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Tactical shifts on the Ohio State defensive line should bring more sacks

Could a wider alignment and an inexperienced secondary mean more sacks in 2017?

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

With veterans Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, and Jalyn Holmes leading at end, and younger guys like Dre’Mont Jones, Nick Bosa, Jonathon Cooper, and Chase Young adding depth and playmaking ability, it’s easy to see why national writers expect Ohio State’s defensive line to be one of the country’s best in 2017.

But despite ranking 15th in overall run defense and first in stuff rate, the defensive line was only 58th in average sacks per game (2.15/game) and 78th in adjusted sack rate. There are any number of reasons for this — from the lack of an elite pass rusher to an intentional strategy designed around turnovers instead of sacks. According to Bruce Feldman, Greg Schiano implemented a drill called Match the Hand last year designed to block passing lanes and generate turnovers. From Sam Hubbard:

“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.”

Last year’s defense had the highest interception-to-sack ratio (.75) and the best defense of the Urban Meyer era (fifth in defensive S&P+).

But with the departure of three NFL Draft first-rounders, it looks like the defensive line is changing things up, which could mean more sacks are on the way for the 2017 defensive line.

According to the recent defensive line interviews from Cleveland.com:

“Coach Greg Schiano comes in and has a different philosophy,” Johnson said. “Last year we were more of a squeeze front, build a wall. This year we’re playing a little wider, allows us to get off the ball and play faster in the run and pass game.”

Then from Nick Bosa:

“Coach Fickell being a linebacker coach, we kinda set up all of the plays for the linebackers to make and now it’s us pinning our ears back and going, instead of sitting at the line and waiting,” Bosa said.

“It was definitely frustrating, being tight on the tackle. On first and second down it’s tough to get a pass rush because you’re so tight, anticipating the run.”

And in a separate article, Bosa’s comments suggest a more aggressive defense:

And a more aggressive defense, one Bosa said will allow the defensive line to "pin their ears back" more should open things up for a player who wants to get after quarterbacks the way his brother did.

Normally preseason player comments about the defense playing more aggressively are pretty meaningless, but the comments here are evidence for an actual tactical change, albeit a small one: the wider pre-snap alignment.

It’s possible that the defensive line’s mindset has changed now that the Buckeyes have to again replace 34 of the secondary. While Denzel Ward, Damon Arnette, Jordan Fuller, and Erick Smith all seem to be high-quality players, none seem to possess Malik Hooker’s elite athleticism and centerfield capabilities. The defensive line’s focus might have shifted slightly away from setting up interceptions and to getting after the quarterback.

So it will be worth following the interception-to-sack ratio again this season: if it falls (somewhere between .32-.56, where it was the previous two seasons), but the pass defense remains top-ten in the S&P+, then that might be evidence of a successful tactical shift from the Buckeyes’ defensive line given the secondary and line personnel in 2017.