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Film study: What’s wrong with Ohio State’s defense?

There are a lot of issues for the Silver Bullets.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State is 7-0. It’s important to say that first, because as with any form of criticism, this article comes with the fact that Ohio State is undefeated, and looks to be as close to a sure thing to make the College Football Playoff for the third time in five years as you can be with your rival still on the schedule. Things aren’t perfect in Columbus though, nowhere near it.

Ohio State is undefeated almost entirely because of the thing that vexed them for the past three seasons, the passing game. There’s a cruel irony that Ohio State’s dominant defense and rushing attack from 2015-2017— which was ultimately held back by a stale passing attack— has now flipped, with the Buckeyes being completely unable to run or play defense as soon as Dwayne Haskins steps in at quarterback. One step forward, two steps back.

While there’s plenty to say about Ohio State’s rushing attack, in all of its inefficiency thanks to a myriad of reasons; ranging from the simple (misuse of running back talent) to the complicated (little to no push up front); that feels like a secondary issue, because Ohio State’s offense is still scoring points, just with a heavy passing attack. The biggest issue with the 2018 Buckeyes is on the other side of the ball.

The strange thing about this defense, and the thing that makes them a bit difficult to figure out, is that on paper, they haven’t been awful. Ohio State is allowing 19.1 points per game through seven games, good enough for 24th in the country, and only 0.1 more than last season’s defense.

However, as anyone watching the games would know, that really doesn’t reflect the actual performance of the team. Hell, just taking out the two worst teams Ohio State played (Rutgers and Tulane) moves that per game average all the way up to 25 over the other five games. That feels far more reflective of what this defense has done this season.

Before we get into the film, there are numbers that can pretty accurately portray what Ohio State’s defense is (and isn’t) doing, thanks to SBNation’s resident genius Bill Connelly. Bill’s stat profiles tell a much more accurate story about this defense than raw points or yards per game. In his rankings, Ohio State’s defense is 126th in isolated points per play (IsoPPP), and 111th in marginal explosiveness allowed.

The Buckeyes are better when it comes to efficiency (thanks to the defensive line), but still not great by any means. While these stats haven’t yet been updated to reflect Ohio State’s performance against Minnesota, they’ll almost certainly reflect yet another poor performance, despite the Golden Gophers low 14-point output.

After all, Minnesota did have nearly 400 yards on the day, and they racked up ten chunk plays (five passing gains of 15+, five rushing gains of 10+). Ohio State’s issues with allowing explosiveness were still front and center against an offense that has been woefully bad at creating explosive plays.

More concerning, even, is that the explosive plays weren’t what hurt Ohio State on Saturday. Sure, a 41-yard flea flicker, and a 34-yard run given up to a running back that hadn’t been good at all so far this season is bad, but the biggest issue Ohio State had on Saturday was a continuation of the same issue that Ohio State has had since the Oklahoma game last season. To understand what that issue is, and what Ohio State can do to fix it, we need to jump into the film.

The three big problems

Almost all of Ohio State’s issues in the passing game stem from one of three things, so we’ll categorize bad plays against Minnesota (where we’re pulling film from) into which of the three things that went wrong (there will be overlap). Firstly, those issues should be introduced and explained a little bit.

Ohio State’s biggest defensive issue, and the one that really causes the other two, is Greg Schiano, and more specifically, Greg Schiano’s schemes.

Buckeye fans have come to know Schiano’s style very well since 2016, and for the most part, he’s been pretty well liked because his defenses have been very solid, and produced a ton of top talent, specifically in the defensive backfield. However, without elite talent in the backfield this season (really missing Kerry Coombs) save for maybe Jordan Fuller, Schiano’s schemes simply aren’t working anymore.

They aren’t working because they’re designed around having top level cornerbacks, great linebackers, great defensive linemen, and a safety that can play center field and take away any passes over top. Ohio State doesn’t have that this season, hence the struggles. Schiano’s press coverage, with a high safety over the top, and linebackers up on the line is awesome when you have Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore, Denzel Ward and Gareon Conley. It doesn’t work when you have Damon Arnette, Kendall Sheffield, Shaun Wade and Isaiah Pryor.

That isn’t meant to serve as an indictment on those players either, I think Sheffield and Wade are both very solid outside corners, and Arnette is a damn good nickelback. Pryor has a bright future, and would fit much better in the spot currently filled by Jordan Fuller, because he’s much better coming up to make a play than he is dropping back (that happens a lot with young players).

The blame shouldn’t be on them, because frankly, it’s not their fault. It’s Greg Schiano’s. His primary job is to design a defense that works with the talent that he has, and he hasn’t done that. Shaun Wade should be at safety, Jeffrey Okudah and Kendall Sheffield should be on the outside, and Damon Arnette should be in the slot.

Not just as a situational thing either. Those guys, along with Jordan Fuller, should be on the field almost every single play. Ohio State doesn’t have three linebackers worth playing, they might as well just just go from the nickel every play, instead of wasting a spot on Tuf Borland, who doesn’t fit this scheme at all.

