ receivers and offensive linemen.
Football is a team sport, but in a matchup with two very-even teams, the game could come down to individuals making big plays in big moments. Can the Ohio State defensive line contain Watson and force him to make quick decisions? Can Lattimore and Conley hold up in man coverage down the field and slow down Williams? I for one cannot wait to find out this Saturday.