The Ohio State defense has come a long way since 2013. Just three years after being incapable of slowing down the passing attacks of Michigan, Michigan State, and Clemson, the Buckeyes combined an uber-athletic secondary with a relentless front-seven to form one of the top-five defenses in the nation.
The 2017 version of the silver bullets will need to replace four starters, but there’s plenty of talent remaining for them to continue to dominate opposing offenses around the country. Let’s take a look at some defensive packages and schemes that will likely be on display once again this season.
The Rushmen Package
The original “Rushmen Package” was contrived during the 2015 season, when the Buckeyes needed a way to get their four best pass-rushers on the field at the same time. By replacing the the team’s nose tackle (usually Tommy Schutt) with backup defensive end Sam Hubbard, a defensive line consisting of Joey Bosa, Hubbard, Adolphus Washington, and Tyquan Lewis was born.
Last season’s version of the rushmen package was nearly as devastating as the original. Starting defensive ends Hubbard and Lewis were joined by backups Nick Bosa and Jalyn Holmes to form one of the most dangerous groups in the country. A defensive line with four defense ends who could all feasibly warrant double teams proved to be nearly unstoppable in some of the season’s biggest moments:
Ohio State doesn’t blitz a ton, mostly because they don’t have to. With four defensive ends who could potentially start anywhere in the country, there is more than enough talent for the Buckeyes to create pressure with just four rushers. Look for the silver bullets to once again break out this package during obvious pass situations on third and fourth down in 2017.
The Nickel Package
The ability to get pressure with just four linemen is great, but Ohio State recognized that they needed to get more athletes on the field against certain offensive formations with three or four wide receivers. The solution was a new-look nickel package, which replaced one of their defensive tackles with an additional cornerback.
What makes the Buckeyes’ nickel defense tricky is their ability to show several looks out of it. Ohio State only rushed three men on Jerome Baker's pick-six against Oklahoma, but the linebackers’ pre-snap movement and alignment created plenty of confusion in the Sooners’ blocking scheme:
Having a freak athlete like Baker in the middle of your defense helps, but Ohio State was often able to scheme up plays from this formation that thwarted the opposing offense before they could get anything going. Look no further than when Michigan tried their adorable “trains” formation against the Buckeyes’ nickel defense:
Raekwon McMillan is the only member of the Buckeyes’ front-seven that won’t return next season, but Chris Worley shouldn’t have too much trouble filling McMillan’s spot as an outside linebacker in this nickel package. Ohio State has plenty of strength and power on their defensive line, but replacing a slower defensive tackle with a twitchy defensive back led to some fantastic results in obvious passing situations last season. Don’t be surprised if we see more of this nickel package against spread-heavy offenses in 2017.
Ohio State is known for playing cover-four, but this often has the same responsibilities as man-coverage as far as the defense’s outside cornerbacks are concerned. As King Urban once said, “The NFL never comes and says, ‘We want a zone corner ... So that’s why our guys when they wake up, they go play man (coverage) and they go to sleep playing man.”
Sometimes opposing quarterbacks would attempt to attack the cover-four coverage with the slant, as Ohio State’s corners will sometimes give up an inside release knowing that they have plenty of help in the middle. Unfortunately for opposing offenses, Ohio State’s cornerbacks are more than capable of simply locking down the man in front of them all the way across the field:
It’s one thing for a cornerback to be able to keep up with a receiver all over the field, it’s another thing for the cornerback to have the confidence and ability to beat the receiver to the ball point. There’s good reason to trust Denzel Ward as Ohio State’s new No. 1 cornerback, and part of that comes down to his ability to play tight man-to-man coverage. Look for the Buckeyes to continue to give their cornerbacks plenty of chances to win one-on-one matchups against wide receivers.
Zone-Blitzes Feat. Sam Hubbard
We’ve broken down the possibilities that Sam Hubbard brings to the table as an outside linebacker, but he’ll still play the majority of his snaps with his hand in the ground. What will be interesting to see is if opposing offenses will choose to slide their offensive line towards Hubbard in an attempt to slow down the Buckeyes’ twitchiest edge rusher.
Almost every offense Ohio State played in 2015 chose to slide their offensive line to wherever Joey Bosa lined up. This made sense: Bosa is a beast and having two blockers to slow him down is ideal in pass protection. The problem for opposing offenses was that Ohio State took advantage of this protection scheme by dropping Bosa into coverage:
The Western Michigan offensive line had no chance to slow down the Buckeyes’ blitz simply because they didn’t have the numbers. Once Bosa dropped into coverage, the right side of the offensive line was overloaded with blockers for defenders that were coming elsewhere. Whether or not Hubbard will demand the same level of attention from opposing offensive lines remains to be seen, but he has the athletic ability to make plays in space. Don’t be surprised if Ohio State takes advantage of this attribute one way or another.
Ohio State looks to improve their defense every off-season just like every other team in the country. New schemes and plays will be thought up, but there’s plenty of ammo left in the arsenal from last season as well. Don’t be surprised to see Ohio State go back to the well with some of their more devastating defensive schemes in 2017. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.