That switch would also eliminate the issues that Ohio State has been having with linebackers being forced to cover receivers on the outside. Ohio State’s 4-3 defense is ill-equipped to handle a modern spread offense, because with three linebackers and two safeties who have poor coverage skills, the Buckeyes are pretty much banking entirely on their corners to save them, and with no help over the top, that completely isolates corners, giving them no chance to succeed. We saw that all game long against Minnesota, on plays like this one.

Pryor is asked to cover Minnesota’s best receiver Tyler Johnson with a ten-yard cushion. He fails, obviously, because asking a safety that has issues with pursuit angles to cover a great slot receiver is ridiculous and stupid. Putting a corner like Arnette on Johnson in a press coverage, or even a flat zone underneath (gasp) with a coverage safety (like Wade) over the top would be much more successful, because Arnette could focus entirely on taking away the underneath passes.

That leads us into the second issue; mismatches. Schiano’s scheme is supposed to use mismatches to its advantage, matching elite corners on lesser receivers to take away anything underneath, and locking down the deep part of the field with a safety. Once again, this is great in theory, but doesn’t work with Ohio State’s personnel. We saw that all day long, as Pryor was forced to cover underneath routes out of a ten-yard cushion. Just like on the last play, that isn’t a fair position to put Pryor, or really anyone, into.

The third and final issue I’ll touch on here with the passing defense is the baffling way Greg Schiano uses his linebackers. You may have noticed throughout the Minnesota game, and really for the last three seasons as a whole, that Ohio State generally lines up with two linebackers right up on the line (usually Borland and Hilliard), and a third out on the side as a roamer (usually Werner). Out of that, the two on the inside are usually used as blitzers, while the third either drops to cover a tight end or slot receiver, or blitzes when he reads a run.

Of all the dumb things that I’ve seen Buckeye coaches do in my lifetime, this is right up there with the worst of them. Think about this for a second, just let it marinate. Schiano is using two extra players on every play to help one of the best defensive lines in the country get to the quarterback. Why? Why is he doing that?

The defensive line is just fine! It’s the only part of the defense that’s just fine! They don’t need help! Even with Nick Bosa and Jonathon Cooper out, and Dre’Mont Jones banged up, they’re fine!

What would be a better use of those linebackers? Oh, I don’t know, maybe dropping them back into a middle of the field zone to stop plays like this one from happening.

That’s not even the best example! That was out of a nickel, but Schiano still screwed it up by blitzing Baron Browning and Jeffrey Okudah on what was obviously a passing down! I try to stay as level-headed as possible when reviewing film, but this play is absolutely not an anomaly.

Minnesota picked Ohio State apart all day long on plays exactly like this one. Everyone has, all season long. That extra pressure doesn’t matter when the quarterback can throw to a slant one second after snapping the ball. Maybe if you drop linebackers into coverage, it would force the quarterback to look further down the field, giving your excellent defensive line a chance to get pressure on their own. This is pretty simple stuff, yet there are so many examples of this exact thing! Eventually, the blame has to go to the coaches, rather than the players.

These problems don’t just infect the passing attack. Each one, specifically the third one, bleed into the rushing defense too, and cause the massive lapses that we’ve seen that have accounted for huge runs from teams that don’t usually create big running plays.

Having the linebackers up so close to the line forces them to either make a decision on where the back is going far too quickly, or gives them a preassigned gap to hit, which the offense can adapt to pretty easily.

Because they’re so close to the line on every single play, Ohio State’s linebackers are unable to properly assess the play, and end up behind when they guess wrong, which happens more often that not. Because there’s often just one safety in a zone (Fuller) with the other (Pryor) usually in man coverage, it’s up to that last line of defense to make a play. Luckily, Fuller is excellent, but he can only do so much. He’s put on an island way too often, and sometimes he just misses, like anyone eventually would.

How does it get fixed?

The fixes are actually relatively simple. That does need to be put into a bit of perspective, however. The answers are “simple” relative to college football, in which nothing is simple. Making personnel changes, scheme changes, or really any changes halfway through the season is never going to be easy in college football, because these are 18-23 year olds and they’re difficult to work with. That’s the nature of the game.

The first major change is just dropping the 4-3 Ohio State usually runs with, and jumping to a nickel. From a personnel standpoint, putting Sheffield and Okudah on the outside, Arnette in the slot, Wade in the free safety (center fielder) spot next to Fuller makes a lot of sense. If it was up to me (and it’s obviously not), I’d go with Dante Booker and Justin Hilliard at linebacker, but Peter Werner and Malik Harrison would be fine too (Tuf Borland has no place on this kind of defense, he’s just not a good enough athlete, no matter how “tough” he is).

The second change is being less rigid in the play-calling. A zone every few plays would be a great way to keep opposing offenses on their toes. Giving corners help across the middle with two linebackers in a zone would force offenses to throw downfield, giving the line more time to pressure the quarterback, while keeping the rushing attack much more contained.

Lastly, Greg Schiano has to swallow his pride and be willing to adapt. I understand that this is the way that he does things, and this defense is ingrained in the culture at Ohio State, but it’s just not working this season. Good coaches have solid schemes. Great coaches are willing to learn and adapt as the season goes on. Ohio State’s defense is not up to par right now, and if there aren’t changes, the Buckeyes will get crushed by any elite— or even above average— offense that they face in the remainder of season. Hell, they may even lose to Purdue this Saturday if changes aren’t made.