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Room for Improvement: Where Ohio State’s offensive players can get better during bye week

The Buckeyes’ offensive production has been all-around spectacular so far, but no football player is perfect!

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Michigan State at Ohio State Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It seems almost unfair to criticize a team that currently leads the FBS in first downs (168), leads all power 5 teams in rushing yards per game (~290), and ranks third overall in third down conversion efficiency (~56%); but this is what the 2019 Ohio State Buckeyes have reduced their admirers to during the BYE week.

Ryan Day’s theme after games this season — despite the team’s sparkling performances on both sides of the ball so far — has consistently been there is always room for improvement. Win/loss records aside, no team is ever perfect, certainly not through only six weeks of the season. So with that in mind and no game on the horizon this week for Ohio State, lets take a quick look at where Ohio State’s offensive players can improve their play during the Buckeye’s bye week.


Justin Fields: Throwing the ball away

Justin Fields has been marvelous this season, but if there’s one area of his game management that needs work, it’s the internal clock in his head with respect to sensing pressure and getting rid of the football.

Too often through the first six games, Fields has either sat in the pocket too long to wait for a receiver to get space, or has had too much confidence in his legs being able to make something happen before realizing it’s too late. He’s already taken 12 sacks through six games, and Ohio State’s average of 2.17 sacks given up per game this season ranks just inside the bottom half of all FBS teams at 71st. The Buckeyes share that ranking with the likes of Colorado St., Oklahoma St., and Stanford.

Granted, sacks aren’t necessarily all on the quarterback (more on that later), but Fields would do well to work with Ryan Day this week on developing a better sense of where he is in the pocket with respect to impending pressure. Fields is already excellent at faking out sack-thirsty defensive lineman with a fake first step when escaping the pass rush, but his desire to make the big play on every possible snap is one that can cost Ohio State dearly when they start playing teams with more talented defensive lines. The Buckeyes have surrendered 73 yards lost on the sacks they’ve given up this season, and Fields will need to accept the reality that he can’t make every every play every time if Ohio State is going to overcome the best teams in the nation to achieve their ultimate goals.


J.K. Dobbins: Pass blocking technique

J.K. Dobbins has had a remarkable start in 2019, bouncing back from his disappointing season a year ago to quietly rank second in total rushing yards across college football through six weeks. Dobbins’ average of 7.12 yards per carry ranks only behind Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor among backs that have received 100+ rushing attempts this season, and he’s routinely broken through would-be tacklers at the second level, sometimes even as many as six on the same play.

But, putting it bluntly, Dobbins’ ability to protect the quarterback and recognize his blitz assignment this season has been terrible.

The most noteworthy example of this comes from the Miami (OH) game, when Dobbins’ blocking breakdown in the backfield led to the first points of the game for either team:

Dobbins has a bad habit of gravitating too close to the offensive line when searching for someone to pick up, and that slight moment out of position gives the edge rusher an opportunity to sneak around the protection and smack the ball out of Fields’ hand. Dobbins is obscenely strong for someone his size, but it would seem he often relies too heavily on his strength as opposed to technique when attempting to block players bigger than him. It’s a bit of a disappointing problem considering Dobbins has been one of the highest football IQ players on Ohio State’s roster since as far back as his freshman season.

It’s in the best interests of everyone involved that Ryan Day gets this problem corrected for the Buckeyes during their BYE week. After all, having a running back with savvy pass protection skills will go a long way towards helping Fields with his own pressure problems. But for Dobbins’ sake, getting better as a pass blocker is going to be critical if he wants to one day find consistent playing time on Sundays. It’s easy to forget that one of the main reasons the Dallas Cowboys snagged Ezekiel Elliot at 4th overall was because Zeke already was an absolute savant at crushing defenders when picking up the blitz.


Receivers: Uhhh... hit the JUGS machine?

There’s not much that needs improvement from Ohio State’s receiving corps, if we’re being honest. All five of the Buckeyes’ receivers that have caught at least ten passes this season are averaging over 10 yards per reception, and of those five, Austin Mack is the only player that has failed to eclipse three touchdowns through six games. While no wide-out’s production numbers are among the elite in college football this season, that’s much more of a product of Ohio State spreading the ball around to the wealth of available talent than any disappointing performances from the Buckeyes’ pass catchers.

Binjimen Victor is shockingly leading this team in receiving yards through six games with 348. K.J. Hill has picked up right where he left off last season as the team’s slot-maven. Chris Olave has shown his end to last season was no fluke, as he appears to have a hybrid of Victor’s big play ability with Hill’s route-running prowess. Mack has bounced back with a solid start to the season, and Garrett Wilson has already emerged as one of college football’s most sure-handed red zone threats. Every single one of these guys is already an excellent run blocker, and each of them have settled nicely into their roles to start the season. The same applies for the Buckeyes’ positional group of tight ends.

Really, the only area of improvement here applies mainly to Victor and Mack, as both have had some noteworthy drops. Unfortunately, there isn’t any publicly-available data regarding college football receivers and dropped passes. However, Victor had a critical drop on an open streak during the Michigan State game this past weekend, and Mack struggled greatly with drops last season which may explain why his role this year has been scaled back a bit in favor of Olave and Wilson.

Otherwise, this group looks great. Just get everybody on a JUGS machine during the BYE, and there’s no reason to expect any drop-offs in production as the football season heads into its second half.


Offensive Line: Pass protection

Ohio State’s bounce-back performance from its reloaded offensive line has been the story of the season so far for the Buckeyes. One year ago, this unit couldn’t win the battle at the line of scrimmage if their lives depended on it, and their lack of discipline was one of the biggest contributing factors to the 2018 team racking up over 1,000 penalty yards over the course of the season.

But this year, the running game’s resurgence has everything to do with the Buckeyes’ success through their first six games. Ohio State’s offensive line ranks in or near the top ten in nearly every rushing success metric stat according to Football Outsiders, and their latest performance saw them absolutely demolish Michigan State’s stout running defense to the tune of 323 yards. The Spartans had only given up 279 total rushing yards through five games prior to that.

However, though Fields deserves a bit of blame here, Ohio State’s pass protection along the line has taken a bit of a step back this season. It’s a somewhat shocking development given Dwayne Haskins had far less pocket mobility than Fields currently does, but take a look at all three of Football Outsiders’ sack rate stats for Ohio State compared across the 2018 and 2019 seasons:

  • Sack Rate: 3.9% in 2018 (17th overall) vs. 7.6% in 2019 (92nd overall)
  • Standard Downs Sack Rate: 4.4% in 2018 (52nd overall) vs. 6.4% in 2019 (95th overall)
  • Passing Downs Sack Rate: 3.0% in 2018 (6th overall) vs. 9.8% in 2019 (90th overall)

Yikes.

Again, sack rate isn’t necessarily a total reflection of the offensive line, as we’ve already examined how Fields and Dobbins are contributing to the team’s struggles in pass protection this season. However, that significant of a drop-off from a year ago becomes all the more alarming when considering Ohio State hadn’t necessarily played a team with a dangerous pass rush prior to the Michigan State game.

Of all the problems detailed so far, this one is the most glaring, and it’s going to have to be one that improves substantially if Ohio State wishes to contend with college football’s premier teams towards the end of the season. The Buckeyes have enjoyed the luxury so far of not having to throw themselves back into a football game through the air. If they end up finding themselves needing to play catch-up against Wisconsin, Penn State, or a college football playoff team; it’s going to be of critical importance that Dobbins and the offensive line make an improved effort to stall the more elite pass rushes they’ll inevitably face later in the season.