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Film Study: New look Buckeye defense, new wrinkles on offense heading into the second half

Our film study takes the opportunity to look at all the changes on both sides of the ball that have led to OSU’s recent success.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

As you likely know, Ohio State does not play a football game this week and whether you call this week an open week, bye week, or idle week, there is still some stuff that we can look at as the first half of the season concludes. From Week 1 until now, this Buckeye team has made a complete transformation, so let’s look at what (and how much) has changed on both sides of the ball.

Defensively the changes have been the most obvious and necessary, but there have been a few wrinkles added to the offense that we did not see earlier in the season as well, so before we get into the film, let’s review a little bit of what the Buckeyes have added on both sides of the ball.

In season, it is rare for teams to do complete 180 degree transformations, but that seems to be what the Buckeyes have done defensively in 2021. With the coaching staff reshuffling came some fresh ideas that seem to work better for the given personnel, and, so far, the results have netted positive outcomes.

The most significant change was the introduction to multiple two-high safety looks including Cover 2 and Cover 2 Man Under, both of which have given the Buckeyes more positional and scheme flexibility. Now they have not played a murderer’s row of opponents, but the defense had struggled against all types of competition in the previous season+ with Kerry Coombs calling plays.

Offensively, the two schemes that have seen the most increase are gap-run schemes (power, counter, etc.) and a heavier dosage of mesh, levels, and shallow passing concepts. Now these were not wholesale changes, as they were used against certain defensive schemes, but since the Akron game, Ryan Day has gone back to the type of that offense a lot of people would recognize as the Dwayne Haskins offense. C.J. Stroud’s skillset best fits this type of scheme and we’ve all seen the level of efficiency that he’s had running it since his return from sitting out against the Zips.

Now that Ohio State has a foundation, it’s time to see what the Buckeyes are capable of in the remaining six regular season games which will provide a much clearer picture of who this team is and what they could be capable of in the postseason.


Defense

The first thing that we’re going to look at is the two new coverages that have had the most impact on the Buckeyes’ defensive resurgence. But before we get into that, it should be noted that the OSU defense has not been perfect, but they have improved significantly. One of the key factors in this transformation has been the addition of two-high safety looks.

The first video that we are going to look at shows a traditional Cover 2 zone coverage. This play is nice because it ends in a pick-six, but the real reason that I chose it is because it shows the alignment and zones really well.

To start pause the video pre-snap, look at the alignment: the safeties are both on the hashes, the corners have outside leverage, the cover safety (Cameron Martinez No. 10) is splitting the distance between the No. 2 receiver and tackle, and lastly the linebackers remain in the box at five yards depth.

This play is made by the coverage, Martinez does not follow the man as he passes the receiver inside to the linebackers, he then plays the eyes which takes him in front of the slant, forcing quarterback to try to throw it over him.

Denzel Burke (No. 29) at cornerback is responsible for the flat zone, he has no receivers coming out there. His job is not to follow, so he sinks and Martinez forces the overthrow leading to Burke being in perfect position for the interception.


The next play on the list is showing Cover 2 Man Under in action, the Buckeyes have used this in a lot of obvious passing situations since the Tulsa game. In the below example, we’re going to once again start pre-snap. The giveaway for man-coverage is Lathan Ransom (No. 12) running with the Tulsa receiver motioning across the formation.

Once again, the safeties are splitting the hashes signaling a Cover 2 look. Once the ball is snapped, everyone runs with a receiver and the safeties drop into their respective halves. In this coverage technique, the corners and cover safety play trail techniques because they have help over top on both sides. This means that they are going to remain one step behind until the ball is thrown and in this coverage they are able to undercut the receivers due to help over top from the safeties. Martinez (No.10) undercuts the over route, gets his hand on it for a deflection, and Ronnie Hickman is able to secure the INT.


Next on the list, last week in the film review we took a look at a clip of Ohio State setting the edge and this week I want to start there. For the Buckeyes to be successful defensively they have to take away the easy plays as much as possible.

Oregon took advantage of a weak edge presence over and over again. Seeing this transformation gave me so much more life than any of the other plays. In the play against Oregon we learned Zach Harrison (No. 9) was playing the correct technique by squeezing the edge. The issue is the QB is not going to run directly into a defensive end with an inverted veer/dash read. The issue with the edge came with Ronnie Hickman (No. 14) playing man-to-man coverage on a blocker who is able to take out two players.

The correction to this was defining the roles of the three players who are responsible for the edge presence. Against Maryland, the Buckeyes’ defense had to defend a zone read again, but the running back and quarterback switched responsibilities.

Taulia Tagovailoa (No. 3) was now the outside run threat instead of the RB. Harrison does the same job by squeezing down setting the edge, which makes this play tough for the QB as he is reading what Harrison does. By squeezing down, Tagovailoa cannot hand the ball off and has to pull it.

