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Was a new drill partly responsible for Ohio State’s lower sack rate in 2016?

Maybe it’s smart to not always go for the hit.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Ohio State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Just last week I wrote about Ohio State’s unusually low adjusted sack rate in 2016. The Buckeye defense was just 78th in adjusted sack rate despite ranking first overall in stuff rate and power success rate. Former blue-chip players littered the defensive line, so the issue was likely not with the talent on the roster.

However, Bruce Feldman recently posted an article on a drill that Greg Schiano implemented last year (after picking it up from Bill Belichick) that Urban Meyer reportedly hated at first. The drill, called Match the Hand, involves pass rushers raising the hand opposite of the quarterback’s throwing arm just before the quarterback releases the ball.

The idea is that it helps disrupt the path of the ball just slightly. According to Schiano,

“Sometimes you tap it, and sometimes the quarterback changes his angle. It’s one of those deals where, like, if you change the compass on a boat one degree. If it goes a mile, it doesn’t really change it that much but if it goes 50 miles, you’re gonna be off course. Same thing with a pass. If you can change it at the point of departure, it can be [two-feet different], and those how you make interceptions.”

But the key point as it relates to sacks and the pass rush is this quote by Sam Hubbard in Bruce’s article:

“We do it every day. That’s all I think about when I’m running to a quarterback and he’s rolling out. You don’t go for the hit — that’s what I used to do. You just match the hand. It works every time. I’ve talked to all the quarterbacks and they just say they hate it so much. After doing all these drills, it’s just instinct.”

Hubbard was seen as the heir to Joey Bosa last season. Both possess lightening quick first-steps and have the pass rush moves to

It’s entirely possible that the poorer adjusted sack rate in Schiano’s first year as defensive coordinator was due in part to pass rushers not always going for the hit -- but trying to match the hand instead.

In 2016, Ohio State was 4th in the country with 21 interceptions, but they only had 28 sacks (54th). In 2015, they only had 12 total interceptions (56th), but 38 sacks (9th). 2014 was a great year for defensive havoc, ranking 7th in sacks (45) and 4th in interceptions (25).

Interceptions to Sacks under Meyer

Year Interceptions Sacks INT:Sack Ratio Defensive S&P+ Rank
Year Interceptions Sacks INT:Sack Ratio Defensive S&P+ Rank
2016 21 28 0.75 5
2015 12 38 0.32 9
2014 25 45 0.56 14
2013 16 42 0.38 42
2012 14 30 0.47 25

The ratio of interceptions to sacks in a given year are interesting. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the best interception: sack ratio was also the best defense of the Urban Meyer era. While the 2015 defense had the lowest interception to sack ratio in the last five years, that defense was also fourth overall in the country in adjusted sack rate.

The real key is that a defense needs to either be good at getting sacks or getting turnovers. But Schiano and Meyer had to decide between emphasizing higher probability sacks (the pre-Schiano strategy of just get to the QB) or raising the admittedly-lower probability of interceptions (via Match the Hand), and decided to go with the latter strategy (to great effect!).

It’s entirely possible that Schiano’s drill explains the lower sack rate last season -- but the drill could have also been in place because the line nevertheless lacked a single pure pass rusher. Maybe Nick Bosa, Jonathon Cooper, and/or Chase Young still change things this coming season.

Either way, I’d argue that an elite defense needs to be forcing at least 1.5 interceptions per game or getting an average of nearly 3 sacks a game. Be on the lookout for whether edge rushers go for the sack or try to match the hand in their pass rush in 2017.