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The biggest challenges for Ohio State’s 2017 defense

Last year’s defense was elite, but there are a few big question marks for 2017.

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

A few months ago I posted on the biggest concerns for Ohio State’s 2017 offense and now it’s time to talk about the defense.

The Buckeyes’ 2016 defense was one of their best in recent memory. Finishing fifth in the defensive S&P+, it was their best effort according to advanced stats since 2010. They would allow just 15.5 points per game (third in the country), rack up 21 interceptions (fourth), and allow touchdowns on just 37.5% of opponent red zone trips (second). This was the best defense Urban Meyer has had at Ohio State, thanks to the combination of co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and the emergence of one-year starters Malik Hooker and Marshon Lattimore.

But last year’s success doesn’t automatically mean that the Buckeyes are guaranteed to field another top-five defense. Losing co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, whose departure has been somewhat overlooked this offseason, along with three first-round defensive backs, means that Schiano and company have their work cut out for them this preseason. The defense only has 57% of last year’s production returning for 2017, which is 92nd in the country. And Ohio State is certain to see at least two top-ten(ish) offenses in Oklahoma and Penn State next season.

Starting faster

Let’s start with one of the less-concerning problems for the defense. Last year’s defense was elite, but it needed a little time to get acclimated to the game. Though the Buckeyes ranked sixth, second, and first from the second to fourth quarters, the defense was a surprising 34th in first quarter defensive S&P+. Clemson scored 10 in the first quarter behind big passes from Deshaun Watson — including a 26-yarder to Mike Williams. Wisconsin led 10-3 at the end of the first, with Corey Clement running down the sideline for 68 yards. And Oklahoma managed a kickoff return touchdown and could’ve had more if not for a missed field goal on the Sooners’ opening drive. The common thread was the defense allowing big plays early, then clamping down for the rest of the game.

Where are the sacks?

I’ve already written about the Buckeyes’ low sack numbers this offseason. The Buckeyes may have been among the best at creating turnovers, but it’s possible that those came at the expense of sacks, where the Buckeyes ranked just 54th with 28 total, and an average of 2.15 per game (58th).

An alternative explanation is that the defensive line simply lacked an explosive pass rusher. Tyquan Lewis won Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the year, but no pass rusher managed double digit sacks — and no one has since Joey Bosa put up 13.5 in 2014. Nick Bosa and Chase Young both look like elite pass rushers, though, so their playtime may determine how the Buckeyes fare in their pass rush.

Either way, it’s not a question of the quality of the line — Schiano compared the line to the Buccaneers’ and the unit was incredible in run defense, ranking 15th in rushing S&P+ and first overall in stuff rate.

Speaking of run defense

The Buckeyes were much better in run defense than I expected going in to last season. Without star defensive tackles, and with the injury to veteran Tracy Sprinkle, I expected opposing offenses to test weak spots along the interior line. But in a testament to Larry Johnson and Luke Fickell, the line was incredible in run defense despite interior stars. That’s the same thing this year, with only Dre’Mont Jones qualifying as a potential star along the interior line (at least right now).

But the potential issue is that the run defense may really miss Raekwon McMillan. Raekwon was a steady presence in the middle of the defense even if he didn’t produce as many highlights as some of the exterior linebackers or players in front or behind him. Raekwon led the team in tackles (by over 10 tackles) and had seven tackles for loss. But his replacement, Chris Worley, is listed as 15 pounds lighter. So can Worley be the same run-stopper that Raekwon was?

That’s not to mention another potential issue with the run defense —big plays. Though they were 9th in rushing success rate, the defense was 66th in rushing IsoPPP, meaning that when they Buckeyes allowed an efficient run, it was often a pretty big one.

Replacing losses in the secondary

In Bill’s returning production ratings, he notes that two of the three most important stats correlated with year-to-year changes in defensive S&P+ are overall passes defensed (first, .406) and defensive back passes defensed (third, .363). Fourth is defensive back tackles returning. As Bill says,

The main takeaways are similar to last year: disruption and continuity in the secondary are key. And the ability to get hands on passes, via interception or breakup, is harder to replicate than any other, when it comes to box-score disruption.

That, obviously, is bad news for Ohio State, which replaced Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley, and Marshon Lattimore. Those three accounted for 15 of Ohio State’s 21 interceptions and 21 of their 50 passes broken up. That’s a huge amount of lost production, and suggests significant regression for the Ohio State secondary in 2017.

But two of those three losses were themselves just one-year starters. Constantly replacing a large percentage of the secondary every year has become standard for Kerry Coombs due to these players’ success. We thought the post-2015 departure would also be rough for the secondary (remember losing Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, and Tyvis Powell?), but the secondary actually got better. There’s likely to be a dropoff from Malik Hooker to literally anybody, but the good news is that there are a lot of great candidates. The current favorites across the secondary are most more experienced players, like Erick Smith or Jordan Fuller at safety, Denzel Ward slides in seamlessly after functioning as essentially the third starting corner last year (he was tied for first with 9 passes defensed last year), and Damon Webb holds down the other safety spot. But the second corner is still up for grabs. Damon Arnette had a good spring, but Kendall Sheffield, the bluechip Alabama transfer, or one of the several five-star freshmen early enrollee defensive backs like Shaun Wade or Jeffrey Okudah could still grab it in fall camp.

The concerns here are that: 1) The drop-off in interceptions and other big plays is too steep. Are either Fuller or Smith capable of producing game-changing plays like Malik Hooker always seemed to do? 2) Ward’s height prevents him from being a true top corner. 3) The second cornerback is likewise not effective enough in man coverage, preventing the rest of the defense from functioning correctly.

As we’ve heard from several defensive ends, generating turnovers is a big part of Schiano’s defensive philosophy -- what happens to the defense as a whole if those decline?