The difference comes with the other two players Hickman and cornerback Sevyn Banks (No. 7). These responsibilities were the No. 1 issue early on, this look Hickman takes the tight end for Maryland on a line route and the veteran corner banks sets the edge forcing the play back inside. The smallest detail here is Steele Chambers’ (No. 22) run fit; the running back would have been stopped in the hole had the ball been given. The defense defended all three options on this play beautifully.


Offense

Before we get started here, the stats speak for themselves with this unit which ranks extremely high in almost every major category of efficiency. Day has finally entered his play calling bag and the Buckeyes are now blowing this thing wide open. The run game has evolved, RPOs have been added, the play-action pass is catching teams off guard, and more than anything the play calling has become extremely quarterback friendly.

As the season progresses, look for Ohio State to continue to keep attacking specific weaknesses and seeing the playbook expand even more.


For the first play, we’re going back to the Tulsa game. in the first two games, the Buckeyes relied on split zone and outside zone runs, primarily without really running anything else. With the talented backs that Ohio State has, they were able to be productive, but Oregon was able to key in on this tendency.

In the play below, Ohio State lines up in 21 personnel — two backs and one tight end — with TreVeyon Henderson (No. 32) and Stroud lined up in a pistol look. Mitch Rossi (No. 34) plays the H-Back which serves the role of a traditional fullback in a spread offense.

When the ball is snapped, the offensive line down blocks taking the defender in the gap to their left. Matthew Jones (No. 55) is a pulling guard who kicks out the defensive end making the hole for Rossi to get to the second level in order to block the linebacker. Henderson then takes a delayed handoff following Rossi through the hole and is able to explode for a big gain.


The next major addition to the playbook has been the usage of RPOs early in games. To start, we need to know how to identify the difference between an RPO and a play action pass. It’s really straight forward, in a play-action pass the offensive line will be in the pass set and in an RPO they will block for the run option. With the addition of play-action quick passes this can get confusing, but it’s something that if you look closely enough, you can identify almost every time.

In the next play, we go back to the Rutgers game where Ohio State runs a split zone RPO. The verbiage to me is unclear on this one, but the receivers run a hitch-slant concept. Stroud is reading the defender covering Garrett Wilson (No. 5), if the player comes up to his run fit, the play is to throw. In the case below, the defender pauses and gets caught looking in the backfield leaving him in no man’s land.

This allows Stroud to pull the ball and get an easy completion on the slant route to Wilson for a nice gain. This concept is simple and against teams who run a lot of man coverage, RPOs can help quarterbacks get some easy completions.


The next concept that we’re going to look at is one of the best routes that you can run to get receivers in space. Day has reopened the playbook and added a few things from his days working under Chip Kelly including mesh, shallow, and levels concepts to create some easy throws for Stroud. As I alluded to in the introduction, this was a nice callback to the Haskins era of Day’s play calling.

In the below example, Ohio State lines up in Trips 11 Personnel and this play works because of what goes into the route combinations on the trips side. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert (No. 88) runs a 10-yard in, Jaxon Smith-Njigba (No. 11) presumably runs a dig, and Chris Olave (No. 2) runs a post.

This gets the entire defensive backfield on the trips side going inside towards the middle of the field. This play opens up beautifully because Rutgers is in a quarters look, meaning that there is no flat defender to the field side. This concept is a great quarters-beater due to the receivers on field side attacking each player responsible for a quarter of the field resulting in there being no one to defend the flat, opening up a ton of space. Stroud gets an easy throw to Wilson and he does the rest.


Conclusion

To begin wrapping up this film study, Ohio State has done a phenomenal job flipping the script this season and it all starts with finding the schemes that give you the best chance to win the down. Ryan Day and the defensive coaching staff deserve a ton of credit for the adjustments that they’ve made for the players who seemed out of place at times (both literally and figuratively). Of course, there has been a lot more added than just what I’ve talked about here, but these have been my biggest takeaways from what has made a difference in recent weeks.

As the season moves into the second half, expect Ohio State to continue adding wrinkles on both sides of the ball. I wouldn’t expect anything too crazy though, because the Buckeyes don’t need extravagant play designs or exotic coverage packages to be great — the players are capable of achieving that within simple schemes.

For the defense, it is about the players continuing to gain confidence and building on the positives that they’ve experienced in the new look. For the offense, Day just needs to keep his foot on the gas and not let up, because they can score on anybody in the country.

For a team that had to look themselves in the mirror early on in the season, we should all be glad that they recognized the issues that they saw, because this team now seems to be clicking on all cylinders heading into their matchup with Indiana.