The Ohio State secondary has been on lockdown all season. Led by Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore on the outside, and Malik Hooker patrolling from free safety, the Buckeye passing defense has only allowed 10 passing touchdowns on the season — two behind the best in the nation. They have also intercepted 19 passes, which is only three less than the leader.
If you are a fan or watch Ohio State on a consistent basis, there is one main issue with this pass defense. No, it’s not the pass rush. Ohio State averages only a little over two sacks per game, but their Rushmen package does a great job at pressuring the quarterback. It’s their inability to cover in the slot. Damon Webb has been their primary nickelback and against legitimate slot receivers, he has had his troubles. Greg Schiano feels most safe keeping Lattimore and Conley on the outside, even if they’re getting killed in the slot.
According to CFB Filmroom, Damon Webb has been targeted a team-high 38 times and has let up the most receptions on the team with 20. Only 10 of those 38 targets were contested (Conley contested 20 of his 36 targets) and 14 of those 20 completions moved the chains.
Against Oklahoma, both Webb and Ward were tied for a team-leading six targets and were the only two players to give up more than one reception. Webb let up a team-worst 51 yards and three first downs.
Northwestern’s Austin Carr, one of the best slot receivers in the nation, lit up Webb and fellow nickel/dimers Damon Arnette and Denzel Ward to the tune of 158 yards on 8 receptions. The combination of Conley and Lattimore only accounted for one of Carr’s receptions.
Since the Carr debacle, Schiano has shown a willingness to bump Conley inside, but it’s not on a consistent enough basis where Ohio State supporters should feel completely safe against Clemson’s arsenal of perimeter weapons. Even with Conley inside, the slot was still targeted a handful of times against Michigan. In that game, Conley allowed three receptions -- all for first downs — on four targets.
Enter Clemson’s Artavis Scott.
Per Pro Football Focus, Scott worked out of the slot about a third of his snaps this season and caught 29 of his 69 receptions out of that position. Deshaun Watson likes to get the ball to him quick (5.8 yards per target) and let him run (481 yards of his 579 yards came after the catch). He’ll carry the ball on jet sweeps -- which hurt Ohio State against Wisconsin — and they find creative ways to get the speedster into space. Even though Clemson has a beast on the perimeter in Mike Williams, one could argue that Scott presents the greatest mismatch for the Ohio State defense.
When watching Clemson, it’s clear that they like to use Scott in a variety of ways. They’ll line him up in bunch formations, trips, stack him behind a receiver, in the slot or outwide — mostly in order to get him the ball quickly and set up blockers in front of him on the perimeter.
Here are two formations that Clemson utilized Scott in to run a quick screen:
The first is Scott lined up as the outside receiver. Right away, Clemson has the numbers advantage with only one cornerback playing in between Scott and the slot receiver. When the ball is snapped, the receiver quickly blocks the corner, allowing Scott to catch the quick screen and take it for 9-yards. One would have to expect Ohio State to play their outside corner much closer to Scott and most likely have a nickel closer to the line of scrimmage, thus making Watson change the play call.
On the bottom of the screen, Clemson is using a trips bunch formation with Scott behind two receivers. Once again, Clemson has a numbers advantage on the perimeter. Scott essentially has two blockers in front of him which allows a receiver to take out the cornerback on the line of scrimmage and gain easy yardage.
As mentioned above, Clemson likes to use Scott as a ball carrier on jet sweeps. As we saw against Wisconsin, Ohio State had big time trouble in the first half defending their jet sweep, which was gaining good yardage with ease. We are going to do a deep dive of how Ohio State will defend the jet sweep, but right now we are just showing how Clemson moves around their premiere playmaker in order to create mismatches.
Here, Scott is lined up in a stack behind another receiver. Virginia Tech is in zone coverage, which is why their defender did not follow the receiver when he went into motion.
Watson touch-passed the ball to Scott, while the flex tight end kicked out the corner, leaving a safety one-on-one with the speedster.
Overall, Ohio State is going to have their hands full with the Tigers’ Swiss Army knife. They’ll line him up all over the field and find different ways to catch the defense in a favorable matchup. They like to get the ball to Scott quickly and use a numbers advantage to block for him on the perimeter. With all the publicity that Mike Williams gets — and deservedly so — as a perimeter threat, Scott is used in a variety of ways that makes the opposing defense account for him before every snap. Ohio State’s biggest weakness on defense could be exploited if the Buckeyes do not make changes leading up to the Fiesta Bowl.